Arts facing a wipe-out in Olympia

Only two of four measures to help arts in Seattle and statewide are still breathing, just barely.

Only two of four measures to help arts in Seattle and statewide are still breathing, just barely.

Arts advocates in Seattle and around the state are worried that the arts may go 0-for-4 in Olympia this session, and that the rout will make any winning seasons in the next sessions still more unlikely. But wait, at least one measure has put a few fingers out from under the coffin lid.

First is funding for the Washington Arts Commission, which Gov. Gregoire has put on minimal life support (to keep some federal funds flowing). The House restored some of the funding, but its fate is uncertain. Gov. Gregoire also proposed closing the doors on Tacoma's Washington State History Museum, but that fate might still be avoided.

Second is an idea that would allow counties (singly or in groups) to ask local taxpayers to assess themselves to support arts, culture, and such things as zoos, aquariums, and science centers, with the money helping these organizations and beefing up educational programs and access through free days, free transportation, and reduced tickets. This idea for a "Cultural Access Fund," an import from Denver and other cities, perished in the House Democratic Caucus.

On the near-dead list is a venerable program called Building for the Arts, which funded capital projects all over the state, particularly during the arts building boom of the 1990s, when a billion dollars of new arts facilities were constructed in Seattle alone. The program had solid support, since it spread goodies to many legislators' districts, stimulated construction jobs, and returned some money in the form of sales taxes on construction. It's barely breathing, but will probably be kept alive at much-reduced spending levels; another positive development could be shifting more funds to the Heritage Capital Grants program.

More hope lies with the measure that would continue stadium-related taxes to help fund a consortium of beneficiaries: the Seattle Convention Center expansion, workforce housing at transit stations, and 4Culture, the King County program for arts and heritage institutions. This bill has been doing well in the House, greatly helped by Speaker Frank Chopp's backing, but was put into a coffin in the Senate when two key legislators mysteriously vanished for a crucial vote. It started crawling out of its coffin in the House, where the idea has been attached to the overall budget bill — a sly maneuver that may only increase its opposition. If passed, the bill would return 4Culture funding to its previous level of a little under $10 million a year, and that might increase significantly (assuming hotels expand and keep raising their room-rates) after 2020.

It was always thought that the stadium-taxes bill had the best chance of passing, in part because some of those taxes will automatically expire this year unless extended. It's much harder to re-enact a tax in a future session than to extend it. And it was always thought that the bill, if it passed, would be an 11th-hour victory. Democrats are most reluctant to vote for the arts in hard times, when it seems "elitist," so the last few votes to put it over the top would likely come from some legislators who had been mollified by some goodies in the capital budget, which is always passed late. And, of course if there is a special, overtime session of the Legislature, that could give the bill a new lease on life.

As to future sessions, if the 4Culture bill is not passed, then it will be back again next year, probably attached to some other cause that gets more votes than arts. In turn, this bill crowds out the Education and Arts Access Program, since arts-wary legislators cannot be expected to vote for two funding programs that help arts and Seattle. And if EAAP has to wait two more years, it probably can't continue to tap arts and science institutions for lobbying support to keep up the effort. The arts groups would be back to square minus-one.

Here's my earlier story on the two approaches to public funding for arts in the Seattle area.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors