No matter how you feel about the head tax, the Council should not start selling vetoes

Regardless of your opinion on the city’s employee head tax to fund affordable housing and homelessness solutions, repealing the tax one month after unanimously passing it is effectively handing Council power to wealthy people and businesses. The repeal in the face of a likely voter referendum opens a new pathway for monied interests to effectively veto Council action, and this one will have a clear price tag.

We won’t know the exact amount of money it took to pay for enough signatures to get this referendum on the ballot until all the campaign disclosures are in. Filings by the No Tax On Jobs campaign so far show costs at a shade under $300,000. So is that the new price to veto Council action?

People and businesses with money already have all kinds of ways to influence politicians. And when that doesn’t work, they have other tools to stop or delay changes anyway. The Queen Anne Community Council sued the city, using the state’s environmental impact laws to delay common sense rules to make it easier for more people to build backyard cottages, for example. And, of course, a handful of businesses in Ballard have successfully delayed the Burke-Gilman Trail Missing Link for more than a decade by using those same environmental review laws.

The vast majority of people do not have the money to file project-delaying lawsuits or spend $300,000 on signature campaigns. People experiencing homelessness certainly don’t. But the people should have the City Council.

If the Council hands their keys to the membership of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce or whoever else has enough money, what lever of power do the people have left?

What message would a repeal send to all the people who volunteered their time and energy to support this tax and get a compromise version of it through a unanimous Council vote? That even if they succeed, the money-holders will just pay to erase their efforts? Why would anyone dedicate another second of their time to working within such a broken system? I hope people stay engaged, of course, but the Council needs to uphold their end of that relationship.

A unanimous City Council vote must mean something. It should be the ultimate statement of intent. Our city’s elected leadership has negotiated and agreed to this policy, and we’re going to follow it until we have good reason to change it. A paid signature campaign is not a good enough reason.

If they were voting to replace the funds for housing and homelessness services with a comparable or better funding method, that might be a reasonable action. But so far, no such replacement plan exists. Since the head tax is the law of the land now, repealing it is a funding cut that hits our most vulnerable neighbors directly. Without shelter, people die. This is not a game.

Obviously, this is a very difficult and complicated situation. Far more so than I understand, I’m sure. But the message to the people if this repeal goes through is pretty simple: People with less money are less important.

What does this mean about our other Council-approved legislation? That’s why I said at the top that it doesn’t matter how you feel about the head tax. An issue you do support might be next. We have massive problems to solve in our city, and we’re going to need a lot more bold and controversial votes if we have any chance of addressing them. We need the Council to have the power to take bold action. Otherwise, they are just Student Senate, only making decisions the people actually in charge of the school will allow them to make. The value of your voice in Council Chambers will be diminished because the power of the Council will be diminished.

Of all nine City Councilmembers, only Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda are sticking with the head tax so far. I hope a few more have a change of heart before Tuesday’s vote. I first became a huge Mike O’Brien fan back in 2010 when he bravely reversed his stance on a punitive anti-panhandling ordinance. At the time, it seemed like a risky political move, alienating him from wealthy power brokers in the city. But it instead set him on a path to be a champion for the people on Council for nearly a decade. I’m hoping he and a few colleagues (like Seattle Bike Blog endorsement recipients Lorena González, Sally Bagshaw and Rob Johnson) do that again tomorrow.

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38 Responses to No matter how you feel about the head tax, the Council should not start selling vetoes

  1. Gary Anderson says:

    I would like to see the repeal on the ballot to let the voters decide. Having the council roll back a decision they just made weeks ago is a total cop out.

  2. Treehugger says:

    Businesses will pass the head tax costs to their customers. Most of those people aren’t wealthy who buy from Amazon.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      The head tax is $0.14/hr per employee.

      The City’s minimum wage automatically increases every year based on inflation. To give you an idea of what that looks like; this year, it went from $15/hr to $15.45/hr for certain employers. Next year, assuming inflation remains the same, it will likely go up by more. And then the year after that, and the year after that.

      The head tax remains at $0.14/hr for 5 years and then is gone.

      The head tax is a drop in the bucket for employers. It’s a whole lot of fuss over nothing. It’s not what I would’ve pushed for, but the uproar over it is just ridiculous.

      • markinthedark says:

        The uproar was not about the amount or lack of acknowledgement of the homelessness problem. It was about trust in city management, lack of plan and poor history of accountability in city management. Plus, most do not believe it was going to go away in 5 years nor remain at $275/head. That’s the same reason the people in this state have resisted an income tax, regardless of what income level it starts out or how few people it initially impacts.

        The push back was also about whether the city should bear the entire burden related to homelessness. Even though the impacts are more acute within the city limits, this is clearly a regional issue and should be addressed at that level similar to Sound Transit. I’m not saying it’s going to make it any easier, but it makes more sense.

        It was not handled well and the council knew it.

      • Andres Salomon says:

        All valid points, but I don’t believe for a second that this is just about mismanagement and lack of faith in our elected officials. That’s been simmering for a while, but we’ve continued along with massive levies (like late 2015’s Move Seattle vote) and local taxes (2017’s city income tax). We’ve also continued allocating funds for unnecessary projects like the Lander overpass. No one packed Council chambers to oppose budget allocations for that one. This is coming to a head over a minor tax because it’s for people we’ve turned into villains.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        I think it primarily *is* about trust in city management. Read NextDoor, talk to people. Many people who have faithfully voted for levies are now edgy.

        Whether justified or not, people see the actions:
        – more sidewalks: nope
        – streetcar on 1st ave? on hold, too many issues
        – more rapid ride? metro outgrew its britches
        – homeless costs soaring with no apparent improvement
        – build out bike lanes? $12M / mile is the talk of the day

        People are willing to pay but they want results. The public is restless.

  3. DOUG. says:

    Well said. I live in Rob Johnson’s district. I mostly like the stances he’s taken, but if he can be this easily swayed by big money interests, then he’s going to have trouble regaining my trust (and vote) before the 2019 election. Kudos to Mosqueda and Sawant.

  4. Peri Hartman says:

    For years, I’ve opposed a state income tax. With the food, housing, and services exemption on sales tax, we did pretty well for a number of years. But things have changed and income disparity is higher, property taxes are crushing, and we still can’t get our infrastructure in shape.

    Given that an income tax is still illegal, the head tax is probably the closest we can legally get. But it, too, isn’t so fair. Yes, Amazon can afford it without a flinch, though they want you to think otherwise. But there are other large businesses that don’t have such a highly paid staff and the head tax will hit them harder.

    For the time being, I will support the head tax. But it’s time to push the legislature to allow a state income tax. And, with that, to reduce and put caps on our other taxes.

    • Erik says:

      If you want great disparity in incomes, pass a head tax which taxes jobs regardless of the income the employee OR company earns in profit. Talk about another REGRESSIVE tax yet you are calling for less regressive income tax. I’m sorry your comment doesn’t hold water.

      Besides the city ALREADY is spending more than $50 million a year and the problem has gotten worse. The problem appears to many to be not a lack of tax revenue (the city’s budget is growing by leaps and bounds), but WASTE.

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  6. stardent says:

    I think the Council sees which way the wind is blowing – the tax would be voted out in a big way if the referendum were to be held. The crux of the issue is these are band aid fixes and there is a lack of a clear plan and accountability. How many of the homeless are so because they lost a place to live due to rising rents and how many are new comers? It is about time we had rent control. Sawant is a socialist version of Trump, a demagogue albeit a 1ooo times smarter; but Trump is more wily.

    • Law Abider says:

      How many of the homeless are so because they lost a place to live due to rising rents and how many are new comers?

      According to a few surveys done over the last few years, it’s something like around 90% are from Seattle, Puget Sound or Washington. Even the sensationalist MyNorthwest posted a survey results that shows the same.

      Not that it matters where they come from, but it’s time to put the “they aren’t from here” argument to bed.

      • RDPence says:

        A better way to ask the question is, how long have you lived in Seattle? I suspect the median would be somewhere in the range of 1 – 2 years.

        Voters are willing to help those who will help themselves, employable people who lost their job or housing and need a fresh start. But people suffering from substance abuse and/or mental illness who won’t accept treatment, who won’t follow the rules when provided with housing; I think that’s where voters have run out of patience.

      • Law Abider says:

        A better way to ask the question is, how long have you lived in Seattle? I suspect the median would be somewhere in the range of 1 – 2 years.

        Based on a 2016 survey, something like 70%+ were living in King County when they became homeless. Around 50% had lived in Seattle for 5 years or more. But don’t let facts get in the way of your gut feeling! Plus, Seattle’s homeless services are pretty abysmal. A homeless person would not be very smart to move here, just to live in a tent where they are constantly dislodged.

        But people suffering from substance abuse and/or mental illness who won’t accept treatment, who won’t follow the rules when provided with housing;

        Ok, if you’re the same RDPence I see on other comment sections, you appear to try to come off as a “voice of opposition”, albeit with little or no facts to back up your claims. I’ll bite though!

        The biggest issue with your statement is that while there are a few substance abuse programs, mental health services and shelters in the area, there is little to no overlap amongst the three.

        Almost all of the few, overcrowded shelters that are available do not provide mental health services or substance abuse help. Not only that, but these same shelters REQUIRE someone to be stone cold sober. If you are suffering from substance or alcohol abuse, you cannot, despite what some concern trolls might believe, up and get sober on your own, in one day. Hence why some refuse shelter.

        In addition, the mental health and substance abuse services tend to not be near shelters, so it makes it difficult, if not impossible to use these services as a homeless person.

        The solution is simple and has been successfully implemented in pretty much every other first world country: provide housing, with mental health and addition services available on premises. Unfortunately, every time something like this is proposed, an extremely small, but vocal minority shows up and shouts it down and the problem perpetuates.

        If the voters have truly run out of patience, it’s with these obstructionists, not with the homeless.

  7. (Another) Tom says:

    I don’t see it that way.

    Polling indicates that a majority of Seattle residents (myself included) continue to be opposed to this head tax. The crazy thing was that this passed 9-0 in the first place. Now that’s representation!

    I am glad they are reversing this misguided decision and I definitely agree that it is wise to just do this now than waste more of the city’s money fighting lawsuits up to the point where the citizens make their voices heard via the initiative process and it gets repealed anyway.

    Pretty basic tax policy that we tax things that are detrimental to society (tobacco, etc) to reduce their prevalence. A tax on jobs will create a similar effect and is really bad policy. People have short memories and most cities would kill to have this ‘too many high-paying jobs’ problem that Seattle currently faces. Things could change tomorrow. We’ve already seen how eager surrounding cities are to pounce on the opportunity to lure good companies and jobs away from Seattle. Being on the other side of the equation is far worse.

  8. Bryan Willman says:

    markinthedark and stardent are on to it. sure, file the petition, let it go to the ballot, and watch the council get the most embarrasing slap down in ages. Government exists to serve the entire political economy of the jurisdiction, not the most visible down and out who make a spectacular story for the media. (And which many governments have proven they lack the means or ideas to address anyway.)

    They picked that particular tax because unlike others it’s not either outright illegal (income tax) or requires a vote (various other taxes.) Remove that loophole.

    Hundreds of millions to use up land to make free housing for the poorest, thus screwing over everybody who has prevailed in the struggle to NOT be homeless? Why is this a good idea?

    And a city that can’t manage to build power and sewer connections for those living in RVs (reflecting some strength on their part) should be trusted to build housing?

    And people who won’t go to the existing shelters will go to housing instead? (Well, maybe…)

    You want a better housing and general economic story, stop trying to cram all of the economic activity in the state into Seattle metro. Spread jobs and business out and watch housing become easier (but not easy.)

    Peace be with all of you

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      “Peace be with all of you.” Unless you are among the growing number of people experiencing homelessness, you mean. The lack of empathy in your comment is the disturbing truth behind efforts to repeal this tax. That people who can’t afford expensive homes don’t deserve a home at all. That they are less human or deserving of respect and basic life needs than those with money. It’s disgusting.

      • Bryan Willman says:

        Arguing that yet more money to be consumed by a botched government, in an overcrowded city, is the only non-disgusting non-heartless approach is sophistry. “You are opposed to more government and more taxes, you must hate the poor/homeless/afflicted!”

        Noone has presented a clear argument that Seattle can actually address the issue in any competent way, with any amount of money. There is no credible argument that the funding involved would be appropriate or adequate. There is no test, no criteria of failure that would require handling of the issue to be given over to a different entity.

        Somehow anyone skeptical of Seattle (or any other government’s) ability to address a problem partly of their own making makes them digusting, heartless, cruel?

        I don’t buy it. Homelessness, and poverty, are real, long lived, complicated, highly variable? I believe all that.

        That Seattle Govt will somehow address these things effectively with the amount of money they happened to be able extract from businesses? No.

  9. Joker says:

    They claim the head tax will kill jobs but look at how many jobs have been created for the signature collectors and lawyers !

  10. joe says:

    when Seattle voters keep voting in taxes, of course you will have more homeless! With all of the money spent on homeless people, why is it getting worse? I am sure the homeless of the world knows Seattle wants to house them ,feed them,take care of them and they won’t even have to pay taxes to enjoy all the freebies. People are coming to Seattle in waves and it won’t end until the city council starts giving some tough love to people. I have a heart for the unfortunate but the insanity of all the mismanaged taxes will make me a unfortunate as well.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Because housing costs have gone sky high. When people can’t afford a house, they get kicked to the curb. Don’t believe the “Freeattle” trope, most people experiencing homelessness are from here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/king-countys-homeless-are-overwhelmingly-from-here-service-providers-say/

      • stardent says:

        The survey is from 2014! The dynamics have changed a lot since then and therefore this survey is worthless. We do need a proper survey to figure out how many of the homeless are working poor, how many are mentally ill, suffering from addiction, how many are newcomers, etc. The city should do that first and foremost before trying to figure out how much money to collect and by what means.

      • Erik says:

        This article is filled with massive distortions if not lies. The head tax opposition was commonly opposed by citizens of all classes in the city of Seattle NOT just big business and the wealthy who realized it was poorly conceived and didn’t hold the city accountable to the already wasteful, ineffective, unaccountable, and massive spending on the homeless issue. The vast majority of citizens regardless of income were against this. The article acts as if not passing it was giving money to the wealthy and that somehow the city is entitled to. I seriously question the author’s understanding of law and its negative impact even on middle class people. The law was based on the number of employees AND revenue not profit. Many business with over the $20 million threshold in revenue set by the bill have marginal if not zero profit and/or they have a ton of lower wage employees. So regardless of profit these laws would make businesses pay a lot of money. If you need more revenue how is it helpful to make up distorted measures for collection. Residents want to see the money being spent in a more efficient way before granting the city more.

      • Erik says:

        Anyone who has studied statistics and science knows that a study which relies plainly on surveys without confirmation of a broad base of the answers via actual research on the lives of the people is going to have a huge margin for error in the results.

        Even the study’s author said there were big data issues with it.

        Also one part of the study says that 25% (8400) of people “from King County” were supposedly from zip code 98104? That zip code only has a population of 13,000 and it’s mostly very upper end housing. There’s something very fishy with that number and making this a key component of the article and study undermines it massively and bring it into question,

        Sorry this study was commissioned by homeless advocacy groups with an interest in the answers supporting their narrative using shoddy data collection. Given that, there is no reason to take the article seriously much less the study.

    • Rob says:

      Joe back up any of what you said with facts. You will not because you don’t have any. I’m with Tom, the lack of empathy in many of the comment is very disturbing.
      Just try walking in the “shoes” of the mentally ill or substance addicted and then have something to say.

      • joe says:

        My daughter is a challenged adult, I deal with it every day! so Rob, why don’t you adopt a mentally ill person and take it upon yourself to make a difference in society. I also have other family members who got addicted and are now back on there feet with a lot of stressful family support. I would also like to see an accurate report on how many homeless where born and raised here as opposed to moving here and becoming homeless.

  11. Bryan Willman says:

    Housing costs are quite famously very high in Seattle, and that certainly doesn’t help. That’s all true.

    Note that in a very real sense, this is a feature for government – because a great deal of revenue comes from property taxes, which rise with the market value. It’s not actually in the long term interest of Seattle’s government (or WA state) for housing prices to go down…

    But to the point – I know from direct conversation with people who appear to be homeless that some of them have a drinking problem – at least two have told me they are alcoholics, in exactly those words. It’s not a secret that some others have other substance issues, and some number are mentally ill in one way or another.
    (I know of others who are escapees from abusive households – another complicated condition.)

    Which all means that simply imposing a somewhat random tax to build some ill defined number of low-income housing units could not be expected to address the general problem.

    Any plan with any hope of success would need not just a count of who was homeless, but for how long, and why. The last may be hard to sort out.

    Given that, some plan to deal with substance issues (including alcoholism), mental health issues, and combinations, would be a required part of mitigation.

    In spite of a “state of emergency” (to some of us code speak of “we want more money”) I’ve not seen (nor seen reports of) a well founded plan based on well founded surveys.
    Such a plan might tell us how much money for how much short term housing, how much for long term housing, how much for attempt to deal with mental health and substance issues (very hard problems.)

    But I’ve seen no such plan – rather the whole thing was “we can tax business this way, and we don’t need a vote, let’s go for it!” In other words, brigandry.

    [As noted above plans for street cars, monorails, light rail, sidewalks, bike lanes, and filling pot holes haven’t worked out so well – and so Seattle and King Co face a lot of well deserved general skepticism.]

    • markinthedark says:

      Actually, the rise in property values in and of themselves do not increase property taxes. It is the increase in government budgets that increases the tax. Everybody’s property values could double, but if the budget remains the same, the taxes would not change because the levy rate would be halved.

      Property taxes are going up due to increased government budgets and voter approved levies. Someones property value could go up proportionately more than another’s causing them to pay proportionately more tax, but on average the actual property value has no impact on what is collected in total.

  12. markinthedark says:

    Actually, the rise in property values in and of themselves do not increase property taxes. It is the increase in government budgets that increases the tax. Everybody’s property values could double, but if the budget remains the same, the taxes would not change because the levy rate would be halved.

    Property taxes are going up due to increased government budgets and voter approved levies. Someones property value could go up proportionately more than another’s causing them to pay proportionately more tax, but on average the actual property value has no impact on what is collected in total.

  13. Jonathan Mark says:

    I agree with this article and I am also concerned about another direct financial influence on the Council: the private incentive to create the waterfront Local Improvement District (LID).

    Friends of Waterfront Seattle has offered to raise $100M in philanthropic capital for waterfront projects, conditional on the City creating a $200M LID. So the wealthy donors are incenting the Council to give them a 2-for-1 match with other people’s money.

    This led to the spectacle of the Council unanimously voting to initiate the LID process after three meetings (2 in CM Juarez’ committee and 1 in full council) which were packed with dozens of public comments at each meeting. I believe that every single commenter at the 3 meetings was opposed to creating the LID, except people on the staff or board of the big City-subsidized nonprofits.

  14. Apu says:

    It’s even worse when you consider that the head tax that got passed was a significantly watered down version, in order to accommodate big business interests. Amazon and its ilk have demonstrated that they are willing to fight tooth and nail even after repeated concessions have already been made to mollify them and the resulting tax burden is tiny. This repeal will only embolden their policy of never giving an inch. Seattle is essentially governed by Amazon now.

  15. Neil wilson says:

    The current council as a history of shutting out stakeholders and writing ordinances which do not stand up to legal and now public scrutiny. Still, they will not hold themselves accountable. It’s not difficult to say hey we screwed up and will be more inclusive with our decisions. However, yesterday five council members chose to portray themselves as victims instead of leaders.

  16. Ballard Biker says:

    I really wanted to see this go to vote in November. I think a resounding defeat in the election would have sent a much better message. The reality was the city council saw the polling and realized this was going to lose, and was likely going to drag the Education levy down with it.

    But hey, there is still time. If the head tax proponents really have the moral high ground, they can go get signatures and get this on the ballot. The no head tax people got 15,000 signatures from volunteers, so if the outrage is as palpable as this makes it seem, people should be lining up to overturn the city council.

    • DOUG. says:

      It’s is simply not true that “the no head tax people got 15,000 signatures from volunteers.” SEEC filings show that No Tax on Jobs Coalition paid $246,000 to Morning In America, an Arizona-based signature gathering firm. The top 10 contributors to the No Tax on Jobs Coalition basically paid for that, giving $240,000 to the campaign. Here are those top 10 contributors and the amount they each gave:

      NORTHWEST GROCERY ASSOCIATION, $50,000.00
      WASHINGTON FOOD INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION, $30,000.00
      AMAZON.COM SERVICES INC., $25,733.06
      VULCAN INC., $25,000
      MARTIN SELIG, $25,000
      HOWARD WRIGHT, $25,000
      MARTIN SMITH, $20,000
      HOLLAND PARTNER GROUP, $20,000
      BUILDING OWNERS & MANAGERS ASSOCIATION, $10,000
      FISHERIES SUPPLY, $10,000

  17. Bryan Willman says:

    As the dust settles, some other observations.

    1. Whether some group paid signature gatherers or not, people signed. Noone has suggested that people were paid *to sign* the petition nor where they forced to.

    SEIU was apparently funding a “pro tax” campaign that wasn’t going very well….

    2. Today’s seattle times, a generally rather left leaning outlet, suggests that the city council being blown around by SEIU was the reason for the snap on snap off nature of the tax proposal, and also rightly points out the homeless are largely pawns in a power struggle over public extraction of funds. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but to the extent it is true, it may explain the ill structured nature of the approach to the problem – “tax the rich” (or “tax any other group”) isn’t a solution to anything other than making more brigandry.

    3. By the numbers reported in the seattle times, seattle alone is spending $176million per year to address the needs of a group counted at one point in time as 12K ish. That works out to something like $13K per head per year. (I suspect that people falling in and out of homelessness, etc, means it’s more like $10K per head per year.)

    Yet we still see people sleeping in tents in medians and beneath underpasses. People who have had the gumption to obtain RVs or like vehicles, still have no sensible place to park them.

    Build a lot of housing is a sensible tactic for that fraction of the homeless who are locked out by rent economics – but what about the substantial numbers who are pretty clearly suffering from other issues?

    https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/editorials/10-take-aways-from-the-head-tax-debacle

    If you really care about the homeless issue (either out of compasion or exasperation) this whole episode was a disruptive distraction – and I think you ought to think long and hard about wether seattle govt is any way competent to address it.

  18. David says:

    so when will people riding bikes on roads, who don’t own cars, also shoulder the load on road maintenance? Street bikes would have a hard time riding were it not for car owner payed black asphalt roads. You don’t need asphalt for bikes so clearly the roads were made and intended for and paid for by car owners. Should they be included in the per mile use fees just like car owners, if the tax is implemented? If not why not? Just curious.

  19. David says:

    Better yet not only bikes but how about transit buses? Since they have their own exclusive lanes that cars cant drive on should transit budget for the maintenance of those roads? Why should car owners have to pay for the maintenance of transit only lanes and roads?

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