Political Stagecraft

Portland Monthly Editor in Chief Randy Gragg takes a look and Portland's possible new culture tax.

By Randy Gragg August 16, 2010 Published in the September 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Garsya

AS A NEW FALL SEASON of the arts opens this month, keep your eye on a big drama about to be staged—in the theater of politics. The plot: can Portland pass a tax to generate $15 million to $20 million annually to better support the arts?

Act I, Scene 1 begins with a hungry colony of Portland arts institutions and artists putt-putting along on a meager diet of $5 million of government funding per year. That puts us squarely in the middle of the pack of America’s 60 largest cities (about on par with El Paso, Texas). But for a place that wears its creative cred so colorfully, we look a bit drab next to, say, Denver, which in 1989 passed a simple, 0.1-percent sales tax that now pumps $37 million annually into the Mile-High City’s cultural and scientific organizations.

Act II: Enter an early potential hero (we’ll see how it works out), Mayor Sam Adams, who, as a city commissioner in 2008, began building the political foundation to better bankroll culture. The result was the Creative Advocacy Network (CAN), a nonprofit organization that Adams seeded with $100,000 of Portland’s money and then sent forth to gather buy-in from the region’s 25 cities in three counties for a new culture tax that could appear on the ballot as early as fall 2011.

But any good drama needs a flashback. Cue the harps, dim the lights, and zoom to 1987, when the last culture tax went to the voters: a 2 percent increase in the hotel-motel tax that would have generated just $1.2 million. It lost by 20 percentage points. For years, the mere mention of an arts tax sent advocates into cold sweats, counting the zeros in the slogan the hotel industry plastered on billboards throughout the city: "$1,200,000.00 is too much for the arts!"

Today, a future cultural tax’s prospects look rosier. A recent poll commissioned by CAN found that 70 percent of the residents in Portland’s tricounty region would merrily pony up $1 more a month to support the arts, and 58 percent would give $3 more. In late July, CAN’s executive director, Jessica Jarratt, outlined a canny strategy for political success: spread the love. Where Denver’s sales tax sends 65 percent to just five cultural organizations, Portland’s would be distributed far more widely, Jarratt announced. Only 19 percent ($3.8 million) would go to "regionwide providers" (the symphony, art museum, etc.), with the balance divvied up to "locally determined" recipients in each county, such as community theaters and arts-in-education programs. Washington County, for one, would see public arts support increase from a current $90,000 to $5.3 million.

But as we enter Act III, the plot will thicken with a divisive election, a state legislative session that must find $2.5 billion in tax hikes and service cuts, and CAN’s decision on what kind of tax it will push in 2011. As the ancient defeat of the hotel-motel arts tax proved, everything depends on who pays and who gets cast as the villain. So grab a good seat now to watch.

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