Saturday, June 26, 2010

Re: Attention California

Californians have an incredible opportunity to support the arts through the Million Plates Campaign for the Arts coordinated by The California Arts Council.

If one million California drivers purchased an arts license plate, we would raise $40 million. That's $40 million dollars that would go directly to more than 300 groups across our schools and communities.

The Million Plates campaign launches Monday in Los Angeles. But plates are available right now by simply going online to

Playgoer asks:

Can this really work, Kally-fawn-ians?

As a Californian ex-pat, all I can say is: No, it can't really work.

That's because the state has such an incredibly gigantic budget deficit that if you were to increase a guaranteed revenue source (from, the State would simply allocate less of its general fund. Why? Because the entire state's finances is completely broken.

If you want to know what a budget deficit really sounds like in our current political climate, listen to This American Life's coverage of New York State's broken politics. It shows how Lieutenant Governor Ravitch came in with a plan that would balance New York's budget over the long term and bring back fiscal discipline, and nobody gave a shit.

And the sad thing is that compared to California, New York really has its shit together.

When I was in Middle School, Governor Gray Davis (D-CA) looked at the gigantic budget surplus -- I mean, a huge budget surplus, we were the boom of the Tech Boom -- and realized he could become really fucking popular. So he started promising everything. He promised deregulation of the electricity industry, he promised class sizes of 20 students, he promised lower taxes.

Then the boom went away, and the economy contracted in 2003. We got ripped off by the electricity industry (remember Enron?), and soon the state's finances were in one of the biggest deficits in the state's histories -- right after the biggest surplus. We had saved nothing, we had cut revenues, and then the pain started.

Pretty soon, school was being made shorter and shorter, class sizes were ballooning past 40 again, and the state's finances remained in a mess. Cue the Terminator music, and we got Governor Cullyfawnia. Democrats refused to run an opposition candidate in the Recall election, refused to admit that anything had gone wrong, and so we got the Terminator. But we still had a Democratic legislator and Democrat voters, so what we got from that point forward was stasis.

So I look at this license plate thing and all I can think is, what a desperate gimmick. Maybe, for one year, it might work a little bit. But Schwarzenegger is still forcing across-the-board budget cuts. If the State Pension Fund realizes that $40 million are going to the arts, are they going to accept reductions in their payments? No! They'll say, "cut us in on that state arts money." So will the Teacher's Union.

California's arts funding can't be saved unless:
  1. The arts manages to take a higher priority than the State's Pension Fund, the Federal Courts who are ordering us to spend more on prisons and reduce their populations, the enormously powerful Teacher's Union, or the voter's penchant for cutting their own property tax (they just voted to do that again).
  2. California's budget stabilizes, and therefore these things are no longer in competition.
Honestly, after listening to This American Life, I bet they're only looking for $40 million in plates so that they can borrow against it as guaranteed revenue.

And one more thing: say 1 million people buy arts plates, and it makes $40 million dollars. How much would it make in year Two? How much time would this money last us?

So I'm not buying one, nor will I tell my family to. Not until the State puts its house in order.


Ian David Moss said...

I think you should double-check some of your assertions in this piece. I don't live in California and don't have intimate knowledge of this campaign, but my understanding is as follows:

1) The California Arts Council already gets the bulk of its revenue from the license plates, not from general appropriations. I believe the state appropriation for CAC has been stuck at around $1 million for several years. So the state can't just "allocate less of its general fund" - there's not much left to not allocate.
2) The license plates are new revenue that was not otherwise coming to the government (because the buyers pay an extra premium on top of the regular price), and thus is specifically earmarked to the arts.
3) The arts license plate is a sustainable fundings source. You have to renew your plates every year. (See: So actually if anything the funding level should go up over time as long as they are getting more subscribers than they're losing.

I actually think it's all kind of brilliant, frankly.

Diane said...

Disclaimer up front: I work for the California Arts Council, but I am not speaking for the agency. I'm just posting as a reader!

Enjoyed your well-written and thoughtful blog post very much. But I have a couple of reassurances to give you [hoping, of course, that you will buy an arts plate after all. :)].

When you buy an arts plate (now considered a tax deductible charitable contribution to the California Arts Council - that "new rule" is why we're starting the big push), the DMV puts the money into a dedicated account for the California Arts Council. Speaking as a private citizen, I think it would be a very dicey proposition indeed for the legislature, the governor, or anyone else to tap into that money. It would mean selling Arts License Plates under fraudulent auspices -- people buying them, believing that they were contributing grant money for much-needed arts programs in schools and communities -- how could the money be swiped to plug a different budget hole? There would be an uproar.

At any rate, it hasn't happened yet. And we've been in pretty dire straits for a while now.

Ian David Moss is right on the money. License plate sales account for approximately 60% of our budget. We try very hard to work on a shoestring and get that money out to the citizens in as timely and fair a way as we can. If we had more license plate money, it would indeed be a more stable source of funding than the general fund money, which naturally goes up and down with the economy and the political climate. So it would be, like, totally awesome if license plate money was more like 80% of the Arts Council budget than 60%.

CultureFuture said...

Hi Diane,

Thanks for dropping by the reassurance. I'm still pretty skeptical about the limits of the government's ability to appropriate the money -- I agree that there'd be a public outcry, but I feel like the last year and a half has been nothing but outcry, shock, and horror from the budget. Imagining that we'd be able to protect our budget any more than local firefighters or children's healthcare is a tough proposition for me to buy.

As I said before, I sincerely hope I'm wrong, and I am willing to admit that I probably have a much more distant and inaccurate view of Sacramento than someone who has a lot of dealings with it and works in the public sector.

I suppose if the incoming Governor was openly in favor of the artsplates, (Jerry Brown probably would be; god only knows how Meg Whitman feels on the subject), I wouldn't be as nervous.

But whenever there's a pervasive atmosphere of "emergency! emergency!" I find it difficult to trust that the rules will be followed -- especially since these are the people who decide the rules.

At any rate, thank you for your service to the arts. I can't imagine it's a very easy time up there.