After a long delay, Wisconsin makes its federal arts match

A routine Joint Finance Committee decision took months longer than usual, and no one seems to know why.
A photo of the inside of the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda shows the top of a column-like formation on an upper floor in the left foreground. In the background, out of focus, the building’s vaulted ceiling and an archway decorated with a mosaic are visible.

A routine Joint Finance Committee decision took months longer than usual, and no one seems to know why.

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee (JFC) released $109,200 in state funding on August 16 to match the state’s allotment of a National Endowment for the Arts grant program. 

This is routine—each year the NEA awards each state a certain amount of money that its state arts agency, in this case the Wisconsin Arts Board, can distribute to individual arts organizations around the state in the form of grants. But it’s a matching program, so to get the NEA money, states have to put up the same amount from their own coffers. States will often budget ahead for a certain amount to match the NEA funds. If the NEA comes through with more funding than anticipated for a given state, legislators have to approve additional state match funding in order to take advantage of the full amount. This is also a routine task Joint Finance carries out as it makes adjustments between state budget cycles—and in fact the NEA’s allotments to Wisconsin have been steadily increasing in recent years, so this is hardly a new issue.

What wasn’t so routine this year was the delay. Usually, Wisconsin Arts Board executive director George Tzougros told Tone Madison earlier this year, JFC has the process wrapped up by February or March. This time around, WAB (technically part of the state’s Department of Tourism) put in its request for additional state matching funds in November. Throughout the spring, Tzougros and state-level arts advocates like Anne Katz of Create Wisconsin grew increasingly nervous as the request kept failing to show up on JFC’s meeting agendas. By May, they were sounding the alarm that further delays from Joint Finance could jeopardize grant funding the Arts Board had already approved for 163 arts organizations, large and small, across 37 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

As our previous story on the funding delay broke it down:

  • The NEA allocated $887,100 to Wisconsin in its latest round of state match funding—this corresponds to the federal government’s 2021 fiscal year but the state’s 2022 fiscal year.
  • The Legislature’s latest biennial budget allocated $807,100 toward the state’s share of the match for the state’s 2022 fiscal year. 
  • The state also still needed to backfill $29,200 towards the previous year’s NEA match.
  • So, the state had $80,000 worth of catching up to to toward this year’s match, and $29,200 toward the previous year’s, adding up to $109,2000.

When the matter of this $109,200 finally came up for a vote during JFC’s brief August 16 meeting, it passed unanimously, without much discussion at all. That allowed people like Tzougros, Katz, and the organizations WAB funds to breathe a sigh of relief, but it also makes the months-long, unexplained delay all the more mystifying. Going forward, WAB grants will still be contingent upon this process, which has to happen mostly because state and federal budget cycles don’t neatly sync up.

“The issue next year will be that it has been the case that every year the NEA’s money increases, which is great,” Create Wisconsin executive director Katz says. “And then every year the Arts Board has to go back to Joint Finance to get approval to match the increasing amount of money. It isn’t very efficient, but it’s what has been happening.”

This was a near thing, at least measured by the speed of government. The federal fiscal year ends on September 30. After that, Wisconsin would have missed out on the rest of its NEA funds for 2022.

“If it had gone on without a decision, first of all, the organizations would get some money, but they would get far less than they had budgeted for and that’s just a ripple effect for jobs and services and capacity,” Katz says.

That all of this centers around a relatively small amount of money just highlights how resourceful arts organizations have to be.

“The money from the state is not a lot in the greater scheme of things, but when it gets down to the local level like that, whether it’s Milwaukee or Bayfield, it makes a huge difference for organizations to be able to say that they got state funding, to be able to match with private funding.” Katz says. “Maybe this is not a good analogy, but it’s a multi-headed beast. It’s a balancing act for every one of those businesses.”

Like the rest of the Legislature, JFC is controlled by Republicans—at a comical partisan imbalance, with Democrats currently holding just 4 of the committee’s 16 seats—and of course Republicans have long made a pet issue of their antipathy toward public arts funding. When push comes to shove, that antipathy doesn’t always translate into votes, for whatever reason. Look at the periodic efforts to defund the NEA or Corporation for Public Broadcasting—it’s culture-war red meat that often fizzles out in Congress. Of course, Wisconsin’s investment in public funding for the arts is already so lousy that perhaps even Republicans’ appetites for cuts are already satisfied. 

So it’s hard to see why this had to take so long, given that all the Republicans on JFC ended up voting in favor of the funding match. Maybe the arguments about the economic and educational benefits of the arts translate even in heavily Republican areas (whether they’re organically conservative or Republicans just gerrymandered them that way). One of JFC’s co-chairs, District 17 State Senator Howard Marklein, represents an area that is home to American Players Theatre and Taliesin.

“The fact that all the committee members voted for this, it’s a good sign in general, but it also means that hopefully, we will be able to launch into or move forward on the conversation about how to make this a more efficient process,” Katz says.

JFC did have an opportunity to go a bit further. Before the $109,200 solution came up for a vote, committee member and District 18 Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) motioned to provide that funding plus some additional, advance funding for the state’s 2023 fiscal year. This allocation would have totaled up to $254,800; a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo breaks down the options. The motion to fund both fiscal years failed 12 to 2: Only Goyke and State Senator LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) voted for it. The committee’s two other Democratic members, District 74 Rep. Beth Meyers of Bayfield and District 27 Senator John Erpenbach of West Point, were absent for the August 16 meeting. Meyers did issue a press release about the matching arts funds after the meeting, writing: “While I am happy to say the committee has finally voted to release the funds, I want to reiterate that there was no reason to delay this long.”

The four Democrats on Joint Finance had pushed to get the additional funding match on JFC’s agenda for quite some time, sending a letter in February urging the committee’s co chairs, District 39 Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Marklein (R-Spring Green), to take up the Arts Board’s request.

During the August 16 meeting, Goyke was the only committee member to offer any real comment on the funding measure. His remarks showed an understanding of the funding realities for arts organizations—which usually have to pull together many different sources of private and public funding, and, crucially, depend on some reliable sources of funding in order to help them raise further money. 

“I think there are members of this committee that have expressed opposition to this funding over the years because there are private philanthropic resources available to the arts community and often these organizations rely heavily on those private funds, but this is a modest amount of public funds that actually helps leverage private funds,” Goyke said, also stressing that arts funding creates “opportunity and guidance” for young people throughout the state.

He added later in his remarks: “This money goes a long way. This money gets stretched by the organizations that receive it, so a small grant to a small non profit of 10 or 15 or 25000 gets leveraged, it becomes two, three, four, five times that amount of money, and what that means to a small organization is increased capacity.”

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