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Telfer Takes the Axe to the Arts 

Oregon government can't offer many shining success stories over the past decade, but the Oregon Cultural Trust is one of them.

The brainchild of the late State Sen. Ben Westlund, in less than 10 years it's amassed an endowment of more than $15 million. It has given grants to more than a thousand artistic and cultural nonprofit enterprises, including about 30 in Central and Eastern Oregon. The Museum at Warm Springs, the High Desert Museum and the Cascade School of Music all have benefited from Cultural Trust grants.

The trust has been able to accumulate a respectable endowment not by having the government hand checks to it, but through the generosity of private donors. That generosity is stimulated by a state tax credit of up to $500 a year ($1,000 for a couple) for charitable contributions to art and cultural organizations. A tax credit is a much juicier enticement that a tax deduction because the taxpayer gets to subtract it from the actual amount of tax owed, rather than subtracting it from the income on which the tax is computed.

In this age of fiscal panic, though, when everybody - especially Republicans - is howling that governments at all levels are broke and must hold on grimly to every penny (well, unless they're talking about more tax cuts for billionaires) the Oregon Cultural Trust is under attack. Anyway its funding mechanism is, which amounts to the same thing.

Republican State Sen. Chris Telfer of Bend, notably, is glaring angrily at the Trust and saying the tax credit feature needs to be scrapped.

"Frankly, I don't think supporting the cultural trust, given our economic situation and balancing-budget problem, that's something we should be doing right now," Telfer told a reporter. "We need to step back and say, is this what Oregon's tax dollars should be going toward?"

Telfer would have a stronger case if the trust was sucking huge gobs of money out of the state treasury. But it isn't; the tax credit reduces state income tax revenue by only about $3 million to $4 million a year. (Contrast that with the more than $1 billion the state loses every time the ridiculous "kicker" goes into effect, or the hundreds of millions that major corporations operating in Oregon don't pay in corporate income taxes.)

Nor, with the credit capped at only $500 a year for individuals and $1,000 for couples, does the tax credit amount to a major tax dodge for rich Oregonians.

When budget-cutting time rolls around, politicians tend to swing their axes most energetically at things that rub their ideology the wrong way. Conservatives historically are less than enamored of artistic and cultural programs, which they often see as useless folderol at best and pinko-socialist propaganda at worst. Maybe the eagerness of Telfer and other Republicans to chop down the Cultural Trust springs from such motives.

Whatever the motives, though, it's a bad idea. The trust has been an excellent and quite affordable investment for Oregon. Telfer's plan to boot it should get THE BOOT from the legislature.


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