Friday, November 14, 2008

Priorities, not special interests

For the 2008-09 fiscal year, Ohio will spend $21.9 million on the Ohio Arts Council. That's down from their original biennial budget of $24.9 million, as a result of the state's budgetary issues.

In case you've never heard of the OAC, they are "a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally and economically. With funds from the Ohio Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, the OAC provides financial assistance to artists and arts organizations."

Some of the local recipients of funding from the OAC include the Young Artists at Work program through the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, small amounts to Bravo Magazine, and college professors/instructors who've received fellowships (usually $5,000 or $10,000). They have provided operational support to the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Opera Association, the Toledo Orchestra Association, Inc., Toledo Ballet, Toledo Jazz Society, Toledo Botanical Garden and the Arts Council Lake Erie West. Money from OAC has also supported performing arts seasons at Lourdes College and Toledo Cultural Arts Center.

I have always had a problem with government funding of 'the arts.' I don't believe that government should fund any particular industry and the arts are certainly a particular industry. My basic premise is that individuals who so choose would fund arts - and probably be more capable of doing so if the government didn't take so much of their personal funds in the first place. Additionally, as with anything governments do, the bureaucracy established to 'administer' any dedicated funds takes its own percentage off the top, resulting in less funds than what individuals could provide without the third-party costs of government.

But - that's really not the point of this post. My point is priorities. Even if you believe government funding of the arts should be done, is it the most important thing government should do – and at the expense of other government spending?

In January of this year, Governor Ted Strickland announced $733 million in budget cuts due to the economic condition of the state. One of the biggest budget reductions was $31 million from the Department of Mental Health. Could the state have eliminated the OAC and, instead, funded the Department of Mental Health? Yes.

Another cut was to the Department of Aging which was to lose $17.9 million in FY 2008. Could the state have eliminated the OAC and, instead, funded the Department of Aging? Yes - and with some money left over.

What about the $25.8 million that was earmarked for the state Department of Development? Such funding is key to Ohio's chances of attracting and retaining businesses and their jobs, politicians tell us. What would have been a better use of limited tax dollars: attracting new businesses or subsidizing 'starving artists'?

Instead of going through the state organization and eliminating unnecessary or non-mandated functions, departments had across-the-board cuts. As a result, everyone was equally unhappy, but the size and scope of government was not really reduced. The hard part of governance is setting priorities and sticking with them. Every organization that receives funding through the OAC will lobby for continued funding. Everyone who gets funds will say 'don't cut us.' But politicians and decision-makers rarely ask: if we don't cut you, who should we cut? And if they do, the response is almost always: don't ask me - that's your job.

Well, if that's the case, then go through and eliminate the non-mandated expenditures. It's actually a very easy criterion to meet, but often so very hard to get politicians to do because they don't want to risk alienating any group of constituents who might decide to oppose them in their next re-election bid.

The City of Toledo is facing the same circumstance. We had city council members insist on funding the city's Youth Commission ($2 million in 2008) and pools (about $500,000). Council is now faced with a $10 million budget deficit to address before the end of the year, including a reduction in the number of recruits in the new police class.

So what is more important: pools and 'hip hop' concerts or police officers?

I pick police every time - and I think most people would, considering that, without police, pools and concerts might not be safe places to be.

And that's the point: priorities. we don't have good ones when it comes to government spending. What we have is the priority of elected officials to try and placate everyone so as not to make enemies, thus ensuring they continue to have support for staying in office. These elected officials stop representing us when their priority is such as this - and we are to blame, because we reward them with re-election while our city and state continue their slide to the bottom in terms of growth, population, employers and jobs.

So - what do you think our priorities should be? And what are you willing to do to ensure the politicians support them?


Sean said...

I personally think that Mental Health should be one of the highest priorities for our state. It is only a matter of time before this comes back to haunt us. With the current state of the economy people are feeling more depressed than ever over with their own personal budget issues. It begs me to ask, are we waiting for people to loose stability or taking their own lives until we realize how big of a mistake this is? Not to mention the people who are struggling with mental illness that currently receive benefit from the mental health services that will be reduced or cut all together. Are they now second class citizens? Should they fend for themselves? These are questions we should not have to ask. Maggie you know better than most, being a former County Commissioner; how many people benefit from providing funding for Mental Heath services. I will be contacting Governor Strickland in regards to these budget cuts to what I see as necessary to the well being of the citizens of our great state. Thank you for shedding some light on this subject, I will let you know the outcome if and when I get a response from the Governor's office in regards to this important issue.

Maggie Thurber said...

Sean - remember that these cuts were made/proposed at the beginning of the year. I didn't find information as to the specific amount that each department ended up cutting, so the figures might be a bit dated.

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