Why can't you be more like...


I recently received a message from somebody who wanted to know why the more political things I post don’t look more like Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project, and more specifically, why I wasn’t writing articles like Josephine Zarkovich’s Arranging the Deck Chairs.

The simple answer is that I’m writing to artists, not to a general public. I’m writing to people who, ostensibly, value irreverence and rebellion, who think about the local arts ecosystem and do a face palm. I am not concerned with some imagined political center. I’m interested in ideas that travel from the bottom up, and that’s how I approach the blog. I have nothing bad to say about Ms. Zarkovich, she is a force, and her dedication is always impressive. But I’m doing something different.  

But let’s talk about taxes anyway. The Portland Arts Tax, had the potential to lead the nation in municipal funding for arts programming, yet it’s a case study in managerial incompetence. While the Arts Tax is mentioned by outsiders as proof of Portland’s liberal credentials, it is not a progressive tax that spreads the financial burden equally among those with the means to contribute. It’s an abusive, regressive tax law that is punishing to those at the lowest incomes while remaining utterly negligible to people of means. In essence, Portland “liberals” voted for a law so regressive it has a Mississippi drawl. 

The arts tax, in case you are one of the roughly 25%-30% who avoid paying it, is a flat rate of $35. Once your household income exceeds the poverty line, any adult  member of the household contributing more than $1,000 to that income has to pay $35. 

A two person household in which one person earns $1,000,000 while the other has no income would pay $35.

A two person household with a combined income of $16,500 with each person contributing equally would owe $70. 

Yes. The household that would own no federal tax, no state tax, and would receive free state health coverage, for whom food insecurity is the norm, would pay twice as much as the millionaire couple in $1,000 sneakers. I wish I was making this up!

The the bulk of the Arts Tax money goes to public schools. The millionaire probably lives in an area where existing property tax levies give their local schools a dramatic advantage, because the money the wealthy couple pays in property tax stays in their wealthy area. The Arts Tax, however, has our hypothetical working poor subsidizing the arts education of wealthy children. 

Administering the Arts Tax costs nearly twice as much as voters approved, so the City Council decided to lift the spending limits on administering the tax without seeking voter approval, fearing that if the tax were to be revisited, it would be repealed. And that’s the rub. This tax will eventually be repealed, and there will be prejudice against the arts community for its perceived overreach. You can’t expand something that people hate, so rather than being a stepping stone to European style government arts funding, it is unlikely to ever offer anything more than it does now, and even then its days are numbered.

The arts community should have been critiquing this back in 2012, in the lead up to voting on Measure 26-146. Somebody in a position of leadership should have had the understanding and foresight to recognize that punishing the poor in the name of art will only come back to bite your ass.