King County Proposition 1 — a sales tax to provide more access to culture and science — has provoked some soul-searching among culture and political leaders about Washington’s regressive tax system. According to the campaign’s projections, the tab would be $30 a year for a household with an income of $80,000.
One recent sunny afternoon in the Central District, 105 students rehearsing a song from the 1970s musical “The Wiz” were clearly having a blast — clapping, pumping their fists in the air and improvising their choreography.
Michelle Lang, music director for the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, tolerated their glee but looked dissatisfied. She raised two fingers in the air — clearly a sign to shut up, since the students immediately fell silent.
“Some of you are still not singing while you’re dancing,” she admonished them. “In this song, the whole community is set free! Everybody’s got to sing.”
Her challenge to do two things at once echoes the cultural community’s debate over King County Proposition 1 — a proposed sales tax also known as “Access for All” that, if passed on Aug. 1, would raise an estimated $67.4 million per year for about 350 organizations, including Langston Hughes’ long-running summer teen musical program.
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Prop. 1 is the culmination of a decade-plus struggle to pass a state law allowing counties to tax themselves for arts and culture education, and asks voters to approve a sales tax of 0.1 percent — a penny for every $10 — to support arts, culture and science access and education. In the campaign’s projections, that means $30 a year for a household with an income of $80,000.
That might sound like a small ask, but Prop. 1 is provoking a large debate about our state’s tax system and whether this measure asks voters to make an either/or choice about funding priorities: homelessness or culture education? Mental-health services or the Wing Luke Museum?
In April, at a Metropolitan King County Council discussion about whether to put Prop. 1 on the ballot, Councilmember Rod Dembowski argued the opposite — it wasn’t, to his mind, an either/or decision. “I think,” he said, “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Primer on basics
Prop. 1 might seem complicated, and it is — the result of a hammer-and-tongs process in the guts of state Legislature and the King County Council. But here’s a quick primer of some basics:
(1) Because of a state law passed in 2015, any county in the state can tax itself to create a “cultural access program.”
(2) That program can be funded by up to 0.1 percent sales and property tax, except in King County, which can only use sales tax.
(3) The tax would last seven years before counties would need to ask voters to re-approve it.
(4) The money breakdown: The funds get spent in a specified order, with the pots of money getting smaller at each step: First, 1.25 percent goes to creating an agency to oversee the funds, then 10 percent of the remainder goes to public-school access programs (including transportation to them).
After those funds have been allocated, 70 percent of what remains goes to big cultural organizations with budgets of over $1.25 million and programs for public-school students.
(5) More money breakdown: An estimated 28 percent of the total funds are supposed to go to smaller, “community-based organizations.”
(6) And another footnote: Prop. 1 money can’t be more than 15 percent of the big organizations’ annual revenue; smaller organizations would have more freedom on how they spend the money.
Still awake? Good. The measure might sound like a snooze — but the debate over using a regressive sales tax to fund science and culture access has become a bowl of tangled political-cultural spaghetti.
The measure has broad support from big organizations (Seattle Art Museum), smaller organizations (Annex Theatre), local celebrities (Bill Nye the Science Guy) and prominent state politicians (Sen. Reuven Carlyle).
But it’s a gut check for the (typically) left-leaning folks in the world of art, culture and science — because sales taxes tend to hit hardest among lower-income people.
Prop. 1 doesn’t have an organized, funded opposition campaign, but it has made strange political bedfellows. King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (a Democrat) authored an opposition statement to the measure with Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi.
“This is horrifically disproportionate,” Gossett said. “This is asking a huge amount of money from taxpayers for big entities for white, middle-class people.”
“It is a regressive tax, that’s true,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture. “But I think the County Council did a pretty good job of amending the bill to alleviate any of the problems.”
One of those amendments: In an effort to spread some of that money outside Seattle, 4Culture would distribute a minimum of $1 million to smaller, so-called “community-based organizations” in each county district.
And if the measure passes, 4Culture projects Langston Hughes’ county funding to rise from $42,000 per year (from the county’s hotel/motel tax) to $340,000 per year.
“For some of these organizations, this could be game-changing money,” said Manuel Cawaling, executive director of Youth Theatre Northwest.
If Prop. 1 were a character in a novel, the genre would be picaresque, like “Don Quixote” — lurching from one misadventure to another toward its fate.
Its journey, in a nutshell: Around a decade ago, local arts and politics leaders — including Benjamin Moore, longtime managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre and state Sen. Andy Hill, who died in 2016 — started working on the state bill that would allow counties to tax themselves for Prop. 1-style measures.
Under the state law, every county in the state could pass a sales tax and property tax — except for King County. Sen. Carlyle said that during the legislative process in Olympia, King County was already staring down the barrel of several other property taxes and the state constitution forbids income tax as a revenue source.
So King County was left with the regressive sales tax.
“We had limited tools,” Sen. Carlyle admitted. Washington’s tax structure, he added, was “barely cobbled together with duct tape in 1933.” (Washington is one of seven states without an income tax, including Alaska, Florida and South Dakota.)
But the legislators — some reluctantly — voted for the bill that made Prop. 1 possible.
Some still oppose it, including King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove. He and his husband have season theater tickets and support science and culture education. “But I represent South King County, the lowest-income, most diverse part of the county,” he explained. “We already have the most regressive tax system in the nation … working-class folks would bear a disproportionate burden.”
Even Carlyle fuels the ambivalence.
“I struggle with that 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 and arts and culture — but we are faced with a crushingly painful, outdated, loophole-crafted tax system that is devastating to lower-income and middle-class folks … The merits are important, the investment in kids is important, and yet we have this dark underside of a broken tax structure that is such an insult to the intelligence and integrity of our community.”
So far, the Access for All campaign has raised $1.6 million and spent around $800,000. The biggest donors have been larger organizations (Seattle Art Museum, the Woodland Park Zoo, Pacific Northwest Ballet), which would get the lion’s share of the money, though, through Prop. 1’s lengthy amendment process, they now have to spend at least 20 percent on public-school programs — both to bring students to their institutions and to help pay for teacher training and curricula for hands-on learning in the school districts.
Many 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 school performance.
But the conundrum stands: Prop. 1 is a regressive tax for public benefit.
Local philanthropists are also torn by that inherent tension.
“I cannot yet get over the irony of introducing another regressive tax to fund access to arts and science to benefit those who would proportionally pay more relative to income,” said Case van Rij, a senior data-storage engineer who moved to Seattle from Amsterdam in 1988, grew up watching ballet as a teenager and donates to a broad spectrum of projects, from contemporary dance to prison reform. “Having said that, the education benefits, more than the increased funding to the arts, in my mind outweigh the cost even to the low-income taxpayers.”
In March, The Seattle Times editorial board wrote that any “extremely regressive tax” should be used for infrastructural needs like housing, courts and sewage. At The Stranger, culture writer Rich Smith critiqued the Times’ “regressive tax” comment with: “Cool. Talk to me when you’re ready to argue in favor of a statewide income tax.”
“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but this does feel a bit like a proxy battle for much larger cultural divides,” said Pamala Mijatov, former artistic director and current board president of Annex Theatre. “Do Americans deserve aquariums and Iranian folk festivals and deaf theater and independent films and classical music? Or is the proper role of government only to erect highways and armies?”
Vivian Phillips, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, said the measure’s long journey to this year’s ballot involved “many discussions, meetings, conversations and a lot of angst” about how to build a fair tax with limited tools. She was initially reluctant about the measure but ultimately supports the current version of Prop. 1.“I am not a fan of regressive taxing,” she said. But “artists and arts organizations are already doing social work. I hope we can turbocharge that work.”
Back at Langston Hughes, Den’ea Simone — production stage manager for “The Wiz” — said that, despite the ambivalence about Prop. 1, she also supports it. The money could expand the summer program and maybe finance a winter musical, or even a touring production.
That 21-year-old program keeps growing. “This year was the first time,” she said, “we had to turn students away.”