EDITORIAL: Portland arts tax bill comes due [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.]
(Oregonian (Portland, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 05--To minimize the cost of collecting its new arts tax, Portland officials told a citizen oversight committee last month, the city intends to "use all available 'free' marketing (press releases, governmental and non-profit partners, etc.)." In the spirit of cost-containment, we offer our editorial page marketing services.
Portland, it's time to pay the piper. Literally.
Many of the city's wage earners know that by now. Information related to the collection and administration of the tax appeared on the city's website last Wednesday, says Revenue Bureau Director Thomas Lannom. Also, postcards have been sent to every household in the city.
All of this is happening well into tax season, but "when you're bringing up a brand new income tax program, four months is a short time to do that," says Lannom, referring to the tax's passage last November. The city needed to prepare a database, produce a web application to collect credit card payments and ensure "that we didn't put anything up that created problems for anyone."
Besides the tax itself, which is nothing if not weird, owing largely to its regressivity and potential unconstitutionality.
Most income earners will have to pay $35 per year. Or $35.99, including a "convenience fee," if you choose to pay it with your credit card. You're out of luck entirely if you want to use a debit card, but you can pay online without an additional fee if you use an electronic check.
You can also do nothing, in which case the city will mail you a paper tax form at the end of March.
You're considered an income earner, by the way, if you're 18 and you've earned any dough at all during 2012, including unemployment assistance, Social Security income and even gifts. You don't have to pay if your household is below the federal poverty line -- $23,050 for a family of four last year -- but you'll have to prove your poverty by sending the city the appropriate documentation.
It might be easier just to pay the tax. If doing so is a struggle, you can always split the payment into two parts. Of course, doing this will cost you an extra dollar because, you know, the arts tax itself just isn't regressive enough.
All of this for something that may not even be constitutional. The city likes to call it an income tax, but it quacks and waddles just like a head tax, which is something Oregon's Constitution expressly prohibits. The courts may end up sorting the matter out.
The irony may be unintentional, but the arts tax makes for good policy theater. The first couple of acts are history, but the drama may keep right on going as the money -- and perhaps the lawsuits -- roll in. Will the compliance rate match the city's expectations, which predict the payment of about $9 million by July 1 If not, arts groups may have to wait to cash in. Funds handed out in November will go, first, to schools for arts instruction, says Tax Division Manager Terri Williams. If enough money comes in -- about $7 million by the end of October -- arts groups stand to get some this year, too. If not, they might have to wait until March 2014.
Portland is famously tolerant of weirdness, even, it seems, in its tax code. But there are limits to everything. Because it's permanent, the arts tax will outlive the troubled moment that created it, contributing to a burden that now includes Multnomah County's library district and Portland's school bond. Before long, the city's bound to ask for some road-upkeep money, too.
That's a sobering thought, but there is a way out -- besides a court challenge, that is. As soon as state school funding has rebounded, as it surely will, City Council ought to put the arts tax back on the ballot.
In the meantime, that'll be $35.
(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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