Hickenlooper: Business Payroll Earmark for Art Would Be "Small Amount" (VIDEO)

07/19/2010 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In an interview with the online culture magazine Adobe Airstream, (the same one in which he said we should "wean ourselves off automobiles") Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper touted the benefits of a business payroll earmark for art.

We've talked a lot in Denver about having one-tenth of one percent for art. So that every business spends one-tenth of one percent of their payroll, for art. It's, I mean, it's a small amount, but yet for most of these large businesses, it's a significant amount. But it means for, you know, if an employee is making, you know, one percent...If you're making $100,000, it would be $1,000, so one tenth would be 100 bucks. So if you're making $50,000 you'd be making $50 bucks. It doesn't sound like a lot, but you know, these companies that have ten- and thirteen-thousand employees, all of a sudden, they're spending thousands of dollars...Ten-, fifteen-, twenty-thousand dollars a year, buying art from local artists.

I'm calling it a payroll "earmark" rather than a payroll mandate because that's how it was described in this 2005 profile of Hickenlooper by Time magazine.

Hickenlooper dismisses one-tenth of one percent as a "small amount" (out of somebody's pocket) while also proclaiming it a "significant amount" for his type of cultural engineering. In fact, there already is a one-tenth of one percent SALES TAX in the seven-country Denver metro area to fund the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, which annually distributes $40 million.

Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee for governor of Colorado, sounds gleeful at the pot of money that could be generated by big companies for them to buy and install art in their workplaces. Maybe he hasn't noticed that, as reported in April by The Denver Post, "In the past year, the Denver area has gone from 11 Fortune 500 companies to eight -- and will fall to seven after the Qwest-CenturyTel merger is complete." Or that the Denver-Broomfield-Aurora area "lost 31,400 private-sector jobs" in the 12 months ending in April, according to The Denver Business Journal.

Hickenlooper would like to boost the economy of the local arts community by directing the way that businesses spend their capital. But in the long run, businesses would either pay their employees one-tenth of one percent less than they would have otherwise, or would go without additional employees or expenditures that would have benefited a different sector of the economy. It's the same debate going on nationally about the federal government, which is picking winners and losers in the economy with bailouts, stimulus spending and 2,000-page regulatory traps.

Let me say it as simply as I can: THAT IS NOT GOVERNMENT'S ROLE.

Hickenlooper may view his arts plan as an economic stimulus. What we'd never see is the additional office assistant paid $30,000 a year, because employers would instead be figuring out how to pay for Hickenlooper's arts program - on top of everything else. That would-be office assistant is in the unemployment line.