Our Opinion: Arbitrary tax credit bill excludes local theaters
By the end of the day today, Governor Deval Patrick is expected to sign an economic development bill that includes among its provisions a tax credit plan to benefit Massachusetts theaters that send productions to Broadway. But not all theaters. The bill, passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, contains a purely arbitrary dividing line based on theater size that will leave a couple of prominent Berkshire theaters out in the cold.
The plan would provide tax credits up to 25 percent of local production spending for shows that move from Massachusetts to Broadway or off-Broadway venues. This is designed to help theaters better compete with Rhode Island and upstate New York that already have or are expected to have similar programs. Plainly, this is something the state should do.
But then there is the perplexing provision that only theaters presented in venues of 600 seats or more qualify. According to a Sunday Boston Globe story, none of the bill’s backers can explain why the line was drawn there. The figure was described in The Globe as "unfortunate" by American Repertory Theater managing director William Russo, whose Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge seats 550. That comment could be echoed by Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage and the Williamstown Theater Festival, which seat 526 and 512 in their respective main stages. Both companies are regular, respected contributors to the Massachusetts to Broadway pipeline.
A look at the major beneficiaries of the tax credit plan offers clues as to where the 600-seat dividing line may have come from. Boston’s City Performing Arts Center operates the Wang (3,500 seats), the Schubert (1,500 seats) and the Emerson Colonial (1,600 seats). The Boston Opera House holds 2,600 patrons. This appears to be another bill out of Boston tailored to benefit Boston interests.
This is not to say that the bill is entirely bad. According to The Globe, the bill’s backers acknowledged that they wanted to accommodate the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, which seats 690. The Mahaiwe, which launched "Lombardi" on its way to the Great White Way, deserves tax credits. Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre, run under the aegis of the Berkshire Theatre Group, seats 780 and would benefit should it choose to join the pipeline to Broadway.
However, the accommodation of the Mahaiwe has the feel of a bone being thrown the Berkshires’ way. Lowering the seat dividing line from 600 to 500 would accommodate Barrington Stage and Williamstown. For that matter, why is there a seat limit at all? The 133-seat Chester Theatre Company sends plays to off-Broadway venues and merits tax credits.
It’s not likely that the governor would veto an economic development bill over the arbitrary nature of the theater tax credit bill but laws can be amended. This is an otherwise sound bill, which places an annual $3 million cap on credits -- in contrast to the controversial, open-ended film tax credit law. But if there is no argument to be made for the 600-seat dividing line than there can be no argument made against a 500-seat dividing line, or for the erasure of the dividing line. As constituted, this is primarily a Boston law and should be expanded into a true Massachusetts law that benefits all qualified theaters and the regions that host them with their tax dollars.