Earmark process in ARPA bill undermines racial equity goals

Arts funding steers $88 million to local projects pushed by lawmakers   

THE RECENTLY PASSED $4 billion state spending bill appears generous to the arts and culture sector, particularly groups with ties to communities of color. It includes $135 million to help the arts community recover from the COVID pandemic, with explicit instructions that the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state arts agency, “shall consider racial, geographic and programmatic diversity and equity” when distributing funds.  

But those diversity and equity goals collided with lawmakers’ penchant for using budget negotiations to fund pet projects in their districts. The result: The bulk of arts funding in the huge spending bill is tied up in local earmarks, only a small percentage of which are geared toward organizations led by or primarily serving people of color.  

The earmark process is the ultimate insiders’ game on Beacon Hill, with the most powerful lawmakers often exercising outsize clout and funding awards that tend to favor politically connected organizations – which are rarely those in communities of color.  

“There are really two things that you need in order to secure an earmark or make things happen,” said State Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who has advocated for more legislative transparency. “One is transparency,” she said, meaning an understanding of the budgeting process. “And the other is access. We know that structurally those things are hard for communities that have historically not had seats at the table.” 

In addition to the $135 million arts line item, there is another $13.5 million line item focused on culture and tourism-related capital improvements. According to an analysis produced by MASSCreative, a statewide arts and cultural advocacy organization, those two line items combined contain $88.4 million in local earmarks, leaving $60.1 million for the Massachusetts Cultural Council to distribute through its grant process. Only 6.4 percent of the $88.4 million in earmarks go to organizations or projects serving Black, Latino, Asian, or other communities of color, according to the MASSCreative. 

The Legislature “included prescriptive language” about how the arts funding should “go to those most affected by the pandemic, with equity concerns around race, diversity of art form, geography, and populations served at the forefront of decision making,” said Emily Ruddock, executive director of MASSCreative. “By diverting most of the funds into earmarks, we are concerned that that directive cannot be met.” 

The Massachusetts Cultural Council under the leadership of Michael Bobbitt, a Black playwright who recently wrote the council’s racial equity plan, has been overhauling its grant process with an eye toward making it more friendly to minority artists. Bobbitt said the organization has been implementing internal changes, like ensuring grant review panels have representation by people of color and exploring ways people can submit grants in languages other than English. He has also been trying to teach organizations led by people of color how to build relationships with legislators. “Hopefully we can work with the Legislature in the future to make sure their earmarks are more equitable,” Bobbitt said. 

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the ARPA bill contains 843 earmarks for local projects and organizations, totaling $304.4 million, or 7.6 percent of the bill’s total spending. By contrast, earmarks account for 60 percent of arts funding in the bill, significantly weakening the impact of the language promoting consideration of diversity and equity in awarding money.   

The Legislature has also taken an expansive view of what counts as “arts and culture” since earmarks in the arts line item include things like improvements to transit stations in Norfolk County, building upgrades for the Brockton Council on Aging, and expanding the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy. Among the approximately one-third of earmarks that MASSCreative classified as directly related to arts and culture, just over 2 percent are for organizations or projects focused on communities of color. 

Karthik Subramanian, co-executive director of Company One Theatre in Boston, which does a lot of work in communities of color, said he personally learned about the earmark process through other Company One leaders. But he has not successfully gotten an earmark. “We’re so tapped into maintaining operations that to figure out what the earmark process looks like, then engage in it, is a capacity issue,” Subramanian said.  

Subramanian said many organizations led by people of color are small and don’t have the time or staff to lobby lawmakers for earmarks. Many leaders of color don’t even realize earmarks exist. Earmarks are often reserved for capital projects, and many BIPOC-led or BIPOC-serving organizations do not own their own spaces. 

Getting earmarks requires organizations to understand the political process and have political influence. This means knowing when during the year to start advocating for earmarks, which is often long before the state budget is on anyone’s radar outside the State House. It means having the ear of a legislator — one who has the ability to get an earmark approved by leadership. It also means having a relationship with that legislator, since lawmakers sometimes introduce more earmarks than they know will be approved, while advocating behind the scenes for particular ones. 

From a political and policy perspective, there is a rationale for earmarks. Politically, earmarks let a lawmaker bring home – and get credit for – specific projects in their district. Legislative leaders can also secure a lawmaker’s support for a bill by offering them local earmarks. Policy-wise, lawmakers are closest to their districts, so may have the best sense of which organizations deserve support. 

“No one knows the area that they represent better than the reps,” House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a recent interview. “I think they can best identify some of the areas that need attention.” 

But the same political pressures can also lead to an inequitable distribution of earmarks. 

Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat and candidate for state auditor, who has been critical of the legislative process, gave a speech on the floor when the Senate was debating the ARPA bill complaining that Merrimack Valley communities got just $300,000 to address sewage overflow into the Merrimack River while communities with more influential lawmakers got more.  

“Those communities deserve to be prioritized just as much as the communities of those who are among the most powerful amongst us in this body,” DiZoglio said. While she did not name names, Westport, the hometown of Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues, got $1 million for water and sewer infrastructure. 

In an interview, DiZoglio said she has no problem with earmarking in principle, but she said the way earmarks are distributed is not equitable. “You’re seeing certain communities benefit from being in favor with leadership or whatever other political reason it might be and other communities suffering as a result,” DiZoglio said. 

Rausch added that a lack of diversity among members of the Legislature compounds the problem. “It takes intentionality on the part of the Legislature to reach out to organizations and communities that have historically been underrepresented,” she said. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.