Arts hitch their hopes to two Olympia bills

We are notably stingy when it comes to public funding for the arts, but two bills could come riding to the rescue of gasping organizations. The key is hitching arts wagons to the political causes of tourism, jobs, and education.

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Nathan Ayon and Kelsey Taylor, in "West Side Story"

We are notably stingy when it comes to public funding for the arts, but two bills could come riding to the rescue of gasping organizations. The key is hitching arts wagons to the political causes of tourism, jobs, and education.

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.

All of which brings us next to the local-option tax for the arts, which has the ungainly title of the Education and Arts Access Program (EAAP). Now we're talking real money, though of course it would require local voters to tax themselves, rather than extending existing taxes mostly levied on visitors. Here the political alliance is with education, as public schools cut arts programs; in turn, this gives legislators who are decimating public education a little cover.

The idea for EAAP goes back many years to a visit made to Seattle by Denver's then-mayor (now governor) John Hickelooper. About 20 years ago, when Denver's arts organizations were in crisis mode, they put together a funding package that is the envy of nearly every other American city. It's a tenth of a cent sales tax on seven counties, which means it's only about $25 per household per year, and the money flows to major arts groups as well as many smaller groups around the region, and also to things like the Zoo, the botanical gardens, the science center and other things you might think of taking your children too next Saturday morning. Voters renew the levy each 10 years, and it now passes by very wide margins. One big reason for the voter approval is that the Denver package, as here, includes such super-popular institutions as the zoo, the aquarium, and the science center; our local equivalents would also benefit hugely from the passage of EAAP.

In Denver, there are few strings attached to the funds, which are based on attendance and budget size, though most recipients return the favor with more free days, more educational programs. It raises a lot of money, more than $50 million a year; applied to the four counties (King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap), that would be more like $70 million a year, a transformative amount. The local variant also does a better job than Denver's in spreading money to the outlying counties and to small arts organizations, including money for capital.

After some years of looking for traction for importing this idea, the former head of ArtsFund, Peter Donnelly, found a powerful supporter of the idea in Jon Shirley, a major benefactor of the Seattle Art Museum, who had learned that public funding of the Denver Art Museum was about $5 million, compared to the $159,000 SAM now gets from the city of Seattle. A four-county coalition was assembled under the sponsorship of the Prosperity Partnership at the Puget Sound Regional Council, along with ArtsFund, and the arts and science groups ponied up money for surveys and a lobbyist. The Cultural Access Fund (its former name) chose to lie low, so as not to scare off legislators with two toxic three-letter words (Art and Tax), and to give 4Culture its earned first place in line.

The Denver approach of few-strings-attached funding for general operations (the most coveted of all funding for arts groups) has been much modified to make it more politically palatable. The emphasis now is tying the money to extensive educational programs by the arts and science groups, including paying for transportation from schools to performances. (Each student in a public school would be guaranteed at least one arts or science event a year, including transportation.) This is surely a worthy emphasis, given how much instruction of the arts is fading before the budget-crunchers.

Similarly, EAAP has been tailored so it can be adopted by many out-state counties, most of which have zero funds for developing arts facilities and supporting them. In turn, this broadening of the coalition to many other regions, particularly Spokane, is what gives the bill a chance in Olympia. Another change: counties can choose to tax themselves through a sales tax (already very high in this state, and regressive) or a property tax (also unpopular and more cumbersome).

Speaker Chopp is said to be a supporter now of SHB 1837, which so far has no Republican votes. In the Senate Sen. Ed Murray is crucial but so far elusive. (If he is serious about running for mayor of Seattle, as he seems to be, Murray will doubtless realize that grabbing the arts patrons as backers, after Mayor McGinn alienated them by trying to snatch funds from the Museum of History and Industry, ought to be Politics 101.) Executive Constantine, a longtime arts supporter, is also in favor of EAAP.

A moment for disclosure: I helped convene that first session with Mayor Hickenlooper and have helped formulate the Seattle adaptation of the idea, though I am no longer involved in that effort. While it pains me to see so many strings attached — forcing some arts groups into educational efforts they can sometimes do in very routine ways — I certainly see that money of this magnitude could not only stabilize tottering arts organizations, but also put some of them up on the next plateau. During one planning meeting, the head of a Seattle major arts organization did a quick calculation aand learned that, if enacted, the new funding would be the equivalent of an $85 million increase to its endowment.

The awkward fact of the Seattle area is that we are way down the list of public funding for the arts. Seattle will probably keep cutting its funding, already very small, to the arts; and it is apparently tilting is support of the arts more toward nightlife and building new neighborhood facilities. 4Culture has been afflicted with funding uncertainty for years, and its mandate is to spread lots of small grants to many small, outside-Seattle groups. At the state level, the governor has proposed virtual elimination of the Washington Arts Commission, already one of the lowest in the nation.

UPDATED: An example: Seattle Repertory Theatre, struggling and scaling back its budget, gets $111,000 a year from the city and $45,000 from 4Culture. Figures of current grants from the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs are here; those from 4Culture are here. Under EAAP, the figure would be close to $1 million, though much of that would be tied to access and education programs, with associated new costs.

The result of our public stinginess and other factors is a massive squeeze on our arts investment. New corporations like Amazon pay almost no attention to the arts or funding them, compared to old economy funders such as Boeing, Safeco, and Burlington Northern. (Paul Allen is a notable and admirable exception.) Newly wealthy individuals from the new economy tend to jet away to big cities for their culture (the Jet-Blue Syndrome, it's called, with gallows humor), and the new economy seems to favor new arts, like media arts, if any fine arts at all. Corporations are cutting back or diverting more money to social and environmental and global concerns.

So if the public sector doesn't step into this situation, we will probably have to content ourselves with a long slow glide-path to a less ambitious, lower-quality, broader-appeal arts scene. Probably we already have, with few even bothering to notice. These two bills in Olympia look a lot like the the last-chance saloon.


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