Arts Organizations Keep Pressure On PA Budget Makers As They Mull Ticket Tax

Dec 1, 2015

Sources say legislators are considering a sales tax on non-profit performing arts institutions and museums, such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Arts & cultural organizations are pushing back.
Credit Flickr user Raquel Camargo

As state legislators in Harrisburg continue to wrestle with a framework budget proposal, rumors are surfacing that a sales tax on admission to arts and cultural institutions could be on the table.

Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny), minority chair of the House Finance Committee said nothing is “set in stone,” but the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is asking supporters to “act swiftly and with unity” according to an email.

“We’re not the only organizations, entities and services that are being considered (for a sales tax),” said Mitch Swain, CEO of the GPAC and Chair of Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, a lobbying group that works closely with state legislators. “There are many potentially on the list, we’re just concerned that we’re amongst the only non-profits that are under potential sales and use tax considerations.”

It’s part of a package of sales taxes budget negotiators are considering, including those on amusement parks, golf courses, parking garages, personal services and digital downloads.

The specifics of the closed-door negotiations between Republican legislators and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf are the subject of ongoing speculation, but 90.5 WESA capital correspondent Mary Wilson confirmed that a source told her the cultural organization ticket tax is being discussed as an option.

A similar tax was floated in 2009, but never made it into the final budget deal. That year also saw a protracted budget battle of 101 days, which pales in comparison to this year’s now 153-day-long impasse.

According to an e-mail from Jenny Hershour, managing director for Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, to Jen Saffron, communications director for GPAC, the sales tax exemption for arts and cultural organizations appears to be safe, but Hershour added “remember this could change at any minute.”

“Our take on this: keep up the pressure,” Saffron said in an e-mail.

GPAC is asking the community to contact their state senators and representatives to weigh in on such a tax.

Swain said he is concerned that a tax could make arts and cultural institutions less accessible to low and moderate income Pennsylvanians, and could burden small nonprofit organizations with additional administrative costs.

“I would not want to see our nonprofits and our museums and our arts and culture harmed unnecessarily because we in Harrisburg don’t want to do what is a little politically difficult to do, and that is to get a broad-based tax to resolve our issues, instead of trying to nickel and dime our way out of our problems,” said Wheatley.

He said constituents should remain patient as budget negotiations continue.

“I know it’s been five months, but give us a couple more days and we might have something better to reveal to the public,” he said.