Increasing Our Voice in Uncertain Times: Dance/USA Legislative Forecast

By Brandon Gryde

It’s September and the nation’s capital is waking up from a month of hibernation. Congress was in recess in August, the student population had yet to (re)invade the city, and my bus to work was not overflowing with federal and nonprofit employees. But now everyone is back to work.

Just prior to the August recess, I joined my fellow arts advocate colleagues in targeted visits to congressional offices to talk about support for the National Endowment for the Arts. We visited the offices of House and Senate Republicans on appropriations committees as well as those who voted against the Walberg amendment last year, which proposed cutting the funding to the NEA by an additional $20 million, in an attempt to shore up support. As you can imagine, Congressional staffers face just as much uncertainty as we do for the future.

The NEA is currently funded at $146 million. Last winter, President Obama proposed an $8 million increase for fiscal year 2013 after two years of devastating budget cuts, which led the NEA to decrease both the size and the number of grants awarded. In fact, in 2012, the dance category received $875,000 less than the previous year, a decrease of 17.5 percent. In early August, Congress agreed on a six-month continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government at current levels. If this measure is approved post recess, it buys the arts community a little bit of time, yet leaves us in an unclear position should Congress choose to further cut NEA funding in the second half of the fiscal year.

While funding for the NEA continues to be a flagship issue for the arts community, alternative proposals to the current charitable giving incentives could impact a larger number of dance organizations. While funding for the NEA continues to be a flagship issue for the arts
community, alternative proposals to the current charitable giving
incentives could impact a larger number of dance organizations. It surprises many to find out that the majority of my visits to Capitol Hill are to talk about charitable giving incentives. For several years now, President Obama has proposed capping the charitable deduction at 28 percent for high-income earners, down from 35 percent. Additionally, Congress has explored various alternatives such as setting a floor for giving (such as creating a minimum donation that would make one eligible for a deduction) or replacing the deduction with a tax credit. (One bright spot comes in a shift in administration thinking as proposals for “Buffet Rule” legislation in both the House and Senate exempted the charitable deduction from a 30 percent minimum tax rate for individuals with incomes over $1 million. The nonprofit community does not have a position on this failed legislation, but recognizes that the needle has moved a little in our favor.)

What does this mean for the dance community? Changing the way the current deduction works could impact the amount of money donated to nonprofits. Most believe that individuals will continue to give to the charities they feel passionate about, but will donate less, resulting in increased energy from nonprofits to find additional funds at a time when giving to the arts is already down from both private and public sources.

Dance/USA joins not only our nonprofit arts colleagues to lobby on preserving charitable giving incentives, but we also join our colleagues in the direct and social service spheres. Joining others — such as American Red Cross, United Way, YMCA, and United Way Worldwide — on visits to congressional offices helps to highlight the positive impact the arts have on communities. The work we do to support education, to engage underserved communities, and to make the places we live more vibrant by attracting businesses and individuals makes the quality of life significantly better. To borrow from education-speak, we’re all part of the same ecosystem that fosters “whole cities.”

In fact, during an October 2011 Senate Finance Committee hearing on the charitable deduction, Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, spoke up on behalf of the arts community, illustrating the arts’ role in community development, engaging young people, and supporting human development.

Yet it’s not just the arts that face challenges in the coming months. As you may have heard, the United States is facing a “fiscal cliff.” This cliff is the result of the expiration of Bush tax cuts (for every tax bracket), 2 percent cut in payroll taxes, and sequestration (enacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011 which will cut funding to both domestic and military budgets in January). The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has predicted that, left as is, the United States could fall into another recession. Congress has been deadlocked in finding ways to increase revenue and decrease spending. This is the climate the nonprofit dance community faces as we seek reinstatement of NEA funding to prior year levels and ask lawmakers to preserve charitable giving incentives.

Next Steps
Campaign season creates added difficulty in projecting what the next year will look like. But that doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands until after the November elections. Every congressional office reports that it’s important for constituents to reach out. I’ve heard some maintain that their member of Congress would never support the arts, so why bother?

Support for the arts does not fall neatly into one party or the other. Just in reviewing the previous paragraphs, this is why:

  1. We visited the offices of Republicans who voted against the Walberg Amendment. Did these offices propose an increase in funding for the NEA? No. However they voted not to decrease funding by an additional $20 million. Of those 55 Republicans who voted, 18 were in their first term in office.
  2. Support for the arts community is not just about funding the NEA. It’s about making sure we have the ability to raise money from donors to support programs that make our communities better places to live and increase accessibility to our art form. Finance Committee Co-chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is one the strongest voices for preserving charitable giving incentives that help sustain the nonprofit sector.

Contacting your legislators, telling them stories about how your organizations engage audiences, work with schools, employ dancers, musicians, backstage crews, and educators, partner with local businesses, and support community and economic development is extremely important. It’s hard to draw a straight line from advocacy to successful legislation. However regularly raising our voices about the importance of dance and the performing arts lays the groundwork for future arts support in ways that we can’t always anticipate.

Brandon Gryde is director of government affairs for Dance/USA and OPERA America, leading the organizations’ grassroots advocacy efforts and lobbying for the fields to Congress, federal agencies, and the White House. He was director of communications for Youth Service America, an international youth engagement organization in Washington, D.C. Brandon spent more than seven years at Jump Street, an innovative community arts organization in Harrisburg, PA, where he managed a state re-granting initiative in partnership with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and launched AND Magazine, a quarterly arts and healthy lifestyles publication written by teens, for teens. Brandon has a B.A. in ethnomusicology and American literature and culture from UCLA and an M.A. in American Studies from Penn State.


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