Post-election: The arts tax by the numbers

What did the election results for 26-146 suggest to us

A life class for adults at the Brooklyn Museum, under the auspice of the New York City WPA Art Project/Federal Art Project, c1935, photographer unknown, Archive of American Art

Since the election, I’ve spent some time looking at the final results of 26-146, the measure Portland passed that will provide arts classes to all the city’s elementary students across the six school districts that serve the city, among other things, at a cost of $35 per income taxpayer. Mostly, that was because I wanted to weigh those numbers a little, find some context for them, see if they “told” us anything about…us. (Which maybe is our favorite topic!)

I’m going to assume that you already know quite a bit about the measure itself, the campaign against it by The Oregonian’s editorial page, and the completely misleading poll the newspaper conducted (showing that it was behind by 20 points) and published that led many of us to assume the measure was going to lose. (If you want to catch up with these events, you could start here.)

The Oregonian’s poll was wrong. And it wasn’t even close.

The final tally:
Yes                                     178,725   62.34
No                                       107,953   37.66

Those raw numbers are interesting, just for the size of the win, but they don’t really tell us very much, other than that The Oregonian (and Willamette Week, which shared an animus for the measure with its Big Brother) doesn’t have much influence in these matters.

26-146 was on the ballot with two other much larger tax measures, and I heard a lot of guessing about which ones had the best chance of passing. I don’t think I heard anyone suggest that they would all pass. But they did.  While 26-146 will raise around $12.2 million in revenue per year, a measure to create a property-tax fed local taxing district for Multnomah County libraries will generate $65 million or so for the system each year, and a school bond measure (again, increasing property taxes) will raise $485 million for a variety of capital improvements.

The Oregonian also opposed the library taxing district measure, though far less stridently and often than it fought the arts tax. It also passed:

Yes                                     210,070   62.83
No                                       124,261   37.17

Remember that the library measure was county wide and the arts tax was limited to Portland.

The Oregonian favored the Portland Public Schools bond measure, and it passed (this is confusing: PPS is the largest of the six school districts serving Portland students; only voters inside the district voted on the measure):

Yes                                     160,495   66.25
No                                        81,756    33.75

So, yes, the numbers for all the measures were VERY similar, especially on the surface. But what if we dig down into the precinct level? Where was the support for the arts tax coming from? For the library and school measures? And just for fun, maybe we’ll compare some of the numbers with the results President Obama received in Multnomah County. Maybe we’ll learn the secret language of these numbers in the process? Oh, I’m such an optimist!

****

The arts tax won just about everywhere in the city. Out of 102 precincts, the measure won in 94. In one of the 8 it lost, the vote was 10 yes, 13 no. In another the difference was 4 votes. 26-146 was broadly popular, just as polling for the measure by the Creative Advocacy Network, which brought the measure to the ballot, indicated. Jessica Jarratt Miller, CAN’s executive director, pointed out that one of the keys to its success was the decision to put it on the ballot in a presidential election year, when more people were going to vote, rather than a smaller off-year election. In Multnomah County something like 80 percent of registered voters participated, and the number was larger in Portland proper.

Let’s start with the 8 precincts where the measure lost. They are all scattered on the eastern edge of the city. The biggest defeat of 26-146 came in precinct 4806, the district bisected by SE Flavel St. east of SE 112th Ave., where the vote was 534 (46 percent) for and 646 (54 percent) against. The measure lost by four votes in neighboring Mt. Scott (525-529), but passed in the other two immediately neighboring precincts (though narrowly).

The measure also lost in three precincts that stretch along NE Halsey St., from around 112th Ave. to 162nd Ave., through parts of the Parkrose Heights, Russell and Glenfair neighborhoods. But the margins were small, roughly 53-47 percent, and so were the  total votes involved. Way more voters cast ballots in precincts further west. And we should also point out, again, that other immediately neighboring precincts passed 26-146.

Everywhere else the arts tax received pretty solid and pretty similar support—except for downtown, inner Northwest and the close-in Eastside, and there the measure piled up much bigger numbers. In precinct 3612 around the park blocks (from PSU down to RiverPlace), the measure received around 70 percent of the 4351 votes cast. And in Northwest, precinct 3602, the numbers were even bigger, a full 75 percent voted yes.

The other area of town where the numbers were big? Right where you’d expect an election to be decided in Portland, the Bungalow Belt, stretching from East Moreland through Brooklyn, Ladd’s Addition and Buckman, up through Irvington and north all the way to Lombard, 20 some precincts, all with numbers better than 2-to-1 in favor of 26-146.

I’ll pick out a few just for consideration. Precinct 4204 is around Colonial Heights, just west of Ladd’s and Buckman. The numbers: 2879 (71 percent)-1173. Right next door is Sunnyside and precinct 4207: 2843 (74 percent)-982. Further north, in the Humbolt neighborhood and precinct  4302, the margin was even bigger: 2874 (almost 76 percent)-930. And 4310, an odd-shaped precinct, which includes a chunk of west Irvington and NE Rodney St., was similar: 2854 (almost 77 percent)-931.

So, the results reveal general support throughout the city, a little less so as you went further east toward the eastern edge of the city, and a bit more in the Bungalow Belt and downtown.

****

I’m not going to get into a psychographic account of the differences in the vote, which would be silly if not insulting given how little data I have at hand. Why was the Bungalow Belt so invested in the arts tax? I don’t really know, not having surveyed the voters about their reasons for voting as they did. Why were those who lived along those particular blocks around Northeast Halsey less convinced? Same thing: I don’t really know. I looked at income and poverty rates for the city, and actually, I was surprised to see that low income Portlanders were spread out pretty evenly by geographic area.  Southeast Portland has more people below the poverty line than other sections, but the precincts that so heavily supported the measure seemed to have about as many people below the poverty line as those that didn’t.

I bring this up simply because one of The Oregonian’s arguments against the measure was that the tax was regressive (I argued that the outcome addressed the imbalance in access to the arts by income level in the city). But it is not apparent that poorer voters voted against the measure in greater numbers than their richer neighbors. After Southeast, North Portland has the most people living below the poverty line. The support for the measure there was similar to that in much of Southwest, which has the least.  But without better data it’s impossible to be sure who voted for what and why.

One thing did stand out to me in the geographic distribution of the votes, however. The closer voters were to galleries, arts centers, artwalks and concert halls, the more likely they were to vote for the measure.  When I think of that stretch of Halsey or that precinct at the southeast end of the city, I can’t think of much in the way of immediate access and exposure to the arts for the people who live there.

I’m not making a causal argument here, but I would like to see what would happen if the City, perhaps through the Regional Arts & Culture Council, made a point of increasing access to the arts for those very neighborhoods, preferably by increasing the opportunity both to make and enjoy art in the neighborhoods themselves. The point isn’t to change their vote when a similar measure comes forward in the future. It’s to change the dynamic of cultural participation in the city.

Now, the measure that passed should help that, too, by spreading out arts education to schools all over the city and giving arts groups money to help their education and outreach efforts. But there’s nothing quite like communities generating their own culture: Ten years ago we couldn’t have predicted the busy cultural life along NE Alberta or N Mississippi, how specific it is to those neighborhoods. How different it feels from other neighborhoods. Somehow, we need to figure out how to create the same quickening of pace in Glenfair, too. And not just because it benefits Glenfair. We need the creativity of Glenfair more than Glenfair needs the rest of us.

****

Was the vote on the arts tax more ideological than pragmatic? And what was the “ideology” of a small tax dedicated primarily to hiring teachers and increasing access to the arts? Some of the harshest attack against the measure I heard came from those on the Left, who wanted the tax itself to be more progressive (even though that made no sense from an administrative cost standpoint: According to the bill’s sponsors, a progressive rate would have cost at least $4 million to administer instead of $500,000, far too much for a measure raising $12 million). And anti-tax ideologues from the Right opposed it, of course. This is a big part of the reason The Oregonian opposed it, I think, though their editorials listed other reasons.

Let’s return to some of the districts we mentioned above and look at how they voted on the other measures and the Presidential election.k In Sunnyside, the arts measure corralled 75 percent of the vote, a big win. The library measure hit 80 percent and the school bond 81 percent, while Obama carried the district with 95 percent of the vote (my calculations measured Obama v. Romney; I didn’t figure in 3rd party candidates. Obama actually received a slightly smaller percentage of the vote overall). Humbolt mirrored these numbers: arts, 76 percent; library, 80; school, 77; Obama, 96. And in the Russell neighborhood: arts, 47 percent; library, 49; Obama, 61; the neighborhood isn’t part of Portland Public School system.

Finally, let’s look at a more “typical” precinct, 4101 in east Sellwood. The arts tax passed with 62 percent of the vote, which is what it drew citywide. The library came in at 70 percent, the school bond at 68 percent and Obama piled up 86 percent.

So, county and citywide, Obama outran any of the measures by a pretty wide margin. The library taxing district (which didn’t face so much opposition from The Oregonian) did slightly better in Portland than the arts measure, and so did the school bond.

Just from comparing the numbers of the school, library and arts taxes in Portland, I’m hazarding that most voters didn’t see the arts tax in particularly ideological terms, but maybe when they did AND they voted against it, their opposition was from the Left more than the Right, just from the size of the Obama vote. Then again, maybe Romney was just a bad candidate for the city of Portland, so bad he couldn’t even keep diehard anti-taxers in his column. I don’t believe this, though again, we don’t have conclusive surveys from various precincts to know anything for sure.

****

I’m not arguing that the arts tax, which I voted for as I’ve said before, is the best solution to the problems of access and arts education. Were there good reasons to oppose it? Sure. Here are three:

1. If your family finances couldn’t absorb the hit of the arts tax plus the library and school measures, you might decide to vote for one or none of the above.
2. If, despite evidence that is excellent-but-not-quite-conclusive that arts education is important for the achievement and retention of students, you believed that it wasn’t enough of a priority to warrant your $35.
3. If you just couldn’t get past the fact that richer citizens would pay the same amount as poorer ones (property taxes don’t consider the overall wealth of the citizens involved, either, by the way).

The ideas I have that might have solved the problem “better,” are all more expensive, take longer to implement widely, or are impractical for various reasons.

1. Insist that school districts restore money to arts education from their current budgets (impractical and doesn’t address arts access)
2. Build a system of arts and design centers for education and performances in all of the city’s neighborhoods (more expensive and much longer time frame), linked to the public schools
3. Expand artists-in-the-schools programs drastically, involving more of the city’s arts organizations and artists (longer time frame, not quite the same as regular instruction) and subsidize cheaper tickets to arts events (impractical)
4. Completely re-make the curriculum of Portland schools to make them arts and design-centric (impractical, longer time frame, and probably more expensive)

That’s just for starters. And really, except for #1, I’d be in favor of considering all of these even now. 26-146 only addresses the needs of elementary students, after all, and it’s not like the experiences they’ll get should rule out supplementary opportunities of all sorts.

****

Does this vote mean that  my view of the arts, which is really John Dewey’s, has become the common sense of it in the city at this point? Would voters support the other ideas I’ve listed here?

Dewey believed that the arts were pinnacle achievements of civilizations, not peripheral ones, and that the experiences they provided, the lessons they taught, the models they posed, the processes they pioneered, saturated everyday life. A creative mathematician actually is doing “art,” Dewey thought, and so is a car mechanic for that matter, he famously argued. We appreciate both of their work aesthetically, after all, and note how the beautiful and the practical are so deeply entwined.

Providing opportunities for children and their parents to participate in and therefore appreciate this activity should be central to education. We can argue about different ways to accomplish this goal, some better and some worse. And maybe we haven’t settled its relative value to other worthy goals. But somehow Portland has emerged with a general agreement, across its neighborhoods and voter identifications, that we’re not going to abandon the teaching of arts in our schools altogether. For me at least, that was an important assertion for us to make.

The health of the culture depends on more than a single assertion, however. Ideally, it’s a full-fledged conversation and negotiation, messy as that can get. Personally, I’m ready for the next chat already, and I’m thinking this is where it all might get very interesting.

Comments are closed.