My View: Restructure arts tax to be fair, progressive
I've lived in Portland 30 years and sent my kids through Portland Public Schools. I am an advocate for a strong public-education system. I've also made my living as an artist and strongly support prioritizing arts in education. Still, I have gnawing questions about Portland's art tax.
No one I know respects this regressive tax or feels it provides a just and sustainable way to fund education. Yet for some reason, the City Council has not stepped up and brought this unpopular tax to the voters again.
The arts tax was imposed in 2012. That year, Portland voters approved what many assumed would be a temporary fix, one that would sunset when legislators in Salem fixed holes in the education budget. Seven years into this endless tax, our naiveté is embarrassing.
We approved this special, single-program tax with a capped, 5 percent allowance for the city's role in collecting and disbursing the funds. But today, without voter approval, the city's portion (ostensibly to offset costs) has climbed to 10 percent, and there's no cap anywhere in sight.
Certain comfortable categories of Portland taxpayers (PERS, federal retirees and others) are entirely exempt from paying this tax, while other wage-earners and retirees have no option. This is not the city's fault, but the inequity is glaring nonetheless.
Funding our children's educational curricula class by class, as Portland is doing, by imposing special taxes to support popular programs, is truly absurd, no matter how important those programs may be. The future of our kids and our state depends on providing a rich array of educational resources and opportunities to all our children.
However, if we're to continue hobbling along with this broken special-tax funding model, it is incumbent on the City Council to present voters with an option to approve restructuring this to be a fair, progressive tax with reality-based income bracketing and exemptions. Two specific questions for the council today include:
1. What steps is the council taking to present voters with a restructured tax with fair, progressive brackets, rather than the grossly regressive current model?
2. By what moral or ethical standard is it acceptable that an 85-year-old Social Security retiree with $1,000 other annual income, or an 18-year-old student who's a part-time barista, or a minimum-wage earner who's working three jobs to raise their family — how is it acceptable that those Portlanders are required to pay the exact same dollar amount in tax as someone bringing in five, 10 or 50 times the income?
Isn't it about time to do something about this? This regressive $35 tax may not be the biggest problem Portland is facing, but it is a part of a puzzle. As our population grows, the economic and class divide in Portland is deepening. Acting on this relatively minor problem now is one step toward stopping the nightmare that's unfolding in San Francisco from happening here.
Thank you for your consideration. I hope to hear from the City Council soon.
Betsy Toll is a resident of Southeast Portland.