More than a tax on the arts: Seattle’s cultural and political leaders on prop twists. 1

King County’s Proposal 1 – a sales tax to provide more access to culture and science – has sparked introspection among cultural and political leaders about Washington’s regressive tax system. According to campaign projections, the bill would be $ 30 per year for a household with an income of $ 80,000.

On a recent sunny afternoon in the Central District, 105 students rehearsing a song from the 1970s musical “The Wiz” were clearly having fun – clapping, throwing their fists in the air and improvising their choreography.

Michelle Lang, musical director of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, tolerated their joy but seemed dissatisfied. She held up two fingers in the air – a clear sign to shut up, since the students immediately fell silent.

“Some of you are always don’t sing while you dance, ”she admonished them. “In this song, the whole community is liberated! Everyone must sing.

His challenge of doing two things at the same time echoes the cultural community’s debate on King County’s Proposal 1 – a sales tax proposal also known as “access for all” which, if passed on August 1, reportedly grosses about $ 67.4 million a year for about 350 organizations, including Langston Hughes’ long-running summer music program for teens.

Proposition 1 is the culmination of a struggle of more than a decade to pass state law allowing counties to self-imposed for arts and culture education, and calls on voters to approve a 0.1% sales tax – one penny for every $ 10 – to support the arts, access to and education in culture and science. In campaign projections, that means $ 30 per year for a household with an income of $ 80,000.

It may seem like a small request, but Proposition 1 sparks a big debate about our state’s tax system and whether this measure asks voters to make a choice on funding priorities: homelessness or cultural education? Mental health services or the Wing Luke Museum?

In April, during a Metropolitan King County Council discussion about whether to put Proposition 1 on the ballot, council member Rod Dembowski argued otherwise – it was not, in his opinion, a decision either / or. “I think,” he said, “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Introduction to the basics

Proposition 1 may sound complicated, and it is – the result of a hammer and pincer process in the bowels of the State Legislature and King County Council. But here’s a quick rundown of a few basics:

(1) Due to a state law passed in 2015, any county in the state can impose itself to create a “cultural access program”.

(2) This program can be funded by up to 0.1% sales tax and property tax, except in King County, which can only use sales tax.

(3) The tax would last for seven years before counties need to ask voters to re-approve it.

(4) The distribution of the money: the funds are spent in a specified order, the pots of money decreasing at each stage: first, 1.25% goes to the creation of an agency to supervise the funds, then 10% of the rest goes to the public – school access programs (including transport to schools).

Once those funds are allocated, 70 percent of what is left goes to large cultural organizations with budgets over $ 1.25 million and programs for public school students.

(5) More money distribution: It is estimated that 28% of total funds are supposed to go to smaller “community organizations”.

(6) And another footnote: Proposal 1 money cannot represent more than 15% of the annual revenues of large organizations; small organizations would have more freedom over how they spend money.

Still awake? Good. The measure may seem like a nap – but the debate over using a regressive sales tax to fund access to science and culture has turned into a bowl of tangled politico-cultural spaghetti.

The measure has broad support from large organizations (Seattle Art Museum), smaller organizations (Annex Theater), local celebrities (Bill Nye the Science Guy) and prominent state politicians (Sen. Reuven Carlyle) ).

But that’s a test for people (generally) on the left in art, culture, and science, as sales taxes tend to hit low-income people the hardest.

Unusual alliances

The prop. 1 does not have an organized and funded opposition campaign, but it has made some strange political comrades. King County Council Member Larry Gossett (a Democrat) drafted a statement opposing the measure with Republican State Senator Dino Rossi.

“It’s horribly disproportionate,” Gossett said. “It takes a huge amount of taxpayer money for large entities for middle class white people.”

“It’s a regressive tax, it’s true,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture. “But I think the county council did a pretty good job amending the bill to alleviate the problems.”

One of those amendments: In an effort to distribute some of that money outside of Seattle, 4Culture would distribute a minimum of $ 1 million to the smaller, so-called “community organizations” in every district in the county.

And if the measure passes, 4Culture predicts that Langston Hughes County’s funding will drop from $ 42,000 per year (from the county hotel / motel tax) to $ 340,000 per year.

“For some of these organizations, this could be a game-changer,” said Manuel Cawaling, executive director of Youth Theater Northwest.

If Prop. 1 was a character from a novel, the genre would be picaresque, like “Don Quixote” – vacillating from one mishap to another toward his fate.

His journey, in a nutshell: About a decade ago, local leaders in the arts and politics – including Benjamin Moore, longtime CEO of the Seattle Repertory Theater and State Senator Andy Hill, who died in 2016 – began work on the state bill that would allow counties to impose themselves on Prop style measures. 1.

Under state law, every county in the state could impose sales tax and property tax except King County. Senator Carlyle said that during the legislative process in Olympia, King County was already cutting a barrel of several other property taxes and that the state constitution prohibits income tax as a source of income.

King County ended up with the regressive sales tax.

“We had limited tools,” admitted Senator Carlyle. Washington’s tax structure, he added, was “barely tinkered with with duct tape in 1933”. (Washington is one of seven tax-free states, including Alaska, Florida, and South Dakota.)

But lawmakers – some reluctantly – voted for the bill that made Proposition 1 possible.

Some still oppose it, including Dave Upthegrove, a member of King County Council. He and her husband have season tickets for the theater and support science and cultural education. “But I represent South King County, the most diverse and lowest income part of the county,” he explained. “We already have the most regressive tax system in the country … working class people would bear a disproportionate burden.”

Even Carlyle fuels the ambivalence.

“I struggle with this myself,” he said. “This vote is a symbolic representation of the painful reality of our tax system. People want both. They want a modern infrastructure of music, arts and culture – but we are facing an extremely painful, outdated, loophole-designed tax system that is devastating for low-income and middle-class people… The merits are important, investing in children is important, and yet we have this dark side of a broken tax structure that is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of our community.

Biggest donors

So far, the Access for All campaign has raised $ 1.6 million and spent approximately $ 800,000. The biggest donors were larger organizations (Seattle Art Museum, Woodland Park Zoo, Pacific Northwest Ballet), which would get the lion’s share of the money, though, thanks to the lengthy process of amending Proposal 1 , they must now spend at least 20 percent on public school programs – both to bring students to their institutions and to help pay for teacher training and hands-on learning programs in school districts.

Numerous studies, including some from the National Institutes of Health and a longitudinal study by the National Center for Education Statistics, show strong links between arts and culture education and positive outcomes for young people, ranging from mental health to academic performance.

But the enigma remains: Proposition 1 is a regressive public interest tax.

Local philanthropists are also torn by this inherent tension.

“I cannot yet overcome the irony of introducing yet another regressive tax to fund access to the arts and science for the benefit of those who would pay proportionately more to income,” said Case van Rij , a senior data storage engineer who moved to Seattle from Amsterdam. in 1998, grew up watching ballet as a teenager and donated to a wide range of projects, from contemporary dance to prison reform. “Having said that, the benefits to education, more than increased funding for the arts, in my opinion outweigh the cost, even for low-income taxpayers. “

In March, the Seattle Times editorial board wrote that any “extremely regressive tax” should be used for infrastructure needs like housing, courts and sewers. At The Stranger, cultural writer Rich Smith criticized the Times commentary on the “regressive tax” with: “Cool. Talk to me when you’re ready to make a case for statewide income tax. “

“I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but this feels a bit like a proxy battle for much bigger cultural divisions,” said Pamala Mijatov, former artistic director and current chairman of the board of Annex Theater. “Do Americans deserve aquariums, Iranian folk festivals, deaf theater, independent films and classical music? Or is the proper role of the government only to build highways and armies? “

Vivian Phillips, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, said the long journey from measurement to this year’s poll involved “a lot of discussions, meetings, conversations and a lot of angst” about how to create a fair tax with it. limited tools. She was initially reluctant to measure, but ultimately supports the current version of Proposition 1. “I am not a fan of regressive taxation,” she said. But “artists and arts organizations are already doing social work. Hope we can turbocharge this job.

Returning to Langston Hughes, Den’ea Simone – production manager for “The Wiz” – said that despite the ambivalence about the prop. 1, it also supports it. The money could expand the summer program and maybe fund a winter musical, or even a touring production.

This 21 year program continues to grow. “This year was the first time,” she said, “we had to turn away students.”


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