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Friday, October 13, 2006

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Legislative Update

NASAA Legislative Counsel Thomas L. Birch

Advocates Build Support For NEA Fund Increase: While Congress is in recess until after the November elections, arts advocates are building support in the Senate for an increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the final appropriations bill for FY 2007 expected to clear the House and Senate after legislators reconvene on November 9.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) has circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter inviting fellow Senators to sign onto a message to the Senate appropriations leaders urging them to "support increases in the range of $5 to $10 million each" for NEA and NEH in the final negotiations on appropriations legislation. By the end of the first week of the congressional recess, more than thirty Senators had signed the letter. NASAA and other arts advocates are working to expand the list of Senators signing on as arts supporters.

The Coleman letter reaches for an important objective: to ensure that when the House and Senate meet in conference committee on the final appropriations number for the NEA and the NEH, the Senate will at least agree to adopt the additional spending of $5 million each for the two endowments already approved by amendment passed by voice vote on the House floor in May. As Coleman states in his letter: "Without such funding commitments, the NEA and NEH will be unable to expand programs without diminishing existing programs of proven effectiveness. By contrast, modest increases would allow the two agencies to maintain current levels of service rather than lose ground to inflation and increased administrative costs."

In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY 2007 Interior Appropriations Bill, setting funds for the NEA at the 2006 level of $124.4 million, as proposed by the President. The President's budget with level funding for the NEA would cut $3.462 million from Challenge America in order to increase funds for administrative expenses by $1.843 million, for direct program grants by $1.117 million, and for State and Regional Partnerships by $508,000. The $5 million in new funding added by the House would restore support to Challenge America and the core grant-making programs of the arts endowment.

In the meantime, with the 2006 fiscal year over on September 30, Congress passed on September 29 a continuing resolution carrying federal spending through to November 17. The bill provides for continued funding in the absence of completed appropriations bills at either the House bill levels, the Senate-passed version of the appropriations bill, or the FY 2006 current levels, whichever is the lowest. For NEA, that means current spending for now. With legislative work in the lame duck session starting November 13, legislators will have to deal with the ten outstanding appropriations bills immediately - only two have been enacted so far -- or pass yet another continuing resolution for a few days more or until the new session next year. Whatever the outcome, it seems likely that the NEA and NEH funding for the 2007 fiscal year will be wrapped into an omnibus, catchall spending bill.

Congress Adds FEMA Support For Performing Arts Groups: One of the two appropriations bills completed by Congress before leaving town for the mid-term elections - the FY07 funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security - includes a provision adding nonprofit performing arts facilities to the list of organizations eligible for future disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Passed by Congress on September 29 and signed into law October 4, the new statutory language fixes a problem brought sadly to attention after the 2006 hurricane damage to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast when performing arts organizations found themselves ineligible to apply for financial assistance from FEMA to pay for the costs of recovery.

In recognizing the value performing arts organizations bring to a community, the new FEMA law corrects a serious inequity in FEMA's disaster relief policy. Now, arts groups will be treated in the same category as museums and other nonprofit organizations have been viewed in the past. The new definition of "private nonprofit facility" offered in legislation by Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) specifically includes performing arts facilities, community arts centers, museums, zoos, libraries, and other health and human service organizations previously held ineligible for FEMA help.

The new FEMA law does not mean that each application from an arts organization in the future will be approved, but it allows the requests to be considered fairly on a case-by-case basis. Previously, arts groups could not even get a foot in the door at FEMA. Now organizations will be entitled to apply for reimbursement for repair costs to return facilities to their condition before disaster hit.

October Is Arts & Humanities Month; Bush Reappoints Gioia As NEA Chair: On September 27, the White House issued a message from President Bush observing October as National Arts and Humanities Month. Since 1993, Arts & Humanities Month in October has provided communities with a time to focus on the contributions the arts make to public life. In his letter, the President says: "The arts and humanities are an important part of our national heritage and a source of great pride and pleasure for people throughout our country. They convey the diversity of the human experience and help us explore different ideas and emotions. This month is an opportunity to celebrate the individuals whose talent and originality elevate our culture and lift our spirits."

In other news from the White House, President Bush on September 28 announced his re-nomination of Dana Gioia to serve a second, four-year term as NEA Chairman. Gioia began his term as the ninth Chairman of the arts endowment in February 2003. The reappointment of Gioia must be approved by the Senate.

Keep abreast of current congressional news and federal legislative updates, and be sure to take advantage of NASAA's arts advocacy tools and services.