About the Cuts in the Arts in Florida

I'm seeing some fairly inaccurate or incomplete reporting about the recent budget cuts to the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs arts grants, and so I wish to take it step-by-step.

First, some background.  What are the grants?

The Florida Division of Cultural Affairs provides grants in the arts in four basic categories:  Cultural and Museum Matching Grants (covering annual operating expenses for an arts or cultural organization, capped at $150,000, at 10% of operating budget covered); Culture Builds Florida Matching Grants (covering specific projects/events, capped at $25,000, requiring a dollar for dollar match); Cultural Facilities Matching Grant (covering facilities purchasing and renovations, capped at $500,000, requiring a dollar for dollar match); State Matches for Cultural Endowment (covering capital campaigns, matching dollar for dollar).  Only recognized nonprofit arts and cultural organizations (including art centers, universities and colleges, and museums) are eligible to apply.

Cultural organizations must submit an application with a wide range of support materials, a full budget report of the last fiscal, current fiscal, and forthcoming fiscal years, a careful analysis of accessibility, outreach, measurables, and outcomes.  If a grant is rewarded, the organization must file quarterly financial reports and a half-year full report, along with supporting documents.  At the end of a grant period, a full annual report is required.  In all, it takes at least 80 hours of work--at least for a small organization like Ghostbird Theatre Company--to put these materials together.

The grant applications are submitted to discipline-specific panelists, experts in the particular field and in arts administration, who then score and rank the individual applications.  In all, about 650 applications are reviewed annually.  To be eligible for a grant, an application must score 80 out of 100 points available, based on criteria of artistic excellence, management, budget, and accessibility.

Now, here's the kicker in Florida.  The state legislature approves the budget for the grants AFTER the review process has been completed. In other words, successful and qualified applicants do not know what the funding will be until after the legislature has convened and the governor has signed off on the state budget.

Second, recent history of funding and the current funding.

For all four categories, this is the total funding set by the state legislature.

2014-15: $42.8 million
2015-16: $34.8 million
2016-17: $32.5 million
2017-18: $24.5 million

And here is the total just passed:

2018-19: $2.6 million

This is out of a total of almost $55 million that had been recommended and qualified by the panels (not the $41 million mentioned by the Naples Daily News).

This total places Florida behind Idaho, for instance, in per capita funding of the arts, where Idaho pays out 3 times what Florida does; New York pays out 16 times this amount per capita.

In this last session, the Senate and House conference agreed to fund only Cultural and Museum Matching Grants, eliminating funding altogether for the other three categories.  This meant that about 160 organizations that submitted qualifying applications got zero dollars.  This is what happened to Ghostbird Theatre Company and the Quality Life Center in Fort Myers (both organizations scoring in the upper third of their disciplines).  This meant that those organizations that would receive funding would get less than 7% of the funding they qualified for (they received 100% funding in 2014-15).

Because of this paucity of funding, some organizations are turning down their grants because the amount given is not worth the time it requires for managing the grant and submitting quarterly financials and annual reports.  The danger, of course, is that this might invigorate further funding cuts in next year's budget.

Don't Blame Parkland 

Some legislators have expressed that the funding of "school fortification" due to the Parkland massacre necessitated these budget cuts.  This is a problematic rationale, as both the Senate and House proposed significant funding cuts in these grant programs before February 14, with the Senate already proposing to cut the grant funding down to $8 million (about 30% of the previous year's level); this was the Senate's proposal on January 31, two weeks before the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.  During the negotiations, the Senate floated the proposal to cut the grant funding down to $200,000.

While these proposals and counterproposals did take place after Parkland, it is important to remember the Senate had proposed an additional $8 million to support 11 pet arts and culture organizations outside of the grants proposals.  In their final compromise, the House and Senate proposed to support 9 organizations to the tune of $4.5 million dollars, almost twice of what was allocated to the 489 arts organizations that had qualified under the Division of Cultural Affairs grant competition.

What complicates these numbers is that the legislature approved some $76 million in subsidies for the for-profit tourism industry, an increase from the previous year, an increase at a time when the tourism industry in Florida was profiting from record numbers of out-of-state visitors.  Thus, the excuse that Parkland or Hurricane Irma had some kind of dire effect on state budgeting restrictions is more than a little suspect, especially given a budget that exceeds $88 billion, and given the ability of the Senate to dole out money to organizations outside the review process administered by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

The Bill Edwards Foundation

Now, Governor Scott did exercise his line-item veto prerogative, approving only three of the pet projects, totaling over $2 million, again nearly the total allocated to the other 489 arts organizations--and remember over 160 organizations were denied funding for qualified proposals in the other grant categories. One pet project was for a military museum and another to a Holocaust museum, both in Miami. But the most interesting pet project is an allocation to the Bill Edwards Foundation, to support arts and education programming at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg, which received $750,000.

One important point is that this Foundation did apply for and was qualified to receive only $25,000 through the Culture and Museums Matching Grants, of which it would receive less than $1750.  The Bill Edwards Foundation received a score of 87.714 in their grant application for 2018-19, placing them 404 out of the 489 qualfied grants.  The highest scoring and highest qualified grant recepients wouldn't get more than $10,000, but the 404th ranked organization gets three quarters of a million dollars. So much for meritocracy.

The Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts supports programming and education opportunities at Mahaffey Theatre/Duke Energy Center in St. Petersberg.  As far as I can make out, the extent of its arts education programming is to provide specific shows for school-aged children in Pinellas county, serving some 20,000 students, and to provide about a 5-page "teacher resource" guide for each of its two shows. The Bill Edwards Foundation is relatively new. Their first IRS Form 990 available is from 2013, and from their most recent 2016 data, the foundation is a $3 million dollar support arm for the Mahaffey. They have no information on Guidestar, and they haven’t received any GOLD STAR seal for fiscal responsibility or for community outreach. To be sure, this programming is appropriate for some state funding, but given the low competitive placement of the Foundation and given the rather thin quality of its current education program, you have to wonder why this Foundation is receiving $750,000. In short, the Foundation is new and on its first legs, and yet, it is receiving a grant totaling about 1/4 of its annual budget. What makes it so special?

Bill Edwards, it turns out, is a significant contributor to the Florida Republican Party, having donated over $5 million to the Party and to Governor Rick Scott's political campaign since 2012. It appears we have a patronage system at work here.