Our Opinion: Time to sunset Portland's Arts Tax
It's time for the city of Portland to begin a plan to sunset the Arts Tax.
First, a disclaimer: The arts in schools are terribly, terribly important. The arts — including theater and music — keep some kids in the classroom who otherwise would drop out. We need well-rounded residents of our communities, and the arts help get us there.
But the "color of money" matters. City taxes should pay for city services like police and water. County taxes should pay for county services like bridges and public health. And taxes going to school districts or special-education districts should pay for classroom activities, including arts.
The Arts Tax was the brainchild of then-Mayor Sam Adams. In November 2012, 62% of Portland voters OK'd the tax. It works like this: Every Portland resident age 18 and older whose household income is above the federal poverty level and whose personal income — not including Social Security — is $1,000 or more pays the tax of $35. You don't get a city tax bill at the end of the year; you have to write and mail in a separate check for $35.
The city of Portland bundles the money, then distributes it by population to the Centennial, David Douglas, Parkrose, Portland Public, Reynolds and Riverdale school districts. There, the money — an estimated $10 million per year — is used to pay for classroom arts educators.
Which is a very good thing.
But the Arts Tax is wildly unpopular, and the city of Portland takes the brunt of that annual angst.
The tax was the notion of Adams, who genuinely supported the arts but who also needed to do something nice for the arts community that stood behind him when he got into deep trouble for his personal actions, which led to his not running for re-election. The Arts Tax was technically and legally flawed. After Adams stepped down, the City Council had to "open it up" and make technical fixes that were challenged in court.
Adams left behind a long list of good causes that he had paid for with "one-time funds" used year after year. Good causes that had no supervising city bureau to watch over them. Most of those have now been whittled away.
If Adams had a legacy, it's this: He wanted to do good, but he often didn't bother to do it well (see his legacy as short-lived director of the City Club of Portland).
It's time to begin the plan to sunset the Arts Tax. There are two ways to do that.
The first is to get the Legislature to pony up. It's done so for educational issues such as career and technical education. The Legislature pays about two-thirds of the freight for public K-12 schools in Oregon, so this fits nicely with that. Also, such a fund would benefit all school districts, not just the lucky six.
The second way is for the city and the six school districts to get together and come up with a plan to sunset and replace the tax over a few years. If the arts are important — and we maintain that they are — then an alternative tax with no city fingerprints should be created.
Maybe the regional Educational Service District oversees it. Maybe the six districts pool their resources to oversee it.
Set a timeline for a new tax, make the pitch to the voters, and get their OK. Remember; they initially liked the idea of a city-collected Arts Tax to the tune of a 62% "yes" vote. (Granted, their ardor has cooled since then.)
Whether we turn to the Legislature or to local voters, the city's Arts Tax should come to an end. First, because taxpayers need clarity about where their money goes. Cities shouldn't fund teachers any more than, say, Portland Public Schools should hire the city's firefighters.
Second, equity matters. Six school districts in the Portland area get arts teachers. Oregon has 198 public school districts and the other 192 are out of luck. That's why we favor the legislative approach to a new arts-funding mechanism.
Third, we ask the Legislature to fully fund schools. But any Band-Aid tax like this takes pressure off the lawmakers to meet the so-called Quality Education Model.
If the issues does go back to voters, remember that they say "yes" to school districts quite often. The districts wouldn't have to go it alone. The arts community, such as the Portland'5 Centers for the Arts — operators of the Schnitzer, Winningstad, Keller, Newmark and Brunish venues — might want to pitch in for the PR effort. Maybe local artists like Pink Martini or local creators of art like Laika Studios might promote it.
Either way, the city no longer should take the brunt of collecting an illogical tax that raises money it doesn't get to spend for personnel it doesn't hire to teach classes it doesn't oversee.