Legislature takes its ax, gives state culture 40 whacks

It’s over. As Oregonian political writer Harry Esteve reports here on Oregon Live, the Oregon House has just passed its down-to-the-skeleton emergency budget by a vote 0f 37-22. The vastly pared budget, identical to the version passed Tuesday by the Senate, includes the expected raiding of $1.8 million in direct donation — not tax payments — to the Oregon Cultural Trust. Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign the new budget early next week.

So that’s that — for now. And if nothing else, it diverts some of the spotlight from State Senator Margaret Carter, who’s lucky that people in Oregon are mostly pretty polite, or her performance on Tuesday might have gone viral by now.

Cicero Denounces Catiline: Fresco by Cesare Maccari/Wikimedia CommonsLike her fellow Oregon state legislators, Carter — chief of the Senate’s budget committee — is stuck in a politicians’ nightmare. The economic catastrophe has forced her and her colleagues to make deep budgetary cuts guaranteed to prompt howls of anguish and cries for their heads. Nobody knows exactly where this thing’s going, but the best guess is that before cuts the state budget hole is $855 million right now and will be $3 billion for the 2009-11 cycle. That’s a lot of enchiladas. Legislators face the distressing challenge of dealing with a situation that has no good solutions: Whatever they do, on some level it’s going to be wrong.

So it’s no wonder they get testy.
And in announcing the state Democrats’ lockstep approach to the new budget, Carter got testy, indeed, as reported by David Steves in the Eugene Register-Guard:

“There are those who are whining all over the place about ‘you cut this and you cut that,’ ” she said, wiping away mock tears during a speech on the Senate floor. “The fact is that we had to cut. That’s why I call this the shared cut and shared responsibility model.”

A few places picked up on the mockery right off the bat, including fellow Scatterer Barry Johnson on his alternate-universe blog, Portland Arts Watch.

When I reported here Tuesday on the Senate’s budget bill I skipped Carter’s little performance of pique because I wanted to concentrate on the issues. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this IS one of the issues, and an important one.

Politics is a messy and often ugly process, but one good thing to remember is this: If you’re going to pick people’s pockets, at least apologize to them and treat them with a little respect. What you don’t give, you don’t get back.

Among the “whiners” for whom the senator shed mock tears: advocates for homeless people and schools; 911 emergency system workers; university officials. Greedy fat cats, all.

And, of course, artists and their supporters, who for some reason seem upset that the Senate grabbed $1.8 million they contributed voluntarily to the Oregon Cultural Trust on the state’s promise that the money would be used for cultural purposes only and would be strictly separated from the state general fund. We discussed the moral and legal implications here, although the legal ramifications are much murkier than they appear on the surface: As with George W. Bush, apparently, if the Oregon Legislature does it, it’s legal.

I don’t believe Margaret Carter is the callous person her comments on Tuesday made her appear. I do believe it’s easier to make tough decisions that have bad consequences if you can imply that the victims of your actions somehow deserve it. The whiners. The me-firsts. The selfish cultural types who think we owe them the world.

In fact, the people Carter was demonizing tend to be among the most socially engaged in the state — people who have made it their jobs, often at minimal pay, to educate our children or provide the society with a cultural context or help those whom the government’s safety net doesn’t sufficiently support. That’s obvious with homeless advocates and emergency workers. It’s often true in the arts world, too, where smart people who could make far more money in the business world instead choose to be part of a broader cultural service network — and, yes, perorming a great symphony is a service.

I could even argue that this is a feminist issue, in that culture, health, education and welfare are considered women’s issues and therefore of lesser consequence than the manly task of making one’s mark in the marketplace. By mocking the softies, Senator Carter displays her cojones — she’s one of the boys. And the boys know how to make the tough decisions.

In the end, a politician is wise to speak respectfully to her or his constituents — especially considering that the crisis we’re in has been caused in no small part by the unwillingness or inability of politicians to create an equitable tax system and to keep a firm overseeing hand on the raw economic machinery. Oregon in particular lurches from crisis to crisis. On that count, Senator Carter is absolutely correct. We share responsibility: the public, for consistently refusing to face the consequences of clinging to an antiquated tax system while voting for punitive money drains like our steroidal prison system; and our politicians, for manipulating those issues in search of votes and for failing to provide a clear context for exactly what “the public good” means.

In the meantime, the long history of playing politics with the arts — the demonizing of arts for cynical political purposes that began in earnest in the 1980s with the opportunistic attacks of Sen. Jesse Helms and others — has made almost all politicians wary of being prominent supporters of cultural spending. Who will speak out? The silence is overwhelming. John Frohnmayer has made a career of it — but only after leaving public service. Portland Mayor Sam Adams might have made the Trust’s case, but he’s put his career in such a pickle that he can’t say much of anything and no one would listen if he did, anyway. Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish is a friend of the arts, but he’s new to the council and still getting a feel for what he can and can’t do in office. Besides, none of them are in the Legislature, where the key decisions are being made.

Politics is about making deals and making compromises and making sure you’ve done whatever you need to do to get elected again. That makes true leadership tough. It’s easy — sometimes it must almost seem necessary — to put off dealing with the tough issues, which too often then grow into true crises, which then must be dealt with pell-mell instead of wisely and with a studied eye. But a little honesty can be refreshing. I can agree to respectfully disagree with Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, for instance, because in his conversation with Portland Arts Watch he at least recognized that in the case of the Oregon Cultural Trust there’s a difference between donated money and taxed money. He just thinks that in a time of crisis they’re both fair game.

I didn’t expect that Senator Carter and her colleagues would change their minds. Now that the ax has swung, I do expect them to keep their minds open, to look to the future, to stop blaming the victims, and to face up to the consequences and responsibilities of their decisions.

Instead of mock tears and whining about whining, here’s what I’d like to hear Senator Carter and her colleagues say:

Listen, we know we’ve consistently underfunded the arts in Oregon — for goodness’ sake, we’ve always let the state rank at or near the bottom of the national list. We know we created the Oregon Cultural Trust partly because we wanted to make up for that, but also partly so we could get you off our backs. We know the bulk of the Trust money comes from donations, not taxes, and we know that implicit in the state’s accepting those donations is a promise to use them for cultural purposes and no other, because that’s what people gave us the money for. We know that by setting up the Trust we gave ourselves a great excuse to skip cultural funding in our regular budgeting process, and we know we’ve usually taken advantage of that.

So. We know that money isn’t ours to grab. But these are extraordinary times. We’re in a world of trouble and we frankly don’t know how we’re going to climb out. We need every penny we can get, and even though we have no right to that $1.8 million, it’s too big a temptation to pass up, and we’re pretty sure that legally we can get away with taking it.

We’re sorry. We really are. And we know that people are always wary of politicians’ promises — hell, we just broke one by taking the Trust money, didn’t we? — but we promise you that we will make up for this. We know that by raiding the Trust fund we’re doing serious damage to it, because now that people know the money they gave can be whisked away, they’re not going to give any more. Why should they? We know that by raiding the Trust we’re trashing the future to save the present. Somehow, we’ll find a way to rebuild trust in the Trust. But first we’ve gotta pick the whole state up off the mat. And we know we share a lot of the blame for its landing there.

We owe you one. We won’t forget it. At some point — we don’t know when — we’re going to pull out of this crisis, and when we do, we’re going to find a creative way to make things right again. In fact, we’re working on it now. We consider this a loan, not a confiscation, even though we did confiscate the money. You might not agree, but we really, truly figured we didn’t have a choice. Politics is messy. You need to understand that.

And, oh, by the way, we don’t blame you for being mad. You have every right. We’d be mad, too.

I’d like to hear that. And I’d really love to see a pig fly.