Last week a King County Council committee heard directors of scientific and cultural organizations deliver full-throated support for a new proposal called "Doors Open." The bill would bump up the sales tax by $0.001 per dollar to raise $90 million per year to help local institutions provide public school programming, free or reduced-price tickets to events, start-up costs for new orgs, and others services. At a time when school enrichment programs face cuts and post-pandemic audiences remain thin, Doors Open aims to tap the region's passionate (though very tired) cultural workforce to boost economic activity countywide and prevent everybody and their kids from turning into drones.
At the moment, political support for the measure seems unclear. During the hearing Wednesday, King County Council Members Joe McDermott and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represent downtown and northwest Seattle, could barely contain their excitement, while Council Member Girmay Zahilay sought assurances of equitable fund distribution. The rest remained silent. The idea of using a regressive tax to help shore up and expand cultural institutions gives everyone a reason to say no, but those reasons seem pretty weak given the vast benefits the bill would unlock.
What Does This Thing Do?
The proposal stems from a 2017 ballot measure that narrowly failed (51% to 49%) thanks to a bunch of meathead killjoys outside Seattle (no offense) and people with legitimate concerns about too much money going to larger organizations rather than to smaller ones.
Nevertheless, in the intervening years Inspire Washington, the group that lobbies for this legislation, held listening sessions all over the county and incorporated that feedback into its latest proposal.
Rather than giving 70% of the money to large orgs and 30% to small orgs, as the previous measure had done, Doors Open splits the money into two competitive grant pools; one of those pools reserves 22% of the funds exclusively for organizations outside of Seattle, and the other holds 75% of the funds open to all orgs—even those orgs outside Seattle.
Of that larger pool, 50% of the money can help existing cultural organizations keep the lights on. Fifteen percent must go to public school programming, which can take the form of free bus rides, in-school or after-school programming, free or reduced-priced tickets, etc. Another 15% will go to reimbursing organizations that offer free tickets and/or rides to shows. Ten percent will go to Building for Equity, a county program that helps BIPOC orgs buy cultural spaces. Finally, three percent of the funds must help launch "new or emerging" orgs, with geographic diversity in mind. The ordinance also sets aside 3% of funds for administrative costs.
Who's into It?
Shawn Roberts, who co-directs education and advocacy over at Arts Corps, "the biggest school in Seattle without a building," as former Stranger writer Jen Graves described the arts enrichment nonprofit years ago, strongly supports the proposal.
Over the phone, she said the organization would use funds to hire more teachers to expand programming down to Renton and Federal Way. The money would also help get kids off waitlists for their before/after/in-school activities. Roberts said the institution works with schools that have high populations of students on free and reduced lunch; 72% of the 2,500 students they worked with last year came from low-income families, and 80% were kids of color.
"The arts are not optional, they're a must—especially for kids who are underserved," she said.
Spectrum Dance Theater Interim Executive Director Sharon Nyree Williams said her company, which produces and teaches cutting-edge contemporary dance with a strong focus on social and civic engagement, also backed the bill. "As an artist and an arts administrator, I know there are hundreds of people here to serve, and all of us will continue to share the load and ensure the ecosystem is not just for entertainment but to make the community better as a whole," she said.
The people who run the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Delridge are into it; as are the people who run the only museum in Kent; as is the Seattle Symphony, which runs myriad social and educational programs, including one that teaches kids how to play the recorder and then brings them onstage for a show with the orchestra; as are the people who run the Cham Refugees Community center; as is the Seattle Rep, whose Public Works program brings people from all walks of life together to produce a big play every year; as is local historian Cristy Lake, who said three of the four heritage museums in the Snoqualmie Valley area risk losing their buildings soon. Maggie Kase, board member of the Association of King County Historical Organizations, put the point neatly: "We can only be the flashlight in the dark if we have money to pay for light bulbs."
The two top concerns from the casual observer go something like this: "Now is not the time. We're in a homelessness-climate-mental-health-education-etc. crisis, we shouldn't throw this money away on nonprofit arts and science institutions who can just ask their wealthy donors for more money!!! And the sales tax is high enough already! Raising it one-tenth of one percent will disproportionately burden poor people, who I care very much about!!!!! !!! !! ! ! !"
While it's true that poor people pay disproportionally larger amounts of their income in taxes than rich people do, Inspire Washington estimates the small tax bump will cost the average taxpayer about $40 per year. If the average taxpayer sends their kid to one free show, one awe-inspiring field trip, or a few hours of before/after-school programming in this era of sky-high childcare prices, then they will have gotten their money's worth—and then some. Poor people who do not have children can find community in any number of programs for low-income adults, and also probably yank a couple free tickets a year. Well-off people without kids will benefit from living in a county that isn't full of a bunch of troglodytes.
Unfortunately, the county can't levy progressive taxes unless the state gives them the authority to do so. So if you're tired of raising property taxes and sales taxes to pay for basic needs such as education, then tell the Legislature to pass an income tax in order to force the state Supreme Court to actually make a call on that issue, and then push your representatives to support every single progressive tax that comes down the pike—and do it often; they get distracted by shiny objects.
As for timing concerns: pick a crisis, and chances are good that investing in local arts and science organizations will help address it. Wanna revitalize downtown Seattle or any other city in the county? Then invest in arts and science institutions, which work as economic multipliers. When people go out to shows, they buy cabs, drinks, food, clothes, etc., and support surrounding businesses. A 2014 study showed those organizations support tens of thousands of jobs that divvy out about $900 million in payrolls and raise $90 million in taxes that we can put toward other pressing issues. Failing to make adequate investments in this sector means shooting ourselves in the foot.
Sad about your kid's school cutting jazz band or other vital arts and science programs? Yet again, cultural and scientific institutions come running to the rescue with all kinds of programming to make sure your child receives a well-rounded education.
Think the arts and heritage education is just fluff? Wrong. Training in arts and cultural history improves math and language arts scores, according to several studies, and gives kids real-world experience in critical thinking and teamwork.
Those who have equity concerns might take comfort in the knowledge that King County's longtime cultural public development authority, 4Culture, will administer the funds. According to its latest report, the agency increased the share of funding awarded to organizations with POC worker populations over 50%, and they awarded more money to BIPOC artists than to non-BIPOC artists last year. That result, Executive Director Brian Carter explained, comes courtesy of the department's "equity investments" practice, which boosts funding to projects and organizations outside of Seattle or to those located in Seattle within underserved census tracts. They use that practice in all funding, and so they'll use it with this funding as well.
The bill now heads to the King County Council's regional committee, who will mull it over and eventually pass it up to the full council for a vote. If the process goes relatively smoothly, the bill sponsors expect final action sometime in mid December.