The Chicago City Council's Progressive Caucus wants to apply the amusement tax to Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Credit: (Flickr/Damian Entwistle)

Chicago’s laws can be confusing, even to the folks who make them. And in a city scraping for pennies to stay afloat, a pair of grand palaces of culture can attract attention. Like glittering Fabergé eggs, just sitting there looking rich.

So it was that in the run-up to the City Council’s budget vote this week, the Progressive Caucus came up with a list of revenue-generating amendments including one intended to add a 9 percent tax to the cost of tickets for two of the city’s major cultural engines—Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

It would be so easy. All the council would have to do is delete a paragraph of the Municipal Code.

And the paragraph they had in mind was a particularly irritating one. It opens with what looks like a special interest clause, written to benefit those two organizations, by exempting opera companies and symphony orchestras from the amusement tax that the city collects on everything from movies and boat rides to baseball games.

The caucus submitted a motion that struck the whole paragraph out.

45th Ward alderman John Arena said that this alone would raise about $4.5 million annually for the city.

“That’s not pocket change,” he noted. “These are wonderful entities, but why should they be singled out to be exempt? If the Cadillac Theater, Steppenwolf, and Goodman have to pay it, why not CSO and Lyric?”

Steppenwolf and Goodman? That would be news to them—neither collects the tax. But never mind.

“The majority of the attendees of the symphony and the opera are from a high income bracket, and can afford to pay a reasonable tax,” is how Arena explained it in a statement released by the caucus Monday.

Which suggests that he hasn’t been hanging out with the music lovers in the $30 seats in the upper balconies.

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s CEO earns more than $600,000 annually,” Arena said. “If they can afford to pay that much money to one person in their organization, they should not be exempt from this tax.”

“That is an exorbitant pay scale,” Arena told me.

No argument there, though it’s right in line with the exorbitant pay scale at all kinds of big nonprofits, including neighboring institutions like the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the Art Institute. They’re surprisingly profitable for the administrators at the top.

The CSO and Lyric Opera didn’t respond to requests for comment, but as it turns out, audiences in their premium seats don’t need to worry: they won’t be paying an extra $18 on their $200 tickets. At Monday’s meeting of the City Council’s finance committee, this amendment was tabled.

But it could reappear. The city’s search for new sources of revenue won’t be over anytime soon, and expansion of the amusement tax is an idea that surfaces periodically. The Inspector General’s office examined a much broader proposed expansion of it a few years back.

Arena still thinks it’s a worthy idea. But on Thursday, he said, “We’ve slowed down. A lot of questions came up in the last hours, and we’re looking at it. There’s no headlong rush into this.” 

Maybe someone peering at that foggy legal language began to suspect that it’s not just Lyric Opera and the CSO that are escaping the amusement tax, but the city’s entire nonprofit theatrical, musical, and other cultural live performance industry. The paragraph that exempts opera and symphony also looks like it exempts any other nonprofit artistic organization that produces its own events.

Or maybe they read on to the part that seems to say that in those cases where the amusement tax does apply to “live cultural performances,” it’s applied at a special rate—not 9 percent, but 5 percent. Which could take a big bite out of that anticipated $4.5 million windfall.

There’s time now to rethink all this, Arena says.

That’ll be a good thing. And if the city gets any more desperate for money, they could just apply his “exorbitant” executive salary test to those other nonprofits, to help them decide who should really be exempt from the amusement tax.