Senate panel backs S. Jersey on arts funding In a resolution, it said the region's groups had not received their prescribed amount of allocations.

Posted: June 15, 2001

TRENTON — A state Senate committee decided yesterday that the New Jersey State Council on the Arts has not provided a quarter of its funding to South Jersey arts groups as the legislature intended.

The nonbinding resolution, which the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee passed with a 4-0 vote, urged the council to reevaluate all grant applications submitted for fiscal 2002, which starts July 1.

"We want the budget and the arts council to be reflective of a 25 percent funding support for the eight southern New Jersey counties regarding the arts," said Sen. John Matheussen (R., Gloucester), the committee chairman. "A number of arts groups in South Jersey - from groups doing children's theater to groups teaching in symphonies - have expressed their desire to have their 25 percent funding."

A budget provision from 1998 on the council's annual funding states that "25 percent shall be awarded to cultural projects within the eight southernmost counties" - Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean and Salem.

That language has been interpreted to include money given to North Jersey groups for performances in South Jersey.

In addition to the committee's action, Secretary of State DeForest "Buster" Soaries Jr. is expected to release to acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco a report with recommendations for the council's funding mechanism.

News reports have documented how the council gave North Jersey arts groups nearly $2.1 million that was intended for South Jersey groups during the last four years.

Recipients of those payments included the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Newark Museum of Art, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, all in Newark. Some of the $2.1 million went toward salaries, transportation and residencies for northern groups.

Soaries said he had initiated a 45-day internal review to determine whether the council was following the legislative intent of the budget provision. The council is within the Department of State, but its 17 members are appointed by the governor to distribute state and federal aid to nonprofit arts groups.

"We look forward to seeing the secretary of state's report," said Nina Stack, communications director for the council. "Its recommendations, along with the suggestions of the legislature and the input we have received from the arts community through our own planning and outreach efforts, provide us with an opportunity to inform and advance the council's programs, services and funding policies."

Matheussen said the resolution was intended to clarify the set-aside provision. He said it could become moot if language in the new state budget again implements the 25 percent set-aside for South Jersey and specifies that the money must go to arts organizations based in that region.

The legislature must approve a balanced state budget by the end of the month.

Assembly Speaker Jack Collins (R., Salem), who implemented the 25 percent South Jersey allocation in 1998, and Assemblyman Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon), chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, favor tightening the provision.

"The resolution demonstrates our resolution to protect vital South Jersey interests," said Assemblyman George Geist (R., Camden), who sponsored the Assembly version of the resolution. "We sent a message that was crystal clear to preserve the legislative intent."

Suzette Parmley's e-mail address is sparmley@phillynews.com.

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