Salt Lake County’s November Referendum

By: Gordon Jones

Gordon S Jones B&W Headshot

I am a member of the Boards of Directors of the Draper Arts Council, the Draper Historic Theater, and the Babcock Performing Readers, all of which receive ZAP funding.

I am also a performer, producer and director of community and semi-professional theater, having had a hand in the production of more than 50 plays over the last twelve years or so. Nearly all of these benefited from ZAP funding.

I attend plays, operas, ballets, and other types of performance art regularly. On average, I see about 100 productions a year. Most of these are produced by entities supported by ZAP funding or by analogous systems in other counties.

Obviously, I am a patron of the arts, and as such might be expected to support the Zoo Arts and Park tax, which collects 1 cent of every $10 spent in Salt Lake County (there are similar arrangements in other counties).

I don’t.

In fact, I consider the Zoo, Arts, and Parks Tax to be a morally indefensible system by which the artistic preferences of the rich are subsidized by the poor in Salt Lake County.

Sales taxes are widely recognized as regressive, as they consume a higher proportion of the available resources of the poor than they do of those better off. Consequently, and simply put, ZAP taxes, which are collected as part of sales taxes, constitute a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. To put it crudely, the rich go to the opera; the poor go bowling.

My own experience is in theater, and it is only anecdotal. Based on it, I can tell you that the people I perform with, direct, and attend the theater with are overwhelmingly from the upper income brackets of our society. As proof, we need merely look at advertising in the playbills of the Utah Symphony and Opera, Ballet West, Pioneer Memorial Theater, and other purveyors of high culture. Maserati, City Creek Apartments, and O.C. Tanner are not trying to reach the residents of Poplar Grove.

To attack taxpayer funding of the arts is to attack the sacredest of cows, and it is unlikely to succeed. The Boards of Directors and Boards of Advisers of our elite high culture institutions constitute an honor roll of Utah’s rich, famous, and well-connected. Nonetheless, it has to be said.

If there is a role for government funding of the arts, it should not involve subsidies for those organizations that are doing very well.

Pioneer Theater, Hale Theater the Utah Symphony and Opera, the Utah Ballet would survive very well without ZAP money. Each of these organizations, and those like them, have supporters who could write a check for the amount of ZAP money they get, and never miss it.

At the same time, there are dozens of small theater companies that could use help. They won’t get it because Salt Lake County is building a Broadway-style theater on Main Street that will be patronized by that roll-call of the rich and famous, not by the citizens of Rose Park and Glendale.

The Empress Theater in Magna, the Draper Historic Theater, the Sugar Factory Play House, Pinnacle Acting Company, StageRight, Bluffdale Arts, Salt Lake Repertory, Silver Summit, Meat and Potato, Wasatch Theater Company, Plan B, and many more have no venue in which to perform.

If you want to help the miner’s child in Copperton, help the South Jordan Arts Council, where a ticket costs $7; don’t help Ballet West, where a ticket is going to cost $40 or more.

The same subsidy of the rich by the poor exists in the Zoo and Park aspects of the program as well. Those going to the Hogle Zoo or the Tracy Aviary are more likely to be upper-income than lower. And while any and all can enjoy the amenities of city parks, most of the trails built and maintained with ZAP money over the past 17 years have been located in areas convenient to the rich, where they are used by well-off joggers to a far greater degree than by those at the bottom of the income scale.

In general, I oppose using government as a tool to equalize incomes, but at least there is some justification for doing so. But to use government to plunder the poor to subsidize the rich is shameful.

Gordon Jones can be reached at