Following the Controversial Murals Money Trail

April 6, 2011

The following is a story from WCSH 6.

AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Some conservatives are pushing back on the issue of the labor mural, after learning that the federal grant used to purchase it came from what's known as Reed Act funds.

The U.S. Department of Labor sent a letter to Maine's labor commissioner Monday, saying that the state needs to pay that money back if the mural is permanently removed from state buildings.

Reed Act money comes from unemployment insurance paid by business owners, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it's generally used for infrastructure upgrades, paying unemployment benefits, or upgrading equipment. The letter from the U.S. Department of Labor sent to Maine's labor commissioner does say that it was legal for the state to use the money for the mural. The letter says, "The Reed Act permits a participating state to use its Reed Act funds, under an appropriation by the state legislature, for the administration of its UC [Unemployment Compensation] law and public employment offies. The state properly complied with this requirement..."

But that came as news to David Clough, president of the Maine chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. His members are among those who pay the unemployment insurance that funds Reed Act projects. Clough said, "From the perspective of small business owners that pay into that fund, they would like to see the money used for benefits and administration of the program, and it was a surprise to see the money used for something other than benefits or program administration."

Clough isn't going as far as to call that use questionable, but others are. Conservative talk show host Ray Richardson says he doesn't understand why, in this economy, the state spent $60,000 in state and federal funding on public art at all. "We spent $60,000 at a time when our legislators were telling us, we've cut our budget to bone and muscle. We're talking about laying off teachers," Richardson said.

According to a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor, the commissioning of the mural was part of a much larger project, the move of the Department of Labor to its current location on the outskirts of Augusta. The move was designed to save the state $300,000 a year in infrastructure costs, and the labor department applied for Reed Act money to help cover the cost of the move.

Maine has a Percent for Art Program, under which 1 percent of the money used for state funded construction projects has to go towards public art. The Department of Labor's move didn't fall under the one percent law, but the department decided to move in the spirit of that law, and that's why the mural was commissioned.

While the piece wasn't commissioned until 2007, the legislature approved the Reed Act funds for the Labor Department's move, including the mural, in 2003. The bill does not explicitly say that any money is going towards art, however.

House Democratic Leader, Rep. Emily Cain, was not in the legislature at the time of the vote, but says it's important to realize two things: Maine was not in a recession in 2003, and the Percent for Art Program is there because Maine has a history of supporting local artists.

Rep. Cain said, "We want public buildings to be a reflection of Maine, to be a reflection of Maine's culture, Maine's economy, Maine's future, and that's why you see the Percent for Art program."