OLYMPIA, Wash. - 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.
"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 Hallie Kuperman, who owns the Century Ballroom in Seattle and was hit with $250,000 bill on back taxes. "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.
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.