State tax clarification gives boost to art lovers

California art lovers, rarely at the top of the state’s priority list when it comes to budgeting and policy, got some good news: The price tag of the vanity license plates known as Arts Plates is largely tax deductible.

The clarification from a senior staff attorney at the Franchise Tax Board, written Nov. 25 and publicly released this week, means that funding for the California Arts Council is all but certain to increase. That’s because the ability to deduct the cost from income taxes is an added inducement to buyers.

The 11-member council – with nine of its members appointed by the governor — relies on the vanity plate for nearly two-thirds of its funding. Of the council’s total $5.6 million annual budget – about a fourth of what it was six years ago – some $3.2 million comes from the sale of the plate.  With the state facing another major budget shortage, the council’s General Fund support, about $1.1 million, could be in jeopardy. The council has 18 staff members, according to the state Finance Department.

“It’s a crucial time for the arts in California,” said Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, chair of the California Arts Council. “Our economy relies on creative minds, artistic organizations and innovative workers, yet our per capita state investment in the arts is the lowest in the nation. Individuals and businesses can help change that by buying Arts Plates, especially for the upcoming holidays and as part of end-of-year charitable donations.”

“One million cars with California Arts Plates would mean close to $40 million for the arts,” continued Feruzzi Shriver. “That would put California near the top in arts funding rather than dead last.”

Currently the state’s per capita investment in the arts is around 10 cents per person even with the Arts Plate funds, putting California in last place compared to other states in the nation, the council noted.

The tax deduction, which has been under discussion for years, applies to the amount paid above the cost of a conventional plate. The plates cost $50 for the standard version and $98 for a custom version. The council gets about $35. About 90 percent of the money goes directly to arts programs, the council says.

“Taxpayers who pay the additional fee are entitled to treat it as a charitable contribution the difference between the amounts paid for the Arts Council license plate and a regular California license plate,” wrote senior tax counsel Michael D. Vigil.

The California Arts Council is the state agency that advances California through the arts and creativity, and the agency’s programs emphasize arts for children and communities.

The Arts Plate, designed by California artist Wayne Thiebaud, first hit the roadways in 1994. Since then sales and renewals of the plate have provided over $20 million for the arts in California. Fees for sales and renewals of the Arts Plate go directly into the Arts Plate Fund, minus the Department of Motor Vehicles’ cost to fabricate and administer the plate.

Contact John Howard at

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