City of Olympia votes on a sales tax increase for arts initiatives

If the initiative passes, Olympia would become the second city in the state with a cultural access program funded by sales tax. (St. Louis was the first in the U.S. to establish a special tax district, in 1969, to support the local art museum, zoo and museum of science.) In 2018, Tacoma became the first local government in Washington to pass such a program, after a 2015 state law allowed local counties (and later cities) to tax themselves for arts, culture and education. A similar measure in King County failed by a narrow margin in 2017. 

“We’re only in our second year of contracting with cultural organizations, and it’s been so great to see the impact this funding has had already,” says Lisa Jaret of the Tacoma Creates program, which distributed $4.7 million to nearly 60 local organizations in its first funding cycle in 2020-2021, 32 of which provided youth education programming. The majority of funded organizations received an amount under $100,000, such as the beloved dance school Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center or T.U.P.A.C. ($27,675), The Tacoma Refugee Choir ($63,375) and Tacoma Little Theatre ($86,335). But the program has also funded larger organizations like the Symphony Tacoma ($212,500) and the Tacoma Art Museum ($475,000). “I think it really has been a game-changer for some organizations,” Jaret says.  

That has been especially true during the pandemic downturn, notes Manny Cawaling of Inspire Washington, a statewide cultural advocacy organization that has long lobbied for cultural access programs. “As every other funding source — the sale of tickets, admissions to museums [was] drying up, what was actually really resilient was sales tax. People were still shopping,” he says. In Tacoma, “that became a real durable line of revenue that was being directed at cultural organizations.”

While some people may have continued shopping, the pandemic brought financial hardship for many others. Sales taxes are, by definition, a regressive tax, meaning low-income taxpayers pay a disproportionate share of the tax burden. Particularly now, as inflation rises, this reality weighed heavily on the council as it discussed putting the measure on the ballot late last year, Selby of Inspire Olympia! says. 

Still, she thinks the tax will be a boon for the city. “Yes, sales tax is inherently regressive,”’ she says. But, she adds, this money will benefit many in the community, specifically low-resourced households. “This is not a sales tax to build a stadium,” she says. 

Selby also says the blow will be lessened somewhat because so many people from outside of Olympia — which is not just the state capital, but also a creative center for surrounding communities — spend money in the city. Plus, she notes that the creative industries are an economic driver, meaning “there’s a force multiplier: with any dollar spent in the creative industries, [at least] 1.5% … gets back into the community.” 

If the measure passes, the tax will go into effect July 1, with the first funds potentially going out to nonprofits in late 2023 and early 2024.

Seeing the measure get passed could be a prompt for other cities in Washington, Cawaling says. “There was a lot of interest prior to the pandemic and the pandemic put everything on hold,” he says, noting that he knows there has been interest in the program from San Juan County, Whatcom County, Clark County and Spokane. And, he says, Inspire Washington is exploring the possibility of a new cultural access campaign in King County this year or next.

Many arts organizations across the state are still on the brink of survival, but seeing other cities like Tacoma and now, possibly, Olympia start to “reap the benefits” of the tax program could be motivating, Cawaling says. “To look at another community, like Tacoma or Olympia, where there’s actually cultural growth and more stability for organizations because they have more public funding, that’s inspirational. Who doesn’t want something like that?”

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