A correction has been added to this story.
THE LONG-DELAYED closeout spending bill that finally passed on December 15 contained a provision funneling 2 percent of the tax revenue from the state’s two resort casinos into a fund that the Massachusetts Cultural Council hopes will support arts institutions as well as low-income people who can’t afford to patronize them.
The measure is another Beacon Hill victory for the Cultural Council, which has taken a pounding from the Boston Herald for spending its resources on fine dining, travel, and accommodations, but nevertheless saw its annual appropriation go up this year and now has authority to spend the casino revenues without further appropriation by the Legislature required. The fund currently has more than $3 million, and the Cultural Council wants to use at least a portion of the money to pilot a prescription arts program.
Anita Walker, the executive director of the Cultural Council, told the Berkshire Eagle that the holdup on the casino money was due to language issues in the legislation. But the Boston Herald also pushed for more accountability, demanding in an editorial that the Cultural Council’s expenditures from the fund be subject to legislative appropriation.
“If the Massachusetts Cultural Council, with all its transparency troubles, is allowed to receive an infusion of casino cash, virtually unchecked, it would only encourage irresponsible spending and embolden leadership to operate away from the light of day,” the Herald opined.
Gov. Charlie Baker apparently took up the Herald’s cause earlier this year, but ultimately backed off and signed the closeout spending bill without requiring specific legislative action to dispense the money.
The 2011 gaming law directed that the casino money be used to level the playing field between nonprofit and municipally owned performing arts centers and casinos, both of which compete for touring shows and artists. The new language creates a Cultural and Performing Arts Mitigation Trust Fund, with a quarter of the money going for “the organizational support program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council” and three-fourths to support the nonprofit and municipally owned performing arts centers. Under the new law, only 7 percent of the total assets of the fund can go for administrative and operations expenses in any one year. (A correction was added to this paragraph to make clear that some restrictions on spending remain. The supplemental budget eliminated those restrictions in one section, but restored them with greater detail in another section that CommonWealth missed. We regret the error.)
Staring in January, Walker says she wants to use at least a portion of the money to create two health-related arts pilot programs. One would allow participants in the Massachusetts Health Connector with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level to receive free or reduced-admission to cultural institutions. The program is patterned after a similar initiative the Cultural Council runs with the Department of Transitional Assistance for EBT cardholders.
The other initiative would allow medical professionals to write prescriptions for cultural experiences at participating arts organizations. “Any time a social prescription is written for a program at one of our cultural organizations, that prescription will be sent to us at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and we will reimburse the organization for the full cost of the work,” Walker told the Berkshire Eagle.
Walker thinks insurance companies will eventually pick up the cost of these art and cultural prescriptions, just as they cover the cost of gym memberships. “Research has already shown that arts and culture participation lowers their cost because it is what public health officials call a protective factor,” Walker said. “It is a protective factor against the issues that lead to depression and anxiety.”
The prescription program will be tested initially in the Berkshires and in Springfield. In the Berkshires, the Macony Pediatric Group of Great Barrington, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, and a group of local schools and cultural organizations will be working together. The key player in Springfield is the Caring Health Center.
A Berkshire Eagle editorial hailed the effort. “Gambling is accompanied by social ills, but those ills will be tempered if gambling revenue can be used for social benefits,” the paper said.