By Michael H. O’Donnell

When I think of the Idaho Commission on the Arts and state funding that helps keep it going, my mind takes a trip back to a Canadian hog barn where I spent many glorious hours assisting in the care of future pork roasts.

The Canadian farmer who ran the cow-calf and swine operation had a pretty slick setup for raising pigs from birth to “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya.”

My first day on the job I couldn’t help but notice the farmer kept a portable radio hanging in the main part of the barn where scores of hogs were confined. It think it was playing top 40 pop music.

My immediate conclusion was that the farmer needed the tunes to cut the monotony of feeding and cleaning up after the chubby denizens of the barn. He corrected this inaccuracy quickly.

“If you don’t have a radio playing music, they get bored and tear things up,” the farmer said.

Perhaps that’s why Idaho deems it appropriate to have an arts commission to help provide support for arts education in our schools, libraries and community agencies. For example, a project called “People & Places” allows Idahoans from all walks of life to contribute paintings or photographs that capture the qualities of an enduring community.

With the additional help from the federal government and private donors, the arts commission awards grants to give everyone an opportunity to express themselves through different art forms. It gives life to arts and crafts festivals, and taps into our need to express ourselves.

Maybe it’s just me, but these types of creative outlets probably — just like the hogs in the barn — help keep us from just tearing things up.

Last week the $1.9 million budget for the Idaho Commission on the Arts got dumped by the Idaho Legislature. That budget reflects all sources of income, not just state revenue.

Here’s the weird part. Democrats in the Legislature made it fail.

They were mad at being a frustrated minority forced into a role of protecting things like the arts commission from a pod of Republican naysayers. So when funding for the arts came up last Thursday, eight out of the 14 Democrats in the Idaho House joined 29 Republicans voting no. It was enough to kill the arts commission budget on a 36-33 vote.

The anger goes a little deeper, according to House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

While Democrats can’t get a simple introduction hearing on bills to consider an increase in the state’s minimum wage or possible Medicaid expansion, they’ve watched bills advance to protect us from the non-existent threat of Shariah law and new abortion rules requiring the state’s few providers to give frightened, desperate women a list of places they can go to get an ultrasound before proceeding.

It’s my guess that the next step is to make these women monogram baby blankets before they go through with a decision to end a pregnancy.

Rusche thought it was time for a protest. More moderate Republicans in the legislature have always supported the Idaho Commission on the Arts which was created in 1966. But there are at least 25 hardcore conservatives in the lawmaking body who won’t spend any money on fluffy stuff like art, music or even health care for Idaho’s working poor.

The Democrats in the legislature help offset this block of resistance.

Thursday eight of them helped the core group of naysayers beat the arts commission budget to death unless the measure is resurrected. Wow.

There was a little girl in my childhood neighborhood who had three older, semi-deranged brothers who loved to torture the family’s cat. She would always intervene and save the little black and white ball of fur from serious injury. The boys would then turn their attacks on her.

One day the girl tired of the battle and decided her parents would punish her brothers if things went too far.

There was just one major flaw in her thinking. Her dad was a heavy drinker who ruled the roost and he didn’t have much affection for anyone — animals included.

Unimpeded by their sister, the boys took things too far and crippled that poor cat.

The boys were cuffed a couple of times when dad found out, but the cat was still mangled and their sister still cried when she watched it limp around the house.

The main difference between this sad little girl and the Democrats in the Idaho House who voted to help defund the arts commission last week is she didn’t hand her brothers a stick.

The most conservative members of the Idaho Legislature are not mean drunks or twisted little boys, but their weak affection for fine arts and music ends with any hint of taxpayer money.

And Idaho Democrats have to remember: When you’re working in the frenzy of a hog barn, don’t turn the radio off.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.   

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