Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guess Who Came to Breakfast?

A week or so ago, nearly 200 artists, arts educators, administrators, and other interested parties gathered in the Vermont State House for the 2013 Arts Summit.  The theme for the Summit was Connect, Animate, Lead; an exhortation for those in attendance to network with each other, to explore new ideas and new opportunities, and come away with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that will carry them even further forward.

Before the day even got going with a plenary keynote address from noted artist and educator Eric Booth, a group of nearly 60 early risers made it into the largest State House committee room to hear a moderated discussion on... (wait for it!)... tax reform.

Wait…don’t click the back button.  This “breakfast conversation” was among the most important conversations our field has participated in in years.  Capably moderated by WCAX Senior Political Reporter Kristin Carlson, the four-person panel consisted of Flynn Center Executive Director John Killacky, Common Ground VT Executive Director Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Senate Finance Chair Tim Ashe (Burlington), and House Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel (Calais). 

I can’t improve upon the great summary of the session that was penned by Lauren-Glenn Davitian.  I can, I hope, impress upon those of you that have read this far why you must be part of this conversation!!!

It appears as if, in Vermont, the arts are the only part of the nonprofit sector that has so far awakened to the significant possibility that the mechanisms that have been in place for more than a century to fund social service agencies, medical institutions, educational institutions, and cultural institutions are at risk.  In a post leading up to the Summit, John Killacky set the stage for what would happen to the vital network of nonprofits whose activities in Vermont generate nearly 20% of Vermont’s gross domestic product.  Citing Hawaii, which limited the charitable deduction in 2011, Killacky pointed out that its governor recently signed legislation undoing the 2011 law since the resulting $12 million in revenues generated had “cost” the state some $60 million in services from the nonprofit sector.

No one in the room during the Summit faulted members of the legislature for looking at reforms to the Vermont tax code.  It is clear there are inequities, loopholes, incentives, and other challenges that have evolved over the years that are collectively draining the State Treasury. 

But what needs to happen now is people representing social services, health care, higher education AND culture need to organize together to make sure that any steps the Legislature proposes during the next few years minimalize, if not eliminate, damage to the fragile network of public-benefit agencies like hospitals, rehab facilities, senior centers, and cultural institutions on which Vermonters depend.  Tax reform must lead to efficiencies and equity.  It must not result in a wholesale diminution of services that address problems.

The Arts Council will continue to follow and report on this issue as the year progresses.