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:

DC Arts Advocacy Day Promotes Local Budget Transparency


When you think about your typical advocate for government transparency, who comes to mind? I bet lawyers, bloggers, teachers, Tea Partyers, maybe even environmental activists, but not artists. Right? For many, the connection between artists and the government — let alone the governing process — is unclear, but the reality is that government decisions have a direct impact on the creative community, and artists know it. Our federal government and most local and state governments provide specific agency support for the arts and humanities and make important budgetary decisions about programming and grant-funding that effects the work of individual artists, curators and entrepreneurs.

Although many communities (and most states) have arts advocacy groups that tackle promotion of arts-friendly policies and funding, DC (Sunlight’s home “state”) is one of the only places I know of where the advocates pair their message with one close to our heart: Transparency. The DC Advocates for the Arts (DCAA) believe that a transparent process is essential to their work: How can you advocate for increased funding in an upcoming fiscal year or provide recommendations for compromises and reallocation of resources if you can’t even see the budget in question? As the DCAA wrote in their primer for DC Arts Advocacy Day 2011:

In order to achieve the most effective policies, for today and for tomorrow, the DC Advocates for the Arts support ongoing initiatives in Government Transparency. We specifically support availability of information “before the fact.” Not all government work can be released in process, but transparency “after the fact” prevents public input, and reduces public participation. We ask that the District make public the programming and granting program budgets for Arts and Humanities support in the District, and encourage public input in any revisions of those programs.

Now, full disclosure, I’ve received funding from the DC Commission for the Arts & Humanities and sit on the board of the DC Advocates, but these principles of transparency were on the DCAA docket before I got involved. Robert Bettmann, the DCAA’s chair, has been a long-time TransparencyCamp attendee and I’d like to think that Arts Advocacy Day 2012, slated for next week (March 14th), was planned to fall smack-dab in the middle of Sunshine Week (a national celebration of government transparency) for a reason.

“Transparency” is not a single issue. It’s a civic issue. Whether you’re an artist or a miner or a political blogger or a full-time developer or hunter or homicide reporter, how the government does its job — and whether we, the citizens, are brought into the process and shown how the sausage gets made — counts. That’s why Sunlight is proud to partner with other local groups in DC Arts Advocacy Day and why we invite you to join us:

DC Arts Advocacy Day

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wilson Building (the District’s city hall)

We’ll post with more details as we have them, but for now, you can find out more information about DC Arts Advocacy (and register to attend!) here.

Whether you identify as a DC local or work as a “Washingtonian” in the DMV, if you care about open government, Arts Advocacy Day is a unique opportunity to stand with creatives and send a message to DC’s local government about the power of sunlight in the budget process. Hope to see you there.

Original Publication URL:

3 Facts About Earmarks that the City Council Should Know

This isn’t a policy paper below. These are my thoughts after working out at the gym. I do think I’m right, I’m just hedging for the reasons you’d imagine. Here it goes:

3 Facts About Earmarks

1. They infantalize the arts community.

The earmark process turns professionals into professional suck-ups. Filing grant applications is reasonable. Making us need to establish succubent relationships with you to get what we need is dis-respectful to all involved. Everyone likes people who give them money. We’ll bring you flowers if you let us. But it exposes that somewhere in there, politicians think of artists/the arts community as pets. The city would benefit from being a real world class arts center. If you make the arts community a petting zoo, thats all its gonna be. You have to take yourself out of the equation. The work we’re doing isn’t meaningless. You need to respect it beyond politics. It’s like religion. It’s art. Please participate, and get out of the way.

2. They undermine the ability of the State arts agency/ DC Commission on the Arts to effectively design integrated community support/granting programs.

Using earmarks – two or three a year – is one thing. But using em constantly to grow organizations and fund special projects It would be absurd if I was walking into the DPW and after listening to a friend of someone who lives on a street spend one quarter of the DPW budget on something more or less out of the blue. Its nonsensical. Thats what you are doing when you write earmarks. Haphazard support is wasteful support. Support must constantly evolve and it requires attention. The decisions you allow yourselves to make in a few hours undermine all that attention. Put your faith in the experts youve hired to get it right and make certain they do. If you are committed to getting the maximum return on the citys investment,  you need to give the commission more money (including a discretionary fund that could be used – with oversight from the commissioners – to handle emergency-type need), and make us stop grabbing for scraps at your table.

3.They skew the success curve toward fundraisers, away from artists.

Artists – and the arts organizations that serve them – are notoriously NOT politicians. Right now the organizations that are getting the extra pieces of the pie are the ones who are the best at development work. Are you trying to fund an arts program or are you handing out pie to people who court you well? Do you know enough to really know what our community wants/needs? What it already has, and is already developing? Have some patience, and faith in the process you oversee. I know you’re only trying to help, and they’re all around, and very nice, and very convincing. I know that. And you do help with earmarks – a few a year. But for the reasons outlined above, its not really good for the city.

To sum up I’d like to add two things. One: I really want an earmark, and would make excellent use of the one-time investment. Two: the problem with earmarks isn’t transparency, or funding unworthy things. Infantilizing, skewing programming, funding fundraisers not artists… that’s the problem.