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Budget Amendment Pits Arts Against Firefighters

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, has reprised an effort from last session to remove funds from the Texas Commission on the Arts and dedicate them to assisting volunteer firefighters.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, talks to a colleague on the House floor on May 16, 2011.

As the Texas House debates the budget on Thursday, lawmakers will eventually be asked to choose between the arts and firefighters.

Reprising an effort from last session, state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed an amendment that would take about $6.5 million out of the biennial budget for the Texas Commission on the Arts and use the money to provide assistance to volunteer fire departments.

"It's obviously a difficult choice," Amy Barbee, executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust, an independent nonprofit organization that supports the arts. "We think it shouldn't be a choice, because both should be funded."

On Wednesday, Barbee sent a letter to House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, emphasizing her view that "this is not an either/or situation" and extolling the economic benefits of state-supported arts activities.

"In the last decade," she wrote, "arts and culture industries added more than 12 percent growth to Texas' economy, including millions of dollars generated locally through sales tax."

Barbee noted that the the arts commission received a glowing sunset review in advance of the session and that its existence allows the state to draw down significant federal dollars for the arts.

But Simpson said he isn't trying to make a point specifically about the arts.

"This is really about dedicated funds," he said. "What we've been doing for over 20 years is using dedicated funds for purposes for which they were not dedicated."

Legislative leaders, including the governor and speaker of the House, have been vocal about their desire to crack down on monies that are not being used for their stated purpose. Simpson said he supports that effort and believes lawmakers can do more.

Using the budget to make such a point is not a novel tactic. This session, a group of freshman Republicans in the House have gained attention with a coordinated effort that would eliminate funding for some state programs they believe are non-essential and move the money into the Teacher Retirement System’s retiree group health insurance plan.

Observing that resources for volunteer firefighters were significantly depleted during a slew of destructive wildfires in 2011, Simpson said that the budget's current appropriation for the Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Account is significantly less than the amount that is supposed to be dedicated for that purpose.

Typically, legislators pass a bill removing such dedications, allowing them more discretion when it comes to appropriations.

"We're more about appearance than substance," Simpson said. "We say one thing and do another. This is a step to put our actions where our words are."

Simpson has filed similar amendments freeing up money for volunteer firefighters by reducing appropriations to the Texas Lottery and the governor's office of Economic Development and Tourism.

"I tried to pick things that were increasing their budget and weren't as high priority," Simpson explained, noting that the arts commission fits that criteria.

Barbee said arts supporters were prepared to make their case against Simpson's amendment this session after being taken by surprise in 2011, when Simpson made a similar effort. "The arts are very much a function of government," she said. "They are not just a give-away. They really have a return to the state."

Simpson insisted he did not necessarily want to eliminate the agencies he's attempting to take money from for volunteer firefighters.

"These are things I think may have a place," he said, "but certainly are not as high priority as saving people's lives and property."

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