Oregon Supreme Court upholds Portland arts tax

Voters passed the arts tax 5 years ago

The Oregon Supreme Court (KOIN 6 News, file)
The Oregon Supreme Court (KOIN 6 News, file)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Portland’s arts tax, passed by voters 5 years ago but mired in controversy and lawsuits ever since, is constitutional.

Opponents say the arts tax was unconstitutional, but the high court’s ruling upheld the lower court findings.

The issue wasn’t whether the money was going to a good cause. The issue was whether the tax is a poll or head tax, meaning everyone is required to pay the same amount regardless of income. City officials maintain it is not a poll tax because not everyone has to pay.

The Oregon Supreme Court agreed with the city because there were built-in exemptions for people not to pay the tax.

Most people who live in the city of Portland must pay the $35 yearly tax, which has raised millions of dollars for arts and music teachers and school programs.

In a statement, Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve said, “We are gratified that the Supreme Court has affirmed the judgments of the Court of Appeals and the trial court, and held that the Arts Income Tax is fully constitutional.”

Commissioner Nick Fish agreed.

“Today’s decision is a big win for Portland’s kids. Thanks to the ruling of the Oregon Supreme Court, over 30,000 Portland children will continue to have arts education in school. Voters overwhelmingly approved the Arts Tax in 2012, recognizing art as fundamental to a child’s education,” Fish said in a statement. “As of today, the legal question about this tax is settled.”

To date, about 25% pf Portland tax a payers refused to pay the $35 tax, based on the principle that it was illegal and until the ruling came down, George Wittemeyer spend the last 4 years hoping to prove them right.

“I turned out to be a consummate loser and that’s OK,” Wittemeyer said. “That’s how the system works.”

He sued the city, arguing that the arts tax violated the Oregon constitution’s ban on flat rate head on taxes on individuals. He’s shocked that not one judge agreed with him.

“They essentially said ‘we understand what you’re saying but you’re wrong and this is the way it’s going to be’ and just narrowed the definition of a head or poll tax to such a minuscule thing that it’s essentially written out of the law,” Wittemeyer said.

Wittemeyer said it was never about the money, but rather the principle, which is why he fought the tax first in district court, then the court of appeals and now the supreme court. The city won in all three cases.

Those who support the arts tax are applauding the court’s decision. They hope it opens the door for city officials to re-examine the arts tax and explore ways to re-work it and increase its potential.

“Happy, unsurprised,” Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman said. “Legally it makes very good sense.  And they’ve been not ready to have that conversation until this moment, until the supreme court weighed in. Now that they have, it’s an opportunity to take a second look at it.”