Afternoon Crank: Mayor Vetoes Soda Tax Bill, Council Plans to Override, and Streetcar Faces New Hurdles

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1. On Friday, as I first reported on Twitter, Mayor Durkan vetoed council legislation that creates a dedicated fund for excess revenues from the sweetened beverage tax, and stipulates that this money can only be used for new or expanded programs benefiting the low-income communities most heavily impacted by the tax.

In her veto letter, Durkan reiterated her claim that by stipulating what the tax can be spent on, the council is “cutting” funding for previously existing programs that Durkan funded last year by using revenues from the tax to supplant general-fund dollars that had previously paid for the programs and re-allocating those general fund dollars for other purposes. “I agree that the Sweetened Beverage Tax is regressive and should be used only for the purposes set forth in the adopting ordinance, and to further expand important City investments for our most vulnerable population,” Durkan wrote. “Every one of the programs funded in the adopted and endorsed budget met these requirements. Council has now changed its mind and only wants to fund new programs.”

In fact, the council’s legislation will “require that all SBT revenues be used to expand existing programs or create new programs that align with the spending guidance” (emphasis added).

“I think the veto is really more about a statement against this mayor wanting to see her executive power curbed, as opposed to the substance of the issue.” – Council member Lorena Gonzalez

At its briefing meeting this morning, the council made plans to override the mayor’s veto this coming Monday. (Overriding a mayoral veto requires a 6-vote council majority; the legislation passed 7-1, with Abel Pacheco voting “no” and Debora Juarez absent).  Because the council is about to go on its annual recess, next Monday’s meeting is the only opportunity the council will have to veto the bill within the 30-day window specified under city law.

Council president Bruce Harrell, one of seven council members who voted for the soda-tax legislation, called Durkan’s veto “just a complete waste of time,” adding, “I’m not sure of the substantive reasons to do this, other than to make us revote a vote that was not even a narrow vote.” Council member Lorena Gonzalez added, “I’m disturbed by some of the rhetoric coming out of the mayor’s office, but also her agencies,” about the impact of the legislation. “I think the veto is really more about a statement against this mayor wanting to see her executive power curbed, as opposed to the substance of the issue. … It’s clear that the sugary beverage tax has always been intended … to ensure that the dollars were going to be spect in exactly the manner that we have now indicated that they should be spent.”

In 2017,  the council passed the controversial tax with the stipulation that the revenues from the tax would be poured back into programs promoting equitable food access in the communities most impacted by the tax—low-income communities and communities of color that lack access to affordable, healthy food. One year later, with soda tax revenues coming in higher than anticipated, Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed (and the council approved) a budget that used those “extra” dollars to fund food-access and education programs that had previously been funded through the city’s general fund. 

2. The proposed Center City Connector—a streetcar on First Avenue connecting the two existing streetcar lines, which Durkan put on ice after new cost estimates raised the price tag above $200 million last year—started lurching forward again last week, when the Seattle Department of Transportation asked the council for permission to spend $9 million on design and engineering work necessary to get the project back on track. But the project still faces some bumps in the road. During last week’s transportation committee meeting, council member Mike O’Brien raised questions about how the agency plans to come up with the $65 million now needed to build the project under the new cost estimate, which includes new costs associated with streetcar vehicles that are larger and heavier than anticipated. (The city is also short about $20 million for utility costs associated with the line).

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This morning, city council member Sally Bagshaw added another wrinkle, saying she would place a budget proviso (basically, a clause that withholds funding until certain conditions are met) on future streetcar funding until SDOT completes an analysis of the impacts a downtown streetcar would have on freight and delivery trucks. “This is not the first time—this is about the 100th time that I’ve signaled to SDOT that we need to have this before we start digging up First Avenue,” Bagshaw said. “There are are more and more packages that are being delivered downtown. The trucks are in the way; they don’t have places to stop.”

Streetcars and vehicle traffic come into conflict whenever the two cross paths, which happens frequently in South Lake Union, thanks largely to drivers who block intersections and make it impossible for streetcars to pass. (The South Lake Union streetcar crosses Mercer twice on its 1.3-mile route). A streetcar with dedicated right-of-way like the one proposed along First Avenue would avoid some of these conflicts, but would still have to pass through intersections, making it a potential hindrance to freight traffic to and from the waterfront as well as the growing number of delivery trucks serving downtown homes and office buildings. “This is something that I’ve been asking [from] SDOT for the last five years,” Bagshaw said.

O’Brien’s transportation committee plans to vote on the $9 million allocation on Friday, with the goal of approving the spend next Monday. After that, O’Brien said last week, the council will have to look at “pieces of information that we still don’t know,” including how the city plans to make up the shortfall and how it will fund ongoing streetcar operating costs.

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