Arts advocates push for state funding

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Commission on the Arts has definitely had its ups and downs with state finances over the past few years. At the beginning of the last legislative session, Gov. Rick Perry suggested zeroing the state agency out of the budget.

One idea to keep the commission alive was to fold it into the governor’s office. But recent sunset hearings recommended its continuation for 12 more years as an independent agency, though it must make big changes including the makeup of its board and oversight of the grant-making process.

“While the arts may not represent an essential government function in the same way criminal justice or transportation do… these economic and social benefits represent a good investment and make continuing the agency to administer funding for the arts worthwhile,” the Sunset Advisory Commission’s report said.

So it has survived, but with half as much funding – a two-year total around $3.7 million. This session, supporters are hoping to at least maintain that amount, though the current House and Senate budget proposals bump the amount to nearly $4.8 million for that same timeframe.

Even the governor’s office has budged, suggesting “approximately $5 million for the biennium.”

On Thursday, arts advocates swarmed the State Capitol to express the need for that funding to lawmakers. About 100 volunteers with Texans for the Arts went door-to-door with information about this industry’s economic impact.

"What our job is is to really show how the arts can actually be more of a benefit and can actually bring dollars back into the state and generate tax revenue,” said Amy Barbee, executive director of Texas Cultural Trust, one of the volunteer groups.

Barbee’s group recently released a study showing Texas’ arts and culture industry is responsible for $2.6 billion in taxable sales every year and $290 million in state sales tax revenue.

It also accounts for $2.46 billion in tourism spending, which translates into 21,000 jobs, according to the study.

The Commission on the Arts awards grants to various arts and cultural applicants throughout the state. In 2012, it gave out about $2.8 million, down from $6.6 million the year before.

Barbee pointed out a program in need of funding within the agency – the Cultural Districts Designation Program, something that could directly affect Austin.

The agency has already deemed an area in East Austin near Interstate 35 and East 11th Street as such a district. This section of the city has many historic buildings and a strong African-American cultural influence.

Barbee said the district currently receives no state funding. But if grant money was available, it could move beyond the commission’s mere “naming rights.” According to its web site, that could mean “increasing businesses, creating jobs, and growing the population and tourist base.”

"They actually grant dollars back out into the community,” she said. “That's extremely critical in the rural communities where there aren't always arts organizations or arts access."

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Republican Rick Perry is Governor of Texas. Two Republicans represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, and Texas has 32 representatives in the U.S. House: 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats.
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