Not an either/or choice

To do damage to cultural institutions like Discovering Amistad in the name of supporting needed services is an idea rooted in flailing frustration. It asks the wrong question and makes the wrong choices.

Essential to improving the state's economy is addressing its problem of job loss and failure to create new jobs. Nothing is gained by measures that may put small nonprofit employers out of business and don't add up to anything close to the $224 million budget deficit.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, suggested this week that the state stop funding Discovering Amistad, the nonprofit that operates the replica of the 19th-century slave ship taken over by African captives who then won their freedom in the U.S. Supreme Court. She would put its allotment toward addressing the health care coverage crisis created for more than 100,000 Medicare recipients by a measure in the state budget. She made her suggestion in advance of the General Assembly's planned special session, now scheduled for Monday.

Note that Discovering Amistad, which was born out of the ashes of Amistad America's fiscal mess, has already been struck from the second year of the two-year state budget. Zero next year; so far this year, half of its $210,000 allocation.

Urban's proposal to cut off funding now feels like punishment for an organization that is trying to live down the sins of its slyly run predecessor, which defaulted on bills to local suppliers and left three years of income taxes unpaid. Discovering Amistad has known from Day One that it must increase private and grant funding sources, as all nonprofits must, and needs to wean itself from state support. Its chairman, Len Miller of Essex, has pledged to do so, but said Thursday that loss of the remaining $105,000 could shut the organization down this year.

Some arts and culture nonprofits are thus far coping without any of the funds budgeted for them. Urban told The Day this week that there are programs equal to "50 Amistads" that could likewise be cut. Assuming that fellow legislators would agree to decapitating programs that are popular with their constituents — although her colleagues often do not agree with Urban's proposals — that would approximate $105,000 multiplied by 50 or $5.25 million. Urban had based her calculations on the premise that Discovering Amistad was expecting a total of $263,000, all of it as yet unpaid.

Finding $5 million or more in unpaid state commitments to nonprofits might at first sound like a reasonable start toward making up for the Medicaid-Medicare shortfall of $54 million, except for what we know to be true.

Late last year the national Arts & Economic Prosperity study announced Connecticut and New London County research showing that nonprofit cultural institutions had an impact of $797 million on the state economy, including $168 million here. About 3,000 people worked in the 70 locally surveyed organizations, not counting the casinos; about 23,000 statewide. The cultural sector gets .00025 of the state's budgetary spending, far less than a tenth of a percent.

It makes no sense to throttle back any of the state's economic engines, including arts, culture or tourism, when those sectors are efficiently creating jobs, local spending, incentives to visit and spinoffs of business for the commercial sector. Amistad, for example, winters over at Mystic Seaport. In season it opens up to visitors at the state's ports, including New London, where the captives were first brought to the U.S. Custom House. Admissions, ticket sales, lunch at local restaurants, etc., all follow.

The fact that nonprofit cultural institutions were managed well enough to keep going months after their state checks were due doesn't mean they can pivot in one year to doing without any state funding at all. It takes months from applying for private grants to find out if they will be awarded.

The Day and Rep. Urban have debated the merits of funding Discovering Amstad before. What we want to know is whether Urban and her colleagues are considering the same treatment for another "50 Amistads" or whether they are paying attention to the economic contributions of these nonprofit employers of Connecticut residents and purchasers of Connecticut goods and services.

This is not about either funding the historic ship or supporting the health care of needy senior citizens. That choice makes no sense. Restore the Medicaid-Medicare contribution that worked so well until it, too, looked like low-hanging fruit. But don't mistake the support of nonprofit cultural institutions for unaffordable bountifulness. It's an investment, and it pays off.  

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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