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What the future holds for Georgia Council for the Arts, fractional tax for arts, culture

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.”

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.

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.”

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