Nonprofits Push Back Against Budget Cutters

Posted January 25, 2011 at 6:10pm

Facing the most severe budget-cutting environment since the Reagan years, advocacy groups for nonprofit causes are mustering their forces to prod lawmakers to protect their pet programs.

“We’re starting to circle the wagons,” said Patrick Lally, director of Congressional affairs for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose restoration projects around the country could be imperiled if proposed spending reductions are enacted.

Advocates are compiling lists of key projects in Congressional districts, firing off urgent e-mail alerts to their membership and planning lobbying days at the Capitol.

They have been formulating economic arguments to bolster their case for federal help, whether it be the financial spinoff provided by historic preservation and arts projects or the loss of jobs on transit programs.

Although many GOP candidates campaigned on cutting the budget, many groups got a wake-up call last week when the Republican Study Committee unveiled specific program cuts as part of its plan to reduce federal spending by
$2.5 trillion over 10 years.

The RSC took aim at one of the historic preservation community’s top federal priorities, proposing to ax the Save America’s Treasures program and its $25 million annual budget for restoring structures and artifacts.

Lally said his organization is compiling a list of projects in key Congressional districts that were funded under this program. For example, Save America’s Treasures made a $197,221 grant in 2005 for the restoration of the Holland Theatre in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in the district of RSC Chairman Jim Jordan.

Kris Swisher, who heads the Holland Theatre Board of Directors, said the federal grant paid for a heating and cooling system and leveraged matching grants to complete the theater’s restoration.

She said that without the money, the theater would still be closed and wouldn’t be celebrating its 80th anniversary next month. The restoration, Swisher said, has helped revitalize the town center, which has lost three corporate operations in recent years.

Of the proposal to eliminate the federal historic preservation grant program, Swisher said, “That doesn’t sound like it should be used to compensate for overspending.”

Swisher said she is a Democrat and did not vote for Jordan, but he has attended events at the theater.

In an e-mailed statement, Jordan responded: “Decades of reckless Washington spending have pushed us to a crossroads. Just like any family that accumulates too much debt, Congress must now set priorities and cut back on the spending until our budget is back under control.”

“Some worthwhile projects may go unfunded for a time, but that is the unfortunate price we must pay for Washington’s past irresponsibility,” the Congressman said.

Arts advocates will also be compiling lists for lawmakers of nonprofit arts organizations and for-profit operations such as dance studios and music stores in each Congressional district that they claim benefit directly or indirectly from the federal funding.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, said the group last week e-mailed lawmakers an explanation of the benefits of federal funding for the arts. The $167.5 million in annual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which the RSC wants to eliminate, generates $12.6 billion in tax revenue because of the jobs that it creates, Lynch said.

“We’ve been preparing the facts that we need to clarify misconceptions about the arts industry,” he said.

Resigned to steep cuts in the Republican-controlled House, some groups are focusing more of their attention on the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is expected to balk at many of the reductions.

“The critical decisions will be made in the Senate,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a new umbrella group that advocates for programs for low-income people.

The coalition on Friday held its first strategy session, which was attended by 150 representatives from service providers, faith groups and labor organizations, Weinstein said. Officials were particularly worried about efforts to cut federal aid for child care, job training and health care, she said.

With House Republicans saying they will not approve earmarks for specific projects in their Congressional districts, lobbyists for municipal governments are shifting their efforts to helping their clients obtain grants awarded by executive branch agencies.

“We are all over the competitive grant issue,” said Roger Gwinn, president of the Ferguson Group, which specializes in appropriations lobbying.

The Ferguson Group, whose clients include cities, transit and public water authorities, last year hired a new staffer to focus on competitive grants.

Gwinn and others said the last time the budget situation was this dire was in the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration sought large reductions in programs. Despite the likelihood of spending restraints, Gwinn said he is hopeful that there will be some increase in infrastructure spending, as President Barack Obama has suggested.

But the lobbyist said it was unclear how Congress will deal with spending bills related to transportation and water projects, which are historically studded with earmarked projects.

Transportation groups are already lobbying for more funding as Congress takes up the surface transportation reauthorization bill this year. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association recently took out ads in inside-the-Beltway publications, citing a recent study on traffic congestion, and urged lawmakers to end the gridlock and pass “a robust multi-year/transit investment bill now!”

“Candidly, we see transportation as a core function of government,” said Jeff Solsby, a spokesman for the ARTBA.

The RSC targeted a number of  transit projects for cuts including Amtrak and Washington, D.C.’s Metro system. Paul Dean of the American Public Transit Association said various transportation groups were working together to maintain funding. Dean said he hopes the various interests will not be pitted against each other in a funding competition.

“We will be working hard to protect our level of federal investment,” he said.