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ATL Business Chronicle

Bill proposes splitting pennies for arts

By Maria Saporta
Friday, February 5, 2010

A groundbreaking bill to support the arts, economic development and quality-of-life initiatives was introduced Feb. 1 in the state House of Representatives.

House Bill 1049, introduced by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, and Stacey Abrams, D-DeKalb, would transform the local option sales tax by allowing counties to pass a fraction of a penny sales tax.

It would be the first time that Georgia would permit the splitting up of a penny sales tax — a tool that has been successfully applied in states across the country.

The proposed enabling legislation would allow each county the flexibility to pass a sales tax (be it a full penny or a fraction of a penny) to go toward supporting arts and cultural organizations, economic development incentives and quality-of-life initiatives.

Each county would be able to design how to split its penny sales tax, and then voters in that county would vote on whether to approve that sales tax. At least 55 percent of a tenth of a penny would be required to go toward supporting arts and cultural organizations and initiatives.

That means that more than nine-tenths of a penny could go toward other initiatives, such as green space acquisition, convention centers, etc.

“We are getting positive traction because it is a fractional sales tax with a local option that voters can approve,” said Flora Maria Garcia, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition. “It provides counties with an economic development toolbox. It is considered to be a better solution that a SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) because there’s such great flexibility.”

Cobb County Commissioner Tim Lee, who has announced that he’s running for commission chairman, is sold on the idea.

He says it would be “an extraordinary way” to support the economic side of arts and cultural organizations while giving counties the opportunity to spend the rest of the penny on other needed initiatives.

“I believe I’m going to have a much better chance of working with folks who live in Cobb County by being able to sell a fractional penny,” Lee said. “It’s an excellent tool that we can add to our toolbox.”

Dennis Kelly, the recently departed president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, said such a tax is critical to metro Atlanta’s and Georgia’s competitive stance.

“We don’t want to repeat the mistake of starving our economic engines of growth. A strong arts and cultural community helps support economic development,” Kelly said. “It’s critically important for us to have this. When you look at the investment that cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Miami, Houston, Dallas are making in their arts and cultural community — both with public and private money — it’s going to be important for us maintaining our competitive position.”

For Zoo Atlanta, not having public support means that it’s the third-highest-priced zoo in the country. Out of the top 20 zoos in the country, it is only one of a couple that receives no government support.

It’s become an even more critical issue during this tough economy.

Last year, the state of Georgia ranked 47th in per-capita support of the arts. In his most recent budget proposal, Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed cutting funding for the Georgia Council for the Arts by 79 percent from its 2008 level.

Allowing counties to develop their own dedicated funding for arts and cultural organizations is viewed as a way to fill that void. Because all 159 counties could decide whether to present such a tax to voters, supporters of the bill say it has statewide appeal.

“We are lucky in Macon to have such a rich inventory of cultural assets with a symphony, two active theaters and multiple museums, that identifying new opportunities to sustain our arts community is of great interest to all our organizations,” said Lisa Love, director of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon.

Currently, supporters are working with several possible Senate sponsors for the legislation. Under the proposed legislation, there would be three tiers of arts organizations.

The largest institutions could receive up to 15 percent of their annual operating budget from the tax; midsized organizations could receive up to 17 percent; and the smallest arts groups could receive up to 19 percent. Once passed, each county’s tax would sunset in 15 years, which means that the sales tax would need to be reapproved by voters.

Lena Carstens, managing director of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in Inman Park, made sure to “look out for the little guy” while helping draft the legislation.

“The arts are so important to a vibrant community,” Carstens said. “They help create the heart and soul for the city and the state. This is an opportunity for us to be more competitive.”

The legislation also puts Fulton County, which accounts for more than 80 percent of budgets of all the arts and cultural organizations in the state, in a separate category.

Because there are so many groups eligible for such funding in Fulton, the legislation proposes requiring that three-tenths of the penny sales tax go toward art and cultural support.

The group that has been promoting this legislation — the Friends of Arts and Culture — have been working on the idea for more than a year to make sure it’s as fair and flexible as possible.

It has met with the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia as well as other state and local leaders.

“The advice we got was that each county has different issues, so it probably was not politically practical to have a regional tax,” said Virginia Hepner, who chairs Friends of Arts and Culture. “We decided to go county by county. We did statewide polling on the appeal of a fractional tax vote, and it was overwhelmingly positive — 65 percent were in favor of a fractionalized penny.”

That is consistent with what the group has seen in other communities.

“We have looked at other areas across the country, and it’s been very well-received,” Lee said. “It really helps being able to support many different venues. And at the same time we would be able to emphasize other economic development and quality-of-life initiatives. It’s an excellent tool to use short-term and long-term.”

Maria Saporta

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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