Updated: Olympia about to renege again on funding King County arts groups

4Culture has been patiently playing the legislative game, hoping to nail-down its visitor-tax funding. For the sixth straight year, it's being stood up at the altar.
4Culture has been patiently playing the legislative game, hoping to nail-down its visitor-tax funding. For the sixth straight year, it's being stood up at the altar.

One of the longest-running heartbreak sagas in Olympia has been over funding arts in King County. Each year for the past six, the nonprofit organization 4Culture, which passes along hotel-motel tax money to the arts, has asked the legislature for certainty about those funds once they get free from funding the Kingdome and Qwest Field. Once the bonds are retired in 2020, 4Culture hopes to have a steady and substantial (37.5 percent) share of the sales tax on hotels, a device used to promote tourism in many counties around the state and not supposed to sunset.

4Culture, the nonprofit successor to the old King County Arts Commission, has long received some of this hotel-motel sales-tax, so it has a good place in line for its continuation. They've played ball with the Sonics in some years, letting arts give a high-minded cover for the sports barons. Speaker Frank Chopp holds the key to these fund, and he wants to pledge about $10 million a year of that money for low-income housing. (Chopp's demand is a political problem, since it is a serious stretch of the nexus established between taxing hotel visitors and providing benefits, like stadiums and arts, that bring more visitors.) Others like the UW, wanting a different pot of visitor money, the 0.5 percent tax on restaurants, for a remodeled Husky Stadium, further muddying the waters.

Speaker Chopp likes to keep all the supplicants waiting to the last minute, so he can then cut the deal. Last year he set a new record in cleverness by giving 4Culture a promise of the funds — expiring in a year. And he reportedly assured the arts groups that he would definitely come through this year, so long as he also got, dollar-for-dollar, his low-income housing. Now it appears he has stepped on a Senate version of the bill that gives him the money he wants but not until 2020.

The complicated bill for the visitor taxes has passed the House, stripped of Husky Stadium money, and now appears heading for defeat in the Senate. If it does make it through the Senate, it has a chance of going to the House for concurrence. Don't hold your breath. A key advocate calls it "a long shot." The nub of the problem is that a bill that funds stadiums loses about half the Democratic caucus, and one that doesn't help the jocks loses the other half.

Short primer. The lodging tax, a 2 percent tax credit for King County and other counties, was passed to build the Kingdome; when it produced more money than needed to pay Kingdome bonds, then state Sen. Jim McDermott steered the excess to the Seattle Art Museum and King County arts. Some of it was later deflected to pay for the falling roof tiles at the Kingdome and as part of the Qwest Field package for the Seahawks, putting King County arts in a temporary squeeze, 2012-20. The other visitor taxes are on car rentals (out of state companies are the owners of these fleets), restaurants, and another sales tax credit: these go to Safeco Field and are the visitor taxes promised to expire when they've done their job, around 2015. The lodging tax, which basically funds tourist promotion and construction around the state, was never supposed to expire. As for the Seattle Convention Center, that's funded by a whopping 7 percent add-on to the sales tax for hotel rooms in Seattle (2.8 percent outside Seattle but in King County). Got that?

A lesser-known aspect of this saga is another culture-funding measure that has been quietly lobbying the legislature, confusing the issue while keeping a low public profile. This is the effort to import from Denver a much-admired pattern for funding culture, arts education, "scientific institutions" (like zoos, science centers, and botanical gardens) by having local voters over four counties agree to tax themselves (either by sales tax or property tax) to create a "cultural access district." The advocates (including me for a while) agreed to keep a low profile, even while lobbying the measure in the current and previous session.

And so the arts groups, growing ever more desperate in the recession, face more uncertainty, more expensive lobbying bills, and still very low public funding. It's another illustration of how narrow the Seattle issues are for Speaker Chopp, D-Seattle. And of how the unwelcome idea of funding Husky Stadium renovations in tough times clouded everything.


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