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What Trump budget cuts could mean for future of arts, public broadcasting

by Matt Dangelantonio | AirTalk®

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The headquarters for National Public Radio, or NPR, are seen in Washington, DC, September 17, 2013. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The future of federal funding for the arts, humanities and public broadcasting could look a lot different in the not-too-distant future if the Trump administration follows through with some deep federal spending cuts

As reported by The Hill, President Donald Trump’s transition team staff met ahead of the inauguration to plan federal bureaucracy cuts, which reportedly included privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The plan is drawn from a blueprint from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, which is helping Trump’s transition to the presidency. The "Blueprint for Balance" also suggests cuts to the departments of Transportation, Justice and State and would amount to a $10.5 trillion reduction in federal spending over 10 years. Heritage fiscal and economic expert Romina Boccia told AirTalk's Larry Mantle the federal funding lost would be just a drop in the bucket, because the NEA and NEH together only provide about $300 million in funding to the arts compared to charitable contributions, which total about $17.5 billion.

“What that means is that the federal funding portion really isn’t even a rounding error," Boccia said. "What we know is that American people support the arts, as evidenced by their private contributions, and they will continue to do so. I even think that eliminating federal funding altogether might increase charitable contributions to the arts, because right now many people probably think they don’t have to give as much because there’s federal funding. They might not even know how small a portion that federal funding is, and in the absence of it they might be willing to give more.”

Boccia said if the CPB were privatized, the stations that were able to continue to support themselves on private contributions would do so. Those who could not would have to figure out a way to pay the bills on their own — or risk going completely dark.

But Southern California Public Radio founding president Bill Davis said the impact would be much different for stations in small or rural areas than it would for a station like KPCC, which is in an urban center, because the amount of money each station gets from CPB differs. He worries that privatizing CPB could mean some public radio stations that get a majority of their funding from the feds could be forced to shut down.

“So for KPCC, our CPB grant comes to about 5 percent of our overall operating budget. For stations in Alaska, for stations in a number of rural states, it’s as high as 40 percent," Davis said. "So there’s a real disparity in the impact that would have between rural and urban stations, and I think from a public policy perspective, that’s a concern.”

Davis added that clearing CPB criteria is somewhat like a seal of approval for private contributors because it’s an added level of confidence that the money donated will be used, and privatizing CPB would eliminate that leverage for many stations. He said that KPCC gets about $1.2 million a year in federal funding, which it would lose if CPB were to be privatized.

“My guess is that many of our donors would respond positively to that, so then the question would be what the subsequent impacts are on smaller stations in rural areas, the impact on NPR itself, and would NPR be looking to us to pay a greater level of that," Davis said. "There’s a systematic effect that I really can’t say, and I don’t want to speculate on what our donors would do.”

Davis said that if CPB funding were cut, stations like KPCC, WNYC in New York and/or KQED in San Francisco would end up paying much more for NPR programming than they already do, essentially cross-subsidizing the smaller stations that were struggling financially.

Beyond public radio and television, there are many other important arts and humanities-based organizations who operate in areas ranging from arts education to addressing homelessness that could be heavily impacted if federal funding were eliminated, according to Los Angeles County Arts Commission executive director Laura Zucker.

“Small-sized organizations with budgets under $350,000 a year receive 30 percent of the National Endowment for the Arts’ direct grants," Zucker said. "These are organizations that can’t just turn around and raise money from private individuals. Forty percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high poverty neighborhoods across the country, so it’s the kind of funding and the kind of projects that are supported that cannot be replaced.”

Zucker said that when you look at everything that Heritage has slated to eliminate in their plan, it’s clear that this is not about money for them, but rather pushing an ideological agenda.

“Eliminating these organizations, which this is a thinly-veiled attempt to do, is not about saving money or about where else money might come from, and it’s not about privatization — it’s about commercialization," Zucker said.

Heritage’s Boccia disagreed, saying this is about prioritizing the things that are really important for the government to focus on with spending, and that the arts and public broadcasting would be better managed at the state, local and/or private level.

“I also would think that the arts … would want to be independent of government control," Boccia said. "One of the worries with the current funding mechanism of using that federal stamp of approval to leverage other funding sources is that you might end up with politically-correct art. Is that really what we want from the arts? I think they should be independent, I think they should be as creative as possible, and they should be free from political interference.”

As of right now, Boccia said, Heritage has not met with any members of Congress to discuss the implementation of their blueprint, nor is it clear whether these cuts will even make it into President Trump’s first budget. Until we know that, Davis said, it doesn’t hurt to get an early start.

“What we’ve said before is that irrespective of whether you’re a proponent of federal funding for public broadcasting or you don’t think that should happen, the message from Washington is pretty clear: if you’re a listener, you should probably support," Boccia said. "I’d suspect that’s true for arts and humanities group as well.”

Guests:

Romina Boccia, leading fiscal and economic expert at The Heritage Foundation, where she focuses on government spending and the national debt

Laura Zucker, executive director at Los Angeles County Arts Commission

Bill Davis, founding president of Southern California Public Radio

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