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Mayor Reed still pushing Atlanta arts tax

By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 24, 2017

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he remains confident Georgia lawmakers will approve his plan for an arts tax in the city, even though time is running out on the 2017 legislative session.

Reed unveiled a proposal in late January asking Atlanta voters for a tenth-of-a-penny increase in the city sales tax to provide a dedicated stream of funding for the arts. But with just three days remaining in the session including March 24, no bill had been introduced and the deadline for doing so had come and gone.

Reed said there are “vehicles that are appropriate” for getting legislation through the General Assembly at the 11th hour, although he wouldn’t go into details for fear of tipping off opponents.

“We’re trying to accomplish something people say has been needed for 25 years,” the mayor told Atlanta Business Chronicle in an exclusive interview. “This was never going to be easy.”

The stage was set for the arts tax proposal last year when city officials decided to seek a sales tax hike of four-tenths of a cent to pay for transportation improvements including street, sidewalk and trail projects as an alternative to an earlier plan for a half-penny tax. After Atlanta voters ratified the TSPLOST in November, there was still room for Reed to seek the other tenth-of-a-penny this year to support arts and cultural organizations.

Virginia Hepner

Virginia Hepner in the atrium lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“The Atlanta Committee for Progress [a group of prominent business leaders] was unanimous in their support for a half-penny sales tax,” he said. “We’re doing what we said we were going to do all along.”

When the mayor first unveiled the arts tax proposal, he said a steady source of funding for the arts would be particularly beneficial to the smaller nonprofit arts groups because they lack access to the large private donations that flow to the organizations that operate the city’s major arts and cultural venues.

A coalition of 17 of those smaller groups wrote the mayor a letter dated March 13 asking that the tax revenue go to a wide range of arts organizations.

“Your support of a sustained funding model for the arts in our city is encouraging,” the groups’ leaders wrote. “We want to ensure that the model provides for an equitable distribution of those funds.”

Reed said he received the coalition’s message loud and clear, which didn’t differ from his intentions for the tax all along. “That was always my goal,” Reed said. “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

The larger arts organizations, too, have gotten behind the arts tax proposal.

“We’re very grateful for the mayor’s leadership in support of this industry, both in the past and today,” said Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. “At his request, I’ve given him some thoughts on how Atlanta could deliver a best-in-class model that would be fair and inclusive for everyone in the arts and culture community. And, I’ve told him that we will do anything we can to help galvanize support for the creative industry that is so important to the city.”

Reed began his public campaign for the arts tax in early February, when he made it the centerpiece of his annual State of the City address. The mayor, a former state senator, said he emphasized the proposal to start building support in a General Assembly that typically is wary of voting for higher taxes.

“It’s still a very conservative environment,” he said.

As a former lawmaker, Reed said he’s seen examples of bills being declared dead only to be resurrected during the final days and hours of a General Assembly session.

Just last year, supporters of legislation calling for half-penny sales tax increase to finance improvements in MARTA bus and rail service in Atlanta were able to strip all of the language out of a Senate bill pertaining to fireworks and insert the MARTA bill. The measure passed on the final day of the session.

“Most bills get done in the last 72 hours before Sine Die [the last day of legislative sessions]”, Reed said. “We have time to pass this legislation.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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