Why You Should Vote No on 4B to End Denver's SCFD Arts and Culture Tax

In recent weeks, we've been filling our Election archive with stories about statewide ballot measures and races. But ballot issue 4B is specific to the Mile High.

The measure seeks to reauthorize the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which funds organizations devoted to culture and the arts — be they large institutions such as the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Science & Nature or smaller ones like Su Teatro and Think 360 Arts — by way of a 0.1 percent sales tax that's been in place in the seven-county Denver metro area for 28 years. Without voters' approval, the tax will expire on June 30, 2018.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the campaign presented the pro-4B argument in a post headlined "Why You Should Vote Yes on 4B to Renew Denver's SCFD Arts and Culture Tax."

Today, the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara, who opposes 4B but isn't actively campaigning against it, presents the opposite view — even though he acknowledges that he expects the measure to pass by a large margin.

Westword: To clarify things at the outset, you are not running an opposition campaign against 4B, correct?

Jon Caldara: No, I would not run a campaign against the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax, just like I wouldn't run a campaign against the sun coming up in the east. It would be a futile effort.

Why are you an opponent of 4B?

For a whole host of reasons. Let's start off with the larger question: Is this a core function of government? And the answer is overwhelmingly no. This type of activity, whether it's keeping cultural institutions going or throwing money at feel-good community theater groups out in the hinterlands of the metro area, that's not what government was created for. But there's a larger issue in the long term. The more that government takes over the role of arts-and-culture funder, the more that arts and culture become a property of the state. And over time, I think that's a dangerous thing.

One of the beautiful things about free speech is that it's free — it's not state-sponsored. And once you start having state-sponsored art, the line between art and propaganda begins to blur.

There's another reason, too. I'm someone who loves art and made his living doing art: I used to be a stage-lighting designer, I used to do a lot of stagecraft work. So I understand the value that art has. But when government becomes the sponsor of that, then artists, cultural institutions, start playing toward their customer, which is government. And we also start training those people who used to invest and donate to art and culture that their investments are not needed because it's a state function now.

You've seen what's happened over the last seventy years when it comes to welfare. Welfare used to be done by civic groups and religious groups and different organizations. But once it turned into an entitlement by government, people started giving less and less to it, because they felt they were being forced to give to it through their taxes. There's even more of a disconnect there.

I don't think it's good for art. I don't think it's good for government. I don't think it's good for artists in the long run. I think it turns the incentives upside down.

I see that the proponents have raised millions of dollars for something that is a shoo-in to win at the ballot box. So that tells me there are people out there who are willing to invest in the symphony and the Botanic Gardens and the zoo. But when you look at this regressive tax, what you're doing is forcing people at the lower end to pay a higher percentage of their income so rich guys can get subsidized when they decide to go to the symphony. Or when they decide to go smell the flowers at the Botanic Gardens, they're subsidized.

This seems unethical to me. When we start subsidizing arts and culture, we're taking from those who have not and give to those who have. And no matter how you describe it and show off your free admission days, working families cannot take the day off and travel downtown to smell the flowers in the Botanic Gardens. This is a tax made for elite insiders at the cost of all of us.

Going back to your comments about propaganda, is it your position that arts organizations might shy away from saying anything critical about government for fear that their funding could go away?

Yes, over time, but not immediately. I'm not wearing a tin-foil hat here. These things move slowly. And what happens to art when it's decided by committee? I'm driving past some goofy-looking structures because of Denver's 1 percent for art. Well, no one's taking a chance, and we've taken art and turned it into bureaucracy. Instead of a funder saying, "That piece speaks to me. I'm going to purchase it and put it out in public view so that everyone can enjoy it or hate it," now we have art by committee.

Can you imagine if Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart had been done by committee? The Beatles seem to have created an interesting library without a penny of government support.

When a committee starts deciding what is art, we lose what art is. We lose the challenge of art, we lose what's different about it. And certainly, who's going to speak up against the norms if artists get funded through government?

Do you think a vote in favor of 4B could result in worse art compared to art created without government funding?

The beautiful thing about art is, I can't answer that. Everyone can decide what worse art is. But I can tell you that over time, we're going to have art that is sanctioned by the state or an entity of the state, which is what we have with the SCFD fund, and people are going to be playing toward that. It sanitizes the world, at best, and at worst it turns artists into propaganda machines. I don't want to go all the way to Goebbels, who was the Nazi propaganda minister. But over time, we do things slowly in culture and government to the point where we don't really notice it.

We're telling rich people that poor people should subsidize their trip to the symphony. We're telling rich guys that they don't really need to invest in art, because now that everybody's paying taxes, that part's taken care of — kind of like what we did with welfare. And we're telling artists they need to play to some committee that will choose their art or culture and move forward. That's where they're going to end up putting their efforts. And over time, you will have government-sponsored propaganda.

You like the zoo, I like the zoo, everybody likes the zoo. Well, you go to the zoo and you will see environmental lessons, depending on your point of view, or propaganda, depending on your point of view. But we're all paying for it. We're paying for something that's not a core government function. So while rich guys are going to the symphony, we still have potholes. And while rich guys sip their chardonnay at a concert at the Botanic Gardens, we still have people who don't have the mobility they need and people screaming we don't have enough money for education. At some point, we've got to decide what's worth paying for.

Proponents of 4B argue that the rich culture has played a big part in making Denver a vibrant city that people are moving to in droves — and that's helped turn it into an economic powerhouse. Does that argument make sense to you?

If that's the case, then let's triple and quadruple the amount of money we're putting toward goofy art projects. Every economic argument, every Keynesian argument basically says, "Look, if we spend more money here, it brings more money in." That was John Maynard Keynes's big argument: As long as government is spending money — and it doesn't matter on what, it doesn't have to be productive — it primes the pump. But that's a silly and fallacious argument. If that's the case, let's spend half our government's money on this instead of fixing potholes.

You mentioned earlier that you aren't running a campaign against 4B because you consider it to be a slam-dunk. Why do you think it's going to pass by a wide margin?

Because there's a certain Stockholm Syndrome that happens. This is about the zoo. More than anything else, this is about the zoo. Kids went to the zoo and they went to the natural history museum, where they saw the same frickin' dinosaurs I saw forty years ago. It's a trip down memory lane, and it's an emotional thing. Klondike and Snow twenty years ago cemented the emotional hook for these things.

Talk about how things self-reinforce. Klondike and Snow were the reason it was first reauthorized. And after that, the city puts a giant blue bear peeking into the window of the convention center as a tax-subsidized reminder of the image they used for the tax increase, which was a bear. So you have all that subtle programming that goes into people's minds that's self-reinforcing. And in a way, it's working, isn't it?

Is it your opinion that if this tax wasn't passed, art and culture in Denver would continue to thrive?

Absolutely. I believe that art and culture is a byproduct of human life you cannot extinguish. You can, using government money, play with the markets and take from some and give to the elites. But I think we would have even more genuine, daring, beautiful art and culture without it. It would not go away, because people love the zoo. Would some of the third-tier stuff go away? Perhaps, but it would be replaced by other things. You would have more community buy-in when people voluntarily give money to a project or an event rather than directly through this tax that's hidden in any cup of coffee you buy.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts