3 Candidates See Pensions As Arts Villain

How best to protect endangered arts funding at a time of statewide fiscal crisis?

For three candidates participating in a forum in New Haven, the answer lies in fixing underfunded pensions.

About 300 people crowded into Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School Tuesday evening for the forum, which focused on arts and culture issues. A consortium called Create the Vote CT organized the event, which was unusual for this point of the gubernatorial campaign for attracting candidates from both major parties as well as an independent. (The two major parties hold primaries on Aug. 14.)

The state’s persistent budget deficits have meant cutbacks and in some cases existential worries for nonprofits like New Haven’s many arts groups. The two Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate present at Tuesday’s forum argued that the best thing the next governor could do to protect current funding for the arts is address the major drivers of the state’s current fiscal crisis, which, they said, will only continue to eat into state support for arts and culture programs if left as is.

Over the course of the hour-long forum, the five candidates present —Democrats Ned Lamont and Joe Ganim, Republicans Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, and independent Oz Griebel —  largely agreed about the significant role that arts play in contributing to a well-rounded education, in bolstering the economy through increased tourism and discretionary spending, and in creating a vibrant cultural environment.

Democrats Lamont and Ganim spoke broadly about the importance of maintaining state funding for the arts and about the positive economic and emotional development that comes from a rich cultural scene in Connecticut. Herbst, Stemerman, and Griebel all singled out the state’s current underfunded pension liabilities as a critical barrier to continued public support for the arts.

Herbst and Stemerman also singled out high taxes as a barrier to cultural development in the state, while Griebel argued for the regionalization of municipal services, including education, as a potential solution for preserving support for the arts while cutting down on state costs.

In response to a question about what actions each candidate would take within the first six months of taking office to provide support for the state’s creative community, Herbst said he would send a budget repair bill to the state legislature that will work towards addressing the state’s unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities, which he put at $86 billion.

“The next governor needs to recognize that, if we’re going to make investments in the arts,” Herbst said, “there has to be a recognition that we have to dig out of this hole.”

He called unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities the major drivers of a state deficit that is growing “at rates that people’s incomes cannot sustain and growing at rates that are compromising the types of programs that directly impact people and promote the type of culture in our state that would help grow our economy.”

He said investing in the arts makes economic sense for the state, since every dollar invested results in a seven-dollar return. But, he said, that money won’t be available for the arts if the underfunded pensions continue to spiral out of control.

Stemerman agreed, arguing that arts lovers should shirk their traditional Democratic Party leanings and consider voting for a candidate who shares their respect for the arts but whose focus is on the economy.

“If you want to support the arts,” he said, “if you want to have a rich life for all of us to not only work but to enjoy the lives that we have, for all of us to reach our human potential, we need to fix these economic problems.”

Griebel, a Hartford-area business advocate who is looking to petition onto the general election ballot this November as an unaffiliated candidate for governor, also mentioned the state’s current unfunded pension liabilities as driving a state deficit that will affect current and future funding for the arts.

Griebel was also the only candidate on stage Tuesday night to put forward a specific, or at least more specific, policy proposal that would address the state’s deficit and preserve funding for the arts. He said that, if elected governor, he would prioritize addressing public pension deficits, investing in public transportation, and regionalizing the delivery of municipal services, including education.

“When we’re looking at how much money we put into education,” he said, “between public schools, charters, magnets, and the like, how much of that is duplication? How much of it is counterproductive? How much of it is funding administrative cost as opposed to getting money into the classroom where it’s needed?”

Griebel said he didn’t know the answers to all of those questions right now, but that he believes that one way to preserve funding for arts education programs in Connecticut could be through the regionalization of school services.

“Art Is Everything”

Earlier in the afternoon, Lamont got to experience some of the city’s arts and cultural life firsthand as he embarked on a two-hour Elm City arts tour planned by New Haven Arts Council Executive Director Daniel Fitzmaurice as part of the Create the Vote CT campaign.

Fitzmaurice and fellow Create the Vote collaborator Wendy Bury of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition brought Lamont to the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) in Science Park, to local artist Kwadwo Adae’s new women’s empowerment mural on the Farmington Canal in Newhallville, and to East Street Arts, Marrakech Inc.’s East Rock arts employment site for people with developmental disabilities.

The tour was the Greenwich businessman’s latest attempt to try to connect with the types of urban voters that he claims to represent as the state Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate for governor.

He didn’t mention that as a ninth-grader he played keyboards in a band called Flower Pot or that his favorite artist is Norman Rockwell, as he wrote in a Create the Vote CT survey he submitted earlier this month. But throughout the afternoon, he continually expressed his respect for the arts and his recognition that they play a central role in education, community building, and economic and emotional development.

Lamont’s first stop was ConnCAT, the seven-year-old arts and education center at 4 Science Park that offers job training programs in phlebotomy, medical coding, and culinary arts.

Steve Driffin, ConnCAT’s youth and community programs manager, walked the candidate through the brightly-colored facility’s youth summer camp, which has 78 children and teenagers engaged in everything from designing their own Motown-related posters in Photoshop to practicing music and dance routines to growing zucchini, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables in the gardens that abut the facility’s parking lot.

“This is amazing,” Lamont said as he commended a young boy named Byron’s design of a Jackson Five album cover with a psychedelic whirl of shapes and colors shining down on the silhouette of skyscrapers. “So much more interesting than what other people get to do.”

Watching a class full of teenagers practice a choreographed dance routine to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” Lamont marveled at a young woman’s t-shirt that read “Stay Weird,” with the words flipped upside down.

“That’s what so great about the arts,” he said, “you’re celebrated to be different.”

When asked what how he would like the next governor to think about the importance of the arts, Griffin paraphrased famed physicist Albert Einstein by saying, “Art is everything.” Griffin, who said that ConnCAT doesn’t receive any state funding for any of its programs, asked Lamont to keep in mind the critical role that arts play in providing safe, stimulating, creative outlets for young people during and after school.

Not A “Nice To Have”

One mile up the road, Lamont made his next arts campaign stop at 494 Goodrich St. on the Hamden side of Newhallville, where local artist Kwadwo Adae and a handful of fellow artists were working on Adae’s new 18 x 106-foot Women’s Empowerment Mural at the intersection of Goodrich and the Farmington Canal.

Standing majestic in a lab coat multi-colored with paint splatter, Adae told Lamont that his latest Newhallville mural has benefited from a $12,000 state grant, in addition to receiving money from a hodgepodge of other funders including REI and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

The last stop on Lamont’s local arts tour was East Street Arts, an East Rock arts employment center run by the social service agency Marrakech, Inc. that teaches people with developmental disabilities how to cane chairs, weave scarves, make screen prints, and engage in other studio art. The facility then makes those products available for sale in its East Street shop, and passes along a percentage of each sale’s proceeds back to the artist.

Looking up from the seat of a wicker chair that he was carefully repairing, a young man named Justin asked Lamont if he could do anything to keep the government from taking more and more out of his paycheck each month.

“I can’t overpromise,” Lamont said, “but I can promise we love what you are doing.”

In the studio space adjacent to the chair-caning area, East Street Arts teacher Mary Schiffer showed Lamont silkscreen prints and scarves and paintings and even concrete votive candles made by the artists with developmental disabilities served by Marrakech.

“We’d love for our governor to love the arts,” she said in response to Lamont’s question about what she would like to see from Connecticut’s next governor.

“So far,” she said, “it looks like you’re loving us.”