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Charitable tax deductionis good for four more days

It's not something you'd expect to see in the midst of a state budget crisis, but for the next four days, contributions you make to nonprofit cultural organizations can be deducted straight off your 2002 state tax bill.

The Legislature passed the tax credit early last year, before its revenue woes worsened, and it goes like this: After making a contribution to a qualifying cultural nonprofit organization, you can make a matching gift to the Oregon Cultural Trust and get a 100 percent tax credit of up to &

36;500 for individuals, &

36;1,000 for couples and &

36;2,500 for corporations.

It's an unbelievable tax credit, a 100 percent giveaway with a very high limit, and I've never seen anything like it in 30 years of tax work, said Ashland accountant Al Berger.

But in reality, it's a small investment by the state with a widespread positive impact. It will help a lot of cultural organizations that are at risk of disappearing and desperately need help.

Local arts and cultural organizations have done mailings in recent weeks to spur giving by major donors, said Ron McUne, Britt Festivals director.

It's a win-win for everyone involved, said McUne. You can build a perpetual endowment fund and make a statement for arts and culture in a state that's one of the lowest in the country for arts funding. We've always been at the mercy of the biennial state budget picture and haven't been able to count on them for anything.

Money from the trust will be distributed in three ways: one-third to counties and tribes; one-third to statewide cultural partners such as the Oregon Arts Commission; and one-third via competitive grants to nonprofit cultural organizations, said Cultural Trust interim director Ross McKeen.

It was passed almost unanimously with broad bipartisan support, he said, because it's a relatively small investment that has a direct multiplier effect, meaning it enhances quality of life so you have more business relocation here and more cultural tourism ' a lot like Ashland has done over the years with its investment in Shakespeare.

Local cultural nonprofits expressed concern that the trust, already chopped by 26 percent in recent budget-trimming special sessions, might die under the Ways and Means knife in the cash-poor 2003 session.

We hope there will be enough to go around, but we realize the grim realities in Salem and know that nothing's sacred, said Maureen Esser, development director for the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford.

However, McKeen said big cuts are unlikely because the trust's economic development aspects increase tax revenues to the state and because the trust is operating on &

36;815,000 startup money.

It will build its endowment by distributing only 42 percent of earnings to cultural nonprofits over the next decade, when the endowment should total around &

36;200 million, he said.

The tax credit program will operate year-round for the next 10 years, but this year will run only during December.

Trust officials spread the word about the tax credit and its benefits to communities in newsletters, public service announcements and visits to 12 areas, including Ashland, over the last six months.

The result has been more than 1,000 donors giving to the trust, with gifts averaging &

36;500 and receipts up to &

36;550,000 so far, McKeen said.

Trust grants funneled to counties and tribes will be administered by cultural planning coalitions with members from all facets of the community: arts, dance, music, history, public broadcasting and other groups.

It's one of the few bright lights in Oregon's future at this point, in terms of creating a sense of pride and community, said Kathleen Davis, regional development director for Oregon Community Foundation and a board member of the Oregon Arts Council.

It's going to be doing enormous good in five years, helping historic preservation and outreach of cultural organizations to people who just don't have access to them now.

Cultural nonprofits such as the Craterian don't rely much on state money, said Esser, but they realize the bulk of their support has to be raised locally. We don't receive any public money and, while we're hopeful about its future, we look at this (trust endowment) as the icing on the cake.

Endowment money for grant applicants will not be distributed to all groups, as their impact would be minimal, McKeen said. Instead, the trust will select a smaller number of applications among cultural nonprofits which have the greatest quality and potential impact on the public.

The tax credit is structured so that taxpayers who give unequal gifts to the trust and cultural nonprofits receive a direct credit of the smaller amount. In other words, if you give &

36;500 to one or more nonprofits and &

36;400 to the trust, your tax credit is &

36;400.

The law and the list of qualifying nonprofits, sorted by city, are on the Web at .

John Darling is a free-lance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.