Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking for Multi-partisanship

Happy 2011!  As the Vermont Legislature reconvenes and we all welcome the Shumlin Administration, it's a great time to pause and reflect on how the arts fits into the overall Vermont economic recovery picture and to look at a couple of issues that will be confronting our field in the coming biennium.

The big issue, of course, is the looming $150 million hole in the state budget.  The general tendency when there is a budget deficit is to cut expenses.  This strategy works for corporations and individuals.  But it doesn't work so well for governments because people need government-funded services during a recession more than when there isn't one.  If anything, government should actually increase its spending during a recession because it is the only sector that tends to have access to investment capital that will, if used wisely, will help us "grow our way" out of the recession.

Also, cutting expenses is only half the job of our public servants.  The other half is to raise revenues--especially for those of us who are in a position to do so.  The state of Vermont has many ways to increase its revenues (taxes on income, property, sales and use, room and meals; fees for hunting, driving, fishing, camping and other services; and many other things too tedious to mention here).  But a recent study (from Doug Hoffer courtesy of Melinda Moulton) shows that the revenue impact of the arts sector on the State of Vermont is close to $19.5 million--or about $17 million MORE than the state invests in the arts through various agencies.  This is an ROI of nearly 800%...every year!

Another aspect of economic recovery requires one to think slightly more holistically about what kinds of things generate investments that lead to jobs.  Why do people choose to live and work in one town and not another  Why do people choose to establish a business in Vermont and not in New Hampshire or New York?

According to people like Richard Florida, more than ever, people can live where they want because technology has enabled them to telecommute.  As more and more of Vermont gets broadband (a big shout out to my pals at the Vermont Council on Rural Development), the more Vermont will become attractive to telecommuters.  But broadband is only a piece of the "where to live" decision.  Equally important are the availability of housing stock, the quality of the local shopping, the access to high quality recreational and cultural opportunities and, perhaps most important of all, the quality of the local schools.  These last two, cultural opportunities and quality of schools are directly related to the health of the cultural sector.  The healthier and more vibrant the arts in a community, the better the cultural and educational opportunities will be.  And if those are good, then you've got really compelling reasons for entrepreneurs to move in, establish roots, and start employing people.

The second issue is the impact of a sales tax on tickets sold for nonprofit-produced performances.  Sure, a sales tax isn't going to stop me, personally, from attending a show.  But it might stop someone else.  It is that last, "on the margin" ticket-buyer that is often the difference between a success or a failure in the nonprofit world.  Nonprofits exist to educate, inspire, fulfill, and nurture.  Ticket sales represent usually about 30 to 40 percent of a nonprofit's revenue.  Donations and grants make up the remainder and it is the quality and originality of programming, the community/educational outreach, and the perceived social service value of the nonprofit that triggers these donations and grants.  Taxing tickets may seem like a good idea, but it won't raise anywhere near as much money for the state as people think, and it may just induce a tipping point for some organizations whose own margins are razor-thin.  Is a tax worth it?  I personally don't think so, but I look forward to the debate in the Legislature in the coming weeks.  I hope we will see some multi-partisan agreement coalescing around this issue.

Finally, as we look ahead just a month or two, the sixth Poetry Out Loud competition will be happening in 40 schools around the state.  But what has me excited most of all right now is that one of the schools is the Vermont Community High School and it is doing its own version of Poetry Out Loud for the first time.

What, you're not familiar with this school?  It's Vermont's largest public high school and it exists under the jurisdiction of the Corrections Department.  But more on this unusual pilot in future posts.

For now, I'm looking forward to welcoming the new legislature and the new administration and celebrating our newest Cultural Facilities grantees on January 13th.

For all of you out there, please stay in touch and drive safely...!

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