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How the City of Olympia orchestrated support for a $2.3 million “cultural access” sales tax

Late in July 2021, the head of Olympia’s Office of Community Vitality requested $200,000 as a new “enhancement” to the City’s operating budget. It would pay for the City to hold a special election in the spring, to put a .1% sales tax increase before voters.

The election was needed to enable Olympia to create a “Cultural Access Program” as allowed under Washington state law. With a majority of votes in favor of the tax, the City would be able to collect $2.3 million a year for 7 years.

The text of the voter’s pamphlet contained a blank where the “against” statement should have been.

Proponents wanted to begin collecting the money on July 1, 2022, which meant they had to pay for their own special election before then.

How did a Cultural Access Program become a priority for funding so urgent that Olympia couldn’t wait to put the question to voters on the regularly scheduled August ballot?

Rise of the “culture economy”

One clue may lie with the belief in the “culture economy” that has in recent years emerged among promoters as the new economic development engine. According to this view, the proliferation of arts organizations and the frequency of art and cultural events improves the image of a community. Art and culture attracts business and makes a city more vital, more appealing to prosperous consumers, including those the City is hoping to attract to settle in the proliferation of new high-end apartments downtown.

Inspire Olympia, the political action committee set up to secure a favorable vote on the levy, said “arts are a proven economic driver, and community investments in the arts around the state have proven results.”

The state’s cultural access law does require cities to prioritize programs and services for public school children, but the entities providing the programs and services are the ones who will be funded—and will benefit. Funds can be used by nonprofits like the Children’s Museum and others for capital expenditures, construction of improvements, technology, equipment, and supplies related to program delivery.

“Free and discounted access to the arts for Olympia’s children”

The arts as a driver for economic development may explain the urgency to begin collecting the money, but the tax was marketed to the community primarily as a program to give children robust access to the arts and culture– especially children often excluded from such activities for lack of resources.

With official go-ahead by the City Council, staff and supporters of the initiative set about to orchestrate approval of the tax. They established a Political Action Committee, Inspire Olympia, with Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby (identified as a private citizen) serving as a cochair with two other individuals.

Manufacturing consent

During August and September, staff members worked in partnership with a 9-member “steering committee” made up of business owners, nonprofit officials and educators—all prospective beneficiaries of the tax. The steering committee recruited another 16 participants to craft a campaign that would lead to a successful vote on the tax levy.

In October, they called together a stakeholder group composed of 80 representatives from 40 arts, heritage, science and education organizations. Meeting 2 (or maybe it was 4) times, and using “targeted questions and discussion” they gathered “input” on “priorities and hopes” to be realized with the new funds; and passed these on to Councilmembers to show support for the levy. There was evidently no discussion about the tax itself.

How the community at large feels

Staff next hired a firm called Change Research to help craft a community survey to be used to demonstrate support. Respondents ranked 9 propositions, all related to expanding arts and cultural programs (Very important? Not important?). Another set of 11 asked respondents to “agree or disagree” with similar statements—again a majority agreed that expanding arts is a good idea. But there was one important distinction: a majority also agreed with the 4 statements that said raising taxes to pay for this expansion was wrong.)

Marygrace Goddu, the City’s Historic Preservation Officer staffed the tax proposal and also served on the Inspire Olympia! steering committee. On Nov 16, she briefed Councilmembers on “how the community at large feels.” From the stakeholders came “a clear call for expanded cultural access.” The community survey results were “all strong in support.” No mention was made of the majority who agreed that a tax increase for the arts was not a good idea. (According to the briefing paper, 417 people “from a representative demographic” responded to the survey. However, in counting the survey responses as reported, the actual number appears to have been much lower—maybe as few as 120.)

A voters’ pamphlet in support of the tax

State law requires a City Council offering a ballot initiative to find people to prepare “for” and “against” statements for the voters’ pamphlet. The three Inspire Olympia! co-chairs, including Mayor Shelby (identified as Cheryl Selby, arts advocate) were immediately available for the “pro” statement.

City staff was unable to find anyone to write the “against” statement—despite the fact that 50 or 60 of the community survey respondents had agreed that a tax for arts expansion was wrong. (The eventual 5223 “no” vote also suggests that there were others who would have written an “against” statement.) Nonetheless, no one could be found.

The text of the voter’s pamphlet went to the auditor with a blank where the “against” statement should have been. In that situation, it’s the Auditor’s turn to look for people. They did so by putting this notice on their Facebook page: “Auditor seeks citizens to serve on against committee for a ballot measure in the April 26 Special Election.” Not surprisingly, no citizen appeared. The only statement in the voters’ pamphlet was the mayor and her colleagues celebrating the benefits of cultural access.

How a minority of voters decides for everyone

In the days leading up to the vote on April 26, Olympia’s registered voters received a glossy 8-panel mailer from the City outlining how many benefits would flow from the Cultural Access Program. (A statement on the mailer said that it wasn’t an endorsement by Council members.) The Inspire Olympia! PAC collected $42,000 much from prospective beneficiaries of the tax. They spent $36,000 on innumerable mailers, posters and presentations. A huge lighted sign spelled out Inspire Olympia! in downtown Olympia on the eve of the vote.

The 0.1% additional sales tax was agreed to by vote of 7242 (yes) and 5223 (no) with one-third of Olympia’s 35,416 registered voters (out of about 42,000 adults) weighing in. After a well-orchestrated campaign, the “consent of the governed” we profess to believe necessary, came from only 17% of the people. This approach to democracy is known as “manufactured consent.”

Status of the $200,000 budget enhancement

This May, City Manager Jay Burney brought Councilmembers a request to use $180,000 of a $10 million year-end balance to cover “Cultural Access Tax Special Election Costs The actual cost of the election according to the Thurston County Auditor, was $87,495. In response to a public records request, the City provided documentation for another $11,189 used to cover printing and mailing of the City’s promotional brochure. The total cost was $80,000 less than what Burney asked for. Why the discrepancy? Are Council members not curious? “It’s only money.” Is anyone paying attention?

1. It turned out that the City could not legally begin collecting the new tax until January 2023. They could have waited until the August primary for their vote, which would have cost much less than $87,000. But “it’s only money.”

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