Two agencies that Gov. Rick Perry has suggested suspending funding for — the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas Commission on the Arts — came before House Appropriations on Thursday morning. And lawmakers didn’t seem particularly apt to shutter them.
The Historical Commission — and in particular its Courthouse Preservation, Main Street and Heritage Trails programs — got a great deal of attention from lawmakers who said their inboxes have been flooded by constituents.
“I have received more letters on the Historical Commission up to this point than anything from my constituents,” said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria.
But not all committee members were as concerned about the agency’s plight. Rep. Raul Torres, a Corpus Christi Republican who sits on the committee, tweeted: “30 min + spent on Historical Commission spending needs….trails, courthouses, programs….Why?”
In the House draft of the budget, both commissions receive some funding. But the cuts are deep and would cause both agencies to scale back the programs they offer. The Historical Commission, for example, would be cut by $14.8 million in general revenue funds — and about $80 million in all funds. General revenue funding for the Texas Commission on the Arts would be reduced by 50 percent.
For the Historical Commission, that means that popular programs would be cut, leaving primarily regulatory pro grams.
Mark Wolfe, the Historical Commission’s executive director, said communities already participating in the Main Street program, which helps Texas cities revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, would continue to receive funding but that no new cities would be admitted.
Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, worried the cuts would leave courthouses under renovation with “scaffolding for two years.” Wolfe said no new courthouses would be added to the renovation program, and that the commission would use the money it has left on the 30 active courthouse projects.
Wolfe suggested that his agency could be part of the the solution for the state’s economic quandary. Morrison agreed, pointing out that Historical Commission grants are a big economic driver in rural areas. “We create jobs and we generate taxes and those are good things for Texas,” Wolfe said. “I hope we can continue in that capacity.”
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said urban representatives like himself need to help their rural colleagues maintain funding for these programs. “I am joining forces with main street and with rural Texas,” he said, “because in this budget we are all in this sinking ship and together we are going to patch it and move forward.”
The committee wasn’t ready to rule on the Historical Commission — but did approve the recommendations to halve the Commission on the Arts’ funding. Gary Gibbs, the commission’s executive director, thanked House lawmakers for leaving his agency in the budget rather than shutting it altogether.
Gibbs said the cuts would mean cutting his staff by a third. The commission would also be forced to shrink the grants it provides for a variety of events and programs, like the Austin Shakespeare Festival and the Amarillo Opera. But he took House lawmakers’ inclusion of funds for his agency as evidence that they recognize the importance of the arts in Texas. “They contribute to our economy, they enhance the education of our children to prepare them for the 21st century workforce, and they contribute to the quality of life that attracts businesses and a skilled workforce to our state,” he said.