Mass Cultural Council weathers Boston Herald storm

Lawmakers boost agency’s funding with minimal restrictions

STATE BUDGET-WRITERS put a gloss of stringency on their handling of the Massachusetts Cultural Council budget, but ultimately imposed few real restrictions on how the council conducts itself aside from new reporting requirements that accompany a hefty raise.

The biggest change would be a $2 million increase in the state’s appropriation for the quasi-independent arts agency, along with new directives from lawmakers for the council to tighten up its spending policies.

Heading into the months-long budget process, the cultural council absorbed blow after blow from The Boston Herald. Armed with ledgers showing staff travel to out-of-state conferences, the tabloid accused the council of profligate spending.

After those stories and editorials, the House in its budget approved $16.7 million for the council along with restrictive legislation on spending that the council’s executive director, Anita Walker, said would prevent the council from funding even in-state travel. The Senate took a softer approach on spending restrictions, and upped the agency’s budget to $18 million. The final budget filed last weekend added $100,000 to the Senate appropriation level and hewed more closely to the Senate’s proposal on spending restrictions.

Under the final budget, the council would need to devote 75 percent of its funding toward grants and subsidies, which is around what the council already spends on that under its existing appropriation, according to a legislative aide.

In the $43.1 billion budget bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, there are no significant restrictions that would require the council to change how it operates beyond new reporting procedures, according to Carmen Plazas, a spokesperson for the council.

“Once again our cultural community made a strong and unified case for the public value of the arts, humanities, and sciences,” said Walker in a press release celebrating the 12 percent increase in the council’s state appropriation. “We are grateful to the Legislature for recognizing the power of culture to build prosperity and elevate the quality of life in the communities they represent.”

The budget bill directs the council’s governing board to consult with the Ethics Commission and the state comptroller to adopt spending guidelines around the use of vehicles, travel costs, and meal purchases, and requires the board to pre-approve out-of-state travel. It also requires the council to share its fiscal 2020 spending plan with lawmakers and the state treasurer.

Reports in the Herald about Walker’s take-home state car – a Toyota Prius – lunches from Davio’s To Go – a moderately priced takeout place associated with a fancy restaurant – and flights to conferences around the country sparked concern among lawmakers that not enough of the council’s state appropriation was finding its way to programs in their districts.

Along with the new reporting requirements, lawmakers packed a few earmarks into the Cultural Council’s line item, directing $25,000 to go toward a mural restoration in Springfield and $10,000 for the Spanish American Center in Leominster.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

One other change to the agency is the pending departure of Greg Liakos, who has long had the task of communicating the agency’s priorities and endeavors with the broader world. In late June, Liakos announced that after 15 years with the council he will resign his post as external relations director.