Don’t Let Earmarks Return in D.C.

In 2009, the District of Columbia spent over $14 million on the arts. $5.4 million of that was in earmarks.

Earmarking is when a policymaker, outside of any actual policy process, dedicates (“earmarks”) public funds to something just because. Earmarks are an inefficient and quixotic way to achieve policy goals, and one could easily argue, represent an abuse of the public pocketbook. A resolution by the Trustees of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, Maryland’s arts advocacy organization, notes, “it is damaging to the integrity and fairness of [the] grant making process when the State Arts Council’s process is circumvented and operating grants are identified for specific organizations in the state budget,” and “any type of politicization of the grant award process will become self-perpetuating and grow if not strictly prohibited.”

Earmarks were eliminated in D.C. in 2010, and the policy climate had been improving for it. But Lettermarking, a first cousin of Earmarking, is trying for a comeback. Here is actual text of section six from a recent bill to support the arts in D.C.:

(6) The amount of $100,000 shall be awarded in fiscal year 2014, and the amount of $25,000 in each of fiscal years 2015 and 2016 as a competitive grant to a commercial music venue of historic and cultural significance in the District that features jazz performances in the District which are open to the public. The grantee must meet the following criteria: (a) Be a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status or a for-profit corporation with primary residence and operations in the District for at least 45 years prior to the application deadline; (b) Hold a Certificate of Good Standing with the District of Columbia; (c) For the last five consecutive calendar years prior to the application deadline have hosted a minimum of 100 live jazz musical performances open to the public in the District in each year; (d) Demonstrate the highest level of artistic excellence; (e) Demonstrate an urgent need for improvements to the size and condition of its performance space, and spaces dedicated to supporting performance spaces; (f) Have an operating budget of less than $50 million; and (g) Be supported by its neighbors and neighborhood.

In case you’re confused, what that list of caveats (a) through (g) accomplishes is to allow support for a neighborhood jazz bar through a “competitive grant.” Obviously, (a) through (g) is so tightly defined that only one business can possibly fit the grant guidelines.

Government grant guidelines are not a joke. They define the policy expectation supported by the expenditure of our tax dollars. They should be thoughtfully designed to ensure efficient use of public funds. No matter the beneficiary, these kind of grant guidelines make a mockery of the competitive grant process.

Part of the problem is that no business can afford NOT to try and get an earmark if they’re being given out. This is the real world. As the current Apple tax hearing demonstrates, smart businesses take every advantage they can.

Earmarking and Lettermarking deny the city the pressure necessary to thoughtfully develop policy solutions, and they need to not be allowed to return.

Original Publication Huffington Post:

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.