Racial bias shadows the Front Range culture funding fight
Lawmakers who usually champion the arts have voted against a Front Range culture funding bill they say favors white male cultural leaders over people of color, and Denver over the rest of the Front Range.
Win the battle, lose the war? That may be the fate of arts and culture groups fighting for a bigger share of tax dollars from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which doles out millions of sales tax dollars every year to hundreds of Front Range organizations.
Senate Democrats have been attacking each other over the fairness of the proposed SCFD funding formula, whether it favors white male cultural leaders over people of color, Denver institutions over those of six other counties, and older projects over new and innovative ones.
The SCFD was first authorized in 1988, and voters have reauthorized it twice since then. This next reauthorization would extend the sales tax and cement the funding formula from 2018 to 2030.
SCFD arts groups fall into three tiers. The top tier, which includes the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, and two other major regional cultural organizations, pulls in the lion’s share of funding from the sales tax, which is one cent for every ten dollars spent. Those organizations are led largely by white men.
There are 28 Tier II groups, and as of this year, 313 Tier III groups, many of whom say they have been shortchanged in the SCFD funding formula. Those critics include Friends of Arts and Cultural Equity (FACE), a nonprofit that points out that all of the arts groups led by people of color and targeting communities of color are in Tier III.
FACE representatives argue greater funding for Tier III would help address racial and economic inequality within Front Range arts and culture funding.
Under pressure, the SCFD board last year agreed to modify its funding formula, reducing the amount that would go to the Tier 1 groups by $37.3 million. Those dollars would then go to Tier II groups ($22 million) and Tier III groups ($15.3 million).
Should Senate Bill 16-016 pass the General Assembly, voters would then have an opportunity to approve the new funding formula.
But if the bill fails, the SCFD board can ask voters to approve an extension that would keep in place the current funding formula. And Tier II and Tier III arts groups would lose their hard-won changes.
Those who think the modified formula still doesn’t do enough for Tier 3 groups battled the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, in a Feb. 24 debate.
Sen. Michael Johnson, also a Denver Democrat, proposed an amendment that would allow Tier 3 groups to seek SCFD funding in their third year of operations, maintaining current law. The proposed bill stretches that waiting period to five years.
Steadman opposed the Johnston amendment, saying that “fly by night” groups that want SCFD money should prove themselves first.
Sen. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs, a Democrat, said SCFD funding should incubate budding organizations. While Merrifield initially was a cosponsor of SB-16, he said the bill is not quite where it needs to be and voted against in on the Senate floor. Merrifield is one of the strongest supporters of the arts in the General Assembly.
Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, advocated for the bill’s defeat during the debate, telling the Senate that Tier III groups reported they had been bullied into silence by SCFD’s process for discussing the reauthorization.
Percentages weren’t based on needs, Jones said, but just what Tier I groups were willing to give up.
Some arts and culture leaders in Jones’ district worried fighting over the funding formula could cause the bill and the vote next November to fail.
“That’s a disingenuous argument,” Jones said, noting that the last authorization received 66 percent of the vote.
Jones would like to see the funding formula changed further to send more dollars go to Tier III groups, although he didn’t offer an amendment to do that, and the bill won preliminary approval yesterday and passed through the Senate today on a 28-6 vote.
Merrifield voted against it and then had his name taken off the bill as a co-sponsor.
Democrat Sen. Linda Newell of Littleton said when the bill hits the House it will be amended to ensure greater funding to organizations outside of Denver and led by people of color. She also voted against it, noting that it’s the first time in eight years that she’s ever voted against a bill supporting the arts.
Photo credit: Conan, Creative Commons, Flickr.