Columbus Council Unveils New Ticket Tax, As Critics Threaten Referendum
Facing stiff opposition, Columbus leaders have downsized a proposed ticket tax. The new plan lowers the tax from 7 percent to 5 percent, and it also better defines where the money will go. But some opponents still threaten to take the issue to the ballot.
At a press conference Tuesday announcing the proposal, City Council president Shannon Hardin began by highlighting historic arts venues like the Ohio, Southern and Lincoln Theaters. He says each one was saved through a public-private partnership.
“But at great expense, because we waited so long to invest in them,” Hardin says. “The lesson there cannot be ignored. Our civic gems, the bricks and mortar facilities, are important to our future, for what we build, what we maintain and what we improve is a testament to our values.”
Hardin hopes the new ticket tax will protect such venues and support a vibrant Columbus arts scene. The original proposal, announced earlier this year, aimed to kill two birds with one stone. Arts leaders wanted to charge a 7 percent tax on entertainment and sports tickets.
The bulk of the tax revenue was to support local arts, and about a third would pay for upkeep at Nationwide Arena. But critics of the plan complained about their tax dollars going to Nationwide, whose primary tenant, the Columbus Blue Jackets, pays no rent.
The new plan lowers the tax to 5 percent, and none of the money from other venues would go to the arena. In fact, Hardin says, some Nationwide ticket tax revenue would support arts facilities.
"At 5 percent, this fund could raise $3 million,” Hardin says, “with $2.4 million going to the arena, from the arena, and $600,000 going from the arena to other buildings.”
The Greater Columbus Arts Council will administer the arts portion of the revenue. President Tom Katzenmeyer says the money raised at other venues will allow them to nearly double their grants to local artists and invest more than $1 million in arts education programs for kids.
“Many from the most economicall- challenged schools in our community,” he says. “This is vital to education in Columbus. Studies show that low-income students who participate in the arts are five times less likely to drop out and twice as likely to graduate college.”
And Katzenmeyer says making investments in the city’s arts and cultural scene is an important part of Columbus’ long term growth.
“We are competing for business tourism and residents against cities who invest twice as much and more in the arts as Columbus does," he says. "Failing to secure these new funds is too much for Columbus to risk.”
But ticket tax critic Michael Gonidakis sees it the other way around. He says cheaper tickets are a competitive advantage for Columbus, and the surcharges will make it harder for events organizers to come to the city.
“They choose Columbus not because of the Scioto River—they do it because it makes sense economically to do,” Gonidakis says. “But now if we have to compete against Indianapolis, Cleveland and other cities that have [the] same or similar ticket taxes, we’re going to lose events.”
Gonidakis heads up the organization Advocates for Responsible Taxation, and he says they’re ready to fight the tax at the ballot.
“This is a dead-bang loser, and if City Council wants to go around and circumvent the will of the people, we have the opportunity through the city charter to go to ballot and we're prepared to do that,” he says. “It should be up to the voters."
The charter’s referendum process requires challengers collect about 8,000 signatures—5 percent of the votes cast in the most recent mayoral race. But with the latest revisions, the tax will be proposed as two different ordinances, meaning opponents would need to collect signatures for two referendums.
Gonidakis says they’re ready to for that fight.