CAN We Talk?


Maybe this is a good time to talk. Just over 75 percent of the people who cast ballots in Cuyahoga County in November voted in favor of renewed public support of the arts and culture through its 30 cent per pack tax on cigarettes. That’s an overwhelming number.

And a few months earlier, when the County Council discussed putting the measure on the ballot, they not only voted unanimously in favor, but wondered about ways of increasing the amount of funding.

So with another 10 years of public funding secured, maybe this is a good time to talk about how that revenue stream could improve. We don’t mean the administration of the funds. Cuyahoga Arts and Culture has meted out dollars efficently, carefully, and with great transparency. We mean improving the revenue stream itself. County Council and plenty of voters enthusiastically supported the measure despite questions about the long-term viability of taxing cigarettes, and the social implications that go along with it.

Revenue from the tax has declined steadily, from a high of almost $20 million in 2008 to about $16 million last year. And Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s own projections indicate that by the time the current levy expires in 2026, annual revenue will have fallen below $10 million.

That points to another issue: According to the current model, what is good for society—fewer people smoking—is bad for the public funding of art. And further, because the Centers for Disease Control reports that just 17.8 percent of adults smoke, it’s less than one in five of us contributing to the public fund.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had skin in the game, and if we didn’t have to balance healthy public funding against unhealthy lungs? And if art organizations could count on steady—rather than declining—public dollars? Especially in light of such overwhelming support from voters and public officials.

Of course taxation is a complicated, political business. Before any change to the tax can happen—even adding cigars, chewing tobacco, or e-cigarettes –the county needs approval from the state legislature. And there are plenty of worthy, competing interests, such as Health and Human services, education, and more.

Tom Schorgl, CEO of the region’s arts and cultural thinktank, the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture, looks ahead with trademark caution. “We know it is important to gather information that will test what a future issue would look like, and how the public will respond to it.” He anticipates doing that in tandem with CAC director Karen Gahl-Mills. “[This kind of improvement] is absolutely possible and achievable, but I don’t want to speculate 2 days after the vote.”

Gahl-Mills says Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is in the midst of strategic planning that will inform its programs in the future—before it takes up the subject of the next levy. A series of public “listening sessions” will begin early in 2016.

Fred Bidwell, who co-chaired the political action committee that ran the campaign for the renewal, says “there certainly will be a serious discussion in the coming months and years about what can succeed or perhaps supplement the tobacco tax. . . . I think that the support of County Council for maintaining and even increasing public funding for the arts and the firm endorsement of the voters suggests that we should be bold in our thinking about what the future funding mechanism could be.”

We look forward to the dialog. And we look forward to seeing you at the shows.

Michael Gill
Editor / Publisher