After scare, $1.1T spending bill would boost federal NEA, NEH funding

May 5, 2017 GMT

The bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill approved Thursday by Congress to keep the federal government open through September includes slight budget increases for both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, a signal that lawmakers could prove resistant to President Donald Trump’s contentious proposal to cut funding to the long-standing arts and cultural agencies.

While New Mexico arts organizations applauded the increases, calling them an encouraging development, they warned that the funding fight over the arts is far from settled.

In his initial “skinny” budget outline released in March, Trump had proposed zeroing out the funds for the NEA and NEH in the next federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

In the meantime, Trump has indicated he will sign the compromise spending bill to fund the government through September, which would boost the current fiscal year appropriations for the NEA and NEH by $1.9 million each, bringing their total annual budgets to about $150 million each.

“In this climate, level funding or a little increase is really great news,” said Loie Fecteau, executive director of New Mexico Arts, a division of the state Department of Cultural Affairs.

The spending measure would ensure New Mexico’s federal arts funding through the state’s next budget year, which begins July 1, Fecteau said.

New Mexico Arts has received more than $702,000 from the NEA this fiscal year, Fecteau said. Grants and aid have been distributed toward projects, productions and exhibitions across the state, including those by The Santa Fe Opera, SITE Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and many more.

Once the spending bill has been signed, New Mexico Arts will learn how much to expect in the state’s next budget year, Fecteau said.

The nonprofit New Mexico Humanities Council receives an annual average of $620,000 from the NEH.

The council’s interim executive director, Michelle Quisenberry, said the Federation of State Humanities Councils advocated fiercely for the increase in 2017 funds.

“We’re very happy, we’re very excited, we’re grateful,” she said of this week’s spending bill agreement. “But 2018 is another story.”

Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit advocacy group, sent out a news release this week highlighting Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., as one of several lawmakers from both parties whose efforts helped ensure no federal arts agency would see its budget cut in the 2017 omnibus spending deal.

Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees the arts agencies’ funds, vowed to continue to advocate for the NEA and NEH when the budget for the 2018 fiscal year is debated in the fall.

The increases in the spending bill this week, Udall added, will strengthen the agencies’ position in those forthcoming budget talks.

“With President Trump proposing to defund the NEA and NEH, we’re fighting for their survival,” Udall said in a statement Tuesday.

Trump’s proposal to zero out the arts agencies’ budgets earned bipartisan scorn from critics who viewed the elimination of the programs, negligible in the grand scheme of the federal budget, as unnecessary.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and an outspoken Republican commentator, published a “conservative plea” for the arts agencies in The Washington Post in late March.

“I do care greatly about the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all,” wrote Huckabee, a two-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. “They’re the reason we should stop and recognize that this line item accounting for just 0.004 percent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank.”

The House passed the compromise spending measure on a bipartisan vote Wednesday, and the Senate followed suit Thursday.

The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said this week Trump would sign it and avert a government shutdown — although Trump, on Twitter, has threatened a possible shutdown during 2018 budget talks later in the year.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.