Berkshire lawmakers push back as Baker's budget slashes Mass. Cultural Council funding


Berkshire lawmakers are driving a full-force effort on Beacon Hill to override Governor Charlie Baker's $7.7 million slash from the Massachusetts Cultural Council's budget, a 55 percent reduction.

Local councils in most of the county's 32 cities and towns, as well as statewide, help support arts and humanities groups large and small by issuing grants for programs and facilities upgrades.

In a letter to state House and Senate leaders, 129 lawmakers — 107 representatives and 22 senators — urged a swift vote to override Baker's vetoes and restore the funding for the 2016-17 fiscal year to $14,299,000, as originally proposed in Baker's budget, the same level as the current year. His revised proposal calls for nearly $39 billion in total state spending.

To achieve the required two-thirds majorities, 107 representatives and 27 senators would be needed to override the governor's Cultural Council vetoes.

Because of recent monthly declines in state tax collections, the governor issued a total of $256 million in cuts, including a deep gash for the MCC, reducing its funding to $6,527,624.

That would reduce the state agency's spending to the same level as in 1994, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, pointed out in a phone interview from Boston.

"This cut is disproportionate," Downing said. "The Berkshires and the rest of western Massachusetts would bear a heavy burden of the cut."

In his role as co-chair of the House Cultural Caucus, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, led the effort with state Rep. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, to round up lawmakers to sign the letter.

"If these cuts stand, MCC would have to cut its programs anywhere from 30 to 60 percent, which would eliminate some of them," Pignatelli said in an Eagle interview. "I'm surprised at the depth of this carveout. But I'm very optimistic because of the support we got for this letter, including the entire Berkshire delegation."

"I'm very confident," said Pignatelli, noting that he sees better than two-thirds support already in the state House, and nearly two-thirds in the state Senate.

The letter states that the Cultural Council releases thousands of grants to schools, communities and individual artists, supporting nearly 400 nonprofit organizations for public programs in arts, science and the humanities.

"Beyond the obvious significant institutions we have in our arts and cultural economy," said Downing, "every community has a vibrant local council. Everyone has benefited, including Pittsfield's effort to tie together its immigrant historical roots."

Downing sharply criticized Baker, declaring that "I don't know of a justification by the governor for an indiscriminate cut of this level. It was done without much thought."

Even though the calendar is counting down toward the Legislature's adjournment of its formal session on July 31, Downing voiced cautious optimism. "Such an egregious cut stands out to people, so there's a great deal of support for an override," Downing said. "I hope this and many other overrides will be successful."

Pignatelli pointed out that governors of both parties, from Republican Jane Swift to Democrat Deval Patrick, have tried to cut cultural council budgets.

"Deep down, governors understand the economic impact in every corner of the state," he said. "They see this as low-hanging fruit and they expect the Legislature will override the cuts anyway. Sadly, we are using a lot of political capital to circle the wagons to restore the funding. I find it very distressing."

"If it stands, this budget would cut many of our core grant programs to the bone and likely force us to eliminate some programs entirely," said MCC Executive Director Anita Walker in a statement. "It would cost jobs in our nonprofits, choke off revenue from cultural tourism, and close arts education opportunities for thousands of kids in schools and youth programs across the state."

Last year, state lawmakers succeeded in overriding Baker's veto of the legislature's proposed $14 million in funding. The governor had sought a $11.8 million budget for the agency.

Pignatelli commented that "where we spend money is critically important." Noting that all 351 communities statewide benefit from the council and the creative economy, he explained that every dollar invested returns $7 or $8.

A spokesman for Baker's Executive Office of Administration and Finance stated that "Gov. Baker was pleased to offer a fiscally responsible budget that continues to increase our administration's investments in education, local aid and efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, without raising taxes."

"Despite lower-than-anticipated revenue growth over the past few months, the administration was pleased to work with the Legislature to support funding for public arts programming, local infrastructure in our communities and increases for the Department of Children and Families, all while ensuring state government lives within its means," said spokesman Garrett Quinn.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


Cultural Council Letter . . .

Here is the letter signed by 129 state lawmakers to legislative leaders, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, seeking an override vote on Governor Baker's 55 percent cut in Massachusetts Cultural Council funding:

"We respectfully request your support for a veto override to restore funding in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget for the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Specifically, we ask that the House and the Senate override Governor Baker's veto that reduced [the line item] by $7,771,376.

"By restoring the funding approved by the Legislature, the MCC draft budget for fiscal year 2017 would allow the agency to continue its programs that help revitalize our downtowns, make art more accessible to everyone, young and old, and build closer communities. If Governor Baker's veto stands, the Massachusetts Cultural Council will be forced to slash grants by 30 to 60 percent and may have to eliminate entire programs.

"MCC is putting creativity to work for the citizens of Massachusetts and makes thousands of grants directly to non-profit cultural organizations, schools, communities, and individuals artists, through funding programs that use arts, science, and the humanities to build strong, diverse, livable communities. The beneficiaries of these programs comprise a cross-section of the population and citizens in Massachusetts cities and towns.

"MCC supports nearly 400 nonprofit arts, humanities, and science organizations through its Cultural Investment Portfolio. These organizations spend $1.2 billion annually, provide 32,889 jobs, and pay $36 million in payroll taxes — supporting other public services that sustain the quality of life in our cities and towns and attract new business and workers. MCC operating support grants are a vital source of support for these organizations that leverage private dollars.

"There are few places in America as rich in arts and culture as Massachusetts. From Boston to the Berkshires, from Cape Ann to Cape Cod, our state boasts an array of exceptional cultural organizations, beautiful and distinctive communities, and thousands of talented artists and educators. The MCC nurtures the creative life of Massachusetts. It is imperative that we continue to provide the Massachusetts Cultural Council with the necessary resources to continue the great work it does in the Commonwealth.

"Thank you for your consideration and continued support for these priorities and your efforts to preserve and support the creative economy in Massachusetts."

Source: Letter to State House leaders signed by 107 representatives and 22 senators, including the entire Berkshire delegation.


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