The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City is like an art museum unto itself, with its famous murals by Thomas Hart Benton and dramatic bronze statues everywhere. But when it comes to public funding for the arts, that’s at the bottom of lawmakers’ priority list.
On Wednesday, more than a hundred arts advocates from all over the state went to Jefferson City to try to change that. Here's a run-down of how it went.
About 30 people, organized by ArtsKC, rode a bus from Kansas City to Jefferson City, where they met up with contingents from St. Louis, Springfield and elsewhere.
Setting the agenda for the day was Missouri Citizens for the Arts, which had flown in Jay Dick, the head lobbyist for Americans for the Arts, who gave the crowd a primer on how to talk to politicians about the economic benefits of funding the arts. Spread out on tables in the back of the room was the day's ammo: a manila folder for each state legislator, with a list of how much money the Missouri Arts Council was investing in his or her district.
The Big Issue
The day's main objective involved a bold request: That lawmakers follow state statute.
That statute involves the Athletes & Entertainers Tax, an income tax on professional athletes and entertainers who travel to Missouri to play or perform (it's a popular tax because Missourians don't have to pay it). Each year, it brings in about $35 million. By state statute, 60 percent of that money — about $21 million each year — is supposed to go to the Missouri Arts Council, which funds arts organizations and programs throughout the state.
"That's not happening," said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC.
It turns out that lawmakers can actually spend this money on whatever they want. And over years of tight state budgets, they've allocated most of it to non-arts expenses. So instead of $21 million, this year the Missouri Arts Council got just $4.8 million to support more than 500 arts programs around the state.
The arts supporters had several other requests of legislators, but this was the big one: Appropriate the full 60 percent of the Athletes & Entertainers Tax to the Missouri Arts Council's Cultural Trust (and if not the full 60 percent, for $21 million, then at least a little more than the current $4.8 million).
While their fellow arts advocates spent the afternoon stopping by offices of representatives and senators throughout the capitol's echoing marble halls, Brownlee and his ArtsKC colleagues called on two senators from the Kansas City region: Paul LaVota, a Democrat from Independence, and Ryan Silvey, a Republican from Clay County.
Both visits were cordial. Both had a personal connection to the arts: LaVota's daughter is a singer; Silvey has a couple of sweet guitars in his office and sometimes jams late at night with Sen. Jason Holsman. Both senators expressed theoretical support for the cause. Both said current budget constraints made changes to the Athletes & Entertainers Tax allocation unlikely. Both cited education and roads as higher priorities.
LaVota: "We’re not fully funding our education. We’re not able to fund things for law enforcement. Roads are going to be in jeopardy. It all goes back to really bad tax policy that’s going on here. Last year there was a massive tax cut for the very top percent. So, when the boring topic of tax policy comes up, tax policy equals, does a kid have an opportunity to learn about the arts."
Silvey: "It’s difficult because of just overall budget constraints, and there are a number of other priorities that we are trying to get to the funding level on. I think those overshadow it, frankly. I think almost legislator would probably want to fund schools before the fund the arts formula of the statute."
Brownlee said he understood the dilemma lawmakers face: It's a "systemic" problem of not enough revenue to fund everything at the levels everything deserves.
“For a long time we've been willing to take the cuts in that statute, and we should not be willing to accept that," said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC.
When it comes to policymakers listening to their concerns, arts advocates say, they deserve the same respect big business gets.
“When businesses bring in a significant amount of revenue or tax revenue to the state, the legislators and elected officials listen to their needs," said Kathleen Daily, ArtsKC's advocacy coordinator. "The arts bring in $43 million in tax revenue to the state. Legislators should be considering not only the economic benefits that come with that but also the long-term benefits that come with creating a better community.”