Whatcom council supports new tax for arts, but only if voters want it

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 3, 2014 

Legislation in Olympia that would allow counties to create a tax to improve access to cultural programs received the endorsement of the Whatcom County Council last week.

A letter of support from council to state legislators, introduced at the Jan. 28 council meeting by member Barry Buchanan, was approved 6 to 1, with council member Sam Crawford opposed.

Nearly identical "cultural access" bills have been introduced in the state House and Senate, with one key difference. The House bill said a county council could pass a new tax on its own or send a tax measure to voters. The Senate version requires a public vote.

The final version of the letter to legislators said the council supported only the Senate bill.

"If it enables counties to pass it arbitrarily, without a vote of the people, I would be somewhat reluctant," council member Pete Kremen said before the vote. "We need to pass a jail tax and an (emergency medical services) tax, and a lot of other critical issues out there need additional funding as well."

People from the arts and education communities were prepared at last week's meeting to ask council to support the legislation.

"I saw the need for more access to cultural arts in public schools, primarily in the form of field trips," said Arlene Mantha, a former president of the Parkview Elementary School PTA in Bellingham. The PTA was not able to fulfill its mission to enhance arts and science education at the school, she said.

"Due to the tremendous budget cuts in recent years, we have been using PTA funds on things like ... balls for the playground," Mantha said.

Cat Sieh, executive director of Make.Shift Art Space in Bellingham, made a pitch on behalf of the cash-strapped arts community.

"Just like many other Bellingham arts nonprofits, we've struggled to overcome financial hurdles over the years," Sieh said. The tax-supported program "would help sustain organizations that provide local cultural benefits, like Make.Shift."

Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, is a local sponsor of the House bill. She said it would give more students access to places such as Pacific Science Center in Seattle. It also could enrich smaller communities; the arts are "a big draw for tourism and jobs," Lytton said.

The bills' fates are uncertain in this short legislative session, which is scheduled to end March 13. The Senate version crossed a major threshold on Friday, Jan. 31, passing out of the Ways and Means Committee.

Anne Fennessy, spokeswoman for Cultural Access Washington - a coalition of groups supporting the legislation - said the groups are pushing to see the bill passed this session. Then they can focus on the counties.

"We would work with the local cultural organizations in the county, and they would work with their local officials on when it would make sense to bring it to the voters," Fennessy said.

Crawford, who voted against the council's support letter, agreed with Kremen that the cultural access fund could conflict with other taxes the council needs to bring to voters. He said by sending the letter, the council signaled that it places a high priority on creating this fund.

"Is the County Council now saying we want the option of putting out there a tax for the arts?" Crawford said in an interview. "I would say no, that would not be a priority for the Whatcom County Council."

TRACK THE BILLS

Get the latest on bills in the state Legislature at apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo. Enter "2212" for the House version of the cultural access bill and "6151" for the Senate bill. Information from bill supporters is at culturalaccesswa.org.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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