Bill for cultural districts dies in the House

(With an update) The measure, allowing counties to pass new taxes to support arts and education, had been revised to get Speaker Frank Chopp's support, but lack of support in the House Democratic caucus killed it again this year.

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Speaker Frank Chopp leads House Democrats.

(With an update) The measure, allowing counties to pass new taxes to support arts and education, had been revised to get Speaker Frank Chopp's support, but lack of support in the House Democratic caucus killed it again this year.

 Once again, efforts to get legislation for local counties to enact arts and education districts have failed. The measure, despite support from Speaker Frank Chopp, did not get a floor vote. "Didn't have the votes in the Democratic caucus," was the terse explanation from Chopp spokesperson Melinda McCready. That's not surprising. Republicans naturally wouldn't help a bill that would raise taxes, and Democrats were fearful of being tagged in the next election with raising taxes to fund artistic "frills."

This outcome is particularly disappointing to leading advocates of the measure, such as Seattle Art Museum former board president Jon Shirley, who had lobbied Chopp hard and got his endorsement. Chopp promised to move the bill out of the ways and means committee and through the rules committee, which happened, but not to bring it to the floor.

Advocates thought they had enough votes in the House to have a floor vote with a good chance of passing, but may have miscounted, or members may have not been telling the truth or (most likely) shifted. Many felt they had already taken a "hard" vote for the arts in supporting the King County 4Culture bill for extending the lodging taxes. Others were mindful of the coming revenue forecast in a few weeks, expected to require even more dire cuts in education, colleges, and social services. Voting for new taxing districts for the arts and other institutions just seemed too hard in that context. In the end, says one Democrat, "it wasn't even close."

There is a tiny chance that the measure could be revived in the Senate, but most think this is R.I.P. for this year. Speaker Chopp was said to be open for another try next year, but of course then the measure will be pitted against others trying to restore funding as the economy improves.

The bill, SHB 1837, is modeled on a program in Denver and would allow counties to form taxing districts to support funding for arts and scientific/educational nonprofits such as science centers, zoos, and history museums, using the local sales tax or property tax. I have written about it, as well as the competing or complementary King County measure for arts, heritage, housing, and the convention center here. (Disclosure: I helped to formulate an earlier version of this Denver-based proposal.)

It would be a transformative godsend to struggling arts groups and broadly popular institutions like the Pacific Science Center and MOHAI and the Zoo, coming at a time when many organizations have been forced to slash budgets and curtail seasons. The Denver program produces $50 million a year, spread over seven counties and many arts and scientific institutions.

The Legislature was not asked to raise taxes directly but to allow counties to put together such a proposal and ask local taxpayers if they approved. (The program in Denver receives voter approval every 10 years, by wide margins.) The proposal was heavily modified to please the Speaker, who proposed its new name, Education and Arts Access Program, and other stakeholders who steered it much more toward enrichment programs for school kids, whose arts education programs are otherwise being slashed. The bill was also gaining support around the state, where most counties have no public arts funding at all.

Realistically, advocates for the EAAP didn't expect to get the bill enacted this session, when the Legislature is being forced to cut basic services. Another factor was competition from the King County measure, which is still alive. EAAP did make more progress than in the past two sessions, when it got a hearing and slight movement toward a floor vote. The question now becomes whether the supporters, who have been ponying up money for advocacy, will be able to fund a continuing effort. Their funds are limited, and they may conclude that the measure will never actually fly as long as Republicans flee and Puget Sound Democrats are spooked about raising taxes, supporting the arts, or favoring Seattle.

Update (March 9): I received some further information about the bill's fate in the Democratic caucus. There was a vigorous discussion in the House Democratic caucus about the bill, but the vote count was not really close. It's not fair to blame Speaker Frank Chopp, since the majority of the Democratic Caucus was not in favor of voting on this legislation, at least this year.  A  vote had just been taken on HB 1997 (the 4Culture bill), and that meant there was very little political willingness remaining for those outside of Seattle and King County to vote on another measure that could be tagged as benefiting cultural institutions in Seattle.  Rep. Phyllis Kenney (D-46), deserves a lot of credit for championing this bill and helping to get it as far as it did. 


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