Editor’s Note: Ana Sofia Knauf is a senior at the University of Washington, studying journalism and Germanics. She is currently a writing intern for The Seattle Times opinion department.
Efforts to repeal an unpopular statewide dance tax have become a battle about statutory language.
The dance community dubbed a 1970 state law “the dance tax” though it collects retail sales tax on amusement, recreation and physical fitness services. Included in this spectrum of services are venues that provide “the opportunity to dance.” This wording is the source of the dance community’s grievance.
In 2011, Hallie Kuperman, owner of Century Ballroom in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, received a $250,000 bill from the state Department of Revenue, representing a bill for four years of unpaid sales tax on cover charges. Her lawyer and state DOR representatives negotiated the amount assessed down to $92,000, and in February 2013, Kuperman sent out a call for help.
The dance community responded with private gifts and participated in ballroom-organized events to raise the money in three months, as I described in this editorial notebook.
Kuperman and other Seattle dance hall owners are rallying to get the dance tax repealed. This effort is supported by the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association.
“It’s currently impossible to enforce fairly since the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘dance’ are difficult to define and agree on,” Jessie Summa-Kusiak, association president wrote in an email.
This is the biggest point of contention within the debate. For dance hall owners, the choice is clear. Century’s Kuperman notes: “We are asking the DOR to enforce [the law] uniformly,” she said in a phone interview. “It is completely arbitrary because it is up to auditors [to decide] whether club owners are throwing concerts or dances.”
“It is highly case-specific,” said Mike Gowrylow, the Communications Director for the Washington State DOR. “If concerts specifically advertise dancing, then they are subject to the tax and if they don’t, they don’t have to pay sales tax. If an audience member dances spontaneously at a [non-dancing] event, the tax does not need to be collected.”
The law distinguishes between active (participatory) and passive amusement activities, he said. “At a movie, you are just watching, not participating.”
It is hard to believe a law that has been on the books for more than 40 years is still so unclear. If the law is sufficiently vague enough that dance hall owners cannot figure out if it applies to them, the statute merits from revision and clarity.