By Maria Saporta
It was shortly after 9 p.m. in Phoenix when Joe Bankoff got the call.
House Bill 335 — the bill to help local communities raise funds for the arts and economic development — had died for lack of time.
Bankoff, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, is in Phoenix as part of the annual LINK trip when Atlanta leaders go to other cities to learn how different communities approach their problems and issues.
During the past year, Bankoff also has been instrumental in helping draft and advance the arts bill through the legislature. A coalition of arts and cultural organizations from around the state were surprisingly unified around the bill.
The bill also had the support of local government officials because it would allow each county in Georgia to pass a partial or full penny sales tax to help fund individual initiatives — be it for economic development or quality of life — with a requirement that a small portion of that tax be dedicated to the arts.
The bill, through a series of fits and starts, had stayed alive during all 40 days of the legislature. Given that it was the first year that such a bill had been introduced, it was incredible that it had received such strong legislative support in so short a period of time.
But it was all coming down to the final day of the legislature and what would happen in the conference committee. All day Thursday, Bankoff and other arts leaders on the LINK trip were staying in constant communications with people at the Georgia State House.
Well-connected leaders on the LINK trip were making strategic phone calls to key legislators on Thursday urging them to intensify their efforts to push the bill through during the closing hours of the legislature, which had to end a midnight, April 29.
Interestingly enough, when Bankoff got the call, he was having dinner with three arts leaders from the Greater Phoenix area, Blank Foundation President Penny McPhee and IBM executive Ann Cramer.
When Bankoff’s cell phone rang, the dinner table got quiet. Did it or didn’t it? Had the bill squeaked by?
Bankoff’s facial expression said it all before he told the group that the bill had not made it through.
Bob Booker, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, sympathized. A similar effort had recently failed in Arizona. But Booker reminded the Atlanta group that the bill had not been voted down. It had just died for lack of time.
“You should declare victory,” Booker said. The other leaders from the Phoenix area agreed. Georgia arts supporters now would have an entire year to drum up stronger support and to press their case before the candidates running for the top offices in the state and legislature.
In fact, some had privately wondered that if the bill had passed the legislature whether it would have received Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature.
The beauty of the bill was that it gave total control to local counties to decide whether to pass the tax, when it would go to voters, what the money would go to and for how long would it last.
But the fear also was that the governor would veto the bill for that very reason. The state and the governor would have no say-so on how a partial sales tax in each county would look like.
So the effort to give local communities an opportunity to raise dollars for arts and quality of life initiatives lives on.
A footnote. It was during the 2009 LINK trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul when Bankoff really took a serious look at a partial sales tax for the arts. During the LINK trip, he met with leaders in Minnesota who had been able to get a penny sales tax approved by having the proceeds go to the arts, clean water and green space initiatives.
That’s when Bankoff came to believe that a similar initiative could pass in Georgia.
Let’s hope it’s only a matter of time.
Update: This just came in from Flora Maria Garcia, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Cultural Coalition:
Unfortunately HB335 did not pass out of the House last night due to timing HB335 (technically there was not enough time for the bill to sit on House Representatives desks for the required one hour prior to a vote after receiving Conference Committee approval)—our bill arrived in the House very close to midnight, the time of adjournment of the Legislative Session.
While we are disappointed that HB335 did not make it out of the House, we consider the success HB335 had with the legislature this year an enormous victory—greatly due to your united support and focused advocacy.
HB335 was approved on the Senate Floor by a wide margin, with strong support.
The Friends of Art & Culture (FOAC) coalition has developed widespread support, across the state and party lines, for those who recognize the great value of the cultural industry to all of Georgia.
We will continue to work with our statewide partners next Session to pass legislation that allows for local decision-making by voters regarding important economic development investments in their communities.
We also plan to activate the statewide coalition throughout the year to focus on electing candidates who share the belief that art & culture are significant economic drivers and should be publicly supported.
We applaud the many political, business and civic leaders across the state who worked very hard for the passage of this bill, and are grateful for their continued support. In the next few days, we will email you a list of legislators who supported our legislation for you to thank.
FOAC and MAACC will return full force next Legislative Session in collaboration with our legislative leaders to pass this bill.