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Tacoma Voters Weigh A Proposition That Would Raise Sales Taxes For Arts Organizations

"Tacoma Art Museum" by Rob Bixby is licensed under CC by 2.0

Last year, voters in King County rejected a sales tax hike that would have raised millions of dollars for arts and culture organizations. 

This year, supporters of the arts in Tacoma are trying to pass their own version.

Proposition 1, on the ballot this election, would raise the sales tax one-tenth of one percent in Tacoma. Arts and culture organizations in the city could tap proceeds from the tax, estimated at $5 million a year, for programs designed to expand access to their institutions and services.

That would mean bringing art into underserved neighborhoods in the form of festivals or public art displays, according to supporters.

It would also include programs designed to bring families into institutions like the Tacoma Art Museum, the Children's Museum of Tacoma, and the Asia Pacific Culture Center. Those could include marketing campaigns and reduced entry fees. 

Some of the revenue would also be set aside for transportation initiatives to physically bring people to museums, theaters and other cultural centers.

Ultimately, the form all those programs would take would be up to private organizations vying for the money.

A committee appointed by the Tacoma City Council would vet proposals by different organizations and determine whether to fund them. There would be caps on how much money each eligible organization can receive, based on budget size and other factors.

There's no organized campaign to defeat the proposition. But a local business owner, Casey Cowles, has criticized the measure and contributed to the argument against it that appeared in voters' pamphlets.

Cowles, who owns a Minuteman Press printing shop in Tacoma, said his city is already a relatively highly-taxed corner of the state and has struggled with economic development for years. He said Tacoma needs lower taxes and a friendlier business environment to compete with Seattle.

"They have all the sports stadiums," he said. "They have all the big, publicly traded companies that people on the East Coast know by name. That's all up in the 206. That's an advantage. We can't offer that. So how are we going to entice people to come?"

Tanya Durand, executive director of the Children's Museum of Tacoma, disagrees with that assessment. She's one of the leaders of Tacoma Creates, a coalition of arts and culture institutions behind the proposition.

Durand said Tacoma's leaders have built economic revitalization efforts around the arts, and the proposition represents an infusion of money into that strategy.

She also rejected the argument that, with a mounting housing affordability and homelessness crisis in Tacoma, this is not the right time to prioritize arts and culture. She said the two efforts are not mutually exclusive, and argued arts and culture organizations play a role in alleviating poverty. 

"People that are struggling in our community, it's okay for them to appreciate art and beauty as well," Durand said. "Not to mention the expressive qualities. I mean, the people that come to the Children's Museum, those children are learning through their play. So, every time they walk through our doors, they're developing even further."

She added that it's fallen more and more on private institutions to educate schoolchildren about the arts.

KNKX South Sound reporter Will James talked through the arguments for and against Tacoma's Proposition 1 with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. You can listen to their conversation above. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.