A sales tax increase for the arts? Say no for now

There are few things harder for public officials than saying no — or no for now — to a genuine need in their community. Such is the challenge the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners faces with Charlotte’s arts community, which is struggling to remain vibrant in the face of money woes.

Arts funding, however, is one of many needs facing the county, and it’s not nearly the priority of issues such as affordable housing and racial inequity. So instead of committing more money to arts, commissioners are considering the next best thing: Asking the public if it wants to pay. On Tuesday, the board is expected to approve one of two proposals that would put a quarter cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot. The increase would raise $50 million, with the arts getting a big part of that money regardless of which proposal passes.

Letting the public decide to raise its own taxes is certainly the easier path politically, but commissioners should reconsider. A higher sales tax would be a burden on low-income Mecklenburg residents, especially this year, and a risky referendum might not be best for the arts in the long run.

The issue, on both fronts, is timing. Commissioners passed a hefty budget this year that will result in a property tax increase for most Mecklenburg property owners. The increase also will affect renters who see at least some of the property tax increase passed on by landlords. A sales tax increase would be an additional hit — and it’s regressive, meaning it disproportionately affects those with less income.

Board chair George Dunlap complained last week that criticizing an arts sales tax as regressive is unfair, because no one questioned sales tax hikes from the N.C. legislature. That’s not true, and it’s a unconvincing attempt to dodge the reality that a sales tax increase would be a new burden on those who can least afford one. That alone should give commissioners pause this year.

A sales tax referendum is also risky for the arts. Mecklenburg voters have shown a consistent willingness to support bond referendums for various community needs, but when they were asked to support a sales tax increase in 2014, the referendum failed decisively. That sales tax increase was predominantly about schools, with some money for arts, and it suffered from messaging issues that included uncertainty about how the money would be spent.

The current proposal may face some similar problems; already there’s some early disagreement among commissioners about who would be the steward of the arts money. Even if those questions are cleared up, there’s risk in letting the people make the call in November. If voters decide they don’t want a sales tax increase on top of a property tax increase this year, commissioners won’t be making a similar ask anytime soon. They also be hamstrung politically from doing something significant on their own for the arts.

The better sales tax choice is for commissioners to say no, at least for now.