Without plates, arts, roads would suffer

Without plates, arts, roads would suffer

By STATE SEN. MARK NORRIS
July 8, 2008

Gov. Phil Bredesen is grousing about license plates again. He should forget about it. Specialty plates are generating revenue he cannot afford to lose. And a lot more.

When I became chairman of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee in 2004, little did I know of the relationship between transportation and the arts.

It was the Specialty License Plate Program that brought us together. The committee oversees the Department of Safety, which issues license plates, and it oversees the budgets of the departments of Transportation and Safety, which depend in part on voluntary payments made by Tennesseans who support various nonprofit organizations through the plate program. Last year, specialty plates generated $294,152 for the road fund.

Few understand the program, the revenues it generates or how they are spent. In light of the governor’s periodic grumbling about the “proliferation of plates,” perhaps this is a good time to explain; especially, since it is one of the few programs that generate revenue without taxation at a time when state government is cutting budgets and laying off employees.

Since 1983, Tennessee law has authorized the sale of premium-priced license plates bearing special logo types to raise revenue for specific agencies, charities, programs and other activities affecting Tennessee. Half the profits go to the nonprofit groups publicized on the plates. Forty percent goes to the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the remaining 10 percent goes to the state’s highway fund.

Grants reach underserved

Last year, the program generated $4,408,698 for the Arts Commission. Established by the General Assembly in 1967, it is the lead agency championing Tennessee’s cultural heritage and presentation of performing, visual and literary arts. Seventy-six percent of its budget is funded by the plate program.

The Arts Commission offers grants to arts and non-arts organizations and individuals in 21 categories. These categories were created to reach every population in Tennessee, including underserved populations: children, those living in rural or isolated settings, people of color, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. In the coming fiscal year, more than 800 grants will be awarded directly to organizations and individuals. An additional 1,000 or more will be distributed through decentralized grant programs.

Almost $1.5 million of the Arts Commission’s budget will be invested in arts education next year. More than 221,000 students have received ticket subsidy grants.

Value Plus Schools, an arts integration reform model initiated by the Arts Commission, was recently selected by the U.S. Education Department for a case study on successful arts learning programs. The National Endowment for the Arts ranked the commission’s arts education program as No. 1 in the country.

A recent economic impact study of the arts in Tennessee estimated an annual return of $132.4 million, affecting some 4,000 jobs in this state.

That’s not a bad return on investment. Governor, the way things are going, leave this program alone. It works.

Mark Norris, the Senate Republican leader from Collierville, is chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference Committee on Transportation, Economic Development and Cultural Affairs.

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