Bill seeks to cap Louisiana's state building art program some see as example of excess _lowres

Photo provided by UMC -- Artwork at the University Medical Center in New Orleans paid for under the state's Percent for Art program.

To effectively manage state government, the governor and lawmakers need flexibility to set budget priorities from year to year.

But a program that requires a mandatory level of government spending on public art is but one example of the way the state budget tends to operate on autopilot. Lawmakers are right to consider changes.

The program in question is Percent for Art, which mandates that 1 percent of the total amount spent on large state construction projects or renovations be spent on art inside or on the grounds of the project.

Having art in or around public buildings is a nice way to bring culture to visitors who might not ever make it into an art museum. The wonderful Depression-era murals in the State Capitol, done long before the Percent for Art program came into existence, are a reminder of the special place art can occupy in the public square. The Percent for Art program has also helped support Louisiana artists, although some of the money has been used to hire out-of-state artists, too.

But a statutory requirement to spend a certain amount of money on statues and paintings seems especially off-key this year, as the state faces millions in red ink.

Cutting back on spending for public art isn’t going to save the state much money, but a larger principle is at stake. Budget decisions should be balanced against many other needs, but that’s not possible when funding is triggered automatically.

State Rep. Rob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, is sponsoring House Bill 216, which would cap state spending on public art at a more modest level. It seems like a step in the right direction. If we want the governor and lawmakers to advance responsible budgeting, they need the power to do so.