City Council passes a small Arts Tax adjustment

The tax The Oregonian hates just keeps getting better...

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1873/Wikimedia

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1873/Wikimedia

Not surprisingly, Portland City Council voted today to adjust the Arts Tax (otherwise known as 26-146) a bit to make it a little more equitable, always a good idea. If you are a family with an income at or above the federal poverty level and one of your family members makes less than $1,000 of taxable income, that family member won’t have to pay the $35 tax.

The way this is playing out in the media, even on the usually reliable OPB (I’m thinking of the interview with Mayor Charlie Hales on Think Out Loud yesterday), people can be forgiven for thinking that the adjustment will mean that everyone who makes more than $1,000 will have to pay the tax. That is wrong. If you are under 18, you don’t pay. If you have no income of any kind, you don’t pay. If your income is below the federal poverty level, you don’t pay.

Under the adjustment, if your kid is in college and makes $750 mowing lawns or babysitting over the summer, she doesn’t have to pay the tax. If one member of a household is unemployed and makes under $1,000 doing odd jobs, that person doesn’t have to pay the tax. Pretty limited stuff.

The Oregonian and Willamette Week seem to want to re-conduct the campaign that passed 26-146 in the first place, so they’ve continued to write about it, mostly to champion the dubious lawsuit against the measure. I say “dubious” not because I’m a legal scholar (I’m not) nor because of the source of the lawsuit (blogger Jack Bogdanski). I’m confident that the City had people who ARE legal scholars look at the tax in the first place to make sure it passed legal muster, and frankly, the idea that it’s a “head tax,” as opponents have argued, just seems absurd. Head tax means everybody. We’ve just listed many classes of people who won’t have to pay the tax. On this basis, a judge has already ruled that the tax can go forward.

So, that’s the “news” on the arts tax. Well, except the deadline has been extended to May 15, 2013, this year. You can pay online if you like.

During the next year or so, I fully expect The Oregonian and Willamette Week to write more editorials and stories masquerading as editorials against the arts tax. Unless I can make savage fun of them, I intend to ignore them. Why? Because in the fall, thousands of kids in Portland will enter a classroom that includes an arts teacher, many of them for the first time.  That’s real, not ideology-driven nonsense.

I’ve argued in the past that in a more rational place with a more rational tax policy and a more enlightened educational philosophy, we would fund arts education and greater access to the arts (another intention of the arts tax) in a different way. This particular tax was fashioned for this time and place, though. And it addresses a serious problem that the current irrational situation has created: Poor children can’t get art classes.

We know this is a problem. Studies have shown how important arts classes are for poor kids, both for their educational development and to keep them engaged with school at all. And we have some exciting local experiments close at hand: King School in Portland is one of eight national Turnaround Arts Initiative schools and its curriculum is now loaded with arts classes of all sorts, as The Oregonian’s Larry Bingham has reported. (Yes, my old colleagues at The Oregonian can still do good work!) The arts tax isn’t about a special arts school, though, it’s about elementary classrooms all over the city, multiplying the effects.

Although the tax itself is “regressive” (though only marginally so because it’s so small, especially compared to the menu of other taxes we pay), its outcome is not. Right now, wealthier parents can afford private art lessons (music, theater, visual arts, dance, photography, film, etc.) and their children populate the many great private classes available in the metro area. But for poor families, this isn’t an option. For my $35, I can say I helped in a small way to make sure their children get a similar opportunity (I have written about this before: “Regress This: Some thoughts about the Arts Tax”).

I could have waited for a measure to come along that was “perfect” in my eyes, but I’m afraid I’ll be long gone before that happens. Our tax problems start at the national level, and fixing them will require six million perfect tiny moves, to paraphrase Oregon’s great poet William Stafford. It’s extremely difficult to make a state’s tax system equitable when the national system is so unfair. (Just to be clear: When big corporations and wealthy individuals pay tiny percentages of their incomes in taxes, if they pay any at all, that’s unfair.) In the meantime, we lose the chance to help tens of thousands of children. Every year. Year in, year out.

So, adjust the arts tax? Sure. Of course. We adjust laws of all sorts all the time, and this adjustment seems reasonable. Continue the fight to keep those kids from getting arts classes? Well, you can imagine what I think about that.


How egregious was the coverage of the arts tax by The Oregonian? How about publishing poll results the missed the mark by a full 40 (F-O-R-T-Y) points? I got into that and other issues in “The Arts Tax that would die.”

Who voted for the arts tax? It passed in just about every single precinct in the city, and in the few where it lost, the numbers were very close. Yes, 62 percent voted in favor.

One Response.

  1. Molly Quittner says:

    Art lessons will help enhance your kid s imaginative side. Children who are subjected to the humanities at an early age have high self-esteem and incredibly expressive. The arts may help create their psychological and emotional development.:

    My own blog

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