Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Portland’s Arts Tax

Mayor Sam Adams' 2012 initiative to help fund art teachers withstood legal challenge.

After four years of legal challenges, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city's arts tax, which imposes a $35 tax on every adult in Portland to fund art teachers at Portland elementary schools.

"Today's decision is a big win for Portland's kids," said Commissioner Nick Fish in a statement. "Thanks to the ruling of the Oregon Supreme Court, over 30,000 Portland children will continue to have arts education in school."

The legal challenge that went to the Supreme Court, filed by Northwest Portland resident George Wittemyer, argued the arts tax was unconstitutional because it violated protections against a poll tax.

Wittemyer claimed the city's use of voter registration roles to determine who should pay made it a poll tax.

The court dismissed that argument.

The arts tax applies to anyone making more than $1,000 a year and who does not reside in a household at or below the poverty line.

A previous legal challenge was dismissed.

The tax has brought in less money than projected, a 2015 report by the city auditor concluded.

But its backers maintain the tax has been important for providing art teachers to city schools.

"We are grateful to the Oregon Supreme Court for affirming the legality of the arts tax once and for all," said Jeff Hawthorne, interim executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council, in a statement.  "As a result of this decision, every grade school in Portland will continue to have at least one art, music or dance teacher on staff, and RACC can continue investing in nonprofit organizations that are providing exceptional arts experiences for all Portland residents. Everyone deserves access to arts and culture, and 62% of Portlanders voted to help make that happen."

Fish says the Supreme Court ruled as he expected.

"Voters overwhelmingly approved the Arts Tax in 2012, recognizing art as fundamental to a child's education," Fish noted. "As of today, the legal question about this tax is settled."

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