$469 million cultural levy: badly conceived and terribly timed

Woodland Park Zoo

Public money should not be used to cage animals. (Flickr)

Too much of Proposition 1, a county-wide tax measure, will go to  institutions that serve the wealthy and middle class or don’t deserve public money

by George Howland Jr

I love the arts, history and science, but I hate “Access for All”, the seven-year, $469 million King County Proposition 1. There are good aspects to this tax levy, but overall it is poorly conceived. Furthermore, at a time when King County Executive Dow Constantine has declared a state of emergency about our county’s 11,643 homelessness neighbors, Prop. 1 demonstrates a terrible set of priorities.

Prop. 1 is an increase of 0.1 percent in sales tax—a penny for every $10 dollars spent. If approved it would be levied county-wide. According to King County, Prop. 1’s $469 million would be split into four pots: 39 percent for around 35 big cultural organizations (including Seattle Opera, Museum of Flight and Woodland Park Zoo), 38 percent for around 350 little cultural organizations (Alliance for Pioneer Square, Bothell Historical Museum Society and Neely Mansion Association), 21 percent for a public-school access program and 1.25 percent for administration.

I find these numbers misleading. The so-called public-school access program would pay for school visits, curriculum and teacher training from and field trips to the 35 big non-profits. To my thinking, that means 60 percent or $280 million of this levy would go to 35 large organizations.

And to be clear: none of this money will pay for ongoing, actual art, theater, music, history or science classes in the school systems. It will provide, admittedly, some help to teachers already providing instruction in these subjects.

Most of the large groups that will receive funding, like Seattle Symphony, Seattle Repertory Theatre or Pacific Northwest Ballet, do wonderful work. That doesn’t mean in the era of Trump and with a crisis on our streets, that they should get even more public money than they are already getting. Some of them are not affordable to poor and working-class people. This levy will provide some access for low-income people to these institutions, but, by and large, most of these places serve middle class and wealthy people. Plus, public dollars already poured into the construction of a significant number of these organizations’ buildings.

Rich people should fund organizations that mostly serve the haves

King County has an overabundance rich people—let them contribute through private-fund drives to pay for these institutions to provide the best aspects of Prop. 1’s funding for the big organizations: the ticket subsidies and the school programs.

Other groups are really not worthy of public money. Woodland Park Zoo keeps animals in cages, a practice that future societies will find barbaric. Ditto Seattle Aquarium.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum and Seattle Children’s Museum are big, fun playrooms for young children. I don’t believe they rise to the level of worthy recipients of a new infusion of taxpayers’ money.

Perhaps the most horrid use of public money would be to fund billionaire Paul Allen’s Museum of Pop Culture (formerly known as EMP). Seattle has used $1 billion in public funds to help Allen turn South Lake Union into Amazonia. Let’s not add insult to injury.

These 35 big organizations would receive $133 million of their money practically unrestricted. They couldn’t use it for capital construction but they could use for any other legal purpose. That puts too much trust in these organizations’ boards and leadership.

Prop. 1 also shows that Constantine and seven members of the King County Council (bravo to Larry Gossett and Dave Upthegrove for dissenting) are not serious about the homeless crisis. How could this levy possibly be prioritized before a ballot measure to increase spending to help the homeless? It defies common sense. (In November, the county will ask for a renewal of the Veterans, Human Services and Seniors levy.)

Constantine even went so far as to persuade Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to drop his plans for a Seattle-only homeless levy on this same ballot, so the two measures wouldn’t compete for votes. There is no definite date for that homeless levy to be revived. That’s inexcusable.

Upthegrove tells The Seattle Times that the levy is all about Constantine’s ambition to run for governor in 2020 (good luck to him in beating Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who undoubtedly will also run). Prop. 1 will please “the donor class,” Upthegrove says, who attend and contribute to these large institutions. In turn, he argues, these donors will be more inclined to contribute to Constantine’s gubernatorial campaign.

Constantine’s spokesperson Alex Fryer replies. “When the enabling legislation passed the state Senate in 2015, the late Senator Andy Hill (the bill’s sponsor) noted that it would provide tremendous benefit for all residents but particularly children and young adults in school. Executive Constantine has been a longtime advocate for the arts, and was recognized for his work last year by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading organization for advancing arts education. Passing Prop. 1 is a top priority for arts, cultural, science and heritage institutions, large and small, as well as their volunteers, members and supporters.”

Whether you believe Upthegrove or Constantine, it remains clear to me that Prop. 1 is a bad use of public money. And to prioritize it over our homeless neighbors, some of whom are literally dying in the streets, is just plain wrong.

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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