Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has been at the forefront of the cultural economy movement since before Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, he took the lead in standing up the arts and hospitality industries, which have anchored New Orleans' post-storm recovery. State Rep. Taylor Townsend, D-Natchitoches, has authored three bills that would give additional state support in these areas. HB 359 creates "cultural product districts" with tax incentives related to cultural activities; HB 495 reduces the state income tax burden on artists for the sale of artistic works; and HB 568 authorizes culinary arts and food science investor tax credits. All three bills cleared the House Ways and Means Committee last week.
On the Senate side, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, steered his "Broadway South" legislation (SB 218) through the tough-minded Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee last week. Although the measure took on several amendments, its principal elements remain intact. As proposed by New Orleans-born actor Roger Wilson, Broadway South would do for live theater statewide what the film tax credits did for the movie industry -- plus it would create permanent jobs and infrastructure improvements in every corner of the state.
These ideas shouldn't be a hard sell, particularly when the state has more than $3 billion lying around in surpluses and additional forecast revenues.
"Many people do not realize that our culture -- our music, food, film, arts and architecture -- accounts for 144,000 jobs in Louisiana and 14 percent of our employment base," Landrieu says. "Our culture has great intrinsic value. We have a natural tendency to view music and the arts as spectators. ... We need to recognize culture as an industry and use smart tax policy to keep our cultural industries healthy and strong."
Landrieu noted that Louisiana's investment in film tax credits took us from $20 million in film production in 2000 to more than $500 million in 2005. Murray and Wilson point to that kind of success in promoting Broadway South.
"We took on a few amendments," Murray said after the Senate committee approved the bill last Thursday, "but they are not fatal. The most important thing is that we have cleared the committee, and we are continuing to build support for this idea every step of the way."
If approved by lawmakers, Broadway South would provide several forms of tax credits for live productions as well as for infrastructure improvements, combining them with GO-Zone federal investment tax credits. That combination would help bring Broadway-bound plays as well as local productions to newly renovated theaters across the state.
There's a legendary story around the state Capitol that dates from the 1960s, when "culture" meant fine art and classical music. As the story goes, an Uptown matron was making the rounds at the Capitol advocating state support for various cultural institutions, and after several days lawmakers had grown weary of her constant carping on behalf of "culture." One day, she cornered a local "yat" legislator who was hoping to make a beeline to his daily noontime repast of adult beverages. As she launched into her familiar drone, the legislator tried as best he could to politely cut her off -- and let her down easy at the same time -- when he blurted out, "I'm with you, Miss, because I know that if ya ain't got culcha, ya ain't got shit." And then he darted off to the nearest watering hole.
Louisiana has come a long way since then in terms of expressing support for "culcha," but those legendary words probably ring truer now than ever. If we ain't got culture ... well, let's just hope that Louisiana always will -- and that we'll always make it our business to support it.
CORRECTION: Last week in this column, I incorrectly stated that Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge and a practicing attorney, had represented a lobbyist and had received legal fees as a result of that representation. Greene says he has never derived any income from lobbyists. His statements during a May 9 committee hearing with regard to attorney representation of lobbyists were based on hypothetical situations only and not on his actual law practice. I apologize for the error.