One remarkable bit of political news comes from Minnesota, where voters have passed a constitutional amendment (no less) dedicating $275 million a year in sales tax revenue to the arts and outdoors. The measure raises the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.875, and arts will get $54 million a year in statewide funding, about 50 times the Washington state level. Other money goes to clean water, parks, trails, and outdoor recreation.
The measure, passed in the teeth of a recession and despite opposition from the Republican Party and taxpayers' groups, recalls similar programs in Denver, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. In Denver, seven counties pool money from a half-cent sales tax levy each year, putting $60 million a year into funding arts (large and small), zoos, botanical gardens, and other educational institutions. The measures are revoted every decade or so, and usually pass by large margins, reflecting the many beneficiaries of reduced ticket prices and free days.
About five years ago, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper visited Seattle and explained his city's plan to a group of Seattle arts leaders, unhappy with the paltry level of public funding for the arts in this state. Now, after years of strategizing, a similar proposal may surface in the 2009 Legislature, seeking a local vote to boost sales tax for such purposes. As in other cities, arts groups join forces with educational and natural history groups, broadening the base of support. Minnesotans spent ten years putting together their proposal and its broad coalition.
Boosting sales tax for such "frills" may seem suicidal in the teeth of a recession, but the Minnesota vote shows how popular such measures can be. The small tax increase produces tangible benefits, spreading arts to culture-starved suburbs, reducing ticket prices for tight-budget families, augmenting arts education in schools, helping to pick up the slack from hard-pressed foundations and corporations, and providing economic benefits in the form of jobs and attractions for employees. Odd as it seems, such proposals may actually make more sense in economic hard times.