Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” Meeting May Be a Solo Affair

Council member Kshama Sawant’s rule-violating council committee meeting/online rally Thursday evening is looking more and more like it will be a solo affair: Tammy Morales, the co-sponsor of Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” legislation, will not attend.

Sawant decided to take up the legislation in her Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee in violation of council rules that say legislation can only be heard in the committee to which it was referred. (In this case, that’s the budget committee). She’s holding an online meeting on Thursday, which attorneys for the city and state say is a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order barring online meetings on non-COVID matters. And her meeting will not have a quorum, which is a third violation: Council rules adopted this year require a minimum of three committee members to hold any committee meeting.

On Monday, Sawant rejected all these arguments, telling colleagues during the council’s weekly briefing that she considered them “legally unsupportable” and in violation of “common sense.”

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Sawant’s proposal would increase payroll taxes on the top-grossing 800 businesses in the city, raising an estimated $500 million a year for low-income housing. By borrowing from existing funds that are dedicated to other purposes, it would have also provided $200 million up front to pay for COVID-19 stimulus checks to low-income people. 

Although an emergency declaration by Gov. Jay Inslee’s bars online meetings on non-COVID matters, Sawant argued that her bill qualified as a response to the pandemic, because of the up-front payments and the fact that housing is an ongoing emergency. The city attorney and state attorney general disagreed, as did council president Lorena González, who took it off the council agenda until the governor lifts the order, budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, former assistant city attorney-turned-council member Andrew Lewis, and renters’ rights committee member Debora Juarez.

Morales’ office did not provide a reason for her decision not to participate in the hearing in Sawant’s committee, although the city attorney’s office has reportedly advised council members that participating in meetings that violate Inslee’s order could open them up to personal legal liability. Lewis and Mosqueda have both said publicly that they will not attend, and Juarez confirmed today that she won’t be there, either. Pedersen did not immediately respond to an email asking whether he will join the meeting, but even if he did—a long shot, since he opposes the underlying legislation—the committee would not have a quorum.

Sawant could decide to limit the legislation to the part that responds directly to the COVID emergency—the $200 million fund for immediate direct payments to low-income people, which would be funded by borrowing from the city against future tax proceeds. However, that would not allow for an ongoing tax after the crisis is over, which is the main point of the “tax Amazon” legislation.

There are two other plausible endgames. First, the council could take it up through the normal process once the governor lifts his order. Sawant is busy burning bridges left and right, accusing colleagues who are allies on this issue, like Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold, of worshiping at the altar of “big business,” so that possibility is dimming. Second, tax supporters could put the proposal up to a citywide vote. That would require them to gather signatures in person—or, as Kevin Schofield has pointed out, rewrite the city charter to allow online signatures, a move that would itself require a public vote.