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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Portland arts tax: not just illegal, but also unworkable

Our post of last week about the proposed $35-a-person tax on Portland residents to pay for arts programs has drawn some interesting reader reactions. Blogger Isaac Laquedem, who knows a thing or two about Oregon law, thinks it would violate the state constitution. And another reader writes in to point out that there would be numerous problems in actually implementing it:

Here are some thoughts:

1. The tax is not an income tax. It's a head tax. In other parts of the world, it's called a poll tax, but in the U.S. we associate poll taxes with the Jim Crow laws requiring voters to pay a fee before voting. More on this later. Since we are in polite company, we will call this a head tax.

2. How will the city collect the tax? This is big. Proponents have made it clear that the tax is per person, but means tested. It is not an income tax. At the same time, it will have to rely on some measure of income for the means testing of who pays and who doesn't.

-- Who has the obligation to pay the head tax? With the income tax, my wife and I a jointly responsible for paying. With the head tax, do I have an obligation to pay my wife's head tax? When my kids turn 18, but still live at home, do I pay their head tax or do they? Think of that -- a city tax return for every single adult living in the city. We'll burn through the $35 on collection costs alone.

-- My wife is a stay-at-home mom. She has no income. Does she pay the head tax? I say no income, no tax.

-- Do part-year residents pay the full amount of the tax? Do illegal alien residents pay the tax (we know the city allows them to sign street-renaming petitions)?

3. The big, big, big question: How will the city enforce collections? Remember the tax is per person; it's not an income tax.

-- Sure, we can use state tax returns for enforcement. Seems like a huge violation of privacy. Between the mayor's garbage snitch program and the art tax collections, Portland may become the most progressive police state in the world.

-- By my guess, there are about 475,000 people over 18 in Portland, but about 280,000 state tax returns are filed in the city. Right off the bat, you have to track down almost 200,000 people. So, even with the violation of privacy, you'll likely to come up short.

-- Using tax returns only gets us so far. Remember, it's a head tax on residents, not a household tax or property tax. So, using things like the water bill or property tax records won't give us the information we need and/or will give us the incorrect information for collecting the head tax. So now what?

-- Of course… we can use the voter registration rolls. That counts people, not households, and it gives an address. Bingo! But, according to the city auditor, in the November 2008 general election, there were 352,041 registered City of Portland Voters. That's about 125,000 people short. Even so, it's better than nothing, right?

-- Wrong! Remember Jim Crow? You see, once you use voter registration rolls to enforce collection of a tax, you have effectively instituted a poll tax. Anyone who registers to vote in the City of Portland would automatically subject themselves to the art tax. I bet there would be quite a few people who would be willing to give up their right to vote to avoid paying a city tax on voter registration. I'd love to see the Institute for Justice get a hold of this one.

4. Remember Margaret Thatcher? Her head tax proposal sent her popularity through the floor and caused riots in the streets. She resigned as Prime Minister within a year of introducing it.

It's a shame that the city council is giving the CAN group false hope that this idea would work. Even if it gets on the ballot and approved, there is a very real chance it'll get thrown out by the courts. All that money and energy wasted on a pipedream.

As we said at the outset, the people who are pushing this have got to be kidding. They ought to formulate a less laughable proposal, or give up.

Comments (19)

Progressive Police State just about sums it up. I think that is Sam's proudest accomplishment.

Not very many progressives have been able to actually achieve a police state in this country but Sam had the ability to pull it off.

You didn't the homeless and the folks at Bud Clark Commons. Would the city pay their tax for them? I foresee a day when dreamers and schemers demand and get a national registration of every individual and monitor where we all live and work. The problems you mention are only problems of law, and those can be changed.

Under the proposal, low-income adults, and all children under age 18, would be exempt from the tax.


The stupids, they hurt...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who's reminded of Jim Crow by the frequent BS CoP tries to pull... and sometimes succeed in.

I suggest that the word "progressive" be taken away.
Just "police state" says it all; unless of course this is only the first in a long term plan of many "progressive" means to reduce our freedoms and liberties.

It is more of a Clockwork Orange State - thugs and punks running everything and getting away with it.

My reading was that it is for every adult who earns an income, given that they are over the poverty line.

In theory, an 18-year old dependent who doesn't work, wouldn't pay the tax. Someone who is here part of the year, would pay it if they earn enough income, etc.

But that doesn't answer the collection/enforcement question, or how it is calculated.

My spouse works part-time and is probably technically under the poverty limit for a single earner, even though combined we are not. So does she pay? If poverty is assessed individually, does she get to count our dependents? (I.e. the poverty level is different for a family of one vs. five.)

Total mess.

Maybe they should just collect and distribute the funds through our water bills (snark).

I didn't think the anyone would ever try to institute a fee, more fruitless or labor-intensive to collect than pet licensing fees . . . but here it is!

A Head Tax? Might be some possible income for the new unemployed Mayor

And all of the discussion misses the main point. This is supposed to be for "The Arts". What is wrong with letting art work at its own pace, encouraged by its practitioners on their own? (I'm sorry, but as yellow-dog liberal as I am on most subjects, arts funding is one where I surprise ultraconservative friends in Dallas. I'm not against the arts. I'm against subsidizing half-assed artists and half-baked arts projects before they're ready. If anything, I'm for making making arts grants even harder to attain, much like the MacArthur "genius" grants, where the recipients only get the funds after they've proven that they have ideas and talents worth further support. I've watched too many potentially brilliant friends and cohorts crash and burn because they didn't get the discipline down before someone decided to subsidize them.)

Not only that, but often the deal is political, who knows who, who is "in" the club to be approved for grants, etc. rather than on merit.

How much of the money would go towards administration rather than to artists producing work?

There are artists who work hard and get a bad rap, in some cases misunderstanding of the profession. Sure there are slackers and "not so good" stuff out there, but isn't that the case in other areas as well?

Many artists teach and do work at other jobs. I think people forget that all visual products around us have artists at work, the covers of CD's and book jackets, jewelry, the design of apparel and shoes we wear, I don’t think we would want to live in a world of bare walls, no posters, paintings or sculpture. That many artists survive and most do without grants is a testament to being able to handle a budget. Perhaps we should have artists in charge of city finances.

I wonder if the artists in our city would approve of paying this tax? After all else, cost of living, etc. many may have left our city already.

I agree with Texas and Clinamen. I'm an artist, and I don't want to politicize Art, which would be the outcome of this Tax.

It wouldn't surprise us out East if you guys withheld $35 from every person in the state and then refunded it upon request.

Sure it sounds stupid and ludicrous, but it would not be a surprise.

I'd say the word 'progressive' applies because that word would imply a creeping forward of the police state.

This tax would be problematic for a number of reasons but Laquedem's poll tax argument is even worse.

First, have any proponents suggested using voter registration data to determine who is a resident of Portland for the purpose of applying this tax or did Laquedem just set this argument up as a straw man? It would seem like drivers licenses would be another source of data.

Second, when you do set up a straw man you should be able to knock it down and Laquedem hasn't. The problem with poll taxes was that they conditioned the fundamental right to vote on paying a tax--and one that was generally discriminatorily enforced. Drawing from voter registration rolls to determine who lives in Portland would not be conditioning registration on paying the tax. You would still be able to vote if you didn't pay the tax and it would still be illegal to avoid paying the tax even if you didn't register to vote.

This tax proposal is deeply flawed but in opposing it we should focus on the good arguments, not the specious ones.

Erik, Isaac Laquedem didn't make the "poll tax" argument. The italicized text is from a different reader.

Erik, as CLP noted, you're attributing someone else's argument to me. My argument is much simpler: Article I, Section 32 of the Oregon Constitution requires that taxation be uniform among the same class of persons, which Portland's proposed tax would not be.


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