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Arts Advocates Lobby Ohio Lawmakers For Expanded Public Funding

 Sculpture at Columbus School of Art and Design in downtown [aceshot1 / Shutterstock]
The letters A,R and T are formed by red pipes outside of the Columbus School of Art and Design

Arts leaders from around the state have signed a letter to Ohio lawmakers arguing for expanded public funding of arts and culture.

Fred Bidwell, chairman of the Cleveland-based Arts & Culture Action Committee, took that case to the House Finance Committee in Columbus on Thursday.

Bidwell is acting as spokesperson for a coalition of over 80 arts and cultural organizations looking to increase the scope of arts funding through an existing cigarette tax in Cuyahoga County, according to a news release from Ohio Citizens for the Arts.

Fred Bidwell speaks before the House Finance Committee on Thursday. [Ohio Channel]

In 2006, the General Assembly gave the okay for Cuyahoga County residents to vote on a 30 cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes that would support local arts and cultural activities. Voters gave their approval for that revenue stream and passed a renewal 10 years later. But, a decline in cigarette sales has prompted Bidwell and his committee to ask lawmakers for three modifications:

- Change the tax from a per unit basis to a percentage of sales.

- Expand the tax to all forms of tobacco, including vaping.

- Allow voters in Ohio’s 14 largest counties to decide on a similar tax for the arts.

Bidwell discussed this strategy in a conversation with ideastream last month.

Pending a go-ahead in the Finance Committee, the measure will have to get approval from both the House and Senate before it would become part of this year’s state budget proposal. If the governor signs off on it, the 14 counties would have the green light to put a tobacco tax for the arts before their voters. In Northeast Ohio that would include Summit, Stark, Lorain, Lake and Mahoning counties.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) distributes cigarette tax revenue to organizations in the county, including ideastream. The news release quotes CAC Executive Director Jill Paulsen on the impact of the cigarette tax so far.

“Since its first passage in 2006, this levy has infused $207 million in grants to more than 435 nonprofit organizations in our community,” she said.

After Bidwell’s testimony, Ohio Citizens for the Arts Executive Director Angela Meleca said the statewide coalition of arts organizations was unprecedented in Ohio and it comes at a time when there’s a lot of hurt in the arts sector.

We've lost over a third of the jobs,” she said. “These are highly skilled jobs. So when you talk about brain drain, we worry about these jobs being lost. How many will come back, if ever? It’s not like other industries where, if one organization closes, you can go down the street and get a job elsewhere.

Meleca sees arts and culture as a “critical industry” in Ohio, ranging across both urban and rural areas.

“We really need to position ourselves to where we can thrive, so we can help be a key part of bringing the state back and having Ohio thrive again,” she said .

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