King County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposed arts levy says a lot about his priorities, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
King County’s state of emergency on homelessness spreads far beyond Seattle. The opioid crisis stretches across the county, and the county-run mental-health system is struggling with unprecedented demand for involuntary hospital beds.
Looking at those facts, you would say King County really needs … more arts funding? Huh?
County Executive Dow Constantine declared a homeless state of emergency just 17 months ago. Now he wants to throw $469 million over seven years at arts education and free tickets to museums and such. He wraps the request in equity and social justice, that utilitarian poncho of progressives (organic wool, of course).
“By throwing open the doors to all the region has to offer, we ignite more creativity, create more shared experiences, and build a stronger community,” read Constantine’s announcement of the levy proposal, aimed at the August ballot.
As the saying goes, budgets are statements of priorities. If the goal is to “build a stronger community,” start with the basics:
A house, not an opera house, for every kid.
Metropolitan King County Council budget Chair Dave Upthegrove is among those scratching their heads at the priorities. “The other levies are aimed at a problem,” said Upthegrove, a Democrat like Constantine. “What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?”
Upthegrove said the districts he represents in South King County have high rates of free and reduced priced lunches; Highline School District had 1,200 homeless students. “If this really is our strategy to target at-risk kids, this is tone deaf,” said Upthegrove.
King County has limited authority to ask voters for higher taxes. Its general fund budget has been squeezed by a decade of property-tax revenue growth capped at 1 percent growth. As The Seattle Times editorial board recently noted, King County has been laying off prosecutors and court commissioners as inflation has outpaced the cap.
It already has veterans and housing levies, which Constantine is planning to ask for renewal on this November’s ballot. But that’s just maintaining the status quo, not responding to what Constantine himself defined as an emergency.
In 2015, the Legislature gave counties authority to raise sales taxes by .1 percent to pay for “cultural access programs.” King County’s sales tax is already more than 10 percent after the Sound Transit 3 package added 5 cents on every $10 purchase.
Constantine’s proposal takes advantage of that 2015 law. But the same law allows a sales-tax bump for affordable housing, including homelessness and mental-health programs. He took the former, not the latter, despite his declared state of emergency.
Why? Upthegrove has an observation.
“This levy appeals to the donor class,” he said. “The donor class likes arts.”
In other words, really rich people.
Constantine has raised more than $1 million for his re-election campaign this fall, an astonishing amount given that he faces no opposition. I took a look at his donor list, and you could put together a nice Venn diagram overlapping his three- and four-figure donors with people who could list “arts patron” as a profession.
That Venn diagram will come in extra handy when Constantine runs for governor in 2020, which is widely expected.
I’m not normally the one calling for higher taxes, after living in Seattle for years. But on the homelessness issue, King County should be in the lead, not Seattle. It already runs the mental-health and substance-abuse-treatment systems critical to reverse the tide of homelessness. It manages the database of homeless services, and the jail. It is already picking up the pieces of the crisis.
The whopper size of a proposed arts levy — $469 million! — would make a huge difference. It would be a sixfold increase in the county’s general fund for human-services spending, and would double an existing levy dedicated to behavioral health.
The irony of Constantine’s priorities is that his administration could do good things with a big boost. His human-services director, Adrienne Quinn, is highly respected, and she’s squeezed the county’s contractors to get the most bang for the buck. King County’s mental-health programs are innovative but stretched thin.
Instead, Constantine is shirking the county’s duty. He is asking for a huge levy to address a nonemergency problem with a very regressive tax source which appeals to rich people … who happen to be his donors.
That says a lot about priorities.