Portland's Arts Education Taxation Survives Litigation

By George Khoury, Esq. on September 22, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A meager $35 per person tax for residents of Portland, Oregon, used to fund art and music education for school children, has been ruled constitutional by the state's Supreme Court. Despite the state's constitution banning head taxes (taxes that are imposed on everyone uniformly regardless of the ability to pay), the state's highest court ruled that the law's many exemptions allowed it to pass constitutional muster.

Ordinarily, under Oregon law, a head tax would be ruled unconstitutional. However, the fact that the arts education tax exempts social security income, income derived from the state pension program, and those below the poverty line, went a long way to convincing every court that heard the challenge that the tax met the legal requirements.

What's This Tax About?

The goal of the tax is to bridge the gap in art and music education funding, which is woefully underfunded. Over 30,000 Portland students rely on this funding for their arts and music education programs. It was supported by the Portland Public School District, as well as the League of Oregon Cities, which represents over 240 cities in the state.

Now that the tax has been ruled constitutional, supporters may be looking to expand its reach or increase its effectiveness.

Do the Opponents Hate Art or Children?

Surprisingly, the plaintiff in this matter, George Wittemyer, claims that he neither hates art nor children. Despite having a trumpet playing grandson, Wittemyer claims that it was the principal of an unconstitutional tax that motivated him to fight this case.

Despite the loss, Wittemyer seemed in good spirits and is quoted by a local news source as saying: "I turned out to be a consummate loser and that's OK. That's how the system works." Though he does seem to think that the court wrote the head tax ban out of the law by narrowing the definition in this opinion.

The tax itself has had some success in raising funds. With nearly 75% of residents paying the tax, millions have been raised. But that 25% that's avoiding the meager tax is costing the city quite a bit in administrative costs.

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