NJ Would Rather Go Broke Than Fund The Arts

Via Artsjournal.com comes news that New Jersey Governor John Corzine wants to cut arts spending below the legal minimums. A few years ago, the NJ State legislature decided to set legal minimums for funding the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Historical Commission, the New Jersey Cultural Trust and Shore Preservation Fund.

State treasurer David Rousseau made it clear how the administration feels about those laws. They just don’t apply anymore.

“We will be setting aside those laws,” said Rousseau. “We didn’t want to be bound by laws that were created that say shore protection has to be this amount.

“Same thing with arts. Why should they be held at a higher standard just because some Legislature in the past put a law in that says it can’t go below this amount of money?”

It isn’t terribly surprising given these tight financial times that state governments would make a move to claim monies set aside for funding arts and culture. I think we pretty much expect it. What does raise eyebrows is that by doing so, New Jersey stands to forfeit greater income. The laws which set the funding minimums have poison pill clauses included to prevent just this very thing. (my emphasis)

The law changed the way New Jersey funds arts and culture by replacing their direct appropriation with a portion of the hotel tax. As revenues grew, so would the funds supporting the cultural agencies and tourism advertising. If the tax revenues dropped, the cultural and tourism programs would get less.

The law mandates the four areas receive at least $28.2 million or the tax disappears at the start of the fiscal year. Corzine’s budget allocates just $24.9 million. Similarly, the realty transfer tax has a provision that eliminates the tax if the beach replenishment fund drops below $25 million.

Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) wondered why the administration would risk losing a tax that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003 in order to save a couple million dollars next year.

The governor and his allies in the legislature are trying to mount challenges to the poison pill provisions. It will be interesting to see if they hold or not. I have personally never heard of such arrangements being used to guarantee funding for arts and cultural purposes. If the laws hold, it might be worth advocating for similar protections in other states. (If they don’t hold on the basis of technicalities, it would be worth advocating for under better written terms.)

My suspicion is the governor figures even if the taxes do automatically disappear, the revenue source will be viewed as too crucial to the operation of the state and the legislature can be prodded into reinstating them without the arts, culture, history and shore preservation encumbrances.

I am interested to learn if any other states or municipalities have similar arrangements to keep funding for non-emergency causes secure from raiding. Comment below.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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