Constantine brokers an artful bill to fund King County arts

The county exec cobbles together backers of the arts, tourism, the convention center, and (oddly) low-income housing, in hopes of capturing stadium taxes that might otherwise expire.

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King County Executive Dow Constantine.

The county exec cobbles together backers of the arts, tourism, the convention center, and (oddly) low-income housing, in hopes of capturing stadium taxes that might otherwise expire.

King County Executive Dow Constantine has quietly worked out a deal in the Legislature that divvies up money for 4Culture, the arts-and-heritage-funding agency, for the Seattle Convention Center, and for low-income housing. The package has finally seen the light of day, when it was introduced by Des Moines Democrat Tina Orwall. Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune recounts the story.

The deal is the latest attempt, over six years, to parcel out the revenues as various taxes on lodging, meals, and rental cars (designed to pay off the Kingdome debt, Safeco Field, and Qwest Field) become available to expire or be extended. 4Culture has lived off the hotel-motel tax for years, but that portion gets shifted from arts to stadium debts entirely in 2012.

As the deadline neared, 4Culture has tried all manner of deals to get the funds extended, often joining with sports interests (such as the Sonics) in hoping to roll enough logs to secure its funding well into the future. (Curiously, King County itself is too broke, or benighted, to fund the arts, so it relies on this dole from the state, passing it through to a wide array of local arts and heritage groups.)

A sticking point has always been Speaker Frank Chopp, who wants (as usual) a significant part of that money for low-income housing. No housing, no deal: That's been the usual sour end to several legislative sessions. Here's my account of the heartbreak a year ago. The problem is that the tourism interests, who pay the taxes, don't want to see that money go to something as unrelated to tourism as low-income housing. Others, such as restaurants, naturally want to see the stadium taxes expire completely.

Rather than trying to face down the powerful Speaker, Constantine brokered a deal that got money to 4Culture, to accelerating the building of the Convention Center expansion, and to some other tourism-related facilities near the stadiums. As for low-income housing, there's language suggesting that it should go to people working in tourism-related jobs. Here's the complete H.B. 1997. And here's Constantine's press release on the package.

It will be interesting to see if the package, with broad business, labor, and arts support, will survive the 11th-hour maneuvering of the session, and if there will be enough money for these beneficiaries. It's not very generous to 4Culture, only earmarking $3 million a year, while low-income housing will get $5 million a year.

Another wrinkle in this saga is the very-hushed effort by many large arts groups to get authorization from the Legislature for a Denver-style vote in King County (and maybe some surrounding counties) to support arts and educational institutions like zoos and botanical gardens and historical museums. In Denver, this model raises more than $50 million a year for support, drawing on a seven-county tax base. The local proposal, called the Cultural Access District has been in the oven for at least five years, though still little known by the general public. It keeps running up against Speaker Chopp's resistance to tax increases, to Seattle, and to the arts. The other problem for the Denver advocates is the first-in-line position of the 4Culture package.

It's a shame these two approaches couldn't find a common proposal, but peace talks collapsed about a month ago. Constantine, a creative and consistent supporter of the arts, then decided to push ahead with his deal, rather than seek to meld the approaches.


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