Ten years ago, a small group met at Town Hall Seattle for an informal briefing on arts funding by the just-elected mayor of Denver (now governor) John Hickenlooper. The charismatic, arts-loving mayor explained how Denver, starting in 1989, had come up with a much-admired system for generous and stable public funding for arts and scientific institutions (zoos, botanical gardens, science centers, etc.).
From that meeting grew a widening movement to import the Denver model to this state. This Tuesday in Olympia, all that work faces a big vote in the Republican-led Senate Rules Committee that would be the crucial step in authorizing local voters to enact such a plan. It would come not a moment too soon, as many of these institutions, hard-pressed by the recession, are in dire need. Moreover, we are a state and city notably stingy in public support of the arts. (Disclosure time: I was involved in the early years of trying to shape this plan, but have not played any active role in the past three years.)
Given the partisan warfare in Olympia, however, don’t hold your breath for this session. It’s hard enough getting the Republican-controlled Senate to allow a vote that permits an increase in taxes (even with a requirement of local voters enacting the increase). It may be harder still to get the Democratic House to enact such a measure unless the GOP yields on issues such as additional funding for K-12 education and for Metro buses. The showdown pits Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican from Redmond who is pushing for the Cultural Access Fund but having trouble getting enough caucus votes, and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Queen Anne who is co-sponsor of the House version. Carlyle says he won’t move the bill out of his Finance Committee without Republicans delivering votes on education and transit.
The bills in question, SB 6151, and its House equivalent, HB 2212, would enable individual counties, upon a local vote, to levy 0.1 percent of sales tax (or an equivalent amount by property tax) that would be divvied up among arts, scientific and heritage organizations for a seven-year period. The Legislature is not itself raising taxes, but simply authorizing that to be done (or nixed) by voters at the county level. In Denver, the program is voted on each 10 years, with the recent vote in 2004 passing by a large margin over seven participating counties. The money would be transformative in the Seattle area, while in smaller counties it would be strong fertilizer.
Here’s how it would work locally if authorized by Olympia and then enacted by the voters of King County. It would raise about $47 million a year. The first 10 percent would go to schools, for arts and science education and for support of trips to arts and science institutions. The next big chunk, about $32 million a year, would go to “regional institutions,” defined as non profits in arts and science (including the Science Center, Aquarium, Zoo, MOHAI) whose annual budgets exceed $1,250,000, and who draw attendance from the wider region. The money would be awarded on the basis of budget size and attendance, and could be used for general operations (the most precious of all funding). No regional organization could receive more than 15 percent of its budget from the Cultural Access funds. There are about 37 eligible regional organizations in King County, covering arts, museums and heritage projects.
The last slice, about $10 million, would go to smaller organizations below that $1,250,000 budget level. These would apply for grant money on a competitive basis, with an emphasis on access, lower ticket prices, outreach to young people and underserved populations. In King County, 4Culture would be the organization overseeing the grants to “community organizations,” whose number is estimated at 226. These recipients could apply money to capital projects, and there is no 15 percent cap.
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