County Council Puts Increased Cigarette Tax for the Arts on November Ballot

Pictured on a video monitor, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture director Jill Paulsen and Assembly for the Arts CEO Jeremy Johnson answer questions from County Council during the second reading of legislation to put the cigarette tax on the November ballot.

After posing questions that the arts sector has faced for years, Cuyahoga County Council unanimously moved Tuesday night (June 4) to put before voters the option to replace the current cigarette tax for the arts. The third reading by County Council makes it official: the opportunity to approve or deny an increase from 1.5 cents to 3.5 cents per cigarette (or from 30 cents to 70 cents per pack) in support of arts and culture organizations in the county will go before voters in November. After steady annual decline, the tax at its current level brings about half the revenue it did when first collected in 2007. It’s estimated that the increase will bring approximately $160 million for the arts over 10 years, at the outset nearly returning revenue to its level when collection began.

Discussion of the issue—with a presentation made by Assembly for the Arts CEO Jeremy Johnson and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture director Jill Paulsen, with public comment from arts leaders (including CAN executive director Michael Gill)–took place during council’s second reading of the legislation, late in May. The questions council representatives posed will sound familiar to arts leaders who have struggled with the implications of the tax for years, ultimately accepting its faults in the somewhat urgent battle to sustain the region’s remarkable art sector.

Councilman Michael Gallagher, representing District 5, expressed concern that the tax burden “will affect some of poorest people,” a reference to the fact that statistically, smokers tilt toward the low end of the economic spectrum and are more often people of color. While he committed to support for putting the tax on the ballot, he advised, “you’ve got to find something else.”

District 6 representative Jack Schron talked about struggling over the vote, noting that he lost a brother to cigarettes, and saying he thinks “people would support another revenue stream.”

Those comments reflected similar conversations when the tax was first renewed, in 2015, and advocates said they were searching for alternatives. Almost ten years later, despite polling and other exploration of alternatives—such as a hotel tax, fine dining tax, and property tax, among others—no option has emerged with a likelihood of success.

District 10 representative, vice president Cheryl Stephens asked about taxing marijuana—a measure with possibilities, but no certain outcome in the contentious political climate with its competition for tax revenue. 

Other questions alluded to chaotic meetings of CAC’s board of directors for the last 18 months. District 11 representative Sunny Simon, for example, asked about the “turmoil.”   CAC director Jill Paulsen acknowledged the history and observed changes in the board’s composition that have taken place this Spring with terms ending and new appointments.

But some of council’s questions pointed to strategies CAC has already employed to manage declining revenue, or to administer the tax more equitably.

Dale Miller, of District 2, asked about putting aside money early in the levy’s term to even out revenue for grantmaking as collections predictably decline—something CAC has done for years, and which Paulsen says they are committed to continue.

He also clarified that CAC only funds nonprofit organizations, which has been the case, and asked how diversity has increased among organizations and projects funded by the tax. Assembly for the Arts CEO Jeremy Johnson responded by talking about grants invested in redlined communities, in cohorts of BIPOC individual artists, a panel discussion considering diversity in Classical music, and other strides.

Council president Pernel Jones, of District 8, observed “Years ago there was minimal minority participation. We worked to address those things. I am proud of all I have seen from CAC over the years and happy to support today.”

District 3 Councilman Sweeny’s observations – that the grantmaking is competitive, fair, and transparent – alluded to structures built into the grantmaking procedure: Applications are scored, not all meet the threshold for funding; they are adjudicated publicly by arts professionals from outside the region, and at the end of each grant cycle, the recipients report on what they did with the money. He commended director Paulsen for her work, and ended by saying “its our job now to get it past the finish line. That’s something I am going to focus on. I appreciate the impact it has on all parts of society.”

Paulsen says the ballot language will be identical to the most recent time the issue was on the ballot, with the only change being the amount of the tax. However, the tax won’t be assigned an issue number until the Board of Elections takes that action in September.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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