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Mass. legislators scramble to save public-art funding

State legislators are scrambling to salvage a public-art initiative vetoed this month by Governor Charlie Baker.

The measure, the Massachusetts Percent for Art Program, would dedicate funds for public art from the state's capital budget equal to 0.5 percent of the cost of any sizable new construction or renovation of a state-owned property. Legislators have until Wednesday to override the governor's veto.

"I don't know why this is controversial," said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. "We're an innovative state when it comes to arts and culture, so it's really surprising that we're having trouble moving this across the finish line."

Established by governor Deval Patrick just before he left office, the program has yet to be implemented. It would directly link individual artworks to the capital construction projects that fund them.


"This is really about Massachusetts catching up," said Senator Eric Lesser, Democrat of Longmeadow, who added that similar programs exist in 27 other states and that Massachusetts is the sole New England state without such a program. "These very small investments in public art have been shown in other states to have a multiplier effect in terms of making people feel more comfortable with downtown, creating more pride in location, and stimulating other development."

The Legislature moved to codify the program over the summer, including a provision similar to Patrick's original version as part of the state budget. But Baker rejected the proposal. He returned it to the Legislature with proposed amendments, arguing the program was too costly, should not be limited to Boston and so-called "gateway cities," and was administratively cumbersome.

Last month, the Legislature approved an amended version that incorporated some of Baker's suggestions, shrinking the program's governing commission from 14 members to nine. It also expanded the program across the state and applied it only to projects with budgets that exceed $4 million.


But Baker wanted the program's total annual budget limited to $1 million and individual projects' contributions to be capped at $100,000.

In contrast, the Legislature sought to cap individual projects' contributions at $250,000, with no aggregate annual limit.

"I returned a prior version of this legislation with an amendment that would have ensured a robust program for public art while making certain that the program was both fiscally responsible and administratively feasible," Baker wrote in his veto letter, dated Nov. 5. "Unfortunately, most of my suggested changes were not accepted. The legislation retains an unduly complex and unwieldy administrative structure, which could lead to significant delays in decisions that need to be made for projects to proceed."

Legislators take issue with that characterization.

"We made it less unwieldy," Rosenberg said. "It's basically about the money at this point."

In his letter, Baker said his administration estimated that without an annual cap, the bill would "require increased capital spending of more than $7 million during the five fiscal years between FY16 and FY20."

Proponents of the proposed program note that by the governor's own estimates, the program would cost $1.4 million annually — $400,000 more than the proposed yearly limit of $1 million.

"It's not that far apart, so we're really puzzled with the governor's decision to block a simple and straightforward, not that expensive plan to build community across the Commonwealth," said Matthew Wilson, executive director of MassCreative, an advocacy group.

A spokesman for Baker said the administration is committed to public arts.


Legislators, who need a two-thirds majority, said they were hopeful they could override the veto. Otherwise, the matter will have to wait until next year.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.