A HELPING HAND: States contributes $2.9 million to new TheatreSquared

The state is sending $2.9 million from the so-called rainy fund to contribute to building the TheatreSquared in Fayetteville.

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Fayetteville Flyer reports here on the contribution to the $31.5 million project, which has also received more than $6 million from Fayetteville government sources and more than $14 million from the Walton Family Foundation.  Said the article:

The money will come from the state’s rainy day fund in recognition of the project’s substantial economic development and quality of life contributions, according to a news release from TheatreSquared.

Well, good for TheatreSquared. Perhaps the governor, with concurrence from the Legislative Council, might provide $2.9 million to keep the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in business providing substantial economic impact and quality of life contributions in Little Rock. Or save that old theater in Pine Bluff. The governor did give $5 million to the Arkansas Arts Center remodeling and the same question arises. The Marshals Museum in Fort Smith did get some money, too, along with the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado. I’d mentioned the Marshals Museum as a potential beneficiary originally.

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My point is not to gripe about Fayetteville’s good fortune. Or the Arts Center’s. Or those of other recipients.

I mentioned the rainy day fund the other day in connection with a Pew report on declining state expenditures nationwide on infrastructure, concurrent with tax cuts for rich people and, in many states, growing “rainy day” funds. These are essentially surplus funds beyond those appropriated for customary state services — schools, colleges, prisons, public safety. Gov. Asa Hutchinson gets to direct use of the money, with consent from the Legislative Council. He has tapped his fund for, among others, general revenue support of highway construction.

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The rainy day funds are justified as necessary to prepare for unforeseen needs. But I think some study is needed as to whether they have effectively become a delegation of the legislature’s appropriation power to the governor and whether, hold your breath, it could mean we are underfinancing essential services to allow it.

Example: School districts in Arkansas in many cases aren’t financially able to meet the increase in starting teacher pay Hutchinson and the legislature have mandated. We are woefully short in providing quality pre-school education. Might such needs be worthy of bigger regular appropriations, even if it meant a reduction in the amount sequestered in a “rainy day” fund that just showered dollars on the very prosperous city of Fayetteville or the Arkansas Arts Center, its board comprising some of the city’s wealthiest citizens? Might it be better spent on sufficient staffing of our parole and probation system? Could we shore up UAMS? Do something about the inexorable rise in college tuitions?

TheatreSquared is a valuable institution and its plans are ambitious. Good for them. But this gift, and others like it, still have an undeniable resemblance to a GIF project writ large.