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Every year there are two things that can be said with certainty about the Missouri General Assembly. First, there are some very serious problems that it will not have time to address or resolve. Second, legislators will spend a lot of time coming up with unnecessary solutions to problems that don't exist. The latter is an apt description of Senate Bill 903, which would authorize cultural institutions in the Zoo-Museum District to charge admission to people who don't live in the City of St. Louis or St. Louis County.
The rationale is that property taxes from these two jurisdictions provide most of the financial support for the ZMD. In the opinion of some legislators and presumably some of their constituents, it's not fair to allow residents of other counties to visit the cultural institutions free of charge. The essence of the argument is: if you don't live in a county that pays taxes to the ZMD you should have to pay an admission fee to visit the institutions it supports.
It's worth noting that the leaders of these institutions have not asked the general assembly for the authority to charge admission. In fact, some of them have openly said that doing so would be a bad idea. They're absolutely right.
I have lived within a few hundred yards of Forest Park for most of my life; and I currently pay property taxes both to the City of St. Louis and to St. Louis County. From my perspective it's clear that visitors from other counties are good for St. Louis and for the cultural institutions in the park.
For as long as I can remember, free admission to institutions like the Art Museum and the Zoo has helped make St. Louis an appealing destination for regional tourists. The amount of money that these visitors contribute to the local economy through shopping, hotels and restaurants more than makes up for what they don't spend on admission fees. Considering the fierce competition for tourist dollars, we should not eliminate a feature that gives St. Louis an important advantage over other cities.
Free admission at cultural institutions isn't just good for the region's economy. It's also good for the institutions themselves. Because of their tradition of free admission, our cultural institutions have impressive attendance numbers in comparison with peer institutions in other cities. Their record of serving disadvantaged populations throughout the metropolitan area is particularly admirable. These numbers enhance the prestige of the institutions, which in turn helps them attract both funding and highly skilled employees from around the world.
Imposing admission charges would inevitably cause attendance to drop. Our cultural institutions would be less attractive to potential funders and to potential employees. The decline in visitors would be especially pronounced among disadvantaged populations.
There is admittedly a superficial appeal for public institutions to impose fees on those whose taxes may not directly support them. Upon closer examination, however, it's clear that the unintended consequences of the solution to this non-existent problem are worse than the problem itself.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.