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On Feb. 7, state Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Royal Oak, proposed legislation to impose a 5 percent tax on entertainment-related event tickets and admission fees. The legislation is designed to generate more than $50 million in additional tax revenue annually for government arts and culture expenditures.
The tax would be placed on a wide array of entertainment options, and the revenue would accrue to a new "entertainment and cultural events fund," the first $30 million of which would be spent by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
There are at least four significant shortcomings to the Johnson proposal. First, it is unfair. Far more people prefer baseball to Bach or prefer watching Detroit’s Lions to Puccini’s La Boheme. Yet under this proposal sports fans will, in all likelihood, disproportionately carry the financial burden of new state arts and culture spending.
Second, Michigan’s economy is sputtering relative to the rest of the nation. Raising taxes may only make the Great Lakes State’s employment problems worse.
Third, the program hurts artists. The arts are too important to depend on politicians for their sustenance. Time spent by artists writing grant requests is time not spent honing their respective crafts. Moreover, "With the shekels come the shackles"; government may mandate restrictions that limit the artistic license afforded to politically sponsored works.
Fourth, art is a highly subjective enterprise. One person’s highpoint of artistic achievement may be deemed a cesspool of silliness by another. But when government intervenes in the market for culture, one person is forced to subsidize the preferences of another.
Let us consider just one example of state spending on the arts. The state of Michigan subsidizes the Ann Arbor Film Festival through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. MCACA’s line item in the fiscal 2005 budget was $11.7 million.
Last year’s AAFF event, according to the festival’s Web site and related materials, featured, among other works:
The "Sex Workers Art Show," which included live performances from people who work in the sex industry, such as "Miss Exotic World 2003 and Diva of Danger Miss Satanica."
The movie "What is it?," which is described in the AAFF brochure as a "film (which contains graphic sexuality) [that] flows between controversial imagery and story lines: a minstrel in blackface who aspires to be an invertebrate by injecting nail enzymes into his cheek; a Shirley Temple dictator in Nazi garb; a naked man with cerebral palsy lying on a giant seashell, being fondled by a naked woman wearing a monkey mask; talking snails getting repeatedly salted; and watching over all, an enthroned [man] in a full-length fur coat."
"No American Dream," a video diary of the director’s months in the United States filmed while she was marketing a previous documentary called "Sexjunkie." The filmmaker notes that "the desperate search for the American Dream increasingly turns into a race against time to get at least one good [expletive deleted] in New York."
Films shown in previous years at the AAFF included such titles as "The Arousing Adventures of Sailor Boy," "Soggy Penis Syndrome" and "Boobie Girl."
In fiscal 2005, the AAFF received $17,400 in state tax funding. Relative to the state’s $40 billion budget, such an appropriation is small, but the principle is significant: Legislators have no business reaching into the pockets of Michigan citizens without first squeezing questionable expenditures from the state budget. Sen. Johnson’s proposed legislation reaches deeper and takes more.
One possible reason legislators may have approved such arts spending is because they may have been unaware of its existence. The grant to AAFF is just one of about 300 doled out to arts- and culture-related organizations across the state. The Johnson legislation could expand this tally.
Using tax dollars to fund artistic pursuits is not in the best interest of Michigan citizens. It is unfair for those who prefer not to patronize the arts voluntarily; it hurts artists by encouraging them to be wards of a state that may ultimately dictate what type of art they can produce; and it hurts economic growth by redistributing wealth to uses that are probably less productive than others on which the money could be spent.
Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.