Privatization of State Arts Agency Sets Dangerous Precedent

As the stage for the 2012 presidential campaign is being set, candidates are jockeying for big wins to bolster their resumes and motivate base voters. With campaign promises in the air, it is important that we understand what these platform positions mean. One in particular raises serious concerns: privatization.

In Kansas, state governor and possible presidential candidate Sam Brownback has made huge strides in his fight against public dollars. On May 29, Brownback eliminated the Kansas Art Commission with a line-item veto in the 2012 budget. This makes Kansas the first state to lose its own art commission and makes good on the governor’s campaign promise to cut a growing state government. However, it sets a dangerous precedent in privatization and poses a basic question of what services we can expect our governments to deliver.

When considered, the $689,000 budget for the KAC (0.005% of the state budget) is hardly an effective cut to tackle the nearly 9% shortfall in Kansas. After the lost jobs, revenue, and matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and Mid-America Arts Alliance are taken into account, it hardly makes fiscal sense. So what is the benefit?

In difficult economic times, the arts make an easy target. With abstract goals such as “community building” and “civic engagement,” many arts commissions become scapegoats for accused government excess and wasted tax dollars. What is not understood is that state art agencies are sustained through a blend of funds, both public and private, in order to maintain the many services they provide. The “state funded” status of the agency is crucial in attracting private donations because it imparts the knowledge that a system is in place to manage those funds and fairly allocate them throughout the district for the public interest — something a private agency is not required to do, as good as its intentions may be.

Without the agency’s budget in state hands, the tools used to oversee its functions and mission have been removed. The governor is free to create a state agency wholly responsive to the investors it attracts without any measures to ensure the public interest is considered above private gain.

While this may seem hypothetical, it is very real. The governor’s budget veto does not affect the state law that establishes an art commission and allows him to appoint its members. With the staff and board of the former KAC dismissed, the governor has chosen to continue the commission as a state agency in name alone, funded by private dollars and a board appointed solely by him with no checks or public recourse; a win against the excesses of the public sector.

In practice this is hardly a win for the people of Kansas. In a letter dated June 28 on the KAC website, Linda Browning Weis, new governor-appointed chairman of the agency, admitted that as a volunteer with a full-time job and no staff working beneath her, she was unable to devote her full energy to the position.

If we are to follow this precedent of privatization, it will become a familiar refrain — just not on the campaign trail.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons