SACRAMENTO — Except for actress Jane Fonda's expulsion in 1979, the tiny California Arts Council creates scarcely a ripple as it quietly plies the backwaters of the state bureaucracy.
But if Senate Democrats have their way, even the ripple may disappear.
In what Democrats described last week as a "very painful" decision, they have proposed to abolish the council, long a pet program of both parties, to save about $20 million and help balance the next state budget.
They say their reluctant agreement to eliminate the agency, created at the insistence of then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975, shows their determination to erase the state's $38-billion budget deficit, even if it means dismantling programs of special importance to Democrats.
"We realize there is no way out of this problem without significant sacrifice," said Sen. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "There are programs that are dear to the hearts of Democrats.... We chose to focus on protecting the highest priorities of the taxpayers, which are education and health care."
The council, whose members have included well-known artists, poets, actors, film producers and musicians -- many of whom also support select Democrats and Republicans at election time -- has overcome at least 30 previous attempts to shut it down, a spokesman said.
The council is charged with advancing the arts in California. Almost its entire budget -- $18 million -- is spent on grants.
The proposed abolition of the Arts Council was contained in the fine print of the Senate Democratic version of the state budget announced last week. It proposed many other cuts as well, including elimination of other little noticed programs.
They included abolishing the state Film Commission, a permitting agency that helps movie companies find shooting locations; the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, which distributes grants to law enforcement departments; and state trade offices in 12 foreign countries.
Another proposed cut would eliminate more than $6 million for cancer research at the state Department of Health Services.
Asked whether the Arts Council had been nominated for abolition as a bargaining pawn that might be restored later, Chesbro said: "We remain open to negotiating what the final budget will be. It is obvious that the only way out of this is a compromise with Republicans."
Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) said Democrats chose to protect programs that generally related to "saving people's lives and limbs," instead of shielding "worthy" projects such as the Arts Council.
"We are facing cuts that deal with people's very lives," he said last week.
Gov. Gray Davis had proposed deep cuts in the council's budget, but would have left it with about $7 million to keep it operating. Likewise, an earlier version of the Senate spending plan would have reduced the council's budget to $13 million next year, but would not have abolished the agency.
Appointment to the prestigious council is usually highly competitive. Former commissioners have included actor Peter Coyote; sculptor Ruth Asawa; artist Noah Purifoy, founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center; and philanthropist Ann Getty.
Fonda was among Brown's early appointees to the council. Her left-of-center political philosophy and her demand that U.S. pilots stop bombing Vietnam angered many Californians, particularly Republicans, who demanded that she be removed. Fonda served for four months in 1979, but when her nomination went to the Senate for approval, she was rejected in a 28-5 vote.
Brown, stung by the rebuke of his nominee, denounced legislators who voted against her as "lacking guts" and fearing for their own political futures. Fonda accused them of smearing her instead of judging her on her qualifications for the post.