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Conga line erupts at Capitol in protest of Washington dance tax

People dance on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Monday, April 1, 2013 to protest a decades-old state tax on dance venues. Washington state has had the tax, which targets venues that provide an opportunity to dance, since the 1960s. A measure to repeal it has cleared a committee and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

Dozens of people protesting a decades-old state tax on dance venues swayed, kicked and twirled to the rhythm of music Monday in support of a repeal being considered by lawmakers in Washington state.

Protesters danced the salsa, the blues, flamenco and tango, and at one point, a conga line snaked up and down the steps of the state Capitol. Koe Suzuteki performed the Charleston amid the groups who had gathered to dance in protest.

“Dance encourages social culture, getting into your body and being out in the town, spending money on local nightlife. It’s a wonderful way to connect and it makes people smile,” said the Seattle resident who goes dancing at least twice a week. “Why are those always the things that need to be taxed and pushed away?”

The dancers were targeting a law from the 1960s that levies a tax on businesses that offer attendees the “opportunity” to dance. Cover charges and tickets for movies, plays and concerts are exempt from that tax.

Proponents of the repeal say enforcement is arbitrary, targeting medium-sized venues or taverns, and not places like sports stadiums that often host concerts where people dance.

“My point is clearly trying to say right now for the last 50 years people have not been paying this tax across the board,” Hallie Kuperman, who owns the Century Ballroom in Seattle and was hit with $250,000 bill on back taxes, tells KIRO Radio’s Andrew Walsh Show.

“It’s a retail sales tax on an opportunity to dance and the Department of Revenue has yet to be able to define what that means,” said Kuperman. “Some places are being charged for this tax for some shows and not for other shows… It’s completely arbitrary.”

The Department of Revenue has countered that the businesses protesting the tax are those that weren’t doing their bookkeeping correctly and whose back taxes came to light in audits.

Department spokesman Mike Gowrylow said in a statement that the tax “applied to certain recreational activities since the 1960s, and our job is to ensure that businesses comply with those laws.”

He said that the protest was coming from “a handful of businesses that failed to collect sales tax on cover charges they imposed on customers to enter dance venues.”

“Most of their competitors were properly collecting sales tax when due, and if businesses weren’t sure whether or not they should collect the tax in a given situation, all they had to do was ask us. They didn’t,” he said.

Kuperman, who was the DJ for the dance protest, has negotiated her tax bill down to about $90,000. She estimated that with help from supporters through a fundraiser, she’ll be able to pay off the bill by May.
But if the tax is not removed, Kuperman says it could definitely hurt business.

“I’m going to have to up my price and if I have to up my price probably a lot of people are going to have to make a choice about whether or not to dance at the Century Ballroom or to dance somewhere else where they can do it cheaper.”

The proposed tax repeal, which has support from both parties, has cleared a committee and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. It comes as the state is looking for much needed revenue due to a yet another projected shortfall in the state budget.

According to state estimates, repealing the tax would cost the state more than $880,000 in the 2013-2015 budget cycle. Because the measure affects the budget, it remains alive until the waning days of the legislative session.

“If we win, we’ll win it toward the end,” said the repeal’s sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray of Seattle, a Democrat.

Kuperman says even Murray was out cutting a rug at the dance-in in front of the Capitol.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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