1. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant learned the hard way yesterday that the standard for decorum in the state legislature is not the same as the standard in city council chambers, when state Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) cut her off during a hearing on a proposed state capital gains tax yesterday. Frame is a cosponsor of the legislation, and the prime sponsor on a separate proposal to impose a wealth tax on the richest Washington state residents.
Legislative committees typically hold no more than one public hearing for each bill, and commenters are supposed to restrict their remarks to the legislation on the agenda during the meeting at which they’re testifying.
In her testimony, Sawant mentioned the bill number that was on the agenda before launching into testimony about wealth and income taxes in general, focusing on a theoretical preemption clause in a different bill that hasn’t even been proposed yet—a potential state payroll tax, which some advocates worry could could preempt Seattle’s own JumpStart payroll tax. After about a minute. Frame interrupted, asking Sawant to “keep your comments focused on the bill at hand, please?”
Sawant responded, “It is focused on the bill at hand” and continued reading from her speech about the payroll tax. Frame interrupted two more times as Sawant quoted from a Crosscut article about the payroll tax proposal, accused Frame of “completely suborning the Constitution,” and insisted she had a “Constitutional right” to testify on “every bill that you will talk about focusing on the wealthy and big business.” At that point, Frame cut Sawant’s mic and moved on to the next public commenter.
“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet. It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.” — Washington State Rep. Noel Frame
Sawant posted her remarks later in the day, broken up by a large pink box reading “[Censored from this point on].” The charge of censorship prompted Sawant’s fans to dogpile Frame on social media, calling her a “corporate shill” and worse. (Frame, a Bernie delegate in 2016, does not accept corporate contributions—and, again, is sponsoring measures to tax capital gains and personal wealth.)
Ironically, the city council’s own rules require that people testifying before the council limit their comments to items on the council’s agenda, a rule that admittedly tends to be more honored in the breach.
“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet, and she kept referencing wealth, and I was like, ‘The wealth tax hearing was last week,'” Frame told PubliCola. “It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.”
As for the issue of preemption: The capital gains tax proposal includes a clause explicitly stating that it does not preempt any other taxes.
2. The city opened two cold-weather shelters on Thursday in anticipation of freezing temperatures, bringing the city’s winter-shelter capacity to about 165 beds. (King County opened a men’s only shelter downtown that will serve another 25.)
Emergency shelter unquestionably saves lives, but it’s worth putting these temporary beds into context: The city lags far behind its own revised schedule to open up 300 federally-funded hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness, a plan the mayor’s office unveiled before cold weather had even set in last fall. Those 300 rooms are supposed to serve as a temporary way station for 600 or more unsheltered people, who the city plans to move swiftly into permanent supportive or market-rate housing, freeing up rooms for more unsheltered people.
The mayor’s office and the Human Services Department have been reluctant to release any details about the hotel proposals or even confirm the locations of the hotels, which we’ve reported several times and which the city council has begun discussing openly. The city rejected the Public Defender Association’s proposal to use the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown for an expansion of its successful JustCare hotel-based shelter model because, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the PDA’s proposal was too expensive; the city is now reportedly in conversations with the Low-Income Housing Institute, which also responded to the city’s request for qualifications for hotel-based shelters last year.
So what, exactly, is the holdup? I asked Durkan this during a press conference on the winter weather shelters, and she responded by making a hard pivot back to the winter shelters and responding as if I had asked about them—an odd dodge, in my view, since the context for my question was the fact that 300 more people would be inside and warm right now if the hotel shelters had been opened according to the city’s original schedule.
In response to a followup question, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said, “the City is working to implement the shelter surge program and is in active negotiations with hotels and service providers.” (In addition to the Executive Pacific and potentially LIHI, the Chief Seattle Club plans to open a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown.) “The significant change in weather had us redirect some resources towards emergency weather response but we plan to announce our new partnerships soon.”
Neither council member backed down or gave ground when neighborhood activists tried to goad them (“I can already hear the snarky comments about how it’s called the HOPE Team because you hope they’ll do something!” one man guffawed) and both stayed on message
The delay, which was going on long before yesterday’s cold snap, likely comes down to two issues: Cost and capacity. Every provider who submitted a bid to operate a hotel-based shelter proposed a plan more expensive than the city’s original $17,000-per-bed spending cap. And every provider in the city is stretched thin, as HSD interim director Helen Howell noted in her remarks at Wednesday’s press conference— for example, the city is relying on groups that don’t ordinarily operate emergency shelters, like LIHI, to staff the winter-weather shelters. To run a successful hotel-based shelter program, agencies will either have to hire more staff (which increases) or spread themselves even thinner (which can decrease service quality.)
The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel plan would have entailed moving existing DESC clients from a congregate shelter at Seattle Center rather than taking on a whole new group of residents. The city rejected it as non-responsive because, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, it did not bring a new set of unsheltered people into the shelter system.
3. City council members Andrew Lewis (D1) and Dan Strauss (D6) took questions Wednesday night from members of the Ballard District Council that ranged from (paraphrasing) “Is there anything I can do when I see a homeless person in distress other than call 911?” to (paraphrasing) “How do we as a neighborhood set and implement policy for dealing with homeless people in our unique corner of Seattle?” to (not paraphrasing) what if “you see someone who’s just off of their meds and is just crazed?”
The answers I yelled at my own laptop were “why would you call 911??” and “This is why we elect people!!!” and “DO YOU HAVE A MEDICAL LICENSE???” But Strauss and Lewis are elected officials and I am not for a reason, and they responded, as politely as possible, that people should call 911 for violent crimes in progress, call local outreach workers for everything else, and offer feedback on policy by speaking up at council meetings and in community forums.
Although the questions and demands from “unique” Ballard—one of the least diverse and, yes, wealthiest neighborhoods in the city—haven’t changed much from the ones shouted at former D6 council member Mike O’Brien at an infamous public meeting two years ago, the responses from Strauss and, especially, Lewis gave me some reason for optimism.
Neither council member backed down or gave ground when neighborhood activists tried to goad them (“I can already hear the snarky comments about how it’s called the HOPE Team because you hope they’ll do something!” one man guffawed) and both stayed on message: Sweeping people from one place to another accomplishes nothing, it’s hard to see progress when we invest so little in solutions, and every neighborhood, even Ballard, has to be willing to actually welcome formerly homeless people as neighbors, not intruders.
“One really big thing that horribly did not work was the sweep and removal done in May of Ballard Commons Park,” Lewis said. That sweep, which occurred after sustained pressure from neighborhood activists, scattered people living in the park to smaller encampments throughout the neighborhood. Outreach is important, he added later, but “people experiencing homelessness don’t just vanish into nothing based on outreach. Unless there’s a place to be navigated to, we’re not going to see visible results.”