Pretty much the whole of Portland establishment supports this measure, artfully dubbed Schools and Arts Together, and there is no organized opposition. So urging a vote against it probably is bootless.
Nonetheless it is a bad idea that deserves a no vote. The measure provides an inadequate fix for a real problem, by using a method that is wrong in principle, rather ugly when you look at it its implementation, that sets an insidious precedent.
The heart of the problem is this: Measure 26-146 relies on an exceedingly regressive tax, bad because flat, beginning at very low income, worsened by asking low income people to subsidize the pleasures of high income people, tying limited surcease for desperation over the school funding situation to accepting that subsidy. Its only saving grace is that the tax is relatively low.
Measure 26-146's public relations focus on a real issue, declining arts in Portland schools, across the several public school systems. But the funding the measure raises for schools is not enough to deal with the problem. In any case insufficient arts funding is part of a larger funding crisis that includes libraries, physical education and athletics, what used to be called "industrial arts," science infrastructure, and above all, short staffing leading to large class sizes and inadequate on-site support services for counseling, health, academic support, discipline and even lunches and recess. Segregating out the arts piece may only prolong the other problems.
However, the Schools and Arts Together measure devotes between a third and 45% (depending on whether you believe The Portland Mercury or Willamette Week
both of which endorse the measure) to a fund to be administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council pretty much at its discretion. Of that fund, 5% must be dedicated to "outside" arts that support the schools directly, but beyond that, it's a crapshoot. The money might mostly go to community-oriented projects that serve low income communities including schoolkids. But it could all go to the big, high-priced arts organizations like the Portland Art Museum, Portland Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera and the Portland Symphony, Oregon Children's Theatre (all of which I value) and so on.
As a result of this diversion of funds from the schools purpose on which promotion of the measure relies, the estimated $12 million to be raised will not even put an art teacher in every school. It will pay for one for every 500 students, and probably add 12 or 13 teachers, with many schools sharing teachers. Further, there is no requirement that the resources be directed to lower income schools without foundations first. It is just enough of a patch to probably make it harder to secure proper funding.
The deceptive advertising stressing the schools and hiding the Big Arts potential benefit is belied by the composition of the Executive Campaign Committee: heavy on business people, and arts administrators, with a sprinkling of famous musicians, and almost no educators.
The flat rate is $35 per year. Perhaps the rationalization went, "Well, that's less than $3 per month. Surely anybody who isn't destitute can afford $3 a month." But of course this tax won't be paid by the month, but in a lump sum once a year. For a family living a $1 above official poverty, and considerably higher than that, after rent and utilities and getting to work, and clothes for kids, and child care expenses, and maybe unavoidable student loans, or medicines, $35 may be a real headache come March or April. It could cut into the food budget for a month, or define the tipping point for filling a prescription or seeing a doctor. Not the end of the world, but a hassle in life filled with hassles, another addition to the litany of minor harassments as you move to the margins.
Comparisons to the price of espresso drinks may fly in OPB or other cultural fundraising aimed at the well off to reasonably comfortable, but they are irrelevant as we near the poverty line. The official poverty level is set well below the level of income that really defines a straitened, impoverished existence that makes life a struggle. Adding to that burden, or subjecting the poorest to a bureaucratic need to demonstrate their exemption from the tax, is wrong.
Something missing from Measure 26-146 is any clear commitment to equity in the distribution of its benefits. When the Oregon Historical Society secured Multnomah County tax funding to stabilize its budget a few years ago, it recognized the need for equity, so the OHS museum and library became free to all county residents in exchange. There is nothing remotely comparable in Measure 26-146. As mentioned before, the schools portion does not prioritize less arts resourced schools. On the cultural n.g.o. side, there is no requirement to provide access to lower income people who cannot afford the price of admission to high priced events and venues of organizations that cater mostly to the upper middle classes.
Meanwhile, even though the level of this particular tax is low in dollars, it sets a precedent for taxing on a broad base down to very low income levels with a regressive flat structure. Moreover, it is not a temporary tax, but a permanent one, building its deeply regressive structure permanently into Portland's revenue system.
As I have puzzled to understand how so many good, clearly well-intentioned people could have come together over several years behind such a regressive measure, there is a nagging suspicion that one piece of the answer might be a segment of the well-off with a Steve Forbes-ian flat tax agenda, who agree with Mitt Romney and Herman Cain that the rich are overburdened and the poor and lower middle classes aren't pulling their weight. Such people often have a keen appreciation of the arts, and form part of the clientele and financial base of the RACC associated organizations. Was a flat, broad, low-income tax the price of such support?
But I don't know that's true, and clearly many of the backers of Measure 26-146 don't remotely fit that profile. So one imagines rationalizations that $35 isn't that much, and long sessions debating whether something less broad, starting at a higher income level, with some progressivity, could be made to fly, asking what additional tax the middle-middle and upper-middle classes of the city would tolerate, permanently, concluding perhaps that as income has become more polarized, only taxing the lower middle classes right down to the niggardly Federal Poverty Level would work, that the trade-off of setting the floor higher would make the tax further up rise too steeply even with a completely flat tax. But I don't know that either, of course. The puzzle remains puzzling.
It doesn't make me feel good to write this. I'm an arts and culture person, by family heritage and current family practice, by extensive education, by long professional work, and by personal inclination. I belong to a number of the groups backing the measure and pay admissions I can't well afford to attend events at others, occasionally. I want arts in the schools. I want strong cultural organizations in my city and state. But this measure is the wrong way to secure those ends.
Since Reagan's success in demonizing the poor, it is also impolite in our culture generally and even, or perhaps especially, within Democratic Party-oriented politics to talk about fact that not all "middle class" (=above formal poverty) people are in the same situation. Nonetheless they are not. Some people live much closer to the edge than others.
In the words of the feminist working women's song, taken up the IWW a century ago, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, we should fight bread, but fight for roses too. Measure 26-146 twists that all around. Although I'm not sure it will get this bad, there is nothing formal to prevent it taking bread from those for whom it is hard indeed, to provide a few roses for those people's kids, but give nearly as much to already flower-bedecked grown-ups eating Napoleons and tortes.
However it came about, Measure 26-146 is a bad business. We should vote it down, reject its small scale but bad principle in principle, fight for a real solution to schools funding, and make the social and cultural commitment to the arts on a broader, more equitable basis.
Update: A reader kindly points out my error in saying that Willamette Week endorsed the measure; in fact that paper urges a No vote. Other readers point out that the term "flat tax" usually refers to a flat percentage rate of income, and that a fixed amount per person tax like Measure 26-146 represents a declining rate per income increment as income rises. This distinction is useful for seeing that this measure is not just regressive, but exceedlingly so.