By Erica C. Barnett
The Seattle City Council voted to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of legislation to provide $86 million in immediate economic relief to renters, small businesses, people experiencing homelessness, and other people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, then voted to swap the original bill for a scaled-back version that will spend $57 million instead.
The legislation Durkan vetoed and the replacement ordinance would authorize the use of two city reserve funds to pay for COVID relief, and replenish those funds using proceeds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which kicks in next year. “We are just using a portion of the dollars that we’re collecting, with a certainty that we will be able to replenish the dollars,” council member Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the original legislation, said.
Durkan’s office said the mayor was still “evaluating” the legislation and had not decided yet whether she would veto this bill as well.
The council decided to reduce the size of the relief package, which will be funded by drawing down two city reserve funds, in recognition of a City Budget Office forecast released Monday that increased the size of this year’s projected shortfall by $26 million. Only Kshama Sawant voted against the new relief package, calling it an “austerity” bill that amounted to a huge “budget cut.”
The veto override needed six votes to pass. One potential “no” vote, Debora Juarez, is excused from council all this week; she also missed Monday’s vote to adopt a midyear budget that included cuts to the Seattle Police Department. Andrew Lewis and Alex Pedersen both voted to sustain the mayor’s veto.
Pedersen said he was motivated, in part, by the concern that the city would be forced to lay off workers next year if the council spends too much money now. Lewis said he believed that the only way to “make a deal” with Durkan would be to uphold her veto and spend the next week and a half working “collaboratively” to come up with a proposal the mayor would be willing to support.
“The mayor, from her position, has made clear that she is not going to spend this money,” Lewis said. “She is going to continue to push back until there is a broader accommodation.” The “broader accommodation” Lewis referred to was apparently contingent on the council either letting the mayor’s veto stand without a vote and passing new legislation (which would mean no further discussion of the veto or the original bill) or upholding the mayor’s veto, as several council members made clear in their comments.
Council president Lorena González, for example, said she had spent hours on the phone with the mayor and her staff over the past week trying to come up with a compromise that Durkan would accept, but that Durkan was hung up on making sure that her veto stood. “Unfortunately, we were not able to come up with an agreement because… there was an insistence on the sustainment of the veto before we could agree to a number,” González said. The money, in other words, wasn’t the main issue—the veto was.
In a statement, Durkan said that in “the spirit of the collaboration, I proposed creating a new bill and an agreed spending and priorities plan to ensure the City could actually implement tens of millions of additional assistance in 2020 and 2021, while continuing to have resources to address our growing budget gap and any emergencies. Council chose to reject that proposal and take a different path.”]
Even if she doesn’t veto the legislation, Durkan is under no obligation to actually spend the money the council has allocated. (We covered this fact, and the history of council-mayor budget cooperation, in a recent post about the council’s efforts to eliminate the Navigation Team.)
The legislation recognizes this fact, in a roundabout way, in a new paragraph acknowledging that “direct relief to the community may take time and could result in not expending the full $57 million in 2020. If the full amount is not expended in 2020, the Council is committed to working with the Executive to continue funding these critical COVID-19 relief programs in 2021 and to address newly identified 2020 revenue shortfalls.”