Supreme Court hearing begins for Portland arts tax

It's $35 a year for most everyone in the city.

A total of 72% of all Portland residents are now in compliance with the art tax, officials say. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s tax time next month, but now Oregon’s highest court is deciding whether residents will continue to pay the Portland arts tax. It’s $35 a year for most everyone in the city.

So far, $24 million dollars have been raised for art and music teachers and school programs in the past 5 years. But some people argue it’s unconstitutional.

The Oregon Supreme Court case is about who has to pay the tax and whether it violates a state law.

“If you take $35 times 600,000, that’s a lot of money. It doesn’t matter what the purpose is. If it’s unconstitutional, it shouldn’t be allowed,” said George Wittemyer, the man who filed a lawsuit opposing the tax.

Oregon’s 7 supreme court justices decided to take a close look at the arts tax. The issue isn’t whether it’s going to a good cause. It’s whether the tax is a poll or head tax, meaning everyone is required to pay the same amount without taking income into account.

Portland taxpayers voted for the arts tax 5 years ago as a way to pump money into art and music education in the schools. More than $38 million dollars have been collected so far. The Portland City Attorney’s office has argued it’s not a head tax, and not everyone has to pay.

“The arts tax doesn’t possess these characteristics. It doesn’t take into account including income at several levels,” said Portland Deputy City Attorney Denis Vannier.

But the Oregon Supreme Court wouldn’t have taken the case if it didn’t believe there was a possibility it is unconstitutional. The court only rules on about 60 cases out of 1,000 submitted each year for review.

Wittemyer said he’s opposed to how the money is collected, not where it goes.

“My grandson is learning to play the trumpet with a music teacher at West Sylvan who is apparently getting paid by part of the arts tax,” he said.

The Bureau of Revenue and Financial Services said residents continue to comply with the arts tax at an increasing rate. Overall, 72% of Portland residents are now in compliance with paying the tax. Tens of thousands of “Final Demand” (pre-collection agency) letters were sent in fall 2016, resulting in $2 million in payments. A total of 3,500 tax payers that didn’t respond to those letters have been referred to a collection agency in December 2016 and January.