Rep. Neal vows to fight Trump budget cuts
Page 5 of President Donald Trump's budget this week paused to flag "highlights" in the plan.
For arts advocates in Massachusetts, and for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, what stood out were lows: Scuppering a slew of programs and agencies to offset a $54 billion increase in military spending.
They closed the work week with calls to defend against unwise cuts, particularly when it comes to culture and the creative economy.
"I certainly intend to offer vigorous opposition to these proposed cuts," Neal said Friday from Washington, D.C., before boarding a plane back to his district.
With a stated wish to "move the nation toward fiscal responsibility," the president's budget plan would eliminate the national endowments for the arts (NEA) and humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
And top agencies would face cuts, with the Environmental Protection Agency (30.5 percent), and the departments of state and USAID (28.3 percent), agriculture (20.8 percent) and labor (21.4) taking the biggest hits.
Neal, who is the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said the president's budget errs on many fronts, particularly with a planned $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health.
Because it's home to so much medical research, Massachusetts receives the highest percentage of NIH dollars of any state, Neal said.
He also faults planned cuts to the EPA, to Amtrak and to other agencies.
"I think that the cuts that he's offering in education are poor policy," he said. "I also think that we should not be privatizing the FAA."
Neal promised to fight the cuts, saying, "This budget proposal from the Trump administration is hardly conclusive."
Supporters of arts programs lamented the plan to scrap the NEA.
Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), said this isn't the first time the NEA has been threatened, but is the first time a president proposed cutting it.
"It's the perfect storm of the political environment," Walker said. "It's a very sad day for America."
Her group receives $1 million a year in NEA funding, which it distributes to groups statewide. And the NEA makes direct grants to artists and arts organizations in the state of from $2 million to $3 million a year.
Federal funding is critical in places that cannot count on corporations and foundations to underwrite cultural offerings.
"Berkshire County is an absolutely perfect example of that," Walker said.
While some may perceive arts funding as benefiting urban sophisticates, 25 percent of the NEA's grants go to rural areas, she noted, helping to shore up cultural offerings in places that just 15 percent of the U.S. population calls home. Forty percent of NEA funding reaches areas with high rates of poverty.
"These are not gilded stereotypes," she said of arts funding recipients. "We're improving the human spirit, quite frankly."
Kate Maguire, CEO and artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group, said cutting the arts to back the military is a "disgrace." Her group runs the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield and the Unicorn Theatre and Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge.
"I think if you really want to end war, and get to a place of people speaking to each other and understanding each other, then you promote the arts," she said.
After 23 years in the theater business, Maguire said she's seen NEA funding cut continually, to the point where it plays a minimal role on her balance sheet.
"I'm speaking of the symbolism of what it means for the government to support the arts," she said.
"Even the minuscule amounts of money that arts organizations get ... is just a symbol that somewhere the government still gets the sense that this is important for our civilization," she said. "You go to a museum to understand what centuries of artists have come to understand."
She added, "To cut the arts is the height of stupidity. It agitates me to the core."
DREAD OF CUTS
At a meeting Thursday hosted by 1Berkshire, the prospect of cuts to the arts came up, according to Jen Glockner, director of the city of Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Development. A variety of arts groups attended, including Jacob's Pillow and Barrington Stage.
Glockner said that the city receives MCC support for a variety of programs, including its downtown cultural district, now up for renewal.
The NEA provided a $75,000 grant for The Mastheads, a new writers' residency program. "That's top of mind for our office because it's actually happening this year. It wouldn't have happened without the NEA," Glockner said.
Loss of NEA funding to the MCC would be felt locally, she said. "It's definitely a ripple effect throughout the state including here in Pittsfield."
"I've talked to a lot of people in the arts and cultural community in the Berkshires and this came up," Glockner said. "It's not uplifting. We have to keep fighting for the arts through our legislators. It's important to spread the word that arts and culture are important. It feels like we've been fighting forever for the arts — and that fight just continues."
Before word of cuts in public broadcasting were announced, WAMC in Albany asked its listeners to help protect its existence.
Alan Chartock, the station's president and CEO, said it was clear money for public radio was in jeopardy.
"Breitbart put out that the first thing we have to do is get rid of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," Chartock said. "I think you have to take them at their word that they'll do it."
The station is salting away part of three fund drives to build an account that can replace federal backing.
Chartock said listeners stepped forward.
"It was astounding. This had to do with WAMC speaking truth to power, and telling the truth," he said. "This was a plan to get rid of what we had. People took it deadly seriously, and came up with the money."
Martin Miller, CEO and general manager of New England Public Radio in Springfield, could not be reached for comment.
Jennifer Tabakin, Great Barrington's town manager, said the Trump administration's apparent retreat from community investment will have big consequences.
"Federal grant dollars, whether they are to pay for programs to reduce poverty, support a cultural economy, increase affordable housing or remediate a brownfield on a development site, address critical concerns in a community and are used as the foundation for local economic development," she said in an email, in response to questions about the budget.
Lost federal money, she said, forces communities to move money around, sometimes by cutting other local spending — or raising taxes or fees.
And that is shortsighted, she suggested.
"There are many studies that measure the positive impact of an investment of federal dollars in a local economy," she said.
In other words, the benefits surpass the number of dollars put in.
But now, the federal government is poised to retreat from backing all kinds of program, and all at the same time.
"Now the question is, `What may be the broad significance of decreased federal funding?' " Tabakin asked.
Tony Mazzucco, the town administrator in Adams, said that by seeking to push responsibility for programs to the states, the federal government is not cutting taxes, it's moving them.
"It's really a tax shift, and not a tax cut," Mazzucco said.
Lindsay Koshgarian, research director for the National Priorities Project in Northampton, said that given their own financial condition, state and local governments are in no position to buffer the cuts.
"Cities and states really have no ability to pick up the slack. They can't raise taxes that high," she said. "Raising taxes is going to be a political impossibility in that period of time."
The outcome, she said, can only be "massive program cuts."
In terms of military spending, Trump's proposed increase of $54 billion is just $2 billion behind 1981 military budget gain achieved by President Ronald Reagan, using figures adjusted for inflation.
It was a 13 percent increase in 1981, but because today's military budget of roughly $618 billion is larger, Trump's 10 percent increase gets close.
"It's certainly a large increase for one year, but it's not completely unprecedented," Koshgarian said.
But in other areas, she said, the Trump budget is pushing the country into new fiscal territory.
The Northampton nonprofit's mission is to help people understand federal spending, by providing a sense of how money could be used otherwise. It was founded during the Reagan years to measure the impact of increased military spending on community needs.
This week, Koshgarian said the project calculated that the federal government's $7 million contribution to Meals on Wheels programs — also on the chopping block — could be covered for 7,000 years by the proposed increase in military spending.