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Arts license plates get a tax boost (and a shout-out on Twitter)

December 8, 2009 |  5:50 pm

Artplate Some much-needed financial horsepower could be in store for the beleaguered California Arts Council thanks to a recent ruling by the state's Franchise Tax Board saying that license plates for the arts are tax deductible. 

The chronically underfunded council relies on sales of the specialized automotive plates -- which debuted in 1994 -- for a majority of its annual budget, which is forecast at $5.4 million for the current fiscal year. 

Most of the organization's activities involve handing out grants to local arts groups and coordinating statewide cultural initiatives.

The Franchise Tax Board said in a Nov. 25 letter that individuals can treat as a charitable contribution the difference between the amounts paid for a special arts plate and a regular California tag.

The council hopes that the board's statement will encourage more people and organizations to purchase the arts plates. It said that its goal is to raise approximately $40 million by having 1 million vehicles on California roadways with arts tags on them. 

Currently, there are 70,011 automobiles carrying the plates, according to the council.

To promote the plates, the council is launching a Twitter campaign involving Hollywood celebrities who have large followings on the social networking site, said Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, the council's chairwoman. 

"We were trying to reach our goal in the next three years but now our goal is to reach 1 million plates by early 2010," said Shriver.

She said that the idea for the Twitter campaign (and the accelerated timeline) came from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver (Feruzzi Shriver is Maria Shriver's sister-in-law). The first lady's staff has already tweeted about the plates.

In addition, the council said it is working on a larger promotional plan to raise awareness of the campaign.

The California Arts Council currently ranks last among state arts agencies in terms of per-capita spending, according to a report from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies that was published earlier this year.  The report said that California's council spends 15 cents per capita on the arts, versus the national average of $1.35.

In the 2003-4 fiscal year, the council saw its budget slashed as a result of the state's decision to cut funding for the organization to $1.1 million from $17.5 million. (The council also receives federal funding.) Nearly three years later, California passed a bill that raised the arts plate fees, which helped the council to more than double the revenue generated by the program.

For the current fiscal year, the council forecasts that plate fees will generate $3.2 million, or close to 60% of its total budget.

Individuals can purchase the arts plates -- designed by artist Wayne Thiebaud -- for $50 for a standard tag or for $98 for a personalized version. In either case, the council said it will receive between $34 and $35 per tag, with the rest going to the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

The council said it also makes money on the renewal fees for the plates.

A spokeswoman for the council said that 90% of the money it receives from the arts plates goes directly to programs in need while the remainder is allocated to covering internal administrative and support costs.

The council currently has 16 full-time staff members, according to the spokeswoman.

-- Mike Boehm and David Ng

Photo: An example of a California license plate for the arts. Credit: California Arts Council

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