Filling Pennsylvania's budget gap with a new tax on the arts unfairly singles out a community that already is struggling.
Gov. Rendell and leaders of the legislature announced late Friday that they finally agreed on a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The deal would not raise the personal income tax or the statewide sales tax, but would impose several targeted tax hikes.
One of the proposals, not aired in recent weeks, is to charge a sales tax on tickets at museums and performing-arts theaters. The tax would be 8 percent in the city and 6 percent elsewhere.
It's not clear whether charging an extra $1.28 would deter the average patron from visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art - probably not. But many arts organizations are teetering on the edge financially, after a sharp decline in private donations. For some, an increase in ticket prices could become the breaking point.
"We're always struggling to compete and make our tickets affordable," said John McInerney, vice president of marketing for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. "For many groups, this could be the difference."
Also, why single out certain types of entertainment without taxing tickets to professional sports events or movies? Probably it's because pro sports teams and movie-theater operators have more clout in Harrisburg.
The "culture tax" is expected to raise more than $100 million per year when fully implemented. The governor's budget projected that taxing tickets to pro sports events statewide would bring in about $65 million per year.
An informal survey of Eagles' fans at Sunday's game showed that most of those interviewed would pay an entertainment tax, and they don't believe it's fair to single out the arts. (So much for the image of the single-minded, loutish football fan.)
Legislative leaders said a portion of the culture tax would go to a fund to support arts programs statewide. In theory, that could work. Arts organizations for years have been clamoring for a dedicated source of arts funding.
But it's not nearly settled how much money would come back to arts groups, or whether the total would be more than those groups now receive from the state.
Besides, dedicated funding that's controlled by Harrisburg is an uncertain promise. For example, when the governor and legislature gave us slots casinos in 2004, they promised that 12 percent of the revenue would pay for a horse-racing development fund. Now, however, the legislature proposes to reduce that allocation to 10 percent for the next four years.
Harrisburg would force arts patrons to cough up a portion of their ticket price to pay for the state's operating expenses. It's also a bizarre policy choice to tax cultural performances but not to tax smokeless tobacco. Nobody ever got cancer of the jaw from dancing a pas de deux.
This proposal reflects misplaced priorities. Targeting cultural performances and museums alone is the wrong way to go.