Monday, the Oregon Supreme Court will hear arguments challenging Portland’s controversial arts tax.
Portlander George Wittemeyer filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s $35-per-person tax violates Oregon’s Constitution. State law prohibits head taxes, which levy fees on a per-person basis.
Eric Fruits is a Portland economist who filed a brief in support of the plaintiff. He maintains that while the revenue stream created is relatively small, compared with the general fund, it’s an unlawful end-run around state law.
“When we were talking about the street fee, in the city of Portland,” Fruits says, “I’d hear some commissioners say, ‘We don’t want this to be like the arts tax.’ It’s almost become a meme throughout the city for something that’s convoluted, crazy, and ultimately unenforceable.”
The city argued in lower court hearings that provisions which exempt some citizens — such as those living at or below federally-stipulated income guidelines for poverty — show it’s not, in fact, a head tax.
Collections have totaled less than $10 million per year, which has gone towards arts education in schools. A portion of the money provides direct operating support to some of the region’s arts and cultural groups.
Arts advocates have said the tax has tremendous potential — if collections can improve. Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Council’s arts liaison, Commissioner Nick Fish, have indicated they’d be open to measures that would boost collection rates, or make other improvements.