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Keep Arts 'Above the Line'

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At a time when hundreds of thousands of tourists are leaving the state in a pleasant daze after being saturated by Louisiana music and culture -- at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette -- it's incongruous to think the arts are anything but a linchpin of Louisiana's economy.

Yet Gov. Foster's planned budget seems instead to treat the state's arts budget more like a tip jar. The 2002-2003 budget puts 78 percent of the projected funding for the arts "below the line," meaning the money is dependent upon approval of a temporary tax. It's an oft-used tactic in which the administration ties the least popular taxes to issues with strong populist support.

The particular tax attached to arts funding this year is a controversial limit on the number of itemized deductions one can claim on state income tax returns.

Arts organizations are crying foul, saying the state has gotten excellent returns on the roughly $4.2-$5.2 million it has spent annually on arts development in Louisiana in the past dozen years, and arguing that they deserve better than to be hitched to a contentious tax bill. Figures from an economic impact study commissioned by the state Division of the Arts -- an arm of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism -- support their case.

The report, completed in June of 2001 by the arts research firm ArtsMarket of Bozeman, Mont., concluded that arts in Louisiana had a total annual economic impact of $934 million in 2000. The report stated that nonprofit arts programs in Louisiana paid $97.5 million in direct wages to more than 18,000 employees. Bolstered by volunteer support, arts organizations took in direct revenues of $195 million that year, according to the study. Arts also have an impact on industries that supplement them, largely hospitality-related businesses such as restaurants and hotels, the report notes.

The survey did not include data on the economic impact of for-profit arts industries such as art galleries, theaters, music clubs and other private ventures, nor did it consider figures from the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Inc.

Arts supporters are now waging a grassroots campaign to convince the Foster administration to alter the budget to guarantee full funding of the state's arts programs. "We are lobbying right now to get our entire funding reinserted into the general budget," says Charlie Smith, a New Orleans poet and lobbyist for the Louisiana Partnership for the Arts. "We think we've earned our place, and we don't want to be tied to a tax that might not pass."

Louisiana residents have embraced the cultural programs that sprang up due to the landmark funding of the Foster administration in 1994, which gave $4.2 million to the Division of the Arts. The office had received no funding at all the year before, earning Louisiana the distinction of having the worst public support for arts in the country. The Foster appropriation made Louisiana leap to No. 19 in arts funding in the United States in one year's time, Smith says.

The money has been distributed through the Decentralized Fund for the Arts, which ensures that parishes get equal funding based on population. Public schools, too, received unprecedented money for arts education.

"What this led to was arts in rural communities who have never had arts before," Smith says. "St. Joseph, which is a little hamlet in north Louisiana, has a 65-piece orchestra, and people come from Natchez and Monroe to see this town's orchestra. We've got cultural groups such as the Islenos getting arts grants for their programs. It's something Louisiana can say we're first in, and I think it's the only thing. The arts have really prospered."

Smith says his organization was originally pushing for an additional $3 million this year when it learned the $4.9 million arts budget -- roughly $200,000 less than last year's number, he says -- would largely linger "below the line."

"Unless the renewal of the state income tax deduction bill passes, our budget will be just over $1 million -- dead last in the nation again," he says. "If we don't get refunded, New Orleans loses $1.3 million in direct grant benefits. That's cash money, that's local artists."

The Foster administration has made a legacy for itself by its prior recognition that arts funding is essential to Louisiana's economic development, the quality of its public schools, and the preservation of its unique cultural groups and traditions. We urge the administration to reconsider its funding mechanism in this year's budget and put all the money for Louisiana arts "above the line."

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