Thursday, April 26, 2018

Joe Henderson: Misguided lawmakers starving the arts in Florida

Tallahassee lawmakers just sent powerful message to the state about what they believe is important – and what isn’t.

Guess what?

The arts aren’t important.

Oh, they will say otherwise, but their actions prove that is so much hokum and it sends an awful message.

As Andrew Meacham reported in the Tampa Bay Times, state spending for the arts throughout Florida in the coming year will be a paltry $2.6 million split among 489 cultural organizations.

Get your tin cups ready, folks.

Consider that even as the state’s economy has grown and expanded, spending for the arts has dropped from $43 million in 2014, to $25 million last year, to what we see now.

RELATED COVERAGE Theaters and museums scramble in wake of funding cuts

That ranks 48th in the country.

For the nation’s third-largest state, that’s embarrassing.

Either your state representatives couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t try find room in an $88.7 billion budget to at least keep funding at last year’s bare-bones level.

It still would have been chicken feed, but it would have been better than this.

What’s the big deal, you may ask?

The argument goes that people come to Florida for the weather. The beach. Low taxes. They don’t come here to see a snappy performance of Macbeth. Why should they care if a theatre group can’t stage a play like Of Mice and Men because it doesn’t have the money?

Because it makes this a better place to live, that’s why.

That always seems to be overlooked come budget time, when the only thing that seems to matter is whether politicians can brag that they voted for tax cuts.

There is no doubt there were many extra hands outstretched this year looking for state cash. The aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the Parkland slaughter, and beefed-up school security certainly had to be high priority items.

PREVIOUS STORY: As Florida dramatically slashes arts funding, theaters and museums scramble

But that’s just an excuse for taking the chopping axe to the arts. With even minimum effort, I believe funding at least could have stayed level and not forced cultural organizations around the state into full-scale panic.

In the Times story, leaders of cultural organizations throughout the area used phrases like "a kick in the groin" and "utterly decimating" to describe the landscape when the full impact of the cuts came down.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, though.

Republicans, the party that controls Tallahassee, would rather be seen as budget hawks and protectors of the public purse at all costs instead of supporters of the arts.

That’s a major insult to the people they represent, and it doesn’t really make a dent on the budget at all. Keeping funding at last year’s level would have impacted the budget by a whopping 0.028 percent.

For that savings we get, well, what?

Cuts like what we saw this year tend to hurt smaller, rural areas the most.

Maintaining a professional orchestra, keeping museums open and relevant, and making sure every person has access to enriching content costs money — often more money than organizations in smaller cities and counties can raise.

Politicians and bean counters don’t see that, though.

They see numbers on a spread sheet. They don’t see the concert that gets canceled that would have introduced kids to orchestral music.

They don’t see the museums struggling to stay open when they could be preserving vital parts of Florida’s heritage.

Yes, of course, these places will have to ask supporters for more help in the coming year. They’ll have to raise prices. They’ll also have to be more aggressive about pursuing funding grants.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s also not the answer.

In the short term, there are only so many patrons out there capable of writing the kind of checks many of these organizations will need to get through the coming year.

This budget is a mistake.

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