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Cuyahoga County Arts Advocates Make Case For Broader Tobacco Tax

An alliance of local arts groups is being assembled to speak and lobby for arts and culture with one voice. [Stokkete / Shutterstock.com]
An orchestral flute player makes music, just as local advocates are playing a new tune when it comes to raising financial support for the arts

For nearly 15 years, a cigarette tax has supported many arts and cultural activities in Cuyahoga County. That tax revenue has steadily dwindled, prompting a search for a greater source of money.

The Cuyahoga County-based Arts and Culture Action Committee (ACAC) successfully ran the two previous tobacco issue campaigns, yielding a 30-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes that has funded millions of dollars of arts and cultural activities in the county. That money is distributed by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), and ideastream recieves support from CAC. But with cigarette sales down, ACAC chair Fred Bidwell said his group is looking to promote a new and expanded revenue stream.

Fred Bidwell is chair of the Arts and Culture Action Committee [Fred Bidwell]

“This new tax is actually a percentage tax, 8 percent on all forms of tobacco: vaping, chewing tobacco, smokeless tobacco, cigars,” he said. “So, all forms of tobacco and nicotine.”

The average price of a pack of cigarettes is between about $6 to 9, and an 8 percent tax would yield 48 to 72 cents for each pack. Factor in similar taxes on all other tobacco products and there would certainly be more money coming in.

So-called “sin taxes” are often sold to lawmakers as serving the public good – you raise the price on tobacco, then fewer people smoke. But, any talk of taxes in the current economic climate is a tough sell. So, Bidwell said his group is sweetening the pot with a proposal that would spread the idea of an arts tax statewide, for any county above 200,000 in population.

“So, that would allow Summit County, Franklin County, Stark County [and others], to propose to their voters a tobacco tax to support arts and culture in their counties, which would be a huge thing for the state,” Bidwell said.

To make that happen, an alliance of local arts groups is being assembled to speak and lobby for arts and culture with one voice. ACAC is working with CAC and the soon-to-be renamed Arts Cleveland.

And, add one more acronym to the list: NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. Born at the beginning of the pandemic last spring, NIVA’s membership includes music clubs, concert halls, promoters and festivals. NIVA represents just a sampling of for-profit businesses that are also a part of the creative economy.

“The alliance is being built to represent both non-profits, our traditional area, but also, we want to bring in for-profits because there's huge interaction between the two. And you're not looking at the whole picture until you include them,” Bidwell said.

Working together, these groups helped secure $4 million in pandemic relief funding from the county. Bidwell said the idea of area arts groups working together strategically is new. He adds that it’s easy to undervalue the rich culture here. From century-old institutions, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, Karamu and the Cleveland Orchestra, to the dozens of cultural groups across the community, the arts are more than an amenity.

“These are incredible and unique resources, and it's a significant part of the local economy,” Bidwell said. “Given the size of this sector, the impact of the sector, not just on our... economy, but on our civic reputation, we need to organize and be at the table when important public policy decisions are made.”

Bidwell added that speaking with one voice also means that arts organizations can work together to solve internal issues.

“Could we offer a health insurance plan to independent artists? Could we offer to smaller arts organizations, shared resources like accounting and fundraising? Why does every small organization have to have their own accountant, have their own development director?" 

Bidwell emphasizes there’s much more going on than a bunch of arts groups banding together to beg for money. Among other things, an alliance of cultural players puts together a power base that could make Cleveland a magnet for creative people from across the country.

“Cleveland is guilty of chasing dreams,” he said. “Whether it's a blockchain or, you know, we're going to bring in all of this high-tech stuff, that medical innovation center, all of that. And those all sound worthy and great. But, I believe that cities need to focus on the resources they already have. We already win in this sector and we need to build on it. And if we do, I think we can attract all kinds of industry talent that is maybe rethinking San Francisco right now or rethinking New York.”

The arts alliance has until the end of June to have its new tax proposal included in this year’s state operating budget. Then, it becomes a matter of when to put it on the ballot for voter approval. With a Cleveland mayoral campaign coming up this fall, do you shoot for November or do you wait?

“And so, you know, there's a lot to think about there,” Bidwell said.

In the near term, the group is looking to decide on its own brand by spring. A job posting for an executive director calls it the "Greater Cleveland Arts Alliance," though Bidwell said he's hoping for a more inspiring name.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.