Proposed culture access legislation would help communities fund arts

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 11, 2014 

Visit the Sparks Museum in Bellingham, Bellevue Youth Theatre or other local cultural facility and you'll see the excitement of children absorbing new ideas and expanding their understanding of the world. You might also see our state's next Pulitzer Prize-winning writer or leading naval engineer.

This is the inspiration for legislation being discussed in Olympia that would give communities the ability to provide families and children more access to local arts, science and heritage activities regardless of income, social status or education.

It's a common-sense proposal to invest in our kids' education and our economy: every community gets to decide for itself, it doesn't add to state spending and money raised locally stays local.

Studies show that children who have access to cultural pursuits are more likely to excel in school, especially in math and science. Cultural resources such as museums, theaters, zoos and science centers play an important role in developing critical thinking, reading comprehension, language and mathematical skills in young minds, according to the research.

If enacted, nonprofit cultural institutions such as the Whatcom Museum, Storybook Theatre or the Museum of Flight could be given the resources to expand community access, to improve cultural experiences and fund transportation for students to arts, scientific and heritage organizations.

The legislation would authorize a county to put a funding measure before voters to create a revenue source for cultural access. Several revenue options are under consideration; these include allowing a county to place a sales tax increase up to 0.1 percent or similarly sized property tax increase on the ballot. Each county will decide for itself when and if this is a good idea. And if the voters agree and a county does raise funds for cultural access, all of the money will be used to benefit local institutions that serve the county's residents.

According to recent economic development estimates, arts, scientific and heritage organizations generate 3,000 jobs in Whatcom County and 32,500 jobs in the four county central Puget Sound region. All told, patrons in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties generate $1.9 billion in business activity and more than $80 million a year in local and state taxes. Other counties also experience similar economic gains.

The public demand for culture experiences is huge. The real challenge is making science, culture and the arts more accessible to more people. The cost of transportation, especially for cash-strapped schools, is a significant barrier that limits access for students. And admission charges, which are obviously needed to fund operations, are a barrier for many individuals and families. In addition to supporting transportation, the legislation will allow some organizations participating in the program to offer reduced or free admission to individuals and families.

Even better, it enables zoos, aquariums, science centers, theaters and museums to go into public schools and work with students directly by collaborating on curriculum and materials. Assistance would be scaled so schools with a higher percentage of students from lower income families get additional support.

Culture is for people of all ages and incomes, and access to culture is vitally important to our children's future and our economy. The benefits of this proposal are across the board. Children get new educational opportunities, local economies get a boost and our treasured cultural and heritage organizations are on a more sustainable footing.

The Culture Access Fund is a great idea that legislators should approve.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Barry Buchanan is a member of the Whatcom County Council and Jane Hague is a member of the King County Council.

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