A proposed ticket tax that could generate millions of dollars for the arts and Nationwide Arena might be leaving millions more on the table by excluding one of the biggest games in town: Ohio State athletics.
After making exceptions for small venues and events, backers of the 7 percent admissions tax proposal said events that would be subject to the tax generate about $182 million a year in ticket revenue. Ohio State ticket sales totaled about $60 million on their own last year, with most of that coming from football games.
Without Ohio State athletics, the ticket tax would generate about $12 million a year. Taxing Ohio State tickets would generate another $4 million.
Whether the city can tax games at the Horseshoe, the Schottenstein Center and other university venues, though, still is unclear.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/dispatchpolitics and connect with us on Twitter @OhioPoliticsNow
“Other cities have exempted collegiate sports from admissions taxes, and it is possible that athletic events taking place on state property could be exempt from any city taxation,” Ben Johnson, Ohio State spokesman, said in an email.
When the Greater Columbus Arts Council submitted its proposal to the Columbus City Council in September, it noted that college and high school sports already are exempt from admissions taxes.
Ohio Revised Code, though, doesn’t specify those exemptions, and other cities have written their own exclusions into admissions tax laws. Both Cincinnati and Cleveland exempt public universities from their admissions taxes. Cincinnati collects admissions taxes for athletic events at private colleges and universities but not public schools.
Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein’s office is reviewing whether the city can tax Ohio State games, spokeswoman Meredith Tucker said. But she pointed to a 1970 opinion from the Ohio attorney general’s office that said the village of Oxford could not tax admissions to Miami University-sponsored events.
The council is reviewing the proposal before drafting its own legislation, with a potential vote in December.
"We are discussing as many avenues as possible to create a fund that has a meaningful impact on the arts and public facilities,” said Michael Brown, the council’s chief of staff. "We've talked to several partners including OSU."
Council President Shannon G. Hardin met with Ohio State officials in October to discuss the proposal, Brown said. They asked that, if the council proceeded on adopting a ticket tax, that it reduce the percentage to between 5 and 6 percent and exempt high school and college athletics.
If a university wants to be exempt from a tax, it should show that the activity that could be taxed serves an educational purpose or is a government agency, said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist.
Treating collegiate athletics differently from other events, such as movie theaters or professional sports, creates an economic inequality, Vedder said. Several groups have popped up to oppose the proposed ticket tax, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, who play in Nationwide Arena, which would benefit from the ticket tax.
(The arts council proposal indicates that Nationwide Arena would generate about $4.2 million from tickets for arena concerts and Blue Jackets games, and $3.6 million of that would go back to the arena.)
"When they’re doing largely a commercial activity that is serving the broader public, I find very little justification for treating activities such as OSU football different than other activities,” Vedder said. “No one argues that OSU football games are anything other than entertainment for the masses.”
But Johnson said Ohio State’s athletic department is self-supporting and actually “generates revenue for the university’s academic mission.” About $30 million a year “supports non-athletic functions and departments” including scholarships and public safety, he said.
The arts council was leaning on a 2016 document from the Ohio Department of Taxation when it crafted its proposal noting an exemption for college sports, said Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing. After it submitted the plan, though, it learned that actually isn’t in the law.
“We decided best to let it stand and leave it in the hands of lawyers who have more experience sorting out these issues,” she wrote in an email.
The reference to an exemption in Ohio Department of Taxation documents has been standard in those reports for years, but the department has no authority over admissions taxes, said spokesman Gary Gudmundson. He said he’s unsure how the information originally appeared in documents.
When the state had its own admissions tax, the Ohio General Code, which predates the Ohio Revised Code, included an exemption for college and high school athletics. Gudmundson pointed out that municipal ordinances in Cleveland and Cincinnati have exemptions that are “almost a word-for-word copy” of the general code exemption.
The 1970 Ohio attorney general opinion that the Columbus city attorney’s office is using to form its own legal analysis notes that the state does not have a statute to exempt public universities from an admissions tax, but courts have held that excise taxes cannot be applied to state agencies.
Allowing a municipality to apply an admissions tax to university-sponsored events “would be tantamount to permitting a municipality to levy an excise tax against the state,” according to the opinion.