Nelson, Pedersen Vote to Reject City Budget Because It Doesn’t Fund Everything They Want

Councilmember Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson
Seattle City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen voted against the city council’s amended 2023-2024 budget proposal at a council budget committee meeting Monday, joining socialist Kshama Sawant—who votes against the budget every year—in an ideologically split three-vote minority. The budget, which goes to the full council for a final vote tomorrow, requires a six-vote majority to pass; if even one more council member sided with Nelson, Pedersen, and Sawant, the entire budget would fail.

Nelson and Pedersen, who frequently formed a two-vote mini-bloc during the council’s budget deliberations, explained their decision in similar terms: They couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fully fund Harrell’s public safety priorities. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that, I believe, fails to learn from recent public policy mistakes on public safety and fall short on public safety for a third year in a row,” Pedersen said.

That argument would hold more water if the council had proposed actually cutting SPD’s budget. Instead, the council fully funded SPD’s (and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s) entire hiring plan, and used savings from vacant SPD positions to provide the department with an additional $17 million a year to pay for, among other things, the recruitment and retention proposals Nelson and Pedersen have supported. No other department received this kind of kid-gloves treatment; in fact, many departments face dramatic cuts next year.

The council’s budget also returns the city’s parking enforcement division to SPD, another one of Harrell’s top budget priorities.

“Minor reductions [to proposed new SPD programs] are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”—City Councilmember Lisa Herbold

In contrast to previous years, such as 2020, it’s virtually impossible to make the argument that the council didn’t work with the mayor to craft a budget that retains most of what he wanted—a point Councilmember Lisa Herbold made when she accused her two colleagues of contributing to a “false narrative” about public safety.

“It’s normal to debate budget issues,” Herbold said. “But these false narratives don’t make us safer.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the mayor’s proposed budget is included in this balancing package,” Herbold continued. “SPD hiring is fully funded, and they’ve begun to show some promising trends. Minor reductions to the remaining 1 percent of the budget”—the elimination of new programs, such as a gunfire surveillance system and a marketing consultant—”are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”

Eliminating these new programs from next year’s budget helped the council close a late-breaking general-fund budget shortfall of $4.5 million, on top of the $141 million shortfall announced earlier this year.

Nelson and Pedersen also objected to the council’s decision to eliminate, or abrogate, 80 of the 240 SPD positions that are currently sitting vacant; these vacant positions, which the city will use to augment the budget and fund new SPD spending next year, receive funding every budget cycle. The council’s budget will retain funding for at least 160 of these “ghost” positions going forward, and can add more positions in the future if SPD hiring suddenly skyrockets past the department’s own rather optimistic projections. Nonetheless, both Pedersen and Nelson have characterized this as an example of “defunding” the police. 

Nelson also criticized the council for failing to fund an expansion of the city’s graffiti abatement program and for moving homeless outreach workers out of Harrell’s new Unified Care Team (which the council fully funded) and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

The two council members’ votes against the budget seem even less justified when you consider the concessions the rest of the council made to fund their priorities. 

Nelson, for example, got unanimous approval for a last-minute amendment that commits the city to spend some of the proceeds from a recent settlement with opioid distributors on abstinence-based rehab, marking the city’s first foray into the kind of public health decisions that are usually made by King County’s public health department.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale.

In an op/ed earlier this year, Nelson expressed her view that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of suboxone (an opioid) to treat opiate addiction, is “not aimed at long-term recovery.” This is the opposite of scientific consensus (the federal government’s substance abuse agency, for example, has a far more expansive definition of recovery that embraces long-term medication), but in line with Nelson’s general opposition to harm reduction programs— like the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which provide case management and housing to people with addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Pedersen, meanwhile, managed to wrangle $3.5 million a year for bridge maintenance out of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District tax, which is supposed to fund transit, by arguing that because buses and bikes also use bridges, funding for bridges is a transit investment. That amendment passed 5-4—a major win for Pedersen at the expense of future transit projects.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale. Time will tell if she continues down this all-or-nothing path.

Pedersen, in contrast, has apparently had a dramatic change of heart. Just two years ago, Pedersen wrote in a Seattle Times op/ed that it would be irresponsible for him to vote against the 2020 budget—which included far more dramatic changes than this year’s plan—just because he didn’t like everything that was in it.

“People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done,” Pedersen wrote. “No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.”

“And to my constituents who ask, ‘Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?,” Pedersen concluded,
“I didn’t. She voted No.” This year, so did Pedersen.

14 thoughts on “Nelson, Pedersen Vote to Reject City Budget Because It Doesn’t Fund Everything They Want”

  1. Whatever happened to doing what is best for the city as a whole and leave one’s personal biases for another battle?

  2. I’m glad that council members voted their conscience. City government has to start getting behind our police. They were thrown under the bus by all 6 yes voters just two months after all 9 voted unanimously with Jenny Durkan to hire around 160 new officers just prior to the George Floyd riots.
    That’s what caused the mass police exodus –
    Lack of support from city government shown especially clearly by the city council at the time. Alex pedersen was the only no vote on defending police – remember.

  3. Finally, the city is funding substance use treatment. It’s long overdue. King County Public Health has moved too slowly on this and has not pursued a balanced approach. I would love to hear more details but will probably have to wait for another media source to write that up.

    Erica, can you support that view that Nelson has “general opposition” to harm reduction, LEAD and Co-LEAD? In the op-ed you linked, Nelson described harm reduction as “critical services”. Are you referring to her drive for quarterly reports showing outcomes? Oversight is also the position taken by King County councilmember Balducci. Hardly “opposition”.

    Your assertion seems false. “General opposition” is hand-wavy, non-reporting belonging in an opinion piece — here, I would expect some link supporting the claim. Of course this is line with the online activist left in Seattle, who hear the phase “harm reduction is not enough” and can only interpret it uncharitably. If you break out of the bizarre tribalism, you can see harm reduction has basically no response to meth use & that our current approach helps some but is not turning the broader statistics around. It’s not that harm reduction is bad, it’s that it’s 1) good, 2) fashionable, and 3) has taken all the energy from other avenues of support.

    It’s pretty transparent that Erica is on a tear to cast Nelson & Peterson “bad guys” that goes beyond the straightforward facts. Her website, and that’s fine, but it’s not persuasive.

    Related to that advocacy, the larger story is that moderates are positioning the next election to be a choice election. The moderate/progressive divide in urban politics is hotter than it was in years past, so CMs are making a clear contrast by voting “no”. Sorry, but you can’t shame people into voting for a budget after voting down most of their amendments. It’s politics.

    There were “public safety” cuts from the Harrel proposal beyond the SPD positions, which I agree are reasonable to bank savings from.

    I emailed the council about this proposal and the only one to reply was Teresa Mosqueda. While I disagree with her on many details, I respect her work ethic and her willingness to explain her decisions to constituents.

    1. No matter what the “research” shows N.A and A.A. are by far the most effective treatment paths for most addicts, (and yes, I understand they don’t work for everyone). Almost all the new results on the new harm reduction type treatment are published by universities and researchers funded by drug companies selling medication. Treating addiction with medication has been around forever– Schick Shadel treatment centers have made millions and millions selling Counter Conditioning (a.k.a., Aversion Therapy) staring in like, 1940?. Does it work? Hard to tell because there’s no way to believe the Schick Shadel data. I’ll bet today’s “harm reduction though medication” ends up just like the 1950’s Counter Conditioning (a.k.a., Aversion Therapy) in a decade or so. I think we’ll see a class action lawsuit against Indivior (the manufacturer of Suboxone) for being ineffective. The research company that invented Suboxone (Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals) sold the manufacturing rights and shielded themselves from lawsuits in same way the Purdue Pharma LP (the Slacker family) did for oxycodone. But what do I know? I wouldn’t trust my life to Big Pharma but everybody isn’t like me.

  4. One might think that what is best for the city at large vs. self-created interests would prevail.

    1. And this budget is going pass easily, with Sawant being the only Councilperson to vote against it in the end, I’d guess, but maybe Nelson holds out to flex a little from the center? Much of this postering is about setting up the battle lines for the next election, not the current budget. Harrell and his supporters will try to move the City Council more towards the center next election. I’d guess the chances of that happening are pretty good, because that weasel Petersen has shifted to the right. He’s a little brown noser who’ll do whatever it takes to stay in power…. but his team of handlers certainly understand the winds of political change in the Emerald City.

      This last vote was pure political theater…. I think Publicola is miffed because Nelson is stealing Sawant’s thunder.

  5. I suggest leaving out politics from city council meetings and that all council members take a class on pragmatic thinking.

    1. That’s ridiculous. The the real world there are competing priorities in a large city. Clearly what you think of as “pragmatic thinking” has obscured from your view that “politics ” is the word that means working out those competing priories in public, where they belong.

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