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Ga. arts council move approved; sales tax for arts rejected by House

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

Two aspects of an arts bill met different fates late on Thursday, the final day of the 2011 Georgia legislative session.

A proposal to let local communities vote themselves a fractional sales tax for economic development projects, which would have provided funding to arts and cultural groups, was removed from a bill that cleared the House. Thus, the fractional arts tax push died on the legislature’s last day for the second year in a row.

What survived in House Bill 264 was a move, backed by Gov. Nathan Deal, of the Georgia Council for the Arts from its current home in the state budget office to under the umbrella of the state Department of Economic Development.

A Senate amendment had added language from House Bill 73 that would let counties and cities hold a referendum on dedicating up to 1 cent of sales tax for any economic development project. Supporters claimed the measure would boost the arts and local government services, but only if voters agreed.

That provision, which did not clear the House, was removed before House vote. The House approved the original arts bill 168-2.

With that vote, the arts council will move under the umbrella of the Department of Economic Development on July 1.

The $18.3 billion state budget approved earlier in the week allotted $566,730 for the arts council.

While the National Endowment for the Arts typically matches state arts funding on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the Georgia budget projects $659,400 from the NEA. Georgia Council for the Arts officials could not explain the discrepancy on Friday, saying that the agency would explore the matter in coming days.

One of the first bits of business, once the administrative move of the arts council is done, is appointing an executive director to replace long-time leader Susan Weiner, who resigned in February after making “an assessment of the goals and objectives of the agency.” Karen L. Paty is serving as interim executive director.

When the legislation moving the arts council passed the House in early March, State Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta), who introduced House Bill 264, said the administrative move would allow for a more cohesive economic development approach for the arts and tourism in the state.

“We should respect Georgia’s traditions and promote our state’s art and artists to the best of our abilities,” Carter said. “This legislation allows us to do that by putting that responsibility in the hands of the department responsible for promoting and developing the state as a whole. As a result, the arts will be promoted more successfully in Georgia communities.”

As for the fractional tax — which would have provided a new stream of backing for the non-profit arts industry in Georgia in the face of state cuts as well as declines in corporate and foundation giving due to the bad economy — backers still harbor hope.

“While we are disappointed, we are not giving up,” Flora Maria Garcia, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition, wrote in an e-mail to state arts and community leaders Friday. “We have a great team and we have many supporters. Our leadership team will reconvene this afternoon and discuss next steps.”

EARLIER COVERAGE

Arts bill to be considered on final day of legislature
posted 11:13 a.m. Thursday, April 14

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

The fate of many major bills hangs in the balance Thursday on the final day of the 2011 Georgia Georgia legislative session, including a major one for the arts.

House Bill 264 has drawn less attention than legislation dealing with health care, immigration, control over Atlanta Public Schools, unemployment benefits and other bills. But it’s an important nonetheless to arts supporters, combining two important matters that could have impact on cultural funding in the state.

HB 264, which originally contained the legislation that would transfer authority over the Georgia Council for the Arts from the Governor’s Office to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, was amended to include former HB 73. That legislation would authorize local governments to ask their voters for a fraction of a penny sales tax that would go to support arts and cultural organizations in their communities.

The Senate approved the amended bill Tuesday, by a 37-17 vote, sending it back to the House for consideration Thursday on the 40th and final day of the session

The Senate passed a version of the fractional tax bill last year, but it died in the House on the 2010 session’s final day.

Georgia Communities for Growth, a coalition of arts, cultural and governmental entities that support the fractional tax, sent out e-mails Wednesday and Thursday asking  for an 11th-hour lobbying push of representatives in behalf of HB 264.

As implied by the name of the coalition, the group has strongly framed this year’s legislation as one that would benefit quality of life in counties in which voters would approve the tax, downplaying it somewhat as an arts and culture bill.

“This legislation can make possible significant and long term stabilizing funding to a wide variety of economic drivers in all Georgia counties, including arts and culture,” the e-mail said.

It’s not immediately clear what would happen with the legislation to move the Georgia Council for the Arts to the management of the Georgia Department of Economic Development if the fractional tax doesn’t find favor with House members on Thursday.

The GCA’s move was called for in Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget, which also called for the state arts agency’s funding to be cut from $790,735 this year to $566,730. The proposed cut puts at risk more than $300,000 in matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allotted the GCA $878,300 for 2011.

State funding for the GCA has been on a steep decline since peaking in 2002 at $4.5 million. This year’s proposed allotment is on par with funding in the late 1970s, and Georgia has ranked near the bottom nationally in recent years in terms of state support for the arts.

In late February, long-time GCA executive director Susan Weiner resigned after making “an assessment of the goals and objectives of the agency.” Karen L. Paty is serving as interim executive director.

Here is an AJC story with further detail about the fractional tax for arts and culture, posted on March 14:

Time running out for local sales tax bill

5:04 p.m. Monday, March 14, 2011
 

A proposal to let local communities vote themselves a sales tax for economic development projects is teetering in the House.

The problem for some with House Bill 73 – which would let counties and cities hold a referendum on dedicating up to 1 cent of sales tax for any economic development project – is it started its life last year as a way to boost the arts.

“I understand there are folks who want funds for the arts through this,” said Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, the leading skeptic on the House Ways and Means Committee where the bill has lingered. “But instead of traveling on its own, they’re giving a little of what everyone wants to try to get approval.”

The bill was conceived last year as a way to make up for budget cuts in the Georgia Arts Council and add to other weak public funding for the arts and culture in the state.

It failed after a dispute between metro Atlanta lawmakers, especially those in north Fulton County who fear any tax will disproportionately help Atlanta at the cost of the suburbs.

This year’s effort worked to address that issue head-on. Any local option sales tax in Fulton would send 60 percent of the first two-tenths of the penny to arts funding. Each tenth of a cent in Fulton generates about $22 million.

That would leave nearly $9 million to be divvied up among each jurisdiction by population, with Fulton receiving money only for the people in its unincorporated area in the south.

Larger cities in Fulton are projected to get at least $1 million each that they could use for arts programs, more traditional government services such as parks and police or lowering the municipal millage rate.

“This is not about the Woodruff. Frankly, this is not about the arts,” said Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center, which encompasses the Alliance Theater, Atlanta Symphony and the High Museum of Art.

“This is about creating a system that lets local people support what they want and lets governments level the tax burden,” Bankoff said.

That change has captured the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and even the one-time skeptics in Cobb County. Cobb is expected to want to use the new sales tax to replace one that is about to expire, and for the first time be able to use the money not just for buildings but to lower its overall tax rate.

“This would allow local communities to decide what they need to do to grow and retain jobs,” said Cobb Chamber President David Connell, who represents 2,500 businesses. “The number one issue with our chamber is to grow jobs, and that’s why we support this.”

But to get to any public question, sponsor Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, must first to win over his colleagues.

The Ways and Means Committee has not voted the proposal out for placement on the calendar for a full chamber vote.

If it fails to pass the House by Wednesday’s Crossover Day, it will die if not attached to another bill the House has approved this year.

“Educational SPLOSTS have worked well, but I just don’t know that we need it for this,” Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said of similar local sales taxes for school construction.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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