In 2010 voters approved a $35-per-person yearly tax to support arts education in schools.
In a lawsuit, Portland resident George Wittemeyer claimed it was structured as an illegal head tax, essentially to be paid by all citizens without regard to income, ability, or other considerations, in violation of Oregon’s constitution.
City attorneys argued that exceptions were built into the tax — people earning less than $1,000 per year don’t have to pay and there’s an exemption for those in deep poverty. And some types of income can exempt residents from their obligation.
In a 31-page decision that dives deep into tax history, dating back to the fourth century C.E., the justices said their analysis of the arguments focuses on a contemporary understanding of Oregon’s constitution.
In that, the court determined the tax is not entirely devoid of consideration for those who cannot pay.
Arts tax supporters expressed gratitude following the decision. “As of today, the legal question about this tax is settled,” Commissioner Nick Fish said in a written statement. “Over 30,000 Portland children will continue to have arts education in school.”
Chief petitioner George Wittemeyer said Thursday morning he had not yet read the decision, but he was deeply disappointed he had not convinced the judges. He then added, “I just think it’s politics mostly.”
While the decision is a victory for the city, leaders are discussing modifying the tax. Collections have underperformed every year it’s been collected.