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 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?

In its five years of life, the group has had more hits than misses. I think that's due to a certain distance from the people who are making art locally. Just look at the board of MPAC: There's not a single artist on the list.

Instead, there's a representative from APS, from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona, from the Salt River Project. There are accountants (three), developers (two), and even the CEO of a corporate recruiting firm.

It's not surprising, in light of that, that in its five years of life, MPAC has done little to encourage actual art. Indeed, even though the non-profit says it exists to promote the "creative community," it's invested most of its capital in weird projects.

Yes, it's given $10,000 to the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation. But it spent 15 times that — $155,340 — to hire a Swiss firm to help "brand" the Phoenix area, according to its most recent tax return. (The Swiss apparently feel that Phoenix is an "opportunity oasis." Okay — now what?)

As part of its branding project, MPAC commissioned a whole bunch of studies. We now have studies to tell us that people don't think Phoenix is as cool as Austin or Seattle. We have studies to say we spend less on the arts than similar big cities.

Last year, MPAC spent $566,842 on its "Reaching New Audiences" program — culminating in studies concluding that the Latino community is an "untapped" audience for fine arts.

How much better to have spent that money on grants for emerging Latino artists?

I suppose these expenses aren't, technically, any of my business. MPAC is privately funded, likely by the same giant corporations that provide its board members. If APS or even SRP wants to spend its charitable contributions on projects this silly, well, that's up to them.

But it's an entirely different issue when we taxpayers are about to be wooed as potential donors.

It's fair to note that this tax would hardly affect the average citizen: One penny for every $10 is not a lot, especially since food purchases are exempt.

But a sales tax increase is the most regressive kind of tax increase imaginable, as any economist can tell you. It hits poor workers much harder than wealthy ones, simply because the poor have no choice but to spend a larger portion of income on purchases.

Speaking on behalf of my fellow working stiffs here, I can tell you that we're not entirely without compassion. A majority of Arizonans, I suspect, would vote for Governor Brewer's tax increase if only she could ever get the Legislature to refer it to the ballot. Most of us hate to see the cuts coming out of the (now-mortgaged) Capitol building. We care about the poor.

So as much as I personally feel pinched by stagnating wages and escalating expenses, 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.

But even though MPAC plans to ask for one-tenth of that — just one-tenth of a penny for every dollar — they can count me out.

I've got bills to pay. I'm worried about the people in Haiti and the kids in South Phoenix. And I've got no interest in subsidizing the corporate recruitment strategies for a bunch of developers and accountants.

Let them eat their cake. When it comes to this ill-conceived tax plan, I'll hang on to my crumbs.

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