Arts Commission transfer bill advances

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A House committee on Friday narrowly passed a new version of a bill that would abolish the Arts Commission in its current form and transfer all its duties and power to the Mississippi Developmental Authority.

The action came two working days before the deadline for general bills to leave or die in committee.

The legislation, and a similar bill in the Senate, are being pushed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The bills aim to fold the Mississippi Arts Commission into the state’s economic development agency.

Bryant would appoint a new 15-member arts advisory council, which would meet at the discretion of Development Authority Director Glenn McCullough, who answers directly to the governor.

The new House bill passed Friday – a word-for-word copy of the existing Senate bill, with one exception – goes to the House Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers there must vote to send it to the House floor before the end of Tuesday or it will die.

The Senate bill awaits the same time frame in the Senate Appropriations committee.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Read, R-Gautier

“I had not intended on addressing that legislation, but when I get back to the Capitol Monday, I’ll take a look at it,” said House Appropriations chairman Rep. John Read, R-Gautier. “If the Senate’s moves, I can leave it alone and let the Senate’s version come to me. But I’ll have a better sense of things Monday.”

The House version passed today would designate a separate line item in the state budget for the new Arts Advisory Council, while the Senate version omits that sentence.

The House bill passed the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committee on a 5-4 vote.  Reps. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, Robert Foster, R-Hernando, Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven (the bill’s main sponsor), and Cory Wilson, R-Madison, voted for the bill. Reps. Greg Haney, R-Gulfport, Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, Doug McLeod, R-Lucedale, and Tom Miles, D-Forest, voted no.

Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, did not vote, and Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, was not present.

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, declined comment on the legislation several times this week. Currie did not return messages Friday. The Mississippi Development Authority gave a short statement earlier this week and referred further questions to the governor’s office, which has not responded to multiple requests for comment this week.

The Senate bill’s author Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, chairwoman of the Senate Tourism committee, said in a statement Tuesday that she coordinated with Bryant and the development agency’s tourism department before filing the bill. The intent of the bill, she said, is to “permit the larger goal of expanding and promoting Mississippi’s unique culture in a more fiscally responsible way.”

Opponents of the measure, including Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White and several Arts Commission board members, say the bill would threaten the work being done to support and promote arts throughout the state. No one at the Arts Commission, including its current 15-member board, was told the governor’s push was coming.

“The arts is about the best thing this state does, and they want to make it political,” said Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford. “It’s just not right.”

Eight state arts commissions currently operate under economic development agencies, which would be the case for Mississippi if the proposed law is ultimately enacted. If passed, Mississippi would be the eleventh state to restructure control of its art commission in 22 years.

Statistics from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, a Washington-based group that tracks and researches the work of state arts agencies, show that commissions that go through structural changes often see a drop in funding.

According to the group’s research, state appropriations between 1994-2014 for arts commissions that had not gone through any structural changes saw funding increase by 29 percent. During that same 1994-2014 period, appropriations for commissions that went through structural changes decreased by 28 percent.

“All I’ve done (this week) is talk to people in the field who are worried about programs, museums, school programs, whether there’s funding for festivals and events,” White said earlier this week. “Between talking to the board and my staff, who are suddenly looking at a piece of paper saying their jobs are being transferred to the economic development agency, they have a lot of questions.”

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today donors Donna Barksdale, Carol Puckett and Nan Sanders serve on the Mississippi Arts Commission. Barksdale is chairperson of the Mississippi Today board of directors.