Democrats fighting back against arts vetoes

Lawmakers say Haley’s budget vetoes will be overturned and state Arts Commission saved

otaylor@thestate.comJuly 10, 2012 

  • Rally planned South Carolina arts groups are planning a State House protest of Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget veto that shut down the S.C. Arts Commission. Artists and supporters of the arts spent the weekend venting on Twitter and Facebook, and by Sunday organized the SC Occupy for the Arts rally at the State House grounds from 6-8 p.m. Monday, July 16, the evening before the General Assembly returns for a veto session. Artists vented in other ways, too. On Facebook, aerial artist Natalie Brown posted a photo illustration of commission executive director Ken May as an “Indiana Jones” character, cellphone in hand. The illustration refers to May’s comment to The State on Friday in reaction: “The state can’t wrest my cellphone from my grip.” Photographer Frank Kiraly staged a photo of “bodies” on the State House steps, and Shelby Sessler tweeted the photo to Hollywood actors and Broadway stars. Tony Award-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth retweeted the photo to her 593,582 followers. On Twitter, a #SaveSCArts hashtag is accompanying tweets in support of arts funding. Haley said Friday both agencies are redundant. Research universities can apply for their own grants, she said, and the private sector can support arts projects.

At a Monday afternoon news conference called by Democratic lawmakers to oppose Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the South Carolina Arts Commission’s budget, Richland state Sen. Joel Lourie pointed out a solution to a seemingly annual situation: work through the General Assembly.

Instead of eliminating the commission through a veto, Lourie suggested Haley use an ally to sponsor a piece of legislation that would then be vetted by a committee.

“It’s illogical to me, because what she says is, ‘It doesn’t mean I don’t support the arts.’ You can draw no other conclusion from her actions.

“If she was really interested in saying this is a waste of taxpayer dollars, then bring it through the legislative process. But she didn’t do that.”

The Arts Commission hands out grants for arts projects statewide and oversees the state art collection. Haley’s veto eliminated $1.9 million in state funding and $500,000 in arts commission grants.

Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, said the governor has been clear about her position.

“While the governor loves the arts, she does not believe the Arts Commission, which uses significant taxpayer dollars to fund administrative costs, is a core function of government — and she has been clear about this since her first State of the State address,” he said. “The arts and Arts Commission are not the same thing, and those who represent that they are, are doing the taxpayers of South Carolina a real disservice.”

Because the Legislature took so long to pass a budget, it pushed Haley’s budget vetoes past July 1, the start of the state’s new fiscal year. That means Haley’s vetoes eliminated the agencies’ current operating budgets. Ken May, the Arts Commission’s executive director, said grant payments are pending and some vendor fees have not been resolved.

“The real impact is that we’re just not doing our work,” he said.

A two-thirds vote of the House and Senate is needed to override vetoes. Lawmakers, who had planned to take the summer off and return to Columbia in September to take up Haley’s budget vetoes, will return next week for a special session. Lourie is confident the Arts Commission and pay raise vetoes will be overridden.

“What I think you’ll probably see, whatever the House overrides, the Senate will override quickly,” Lourie said. “I am cautiously optimistic that you’ll see far better than two-thirds.

“I haven’t spoken with a colleague yet that’s voting in (the) opposite.”

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he hopes the Senate overrides the Arts Commission veto.

“The Arts Commission serves a very useful purpose,” he said. “It is there in the schools, out there for our citizens. The arts (are) an important part of our society and an important part of us.”

The news conference was held in the lot in front of the Arts Commission’s building off Sumter Street. Lourie was joined behind a bank of microphones by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, and a handful of Arts Commission employees who are barred from entering the office.

Sheheen didn’t mask his displeasure with Haley’s vetoes, which included $10 million for teacher pay raises.

“I am tired of the well-being of this state being sacrificed on the altar of Nikki Haley’s desperate attempts to get national attention to her political career,” he said. “While she’s out gallivanting around trying to make headlines, real things are happening and real people are hurting in South Carolina.”

Smith said arts funding shouldn’t be complicated.

“It’s what most in our nation know and understand,” he said. “When you see a thriving community with jobs and economic opportunity, you’ll see a thriving arts community there as well because they go hand-in-hand.”

In her statements Friday about her 81 vetoes made to the state’s budget late Thursday night, Haley said the private sector can support arts projects.

Lourie disagreed.

“This is not the way to govern responsibly,” he said. “With school getting ready to start, we’ve got programs that may or may not get funded. And you’ve got employees that may not have a job in 10 days.

“Hopefully, next Thursday morning, the doors will open again. We’re going to work very hard to get the votes necessary.”

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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