Sometime later this year, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Congress may push through a massive public infrastructure bill.
Should that happen, communities across the state of Idaho may become eligible for grants — above and beyond the simple act of filling potholes and resurfacing streets — that will be devoted specifically to addressing community entrances and/or parks.
Say, for instance, the city of Lewiston snags a reasonably good piece of change for a facelift — perhaps near the roundabout at Snake River Avenue.
If Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, has his way, the money would be turned back.
The freshman Republican is responsible for a bill that would subject all public art projects costing more than $10,000 to a public vote.
There’s no small part of irony involved here. Von Ehlinger serves in a Legislature that seems hellbent on stopping voters from second-guessing its own decisions through the initiative or referendum process. Yet, here he would insist that any county, city or taxing district subject itself to second-guessing at the ballot box when it comes to public art.
What’s more, he would insist that two-thirds of the voters agree — a margin rarely achieved and even then, usually for public school construction bonds.
No one ever accused Idaho’s lawmakers of respecting local control. But this latest example of “Boise knows best” has all the trappings of a slippery slope. Slap a two-thirds vote requirement on public arts projects today; tomorrow it could be interfering with something Lewiston truly holds dear, such as fixing 21st Street or concocting some strategy to finally enable Lewiston’s economy to catch up with the rest of the state.
What’s generating this?
An educated guess would be the “Canoe Wave” sculpture near the eastern side of the Interstate Bridge. Although it’s something of a tourist draw now, the $100,000 structure generated its share of criticism when it first emerged a decade ago.
If it was a matter of taste, then it’s up to the individual.
But a lot of the griping was unfounded. For one thing, this was never a matter of diverting federal, state or local dollars from street repairs into some esoteric piece of art.
By the time Burlingham, Ala., artist Christopher Fennell completed it, the project had cost close to $100,000. But it was a small slice of a $904,000 package that included landscaping, rock work and retaining structures at Kiwanis Park, a sculptured rock and a welcome sign at the entrance to Lewiston just off the Interstate Bridge, planting of trees at the entrance and along Snake River Avenue and aerators at the ponds.
Most of the money came from the federal government: $500,000 in highway funds passed through the Idaho Transportation Department, $148,000 from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development and then another $48,000 from Avista Corp.
To obtain the grant, the city had to comply with two requirements: Raise 9 percent of the project’s costs, either in cash or through in-kind supplies and labor, and sponsor a public art project, which led to the “Canoe Wave.”
For the sake of argument, say history repeats itself and the infrastructure bill provides Lewiston with the opportunity to spruce up a bit under the same terms. Before the city could accept the grant, it would have to arrange an election on the public art component. That costs money. So does coming up with at least some initial proposed art concept to share with the voters.
If the people say no — or if simply one-third plus one reject the idea — every bit of the federal grant, not simply the smaller sum allocated for public art — could be lost.
That’s not a win for the budget deficit hawks. The money won’t go back to the federal treasury unspent. It would be diverted to another community that is free to spend it without being subjected to a two-thirds voter referendum.
Is that how the citizens of the Sixth Legislative District want their representative spending his time? — M.T.