CAC Resolves to Send Cigarette Tax for the Arts to November Ballot

The Board of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture hears a presentation from consultant Jeff Rusnak and Assembly for the Arts CEO Jeremy Johnson during its April 29 meeting at Cleveland Public Library.

The Cuyahoga Arts and Culture board of directors answered a couple of questions that have hung over the public art funding agency for its recent history. In a unanimous roll call vote, the board approved a resolution to put a 3.5 cent per-cigarette tax before voters in November, for the first time committing to when the issue would be on the ballot, and how much the tax would be. That comes to 70 cents a pack, a bit more than double the 1.5 cent / 30 cent per-pack rate at which the county has taxed cigarettes for the arts since it began in 2007.  No one in the room voiced opposition.

Revenue from the tax has plummeted ever since collection began in 2007, from about $20 million per year to about $10 million per year. In the same period of time, the number of nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Cuyahoga County has increased, further diluting the available funds. Without passage of the levy, CAC director Jill Paulsen said the funder would have to make cuts of at least 34 percent in the following year.

The current tax does not expire until 2027, but the urgency of renewal and an increase rippled through the sector in 2023 when key advocate Fred Bidwell wrote an op-ed on, announcing that the Assembly for Action political action committee had suspended efforts to raise money to support getting such an issue on the ballot. The urgency intensified early this year with greater than expected declines in cigarette tax receipts. It’s projected that by increasing the tax to 70 cents per pack for ten years, the new levy would bring in $160 million over that time.

Assembly for the Arts / Assembly for Action CEO Jeremy Johnson and contracted consultant R. Strategy Group president Jeff Rusnak made a presentation to the board, highlighting the economic contribution the arts makes to the county, and recommending the 70 cent-per-pack tax.

“Today marks a milestone,” Johnson said. “This is about jobs, the education of our youth, and the vitality of greater Cleveland.”

Speaking of fiscal year 2022-2023, Rusnak said the nonprofit arts sector generated $533 Million in economic activity, was responsible for 8,637 jobs, and generated $104.2 Million in government revenue, through income and other taxes.

“All that is being threatened and is at risk,” he said. “If we want to get back where we started, our recommendation is 3.5cents per cigarette for 10 years.”

Board member Michelle Scott Taylor asked if the rate had been tested, and if there was public support for the tax. Rusnak said they had conducted a range of public opinion polling that found support. “I would say they are open to that, yes,” he said.

The $160 Million projection includes accounting for continued decline in the number of cigarettes sold over the next ten years.

Board Member Taylor asked about the plan for allocating funding. Most of the agency’s grantmaking supports the general operating of nonprofit arts and culture organizations, with the second largest allocation going to non-profit organizations that present arts and cultural programming as “projects.” The smallest portion of grantmaking historically has been allocated to nonprofit organizations to re-grant in individual artist support programs. In recent years the agency has faced criticism from individual artists seeking a larger slice of the pie. Meanwhile, declining revenue has raised questions about project support vs. general operating support.

Jill Paulsen said the current resolution is not about how the money will be spent. “CAC will tackle that work with community input in the future,” she said. Nonprofit organizations that have received grants have been responding to a survey about how they would prefer funds to be allocated, including if it should become necessary to deal with continuing revenue declines. That survey will inform allocations.

The CAC resolution puts the measure in the hands of Cuyahoga County Council, which must ultimately vote to put the measure on the ballot November 5.

Collective Arts Network is grateful to the people of Cuyahoga County through support received through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

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