A Statewide Sales Tax Hike for the Arts — In This Economy? Are They Insane?

One hundred million dollars.

That's how much money the Metro Phoenix Partnership for Arts and Culture hopes to generate from a new tax hike proposal quietly being prepared for voters.

One hundred million freakin' dollars, each year.

Are these people insane?

This state is in near-meltdown. Foreclosures are up. Employment is way, way down. We lost 10 percent of our population base — and the attendant sales tax revenue — seemingly overnight.

So Arizona's decision makers are closing state parks. They're contemplating shutting down the state's entire juvenile detention system. They're slashing funds for education, for the investigation of child abuse and neglect, for healthcare. They sold the State Capitol building. I repeat: They sold the State Capitol building.

And now some group of clueless corporate types wants to raise taxes to pay for more arts and culture?

These guys are so tone deaf, they're practically Marie Antoinette.

The people have no bread? Ha!

Let them subsidize the ballet.


When I first heard about the proposal that the Metro Phoenix Partnership for Arts and Culture, or MPAC, is preparing for the fall ballot, I thought it was a joke. You don't have to cover government for a living to be keenly aware of just how bad the state of this state is.

Bizarrely, though, this plan is for real.

Two years ago, when MPAC wanted to push for a tax increase to fund the arts, then-Governor Janet Napolitano told the group to wait. Now, even though the economy has grown worse than Napolitano ever imagined, MPAC's intent on going for it.

According to the group's own Web site, it's preparing an initiative for the statewide ballot in November. The group will be asking for a sales tax increase of one-tenth of a percent: one penny for every $10 spent.

That would generate $100 million a year — or, at least, it would have generated that much in 2007, the last year of data available when MPAC put together its pitch. (Frankly, with the way everyone is hoarding their pennies these days, I think they'd be lucky to get $80 million. But I'll defer to them on the numbers, if nothing else.)

Have no doubt about it: These guys are serious. MPAC's political arm hired the consulting firm FirstStrategic to pitch the initiative to voters. FirstStrategic is fronted by Wes Gullett, a political heavyweight who served as chief of staff for former Arizona Governor Fife Symington and deputy campaign manager for John McCain's truly maverick presidential run in 2000.

In August, FirstStrategic quietly picked up the domain for www.creativeeconomyaz.com. That Web site doesn't explicitly explain the details of the tax hike proposal — but it definitely lays the groundwork.

"Arts and culture in Arizona is at risk," a badly written section of the site explains. "The economic downturn and a lack of investment over the years threatens [sic] to severely reduce the capability of arts and culture organizations to provide the quality and quantity of programming currently available in our respective communities.

"Studies [sic] after study indicate that this lack of serious investment and a perceived lack of vibrancy in Arizona's creative cluster have obstructed our ability to attract and retain workers in the fields of medicine, technology, design and bioscience, among other high wage sectors."

And that excerpt, while tedious, is the key to understanding one big problem with MPAC's plan.

Yes, Arizona needs to take care of the fundamentals — education, the poor, the mentally ill — before it should even contemplate this kind of initiative. And, yes, pushing this onto the November ballot could well derail Governor Jan Brewer's long-thwarted plan for a tax increase that, unlike this one, would help to do just that.

But MPAC isn't just clueless economically. It's also clueless artistically.

That statement from the campaign's Web site says it all, really.

As MPAC freely admits, this plan is not being pushed by people who care about art for its own sake: the gallery owners who made First Fridays cool before anyone even thought to give Roosevelt Row a name, the artists who labor in studios on Grand Avenue or do experimental theater in Tempe.

This is being pushed by the sort of tools who think the arts are important because they serve as a catalyst for corporate recruitment.

These are the people who drank Richard Florida's Kool-Aid — the nonsense that says cities can become economic superstars if they emulate Portland, Oregon, and attract young hipsters. (Never mind Portland's record-high unemployment rate.)

Indeed, when I talked to Gullett about the MPAC plan on Monday, he didn't shrink from the practical aspects. He talked less about the importance of art to the community — and more about the importance of art-related jobs. "We're more dependent on construction than Michigan is dependent on cars," he tells me. "Every economic development person wants to diversify the economy. At some point, we need to bite the bullet and make a commitment to the new economy." In this economy, he says, the hot jobs aren't in real estate or development, but rather "innovation and creativity."

But is MPAC really the right group to make that happen?

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10 comments
SunDevilRick
SunDevilRick

Nancy,I don't support this tax at all but I give Thousands of dollars every year to the arts, I volunteer with arts organizations and I buy art that I like. My not supporting this poorly thought out, poorly planned and poorly timed tax does not "deprive others of the nourishment that arts and culture brings." In reality the people that choose not to go and support the arts deprive themselves. I think it matters more to personal development and appreciation when people go and become a patron of the arts in their own way and on their own time. When someone is forced to do something that is good for them they tend to resent it.

In the end the primary reason why I don't support this is that it is about as poorly timed as President Obama's spending freeze. You don't take $ out of people's pockets in a recession. From either end.

Nancy
Nancy

A small tax to support arts and cultural organizations (from musuems to zoos to theatres) will help sustain the very capable and talented artists employed at these institutions. A small tax to support arts and cultural organizations across the state will provide amenities that make it more affordable to attend cultural events. A small tax to support arts and cultural in Arizona is innovative, significant, and will inspire our children to stay, visitors to come, and businesses to innovate. This small tax initiaitve is big-hearted, largely-envisioned, and completely enterprising. It is those against paying even a small share towards sustaining this State's treasures that not only are deprived, but deprive others of the nourishment that arts and culture brings.

Roro
Roro

Sounds like bourgeoisie business as usual.

Marcy
Marcy

"if Governor Brewer asks me to help out, I will. If she wants one extra penny for every dollar I spend, I'll give it to her."

So what's stopping you? Write her a check today.

SundevilRick
SundevilRick

A "more vibrant 'scene'" won't come from Tax dollars. It will come from landlords keeping rent low and not selling out to huge high rise condos. It will come from people buying the art that is on sale at things like first friday. It will come from people going to all the beloved spots like the Phoenix Zoo. We can dump all the tax dollars in the world into Arts organizations but in the end if people are not showing up and buying/ supporting what is already here it is never going to make this a "vibrant scene." Donations to the arts, and charities in general, are way down as a whole. How do you think a tax will help that? People will think "Hey I already give via my taxes so I don't have to give again." When you introduce a new tax this is how people think at first, and for a few years until they forget that they are paying the tax.

Stop asking for a task and go find a piece of art you like and buy it. I don't care if it is a "Cowboy" piece from Scottsdale or some Avant Guarde modernist piece you buy at first friday. That is where a vibrant scene comes from!

And if you can't spend money to buy art, volunteer your time and expertise to an arts group, museum or the zoo. Until enough people step up and do something in their own community for the arts it is not going to matter if a tax is in place. People make a vibrant arts community, not taxes.

Kevin
Kevin

Not only would this minimal sales tax help improve arts organizations across the entire state, it would also go towards other institutions that are dearly beloved and attended by many citizens and visitors, including the Phoenix Zoo, Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, the Desert Botanical Garden, the Sonoran Desert Museum and the Arizona Science Center.

And, to me, it's really not about helping struggling arts organizations... It's more about making Arizona a more vibrant place to live.

Look at Denver. What used to be a "cowtown" is now a highly competitive place for new business and for new residents. Denver passed a tax such as this years ago.

Don't be short-sighted here. This would ONLY be good for Arizona. If indeed this 10% population erosion is true (which I seriously doubt), having a more vibrant "scene" in Arizona would help this tremendously.

Gretchen
Gretchen

Arizona has lost 10% of its population base?? What?? That's not true. Did anyone fact check this article?

SundevilRick
SundevilRick

What do you call involvement by other organizations? MPAC has presented to other organizations but they seemed to pop out of the woodwork here in the Phoenix area. They have No plan as to how this money would be dolled out to organizations, how it would be safe guarded in budget cuts, and they didn't have any polling from within 6 months on if it would pass. This is a TAX in a bad economy. That is a bad idea right now. I love the idea for more funding for the arts but pigs will fly before Arizona voters will pass this TAX during this economy. Also they just theorize that arts and culture will bring more businesses and "highly skilled workers" to the state. They were not able to prove this beyond pointing to Austin and Seattle. Both of these cities had large arts and culture populations for years before they saw they pay off. How long does MPAC theorize AZ will have to wait? Also who else would this initiative serve but existing organizations? Of course it will help them but at what cost right now? And who decides which organization gets what? There is no structure to speak of, and in this economy you need more than lofty ideals to pass a TAX! And, by the way, right now Arizona can't afford to keep its parks open, so there is now way that Arizonans can afford to pass this.

Jessica Andrews
Jessica Andrews

It doesn't seem to me that the writer of this article did much research. If she had, she would have found that not just MPAC has been involved in this effort. Many people (both inside and outside of the arts and cultural community) have been involved for a number of years in careful and responsible preparation for this initiative. Thanks to the leadership of the business and foundation community, it was possible to learn a great deal about the impact arts and culture have in Arizona and that citizens view arts and culture to be important in their lives and in the lives of their children. Arts and culture creates an environment that will attract highly skilled workers to our state as well as having a huge impact on the state's economy through the employment of hundreds of arts and cultural workers who pay taxes and the many purchases that are made locally by arts and cultural organizations. Isn't this a good thing? It has been proven that children who are involved in the arts do better in school and, with the severe cuts that our schools are facing, arts organizations are providing creative activities that many schools can no longer provide themselves. We want to be proud of our state. We rank so low nationally in so many areas that it would be nice to be near the top of the list when this initiative passes. The initiative isn't about subsidizing existing progtrams. It will truly be transformative for organizations across the state and will serve many more Arizonans with free and low cost access to arts and cultural activities not possible now. This is an amazing opportunity that Arizona cannot afford to pass up.

 
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