Opinion

Sales tax for the arts has a fatal - but fixable - flaw

Dancers with the Charlotte Ballet rehearse for the 2019 Choreographic Lab. Charlotte Ballet is one of dozens of arts groups that would receive more funding if voters approve a referendum in November that would raise the county sales tax to pay for arts, parks and greenways.
Dancers with the Charlotte Ballet rehearse for the 2019 Choreographic Lab. Charlotte Ballet is one of dozens of arts groups that would receive more funding if voters approve a referendum in November that would raise the county sales tax to pay for arts, parks and greenways. Charlotte Ballet

From the start, a proposal to raise Mecklenburg’s sales tax to help fund the arts has faced an uphill climb. The quarter-cent increase is poorly timed, coming on the heels of new and higher property tax bills for many in the county. A sales tax also would be regressive, which means it would disproportionately hit the low-income residents who can least afford it.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing the proposal, which voters will consider in a November referendum, is what we don’t know. Some of that ambiguity is beyond the control of Mecklenburg commissioners and other leaders pushing for the tax. But much of the uncertainty doesn’t have to be uncertain.

The most obvious answerable question: Where precisely will the money go? Commissioners have decided that $22.5 million, or 45 percent, of the expected annual sales tax revenue will be dedicated to the arts, with another $17 million going to parks and recreation, $8 million to education and $2.5 million to arts and culture projects and parks in the county’s small towns. But beyond those broad guidelines, commissioners are more aspirational than specific. “We’re still working on details,” District 5 representative Susan Harden told the editorial board this week. Voters need that work to be done quickly.

An example: Both commissioners and Arts & Science Council officials say the new money will help pay for more programming and grants, with an emphasis on bringing arts and culture to communities across the county. What precise forms will that take? We don’t know, and we should. Underserved communities have been told time and again that the ASC wants to reach out to them, and although some progress has been made, there’s still more need than real accomplishment. Those communities — as well as all other voters — deserve promises about specific initiatives the sales tax would fund.

Similarly, commissioners and parks advocates say sales tax revenue would go toward parks improvements and additions, as well as greenways. But there is no list of projects that the first year’s $17 million — or any subsequent year’s money — would pay for. That should change, and commissioners also should include other benefits — for example, free admission on select days to facilities such as the Aquatic Center — that the new revenue stream would bring to lower-income families.

Such specifics would help mitigate two obstacles facing the referendum. One is informational — the language on the ballot, which is dictated by state statute — tells voters only that they would be approving a sales tax increase. The other obstacle is trust — commissioners aren’t bound to spend the money in the agreed-upon distribution, and voters have a right to be wary of county officials who not long ago wanted to move a new soccer stadium ahead of other unfunded parks projects. The same kind of bait-and-switch could happen with new sales tax revenue regardless of what commissioners say they want now, but the more specific the spending promises, the more accountable commissioners are for them.

One more critical question to answer: Will commissioners or arts officials have the final say on which projects get funded? Commissioners were unable to come to a consensus on that last week. They need to before November’s vote, not after.

There’s no denying Charlotte and Mecklenburg benefits from a robust arts community and parks and rec system. But the bar for this form of funding is high. Commissioners and advocates have some work to do.

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