Just a tiny tax would make museums, zoos available to most kids

jdodge@theolympian.comJanuary 30, 2014 

What’s not to like about a bill before the 2014 Legislature that would authorize counties to ask the voters to tax themselves to provide school-age children with increased access to museums, science centers, zoos, live theater and other cultural activities?

The measure brought forward by Cultural Access Washington, a coalition of 39 organizations from A (arts) to Z (zoos), would also provide a funding tool for nonprofit cultural and arts groups that face chronic financial worries.

The new source of voter-approved funding for the arts would be a one-tenth of one percent increase in the sales and use tax, or an equivalent hike in property taxes dedicated to cultural activities. It’s estimated such a funding plan could raise about $4 million a year in Thurston County.

The legislation has bipartisan support and, if approved, wouldn’t cost the state a dime. It’s already had favorable hearings in House and Senate committees and deserves to move along through the legislative process unencumbered. It doesn’t hurt that one of the prime sponsors of Senate Bill 6151 — it’s House Bill 2212 in the other chamber — is Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who spoke of the bill in glowing terms Tuesday during a public hearing.

Hill noted that job-generating companies and their employees are attracted to communities that support the arts. He added that his hometown of Denver is part of a seven-county metropolitan area that started in 1988 to distribute some $40 million a year in taxpayer money to scientific and cultural groups.

“Each time the measure comes up for a vote, it gets more votes than the previous election,” he said. Then Hill took the opportunity to remind everyone within earshot that he’s rooting for the Seattle Seahawks to beat his hometown Broncos Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII.

People testifying Tuesday before the Senate Ways and Means Committee were armed with all sorts of reasons to pass the bill, including:

 • Students engaged in cultural arts activities are more likely to graduate from high school, and score 120 points higher on their SATs.

 • In 2009, arts, cultural and scientific organizations in Pierce, King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties created 33,920 jobs and generated $2 billion in business activity.

 • Zoos, aquariums and science centers teach children and adults about the importance of clean air, clean water and the need to conserve imperiled species and their habitats.

My favorite testimony was presented by Patty Belmonte, executive director of the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia. She pointed out that 86,000 of the visitors to the museum last year — more than 35 percent of the total — qualified for free or reduced admission, everyone from military families to schoolchildren who otherwise couldn’t have afforded to attend.

She punctuated her point with a thank-you letter from Erin Hennessy, a third-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary School at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She relied on grants and donations to put together a field trip to the museum for the 75 third-graders who attend the school on the military base.

“I personally believe getting to experience a museum is a true luxury for these kids,” Hennessy wrote. “For a majority of their parents, museums aren’t on the agenda — putting food on the table, and ensuring a warm coat, is. Further, all my students … have at least one parent in the military. … They carry emotional burdens far beyond their civilian, third-grade counterparts.”

Hennessy went on to say that many of her students have parents who have been sent on overseas deployments three or four times, which means they’ve had two- to four-year spans in their young lives when they didn’t see their mother or father.

“Imagine that — not to mention the injuries, deaths, PTSD and other emotional strains that result from the military lifestyle,” she went on to say. “Getting to revel in childhood, to play, learn and expand their minds, is a gift and a true break from the everyday realities that they are dealing with. They deserve this. They deserve the smiles that will certainly light up their faces when they walk through the doors of the museum.”

Passing the cultural access legislation is just the first step toward expanding access to cultural experiences in communities willing to tax themselves to make it happen. State lawmakers should take the opportunity to foster this worthwhile goal.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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