Way down on the Nov. 7 ballot, below all of the state and county races, there is a proposal that could have a larger impact on our local economy and quality of life than anyone we elect. The Quality of Life proposal asks voters to fund the operation of arts and cultural organizations in Bernalillo County using a 3/16 percent increase in gross receipts taxes. That’s about $50 a year for the average citizen—about what it costs for a tank of gas and dinner these days.
With the exception of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, most business groups are supporting the initiative. It's been endorsed by Next Generation Economy, the Home Builders Association, Albuquerque Economic Development, the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, and the Downtown Action Team, among others.
Why are so many business groups supporting the initiative? Because it is an investment in a fundamental part of our economic development strategy. If we want to attract and retain businesses to create jobs and increase our standard of living, we must provide an attractive and culturally well-rounded community.
This investment would far outweigh any disadvantages caused by having slightly higher local gross receipts taxes. The improvements in our cultural life will put Albuquerque in a strong competitive position compared to other communities.
There are many other places in New Mexico with fewer cultural amenities that have significantly higher taxes—including Rio Rancho, Gallup, Roswell, Clovis and Las Cruces. Most of these communities are building thriving economies and their higher taxes have not hurt their efforts to attract or retain businesses. Just look at the explosive growth in Rio Rancho and Las Cruces.
Salt Lake County and Denver have cultural taxes that have not hurt their economies at all. Voters in both cities supported renewing their cultural taxes in 2004.
These communities and many others are becoming leaders in economic development nationally, because they understand that quality of life, including a thriving arts and cultural community, is a key part of growing a local economy.
Within existing resources, city and county governments can’t do everything. Deciding between more police, or new cultural or arts programs, is a difficult trade off. It shouldn’t be that way. But absent a dedicated, long-term revenue stream, arts and cultural organizations are often left at the end of the line.
It’s true that elected officials love to build stuff. We have some great museums and a great zoo. The difficult and less glamorous part is making sure they have the operating money they need to run great programs. We have a magnificent childrens’ science museum at Explora. As a former board member, I know how difficult it has been for them to keep their programs going without a strong ongoing commitment from local government. The same is true for the many great arts and culture organizations in the county. Many have developed national, and even international, reputations, yet they struggle to keep their doors open every budget cycle with foundations or local government giving them just enough to survive another year.
We all know that it takes courage for elected officials to support any tax increase. When the City Council voted to put the quarter cent for public safety on the ballot in 2003, many elected officials did not support it. After a lot of hard work by many nonprofit advocates and the police and fire departments, the voters passed the tax. The revenue stream allowed the city to put 100 new officers on the force with the equipment they need to make our community safer. The tax also allows treatment, prevention and intervention groups to help make our community safer.
Voters, when given the information they need, know that investments like the quarter cent for public safety are worth supporting. The same is true for the Quality of Life initiative.
So what will county voters get for 50 bucks?
Most of the money (about 70 percent or $19 million) will go to city and county institutions like the zoo and museums. About $8 million will be divided among small and large nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and state-owned entities such as the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, National Hispanic Cultural Center and other organizations whose primary mission is not cultural programming, but which offer significant cultural programs.
Investing in arts and cultural organizations should not be an afterthought. If we want a world-class local economy, we need a world-class arts and cultural life. Putting arts and cultural organizations on their own funding stream would help them grow and not be subject to swings in political or economic cycles.
The Quality of Life initiative is good for our kids, good for our community and good for business. Let’s all have the courage to support it and ask our leaders to do the same.