Here at Art Scatter we just love a heavenly chorus. Harmony’s our thing, and we’re fond of kittens, too.
So why do we find ourselves hesitating to lend our voice to the call for a new song of reconciliation with the Oregon Legislature over its co-option of $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust? Maybe we just don’t like the tune. And maybe we think it’s not all that great an idea for everyone to be singing the same song.
Our friends at Culture Shock are taking the lead at keeping the Trust issue out in the open. Their latest reports are here and here, and they’re well worth reading, including the comments. Among other things, Culture Shock passes along in full yesterday’s tactic-shifting statement from the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition on behalf of the Trust, a statement that includes this key passage:
Now is the time to change gears and recognize the difficult work of leadership. Legislators completed a brutal week where they voted on a package of bills that contained items they all personally disliked. They took votes that hurt and feel they did their best with few alternative options. They need some breathing room to get beyond the budget rebalance and focus on issues of the 2009 session.
In other words: The deal’s done, the point’s been made, and now the smart thing to do is back off, be team players, and work behind the scenes so we can get it back in the future and not lose even more. That’s the way politics works.
But that’s not the only way politics works. It also works by making noise. And if you’re lucky, the noisemakers and the peacemakers work in concert, each checking the other’s extremes and keeping them on course.
A little background, if you’re just checking in on this: The Oregon Legislature, in an attempt to fill an $855 million hole in the state’s current budget, made cuts across the board — including $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust, a state-administered fund that distributes grants to a variety of arts, cultural, historical, educational and tribal organizations in every Oregon county. Scroll down at Art Scatter and you’ll find several previous postings.
Unfortunately for the Legislature’s budget-balancers, the Trust’s money doesn’t come out of the state’s general fund: It’s donated by citizens directly and specifically for the Trust’s purpose. (In this case, the money came from sales of Oregon cultural license plates for people’s cars.) In normal circumstances — and certainly in private exchanges — money in a trust fund is inviolable: It can’t be grabbed for other purposes. To do so is, literally, a violation of trust, and that’s been the focus of this controversy.
So. Done deal or not — and I believe it is — the snatching of the Trust money has long-term implications, no matter how benevolent the Legislature’s short-term goals were. It’s still a violation of trust, its legality is still questionable, and it still raises the possibility that people will simply stop donating money to the trust because they have no assurance that their money will be used for the purposes they gave it. You can’t sweep that sort of stuff away. And you can’t sing it away.
You can work out compromises, using that old political one-two combo of kicking and kissing. Culture Shock’s Culture Jock passes along a KGW-TV news report that suggests Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is leading an effort to translate the hijacking of the Trust money into a loan. That’s a promising development, and worth tracking.
Culture Shock’s Mighty Toy Cannon points out in a comment on one of his site’s recent posts that “the Legislature’s ‘brutal week’ [to quote the Cultural Advocacy Coalition’s Wednesday statement] began with a caucus at which party leadership banned negotiation on individual items on the sweep list.” That’s important to keep in mind. This was a lockstep vote by state Democrats, who agreed beforehand that the budget sweep was an all-or-nothing deal — and because they know how to count, they knew it would be “all.”
To certain key segments of the state’s cultural interests, political reality now says “It’s time to kiss and make up.” These are mostly the people, including those at the Trust, who have to play in the political arena all the time; people whose overall effectiveness relies on their ability to maintain good working relationships with the politicians whose votes ultimately decide these things. This is, indeed, the song they need to sing.
That doesn’t mean YOU need to kiss and make up, or that it’s a good idea for you to do so. In fact, it’s a very good idea for a whole lot of people to stay on the offensive on this issue. A cardinal rule of politics is, if you don’t make noise, you get forgotten. Stay quiet, and the raiding of the Trust will be both history and precedent. It’ll be easier next time. The Legislature needs to be consistently reminded that the public knows what it did was wrong, and that people will remember — and that votes are attached to those feelings.
So, choose for yourself where you line up now. If you think that tactically it’s time to play nice, by all means, do so. If you think it’s better strategy, and truer to your gut, to kick up a fuss, keep kicking.
The Legislature can act in lockstep if it wants to. That doesn’t mean the public — especially the public in a healthy representative democracy — has to do the same.
Postscript: I appeared Tuesday morning on KOPB public radio’s Think Out Loud public-issues show to talk about the Trust issue. Paul King of White Bird Dance and I were studio guests. Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland and Oregon House majority leader, spoke at length via phone, explaining the Legislature’s point of view, and Christine D’Arcy, executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust, also spoke via phone. Other phone-in guests included Steve Dennis, owner of Earthworks Gallery on the Oregon coast, and Greg Phillips, executive director of Portland Center Stage. The discussion was lively, and you can download the show from the Think Out Loud site.