Today on radio: Arguing the arts tax

Would the “Forgotten Man” vote for women’s suffrage?

I rolled my eyes a little when Dave Miller, the host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s  Think Out Loud radio program this morning, announced that Don McIntire, the Gresham businessman who helped wreck public funding for the schools back in the ’90s, was going to argue against a proposed income tax increase that would pay for arts instruction in the Portland Public Schools. Of course, he’d oppose it, though as a Gresham resident, he wouldn’t actually be able to participate when it comes up for a vote in November, presuming City Council agrees to refer it to the ballot at its meeting tomorrow.

McIntire was good for comic relief, sure, moaning about the cranky, old “Forgotten Man,” who’d undoubtedly have to pay the freight if the measure passed, and dismissively calling the  reason for the tax “frivolous.”  His primary argument was really: “Hey, I helped wreck school financing back in the day, and here you are, trying to repair my damage in an inventive way. No fair!”

That The Oregonian supports McIntire’s position is depressing (if not surprising). I expect him to have his own column on the op-ed page any day now, though his salad days are long past. Because he doesn’t see the arts as central to our shared cultural life, of course he would vote against a tax for arts instruction. But then he would vote against ANY tax. I wish news organization would stop trotting him out for any and all tax stories. “No new taxes” may be persuasive in some circles, but for rational, pragmatic people actually trying to figure things out, it’s no help at all.

I had a few more thoughts about the proceedings, which may only be comprehensible to those of you who heard it this morning:

A good reason for singling out the restoration of arts programs in the public schools (as opposed to more math and science, as Miller asked about) is that those are the ones that have been cut during the past 20 years. We teach math. We don’t teach the arts. The case organizers need to make is that the arts are central to our participation in the larger culture, just as they are (or can be) in individual lives. As such, we need to make sure that participation in them begins early and continues through high school.

A caller, echoing McIntyre, suggested the existence of some sort of back-slapping cabal at the Regional Arts & Culture Council which would direct money, “a slush fund,” to each other’s organizations. Neither knows anything about how RACC operates, clearly, and should be embarrassed to offer an opinion or fantasize a description out of that sheer ignorance. A better question might have been, how much of the $12 million the tax would raise (if projections are correct) would to to arts education and how much to RACC for further distribution? And then, what restrictions, if any, are there on how that money could be used? Is it primarily to help them with diversity and accessibility issues? Or does it just go in their general operating fund? I can see arguments for both.

A caller’s question about tax fairness was an excellent, however, and it’s a vulnerability of the proposal. Organizers need to give us some good case studies that illustrate where the “line” of payment is (who ends up paying and who doesn’t) and what the result would be if other money-raising proposals (property tax, say, or a sales tax) were enacted.

I don’t think this is an easy measure to pass, but regardless how it goes, we should be having this argument now. Both Mayor Sam Adams and Jessica Jarratt Miller of the Creative Advocacy Network represented the pro-tax position well, but the idea and the reasoning around it could use deeper conversation. Thanks to OPB for beginning the process.

And if you missed my response to The Oregonian’s wan anti-tax argument? Well, we can fix that, can’t we!


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