The defeat of a proposal last week in Cuyahoga County (encompassing Cleveland), Ohio, to increase property taxes and siphon off revenue to spur economic development and fund the arts represents a rare thumbs-down for the arts-advocacy community.
Indeed, as state legislatures continue grappling with whether to maintain or cut cultural funding, arts advocates have increasingly looked to "local option taxes"—dedicated revenue streams—to take the pressure off direct appropriations from state treasuries. As Back Stage reported in July 2003, such taxes come in myriad forms, from hotel/motel occupancy taxes, sales taxes, and license plate fees to innovative ideas like the levy on video/CD sales in Broward County, Fla.
Voters, however, have been less often asked to give a yea or nay to the question; and the defeat of the Ohio county's Issue 31—despite the support of Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell and County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones—raises concerns, such as whether arts advocates were able to make their case well enough to the public. In the March 2 vote, which was the same date as the Ohio presidential primary, only 46% voted in favor of the measure.
Nationally, says Randy Cohen, vice president of research and information at the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, there has been a "mixed record of success" for arts advocates when Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public have cast their ballots.
"Probably the most celebrated example of a local option tax is Denver's sales tax, which is one-tenth of 1% in the six-county region around the city," Cohen says. "The first time it went on the ballot, back in the early '80s, it failed. It has since been passed twice. It's got a 10-year lifespan to it, and it goes back to the voters this November." Today, he adds, that piece of the sales tax delivers $35 million a year to cultural organizations in the Denver metropolitan area, providing "a huge benefit to the people, to the businesses, and to the arts of the entire region."
In its extensive coverage of Issue 31, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted Tom Schorgl, president and CEO of the area's Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, as calling the vote "a setback," not a defeat, while Jones, in the same article, suggested county leaders might "lobby the Ohio Legislature to allow an increase on other fees, such as the cost homeowners bear when selling property."
Reasoning and Rectifying
Cohen says there may be many reasons a measure that could help fund the arts might fail to fully pique the public. Speaking once more of the long-ago Denver failure, he said "poor political organization" can be a factor, and that "sometimes an entire arts community isn't on the same page."
Another problem may be the scope of the measure being considered. Some ballot questions are too broad—Cohen refers to these as an "A to Z, or arts to zoo tax"—and make it more difficult for people to understand how their hard-earned dollars will be allocated and why. Many localities and states, moreover, require a supermajority to approve a ballot measure, meaning that even if a bare majority gives its assent, up to two-thirds may be needed for approval.
A good example of this, Cohen recalled, was several years ago in the two-county area surrounding Detroit, Mich. "Twice the voters were asked to increase the property tax for Oakland and Wayne counties, and twice it failed because the measure didn't achieve the needed supermajority."
And just last week in San Diego, Proposition C, which would have upped the hotel/motel tax from 10.5% to 13%, failed to generate a two-thirds "yes" vote, despite emphasis on the fact that some of the revenue would have funded the arts. "The majority of the money," Cohen noted, "would have funded fire protective services, and this is four months after the most disastrous fire in the history of the San Diego area. Talk about short-term memory."
But sometimes it's really a matter of simplify, simplify, simplify. Better to break things down into bite- or byte-sized bits that give the voters the information they need to make a decision without overwhelming them.
"If you look at some of the campaigns that have been successful with voters, it's all come down to a great slogan—a way to encapsulate a complex issue. St. Louis, which passed its hotel/motel tax in the 1990s, had a great slogan: 'You Never Paid It and You Never Will.' In other words, it told the voters that by raising the tax, visitors to the community will be paying, with a better-funded cultural community the beneficiary." Tempe, Ariz., which passed a one-tenth of 1% sales tax increase to build a new cultural center and to create an endowment to fund its programming, had an even better slogan: "Just One Happy Meal Per Month."
In Cleveland, Cohen concludes, "there are a couple of challenges. First, the proposal was to increase the property tax with funds dedicated to economic development, part of which would have gone to the arts. The complexity of how tax dollars spur economic development can be mind-boggling and property taxes are generally the hardest to pass."
Moreover, "Every community is different. Just because Cuyahoga County voters did not approve Issue 31 does not mean the citizens do not support the arts. The fact is we are still in challenging economic times. People are less inclined to vote for a tax increase if they're unsure about jobs, children, and the future. Finally, arts advocates have to remember that you are funding a political campaign when you have a ballot measure. Especially when you need a supermajority, or even just a majority, remember that you're trying to get more people to vote for something than are probably going to vote for the winning mayor or whatnot. So if Cleveland undertakes this tax ballot initiative again, they'll probably modify their strategy."