Constantine wants $469 million arts levy. What about homelessness, roads, crime?

Political candidates love to talk about priorities, but usually it’s only in a fuzzy “fight for what’s important” way. Talking about government’s priorities, after all, is sticky.

It requires saying that A is more important than B, and that’s a pretty good way to get B’s fans mad at you. Keeping it all vague is always the safer bet, and that’s the territory candidates prefer to stay in.

In office, however, it’s rubber-meets-the-road time, and your choices reveal your actual priorities. This week, King County Executive Dow Constantine revealed his when he announced a $469 million arts levy. Seattle Times columnist Jonathan Martin savaged the idea pretty thoroughly this week:

“King County’s state of emergency on homelessness spreads far beyond Seattle. The opioid crisis stretches across the county, and the county-run mental-health system is struggling with unprecedented demand for involuntary hospital beds.

“Looking at those facts, you would say King County really needs … more arts funding? Huh?

“County Executive Dow Constantine declared a homeless state of emergency just 17 months ago. Now he wants to throw $469 million over seven years at arts education and free tickets to museums and such. He wraps the request in equity and social justice, that utilitarian poncho of progressives (organic wool, of course).”

As Martin notes, county government has a role in the homelessness issue. Our region’s problem has grown to the point that shutting down freeway lanes for large garbage clean-up projects is now routine.

Seattle and King County have both declared homelessness “emergencies,” but that’s more semantics than anything. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is putting a levy on the ballot, but one could ask: if it’s actually an emergency, wouldn’t you fund it first? Now Constantine’s arts levy proposal shows how emergent he must believe the “emergency” is.

How are free museum tickets a top priority?
Why would Constantine decide an arts levy makes the cut as one of the county’s most important goals? County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove sees a political motivation. “This levy appeals to the donor class,” he told Jonathan Martin. “The donor class likes arts.” That was a strategy I saw as well during my time on the county council.

Martin highlights homelessness, mental health care, and criminal justice cuts. I’d add to that list the county’s roads crisis, which remains unsolved. At a time when people committing property crimes are going unprosecuted because of budget pressures and the county road system is breaking down (with no funding source in sight), a $469 million arts levy is impossible to justify.

A revealing choice
The issue is complicated by how counties are allowed to collect money, it’s true. But in 2015, the state allowed counties the option to raise sales taxes by .1%, which can go for “cultural access programs” or for affordable housing, including dealing with the homelessness problem. It’s not that Constantine explicitly said his arts levy is more important than the homelessness issue, it’s just that his choice of levy reveals to us which he thinks is a higher priority.

People expect government leaders to stand back, look at the big picture, and lead to solve the top issues. “Cultural access” to the arts fits firmly in the “nice-to-have” category, not the “gotta-have.”

If state law limits the county’s options for fixing its criminal justice system and its crumbling roads, then Constantine’s job is put his attention toward persuading the Legislature to make the changes the county needs. That’s what it means to be a leader.

Instead he plucked the low-hanging fruit. Facing the potential for a small sales tax, with two choices for how to spend it, he picked a $469 million slush fund for the arts. That’s seriously misprioritized.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.