Louisiana Lawmakers Scapegoat Public Art Spending Amid Financial Crisis

UPDATE: It passed the House, with the cap raised. Read the follow up here.

This afternoon, the Louisiana House of Representatives will debate a bill that would put a cap on public art spending, which proponents are heralding as a no-nonsense measure to keep spending smart during a time of financial crisis.

The bill would put a limit on Louisiana’s percent for art law, which currently mandates that any State building construction/renovation project over $2 million comes accompanied by public art, at a cost of 1 percent of the project’s budget. The new legislation would cap the public art payout at $100,000 or 1 percent, whichever is less. (In other words, public art spending remains 1 percent of project costs up to $10 million, at which point it caps out.)

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Bob Hensgens, described the bill in the News Star as addressing spending that is “symbolic and frustrating to the taxpayers.”

“We need to show the public that we’re doing everything we can to justify what we spend, especially when critical services are being threatened with budget cuts,” he said.

During a discussion of the bill at a House Appropriations Committee meeting, Representative Beryl Amedee said, “tax dollars should not go to really high-dollar art when you’re talking about the difficulties we are facing.”

And on Facebook, State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy argued that bill doesn’t go far enough:

“The bill still doesn’t require that the artists be Louisianians, and the program still costs too much- especially when education and healthcare funding is being slashed.”

Louisiana absolutely faces difficulties. The State has a deficit of $960.5 million this fiscal year – and a projected deficit greater than $2 billion in Fiscal Year 2017 – according to the State Legislative Fiscal Officer. And it’s true that critical services in Louisiana are suffering, with cuts aimed at pediatric day care programming, Medicaid and public college scholarships, to name a few.

But those cuts have nothing to do with percent for art spending.

Despite the binary set up by Hensgens, Amedee, and Kennedy, cutting down on percent for art would not mean more money available for education and healthcare. Percent for art projects are paid for with capital dollars, which cannot be put towards State operations. Here’s what a former State Senator who worked on the original percent for art bill said at the Appropriations Committee meeting (although voicing his support for a cap):

“It doesn’t result in freeing up money directly that goes to the general [operations] fund because the money would be part of the capital outlay bill and the budget that’s allocated for the project itself. So that money is going to stay in that allocation for capital outlay project.”

Meanwhile, according to financial information cited at that meeting, percent for art has expended $14 million since 2003, or about $1 million per year.

That means that lawmakers are considering “crippling” a program, in the words of Cultural Development Assistant Secretary Phil Boggan, that would amount to roughly .08 percent of capital expenditures and .004 percent of total expenditures next year, and then solemnly patting themselves on the back for being so economically responsible. (Per preliminary FY 17 Executive Budget.)

By the way, that $14 million over the past 13 years compares to hundreds of millions that have evaporated from Louisiana’s coffers due to wide tax cuts and hugely generous corporate tax breaks that ultimately put the State in a position of paying out  $200 million more to corporations than it was taking in from them.

I was led to this issue by Lamar White of CenLamar in a thorough takedown of the aforementioned treasurer, entitled “Treasurer John Kennedy Lies About Jay Dardenne, Mocks Public Art, & Doesn’t Know The Law.” In that post, White examines how Kennedy uses bullshit reasoning to deflect outrage over the financial crisis onto public art (and the former Lieutenant Governor whom he falsely accuses of inappropriately purchasing two sculptures including a Dale Chihuly). Go read the whole, excellent piece here.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 7.37.35 PM

Underlying the rhetoric that White takes apart, as well as the Representatives’ quotes that I cited above, is the unspoken assumption that public art is nice but not necessary, irrelevant to the life of Joe Everybody, and ultimately not worth what it costs. (At the Appropriations hearing, Amedee suggested that big name artists like Chihuly could just donate their work if they want it displayed in Louisiana.)

These are beliefs that many already hold, despite the fact that public art can promote tourism, build leasing interest for residential developments, and revitalize entire neighborhoods. So I can see how it might be easier for lawmakers to sell public art funding reductions to their constituents, or even to themselves, rather than face the brutal fact that the State has betrayed its residents and severely weakened the services it owes them, to the benefit of profitable corporations.

But it is misleading for constituents, and it will create a new, unnecessary casualty of a financial crisis that is already claiming so many important Louisiana services. In my view, that is the real waste.