Wednesday morning, supporters of an initiative called Access for All laid out their case before the King County Council Budget and Fiscal Management Committee. No action was taken yesterday, but if the council votes to put the measure on the August ballot, and if voters approve it, AFA would increase the sales tax by .1 percent. That's a penny for every $10 spent, and it will raise approximately $70 million dollars per year to fund curriculum-based arts, science, and culture programs in classrooms countywide, reaching approximately 285,000 public school students. It will also fund programs that will "increase access" to regional and hyper-local arts/science/culture orgs.
Chiefly, the measure would go a long way in supplementing education for kids who aren't getting it because, as you certainly all know by now, the state of Washington is "failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic education" in schools. What will that supplemental education look like? Generally, arts organizations will partner with local school districts to develop in-class curriculum and teacher training. The Holocaust Center for Humanity, for instance, will get funding to do individualized teacher trainings so they can effectively teach the holocaust in their schools. The Stranger's Amber Cortes provides several more examples.
Concretely, nearly everything that makes this city a city will be free for students and free or reduced-price for low-income families and seniors across the county. Their entry to the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, Pacific Science Center, Museum of Flight, MoPOP, and 30 other major arts, science, and heritage organizations will be covered or will cost much less. About 300 other smaller, community-based organizations across the county will see increases in funding, too. On average, this tax will cost average-income households approximately $30 per year and low-income households approximately $13 per year.
For the last thirty years, the city of Denver, Colorado has been running a similar program called the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. St. Louis, Missouri does the same thing. I lived there for a couple summers, and it was amazing. The zoo, the art and history museums, the Shakespeare festival, and summer musicals at the Muny were all free.
Sounds good, right? Who wouldn't want to live in a city that offers at least the level of cultural access that Denver and St. Louis offers?
You know who. I can feel you knowing who.
That's right! It's the editorial board at the Seattle Times. They dislike the initiative so much that they wrote a predictably blah op-ed about it last Monday.
Unfortunately, I didn't see the piece until earlier this week. My bad. In my defense, I drink a lot and cover three beats for this paper. Arts admin is a sub-beat of one of those beats. The point is the Times' op-ed is full of disingenuous claims.
Let's start with that headline: "Sales tax for the arts? Not when so many King County services are struggling."
Access for All isn't a sales tax for "just" the arts, though it'd still be a worthy cause if it were. The money raised by the tax will bring hands-on science and cultural education into classrooms, too. You hear that, people who think art is a namby-pamby *bonus* and not a core part of the life and economy of our area?! Science and culture.
But the Times editorial board doesn't want you to think that this initiative raises money for scientific and cultural organizations and education. They want you to think this is a unnecessary liberal arts bill. That's why they don't use the words "science" or "culture" in their op-ed once, but use the word "arts" seven times. Cute!
The Times makes good on the second part of their headline by rolling out a false choice about funding. How can we possibly pay for x when we should be paying for y and z? This is their main claim. This argument is so typical of Times editorials that the move should be called "pulling an ST." After all, they used the same line against funding ST3. Hahahahahahah—that's a local politics joke! This sub-beat is hard.
Anyway, the latest iteration goes like this. They rightly bemoan cuts to public health and criminal justice programs and classically bemoan the number of potholes that need to be filled. Then they say they love the arts, but, "Constantine’s timing is terrible, and voters should question his priorities at a time when so many county services...are suffering."
First of all, Constantine has already asked voters if they want to tax themselves to pay for criminal justice programs. In 2010, he proposed King County Proposition 1, which would have increased the sales tax by .2 percent to help keep cops in schools and in rural areas. The voters rejected it. Either the Times isn't listening to the voters, or they forgot they endorsed that proposal.
To the point of "priorities" and the timing being terrible. The people who run Cultural Access Washington, a sort of parent organization for Access for All, have been working on this initiative for nearly a decade. Back in 2008, the Puget Sound Regional Council's Vision 2040 called for "investment in all of the region's people to create shared prosperity and to sustain a diversity of family wage jobs." What does that mean? The very next sentence explains what that means. "Investing in people means ensuring accessible and high quality education and skills training programs, fostering economic opportunities in distressed areas, and sustaining the region’s arts and cultural activity."
You cannot sustain the region's arts and cultural activity if you do not put a flute or a starfish in a child's hands, and you cannot sustain the region's arts and cultural activity if low-income people can't afford to walk through the doors of cultural institutions. With this initiative, the executive office is showing that they're taking the regional council's advice for growth seriously, and that they recognize how crucial the city's arts, science, and cultural organizations are to spurring and sustaining that growth.
But the state legislature only gave Constantine the authority to ask voters if we want to pay for children and low-income families to be educated in the arts and sciences two legislative sessions ago. (That bill, by the way, was a bipartisan effort sponsored by the late Republican state senator Andy Hill.)
The Times knows full well that particular authority cannot be used to pay for anything other than an initiative that supports arts, science, and culture. And they have to make it a sales tax because, as the Times also knows full well, Tim Eyman's stupid Initiative 747 arbitrarily caps King County property taxes at 1 percent, which is why we're in all of this budget trouble in the first place. So Constantine's "timing" is a function of the process, not evidence that he's more concerned with funding arts and science education than public health or criminal justice.
Yes, Access for All is a regressive sales tax, as the Times also points out. Cool. Talk to me when you're ready to argue in favor of a statewide income tax.
In the meantime, Access for All sunsets after seven years and forces all major participating organizations to file annual reports with 4Culture, the county's cultural services agency. If they're not serving low-income people and "communities of opportunity" the most, they'll have to adjust their programming in order to do so.
Don't let the Times fool you. This initiative looks necessary, fair, and inspiring.