Note: figures corrected for Seattle and King County funding for Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Two, count 'em, two bills are making their ways through the Legislature that could bring considerable help to the arts. I know this sounds implausible, and these chickens should not be counted before hatching in the hectic last hours of the session. Nonetheless, these are encouraging developments, as well as a sign of the new politics in this region.
The reason for the success (so far) of these measures is that they have attached the arts wagon to the much bigger vehicles of tourism and education. Funding arts for arts sake is very, shall we say, pre-Recession. Still the begging arts groups can't exactly be choosy these days, and we're talking many millions of dollars a year to local arts under these two bills.
The two bills approach arts funding in two different ways. The King County measure continues stadium-related taxes for 4Culture, the nonprofit, county-affiliated agency that funds arts, heritage, and culture. The second bill, much less visible until now, would enable counties (in groups or singly) to seek local voter approval of a tax to fund arts and such "scientific institutions" as zoos and the Science Center, with a strong emphasis on education and school visits. In neither case is the Legislature itself raising taxes, but rather continuing some already in place on hotels and restaurants, or authorizing county taxpayers to pass a new tax on themselves.
Let's look at the King County measure first.
King County government, before it went broke, used to fund the arts itself, at a paltry level. Then came the taxes to repair the Kingdome and build Safeco Field and Qwest Field. Imposing these taxes, though largely confined to taxing visitors through hotel rooms, restaurants, and rental cars, required some prettifying, so the county arts agency was also funded with some left-over taxes, enabling the county itself to stop funding the arts (while of course taking credit for it). All this worked well for many years, peaking at nearly $12 million flowing to 4Culture, before sliding with the recession to $8.7 million this past year.
The problem is that these visitor taxes are supposed to expire when the various bond issues for the stadiums are paid off. In addition, the entire arts portion of the hotel-motel tax gets diverted from 2012-2020 to stadium bonds. So 4Culture has had to put aside 40 percent of its annual gross revenues into an endowment (estimated at $42 million by 2012) to be tapped in the lean years of 2012-2020. At that point, county funding of arts and heritage groups would plummet.
For the past seven years, 4Culture has sought relief from the Legislature, hitching its wagon to the various big claimants on the lodging tax, such as the Sonics, or Husky Stadium, or the Mariners' need for major capital repair funds. Each year this house of cards collapsed in the closing hours of the Legislature, since there was still time to try to solve it before 2012.
This year, King County Executive Dow Constantine put together a new kind of package, using the expansion of the Convention Center as the major beneficiary. That translates into construction jobs as well as more conventioneers to fill up hotel rooms and local restaurants. In turn, that may translate into a willingness by the lodging and restaurant industry to continue taxes that otherwise would be expiring. 4Culture was dealt into the package, and there were some small servings of pork (low income housing at transit stations for Speaker Frank Chopp and an International District agency for Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos). HB 1997 is moving through the House well, and SB 5834, being shepherded by Sen. Ed Murray, got a strong boost last week in the Senate.
If passed, the measures would provide $3 million a year to 4Culture, 2012-2020, would enable 4Culture to draw down its endowment, adding another $6 million a year, and then, after 2012, 4 Culture would receive 37.5 percent of the continued lodging tax, flowing at least $10 million a year to its programs. Counting inflation, that is pretty much status-quo for 4Culture, and its money is spread very thinly across a large number of groups all over the county. Major arts organizations get rather small grants.
And what about the Convention Center? This facility is also funded by a tax on lodging, a healthy 7 percent in Seattle and 2.84 percent elsewhere in King County. The center had been accumulating reserve funds toward an expansion program, but the Legislature snatched $120 million as budget balancers a few years ago. This infuriated the lodging and restaurant groups, understandably. A lawsuit was initiated and last year in the Legislature the center effectively divorced the state, setting up its own public facilities district and refinancing the state's debt. Now the center controls the money flowing in from the lodging taxes, and so can go to the bond market for the expansion with assurance that this money won't be snatched away again.
Still, it would take another five years for the center's reserves to build up to the point where it could get bond financing for its $600 planned expansion to a sister convention center one block to the north of the present center, built over the Metro bus station at 800 Pike St.. Constantine approached the center with the idea of flowing some of the stadium-related taxes to the center, about $100 million over the next six years, so that the center could go to the bond market next year and construction could commence in 2013-14. He got Speaker Chopp's buy-in by meeting his terms on low-income housing, folded in 4Culture, and headed off to Olympia.
Artful as the log-rolling is for this package, it could easily come apart. The Mariners are angry because they don't have money for major repairs (including a new roof) are not funded. A lot of the restaurant industry, still furious over Chopp's grabbing of convention center funds and not liking his low-income housing portion (not exactly related to stimulating tourism), could bolt.
There might also be questions about the wisdom of building a similar-sized convention center a block away from the present one; both would then be undersized for major conventions. The center's president, John Christison, makes the case that with two centers, each about 700,000 square feet of rentable space, you can get rid of the 4-5 days of inactivity as one convention loads out and a new one loads in; in effect, no more "valleys" for the nearby hotels and restaurants. There might also be a good urban design opportunity to connect up the two centers with more urban amenities, new commercial and hotel buildings, and a planned "Convention Place" area that would make more approachable the large blank walls of the typical center.
Jim Kelly, the executive director of 4Culture, gives three reasons why the arts-cum-tourism package could well fly this session. One is the active role of Constantine; previous Executive Ron Sims was a much less active player in these proposals. Second is the decision by the University of Washington to pull Husky Stadium out of the list of supplicants; their request was politically unpopular, in part because an equal $100 million or so would have been necessary to placate WSU. The third factor was the fact that the restaurant tax going to pay off Safeco Field was about to expire in 2011, unless claimed by this new package; it can be continued, if there's a proper use, until 2015.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!