Cigarette tax helps fund the arts in Cleveland

Cigarette packs are on display for sale in a shop in New York City.

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: It's been a tough time for arts funding all around the country. In recent years, the Cleveland area has found a unique way to fund its arts -- and it's paying off big.

From the reporting project Changing Gears, Dan Bobkoff has the story.


Dan Bobkoff: Meet Samantha Kane, arts patron.

Bobkoff: How much do you smoke?

Samantha Kane: In a week, I probably smoke like two or three packs.

Kane's smoking at a bus stop. Since 2006, each cigarette she buys contributes a penny and a half to Cuyahoga County's arts and cultural organizations. She's OK with that.

Kane: Instead of padding congressmen's pockets.

Those cigarettes add up. Arts groups here got $15 million for this year alone. Those tax dollars help support the orchestra, museums -- even the local public broadcasting stations.

And it could not come at a better time for organizations like the Beck Center for the Arts. It's home to everything from dance classes to art exhibits. These kids are in a musical theater camp. But CEO Cindy Einhouse says the Beck Center almost went under in 2009.

Cindy Einhouse: If we hadn't had that funding, I'm sure that we, like many other arts organizations, wouldn't be here still.

So, how did Cuyahoga County go from virtually no public support of the arts to some of the nation's highest? Megan Van Voorhis is with the group that pushed for a tax.

Megan Van Voorhis: It took 10 years to get this.

First, voters rejected a property tax increase. So the group had to find something else.

Van Voorhis: We looked at boats. We looked at cell phones.

Cigarettes won, much to the chagrin of Ohio state senator Bill Seitz. The Republican is all for public funding for the arts, but he's no fan of local cigarette taxes. He says there's an old saying for why the public voted for it.

Bill Seitz: Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.

Seitz thinks this tax punishes the poor, and drives people out of state to get their fix cheaper. And he says it's ironic government encourages people to quit smoking while also depending on cigarette taxes.

Voters here will have to decide whether to re-authorize the tax by the time it expires in 2016. By then, cigarette sales are projected to drop, along with the taxes gained for the arts. So, they may have to find another sin to tax. White wine?

In Cleveland, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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