State's highest court rules for city in art tax legal fight
Oregon's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an arts tax approved by Portland voters in 2012 was constitutional.
The annual $35-per-person income tax was levied on adult residents earning above a certain income, as a way to add arts teachers in schools and lower the barriers to local arts programs.
A retired local attorney, George Wittemyer, had challenged it in Multnomah County Circuit Court, saying it amounted to a "head tax," that required everyone to pay the same amount without taking income into account. Such taxes were outlawed in 1910 by an amendment to the Oregon Constitution.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected his argument in a ruling published Thursday, Sept. 21. Two lower courts had also rejected the argument and found in favor of the city. Wittemyer appealed his case to the state Supreme Court.
"Because the city's arts tax exempts residents based on their amount of income, household resources, and sources of income, it does take income into account and so is not a poll or head tax," according to a summary of the ruling issued by the court.
City Comissoner Nick Fish issued a statement calling the ruling "a big win for Portland's kids … Thanks to the ruling of the Oregon Supreme Court, over 30,000 Portland children will continue to have arts education in school."
The Regional Arts & Culture Council also praised the court's ruling.
"We are grateful to the Oregon Supreme Court for affirming the legality of the arts tax once and for all," said Jeff Hawthorne, interim executive director of the RACC. "As a result of this decision, every grade school in Portland will continue to have at least one art, music or dance teacher on staff, and RACC can continue investing in nonprofit organizations that are providing exceptional arts experiences for all Portland residents. Everyone deserves access to arts and culture, and 62 percent of Portlanders voted to help make that happen."
As of last year, the tax had has raised less money than expected — $35 million, including $6.8 million in 2015-16.
Before the tax started, in the depths of the Great Recession, there were 30 arts teacher positions in Portland. As of last year, supporters counted 91, meaning an art, dance or music teacher in every K-5 school in Portland.