After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?
Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.
So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.
Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?
Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.
Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.
Is this really all about Amazon?
No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.
But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.
This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.
So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?
Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.
So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed?
Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.
If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.