The days are numbered for the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
On Friday, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy decided to cut 41 percent of state appropriations for the University of Alaska system as part of his $444 million line-item veto to the state budget. That caught the attention of major national outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Less discussed was the fate of the state’s arts council, which also suffered a $2.8 million cut under the Republican governor’s veto pen. It is the only state agency that faces full elimination, and if accomplished, Alaska would become the only American state or territory without a comparable government agency.
The announcement last week left Democratic legislators scrambling to convince their Republican colleagues to join an override vote before it’s too late. Experts say that they’re unlikely to succeed.
“I think it’s a symbolic gesture from the governor [to veto] something he thinks is not important,” Roger Schmidt, the executive director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, told the Anchorage Daily News. “It shows a callousness toward culture and heritage of our state.”
The council is a “classic case of a tiny agency doing tons of work way beyond what the state is putting into it,” he said.
The governor’s veto cut off not only the agency’s state funding, but also its federal and private funding, according to Benjamin Brown, who has been chairman of the council since 2007.
“Our situation is dire and counter-intuitive and illogical beyond comprehension at worst,” he told the newspaper.
Dunleavy defended his budget cuts at a recent news conference. “We can’t continue to be all things for all people,” he said. When he won the governorship in 2018, one of Dunleavy’s campaign promises was to balance Alaska’s budget, which was in a multibillion-dollar deficit following the 2014 crash in oil market collapse. Critics of the state leader’s drastic financial plan include educator Marshall Shepherd, who argues in a Forbes op-ed article that public universities in Alaska pump more than $1 billion annually, directly and indirectly, into the state’s economy.
Budget cuts to the education system, which took effect on Monday, could lead to layoffs of more than 1,300 staff and faculty, and a loss of an estimated 3,000 students. The system, which includes three universities, could even be forced to shutter some campuses.
The National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities have been frequent political targets of Republicans in Congress looking to end the funding of culture. The Trump administration has proposed several national budgets that would kneecap the funding of both organizations, though these line-items have not successfully passed through the legislature. Last year, president Donald Trump signed a bill boosting the NEA’s budget to about $153 million, $3 million more than the 2017 fiscal year.
UPDATE 08/21/19: Following statewide outcry and efforts by Alaskan arts advocates, in an emergency special session of the Alaska state legislature, representatives restored full funding to the state’s arts agency in a new budget deal with Governor Dunleavy, who did not exercise his veto power to eliminate it again.