Over the years, the state government has been good to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
George Deukmejian, whose Armenian heritage made him sensitive to the genocide of minorities, took the initial step in 1985 by allocating $5 million for the creation of the Museum of Tolerance when he was governor.
Since then, through Republican and Democratic gubernatorial administrations and successive Legislatures, the state has appropriated another $45 million for the museum's public service programs and capital expenditures.
Critics blame the center's political clout and lobbying for the state's largesse. During the late '80s and early '90s, hardly a week went by that the Los Angeles Times and The Jewish Journal did not receive written complaints from critics, pointing to the close links between the center and the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and denouncing the public grants as a violation of church-state separation.
Center officials and supporters rebut such criticisms, pointing out that most of the state money flows to the respected Tools for Tolerance, nondenominational public service programs, in which law enforcement officers and educators are taught how to function effectively in a diverse and multicultural society.
The controversy surfaced again this year, triggered by California's catastrophic fiscal crunch and the vagaries of the state budget-making process. One of the vagaries is that the funds for the teachers' tolerance program fall under the always-strapped budget of the California Arts Council, rather than the Department of Education.
In Gov. Gray Davis' 2003-04 budget, he initially proposed $5 million for the Arts Council, down from a high of $30.7 million in 2000-01 and $17.5 million in 2002-03. In the proposed $5 million budget, $1.5 million -- or 30 percent -- was earmarked for the Wiesenthal Center programs. However, the $5 million was eventually slashed to $1 million, with no funds allocated to the center.
Upon the initial Davis proposal of $5 million, a cry went up from struggling small-town symphonies, theaters and school arts programs over the budget cut and the center's nearly one-third slice of the shrinking pie.
However, the Arts Council, which bore the brunt of the criticism, had no choice in the matter, said Paul Minicucci, its deputy director. The annual Wiesenthal Center allocation is a budgetary line item fixed by the governor and Legislature beforehand and is treated separately from the Arts Council pot available for actual grants.
In the wake of the slashed Arts Council budget, which now contains no funds for the center, Rabbi Meyer May, executive director and chief fundraiser for the center, took the harsh news from Sacramento personally and warned that the teacher training program's future is in jeopardy.
Minicucci put the main blame for the perilous state of his agency on the unwillingness of the state government -- more so than the people -- to provide public support for the arts.
"We now tax Californians 2.7 cents per capita for all public art support," Minicucci said, noting that in Canada, which has 4 million fewer residents than California, the National Arts Council has a budget of $660 million. He said similar figures for European nations are "simply off the charts."
The Skirball Cultural Center, which has received $6.4 million from the state for orientation of mainly public school students at its museum over the past seven years, has also been affected. However, in light of California's deep financial hole, Uri Herscher, Skirball president and CEO, decided not to apply for state funds. Herscher said he hopes to make up for the loss through private contributions.
Projections for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are not clear, but for the current calendar year, it has received $42.7 million in city, county, state and federal funds.
The money, in turn, is allocated to the social services provided by such Federation agencies as Vista del Mar, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service, Aviva Center, Jewish Big Brothers and Bet Tzedek.
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