The Devil’s (Arts) Advocate – Are We Paying Our Fair Share? (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Justin Knabb, May 11, 2011 0 comments

Justin Knabb

While the recession may be officially over, its effects are still lingering throughout the economies of cities and towns across the nation. Congress, the White House, and governors (who want to be in Congress or the White House) constantly steal the headlines with ways they are going to save the people, and the government, money.

However, mayors are also being forced to deal with budget shortages, proposing municipal budgets that tap previously untouched sources of revenue: nonprofits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel offered the bluntest statement regarding the need for nonprofits to provide more tax revenue to the city. In remarks given to a group of arts advocates at the Goodman Theatre, Emanuel said, “Nobody is in a sacrifice-free zone. I love you all. You’re really important. But you’re not more important than anybody else.’’

Emanuel, who indicated during the mayoral campaign that he would start billing nonprofits for their water usage, backtracked on an implication that he would remove property tax exemptions for such groups. 

In Providence, RI, Mayor Angel Taveras is attempting to elicit a payment of $24 million from the city’s nine largest nonprofits for their property usage – a figure he says would be about 25 percent of the revenue the city would receive if the property could be fully taxed. Taveras is also advocating for the state’s General Assembly to permit cities to bill all nonprofits up to 25 percent of the assessed property tax. Taveras got the idea from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who is trying a similar approach.

Here in D.C., Mayor Vince Gray proposed extending the city’s six percent sales tax to tickets for performing and fine arts events. While it is being dubbed the theater ticket tax, it would include “live performances of ballet, dance, or choral performances, concerts, plays, operas and readings and exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, photography, graphic, and craft arts." Gray estimates that such a tax would generate $2.3 million for the city in FY 2012.

Can arts advocates make a justifiable case that theater tickets should be immune to a revenue-starved city government, when said government is also proposing to eliminate direct care services to low-income families and the homeless, all in the name of saving money?

Is it reasonable to permit galleries, performing arts venues, public universities, and other nonprofit institutions to continue to enjoy tax exemptions and discounts on the land they use, considering cuts being made to local social and emergency services nationwide?

Going back to Mayor Emanuel’s words: “You’re not more important than anyone else.”

How would you, as an arts advocate, argue differently?

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