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Changing Gears: Cuyahoga’s Cigarette Tax for Arts Flouts National Trend

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 4:04 PM

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It's a tough time for arts funding around the nation. Kansas just cut all its state support. But the Cleveland area has found a unique way to fund its arts -- and it's paying off big. Dan Bobkoff of our Changing Gears team has our story.

It’s a tough time for arts funding around the nation. Kansas, as just one example, just cut all its state support. It’s a different story in the Cleveland area, though. That region has found a unique way to fund the arts, and it’s paying off big.

It’s made residents like Samantha Kane arts patrons of sorts. She says she smokes about two or three packs of cigarettes a week. We find her waiting at a bus stop with a stroller in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Since 2006, each cigarette she smokes contributes a penny and a half to Cuyahoga County’s arts organizations.

“I love that it goes to something instead of road work, or you know, padding congressmen’s pockets,” Kane says.

This county cigarette tax really adds up. The group that administers the money is doling out $15 million this year alone. That’s enough to catapult the Cleveland area to among the top public funders for the arts in the nation-many times more than what most states contribute.

“I tell people: you don’t have to smoke ‘em, just buy them,” says Cindy Einhouse, CEO of the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

It puts on shows, teaches dance and music, and provides summer camps for kids.

Einhouse says the recession hit her organization hard. The Beck Center almost closed its doors in 2009. A wave of private donations helped, but she’s grateful for this county tax.

“I was saying thank goodness for the county arts and culture grant,” she says, adding that the Beck Center, like other arts organizations, might have gone under without the tax money.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is the group that doles out the grants from the cigarette tax.

Since 2007, CAC says it’s given nearly $65 million to 150 arts organizations. They range from the renowned Cleveland Orchestra down to small youth theater groups, and-full disclosure-public broadcasting.

There’s another reason arts groups love this money. These days, many foundations generally just give money for specific projects. Not so with the CAC. Karen Knowlton of the Cleveland International Piano Competition says she can use the tax money for anything.

“It goes to the kind of unglamorous things,” Knowlton says. “Like: paying the rent, meeting payroll, paying for postage, paying for telephone, paying for supplies.

So, how did Cuyahoga County go from almost no public arts funding to some of the highest in the nation? Megan Van Voorhis was present at the creation.

“It took us ten years,” says Megan Van Voorhis, who was present at the creation. “We remind people each time we have the conversation that it took us 10 years to get this.”

Van Voorhis is with the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, which led the charge for public funding of the arts in Cuyahoga County. First, backers tried a property tax increase in 2004. Voters didn’t like that idea, so they had to find something else.

“We looked at things like real estate transfer fees. We looked at boats. We looked at cell phones,” she says.

In the end, cigarettes were the winner. In 2006, voters approved the tax with wide margins. Republican Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz says there’s an old saying for this kind of thing. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

Seitz is a smoker himself. He thinks local taxes will drive people to buy cigarettes out of state. That would put the state’s cigarette tax revenue at risk. And, he thinks this tax for the arts is regressive: punishing poor smokers for the benefit of rich arts-goers. Supporters reject that saying the whole community gains. But Seitz points out another irony of all this.

“Out of one side of their mouth [lawmakers are] preaching a smoking cessation message,” he says. “But out of the other side of their mouth, they’re saying, gee I hope everybody does not listen or we’d be in a heap of trouble and have to raise other taxes.”

Karen Gahl-Mills is the executive director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. Her message can be a little awkward.

“My message will be: don’t smoke! It’s not good for you!” she says. “However, if you choose to do it, we have a good thing with the revenue that is generated and we can make it benefit everybody.”

Gahl-Mills acknowledges that smoking rates are not going up. CAC has projected declining cigarette sales from the start. Arts funding peaked in 2008 at around $20 million and she expects it to decline to about $11 million by 2016.

And, unless voters re-authorize it, 2016 also happens to be the year this tax ends. As proponents gear up for the next ballot push, it’s too early to say if cigarettes alone will be enough the next time around.

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Arts and Culture, Economy, Government/Politics

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