Oregon Supreme Court says Portland arts tax is legal
By STEVEN DUBOIS
Sep. 21, 2017
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the constitutionality of Portland's art tax, the $35 annual fee on most residents that pays for art and music teachers in schools.
City voters approved the tax five years ago, and it's due every April.
A Portland resident challenged the law, contending it was a "poll or head tax" — a fixed fee imposed on each person in violation of the state constitution. A county judge, the Oregon Court of Appeals and now the state's highest court disagree, likely ending the four-year legal battle.
"We are grateful to the Oregon Supreme Court for affirming the legality of the arts tax once and for all," said Jeff Hawthorne, executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council. He said the decision means every grade school will continue to have at least one art, music or dance teacher.
The tax applies to Portland residents who are at least 18 and have at least $1,000 in annual income. Social Security and pension benefits don't count toward the income threshold.
"The City of Portland arts tax exempts certain residents based on their income and household resources," Justice Jack Landau wrote in the high court's opinion. "Thus, the tax does take income into account and, as a result, does not amount to a "poll or head tax" within the meaning of the state constitution."
Landau points out that poll or head taxes are "ancient in origin," and his 31-page opinion goes deeply into their history before getting to Oregon's first such tax. In the 1840s, the Oregon provisional government established a poll tax of 50 cents for each adult male.
Voters adopted a constitutional amendment prohibiting such taxes in 1910.
Portland voters approved the arts tax by a wide margin, but expected revenue has fallen short because thousands of people have not bothered to pay and enforcement has been lax.
The City Council last year approved the use of outside collection agencies to go after tax delinquents.
Follow Steven DuBois at twitter.com/pdxdub