Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Re:Attention California pt. 2

Okay, I was in a pretty ornery mood when I responded to Playgoer's query about how Californians feel about the artsplate initiative. Ian left some needed corrective in my comments:

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: http://www.cac.ca.gov/licenseplate/faq.php) 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.
To the first point, it is very true that, having little to take away from the California Arts Council, the fear that this will open up for the California state legislature to take more away from CAC is overblown.

As to the third one, to the degree that car culture remains sustainable (as in, at least between now and the next century), that's very much the valid point.

The second one, that money earmarked to the arts because of a specific expenditure will necessarily arrive to the arts, is the one I'm still not fully willing to concede. In the normal course of budgetary processes, I would agree with this. States normally fulfill their obligations and obey the law and don't resort to theft, and therefore earmarked funds would arrive at their destination unmolested.

But California continues, time and time again, to run up against budget deadlines and resort to at best quasi-legal and often illegal stunts to bridge its budget gap. Federal courts have been insisting that California reform its prisons (calling it cruel and unusual punishment, the way it stands now), but California resists because it says it is broke -- defying a court order in order to avoid balancing its budget. The Supreme Court's going to hear that one.

Another fun tactic is forcing local governments to lend money to the State capital on three year loans. (By the way, on that page is a chart that points out that California replaced some of its higher education funding with Stimulus bill money, which hearkens back to point 1). While legal under California's state constitution, it's incredibly bad practice, especially as local governments try to balance their own budgets.

That's putting aside now-common practices like issuing IOUs instead of payments, like a fifth-grader.

In the theoretical realm, this artsplates initiative does seem pretty brilliant. And maybe I'm wrong, and the collapse of the state of California will corrode everything except this initiative, and this governor or the next one will find somewhere else to close gaping, gaping hole in California. It occurs to me that, if Jerry Brown wins the election, he's not quite as likely to take the ax to the arts... maybe.

But it remains my strong belief that until California has the ability to create a budget that is in some measure balanced, there's absolutely no guarantees that it will live up to any of its promises or obligations. I hope I'm wrong.


There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. California did approve a top-two primary system, such as the top-two primary system in Washington. This, hopefully, means that candidates can play to the center, rather than playing to the fringes, and therefore we can see some candidates from both sides who might favor a balanced package of tax increases and budget cuts, as well as changes in California's relationship to labor. It might create a system in which a Californian Obama-style candidate could rise without being torn to shreds by the Californian Teacher's Union on the left or the California Chamber of Commerce on the right.

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