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.