In what’s being hailed as a potential boon to the arts in New Jersey, the state Assembly has approved a bill allowing local governments to seek voter approval for a tax levy dedicated to artistic and cultural projects in their communities.
Taxes devoted to the arts are rare across the country and might not become widely used in New Jersey if voters do not support taxing themselves for this purpose. The bill (A-3832) that passed the lower house last Thursday, started as an effort to boost Jersey City’s growing cultural district.
“This is something we have quite a lot of local support for,” Christine Goodman, director of the Jersey City Office of Cultural Affairs, told a Senate committee that considered the Senate version of the measure last spring. She said local arts groups “are hitting the ceiling in terms of their growth to build up our arts and culture across our community to be sustainable and to be able to get to where they want to be.”
Under the bill, which has the support of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, town governments would have to put on the ballot a question that would specify a dollar amount or rate of an annual tax levy, and whether the levy would support arts and culture broadly or fund specific activities.
The bill defines “arts and culture” as activities that include performing, visual, and fine arts, music, dance, graphic design, film, digital media and video, architecture and urban design, humanities, literature, arts and culture education, historic preservation, museum curation, crafts, and folk arts.
Tax bump would likely be small
While the measure does not specify how much in taxes a municipality might raise, it would likely be no more than a few cents per $100 of assessed value on each property owner. About half New Jersey’s municipalities, and every county, currently levy such a small tax to preserve open space. A one-cent arts tax levied on a $300,000 house would cost the owner $30 in additional taxes annually.
“The arts and our creative economy are vital to our urban communities, to the state’s cultural identity, and to the overall economy, contributing nearly $520 million annually,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), a prime sponsor of the bill. “This legislation will allow voters to decide if their municipalities should create a dedicated source of funding for the arts and provide much needed stability for additional programming and local venues.”
Robinson Holloway, one of the founders of the Jersey City Arts Council, said that the mayor and city council were ready to put a question on the ballot in November, had the measure passed the state Legislature last year. She said the city is home to “thousands of artists and dozens of arts groups” struggling to find adequate funding.
“We don’t expect this to be the answer to everything, but we believe that when the community can show its support and have it be sustainable that that will help,” she told the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee last June. “People view the arts as decorative. Instead, they are essential … It gets cut from budgets way too easily.”
“If our residents want their tax dollars going towards boosting New Jersey’s arts and culture then this is absolutely something we should encourage,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), another bill sponsor.
Under the legislation that now awaits final action by the Senate, citizens themselves would be able to put a question about arts and culture funding on the ballot if they can get the support of 15 percent of the number of those who voted in the previous general election.
All money collected would be deposited into an arts-and-culture trust fund and municipal officials would have to designate a local arts council to manage its distribution. A municipality could appropriate additional money for the fund.
Strategies vary for public arts funding
Tax levies dedicated for the arts are not common, according to Americans for the Arts. In Montana, counties are allowed to levy a separate property tax to fund cultural, social and recreational facilities, as well as parks. Wage-earning adults in Portland, Oregon are assessed an annual $35 arts tax, approved by voters in 2012.
Some governments have devised other funding mechanisms. Most notably, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla signed an executive order last June that requires 1 percent of the money raised by all city bond ordinances to be dedicated to public art installations. He said at the time that he wanted to keep public arts projects “on the forefront of my agenda.” The city estimated the order could wind up allocating about $200,000 a year for the arts.
On Thursday, the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee is slated to hear two other bills designed to boost cultural projects.
One (A-4378) would require the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to designate as many as 25 areas within municipalities as artist districts when they contain galleries, performance halls and other art-related services or venues. The state Division of Travel and Tourism would promote these districts.
The other measure (A-3329) would have the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission create a “We Support the Arts” license plate. There would be an extra $50 initial charge and $10 annual fee for the special plate. All proceeds would go to the state arts council.