Category: Taxes

Democrats in Olympia Pursue Sweeping Agenda to Reverse Regressive Tax Structure

On the docket this year: A carbon tax, plus a wealth tax, changes to the estate tax, and a sweetened beverage tax.

by Leo Brine

Progressive legislators have been unleashing a slew of tax legislation this session, with bills like the capital gains tax (SB 5096) and the working families tax exemption (HB 1297) grabbing headlines after historic floor votes on both earlier month.

And they have more cued up. Legislators typically pass tax and revenue bills late in the session as a means of funding the budget, but this year Democrats have a much bigger agenda: They want to pass tax legislation that reforms how the budget is actually funded. They plan to create new taxes on carbon-dioxide emissions, extreme wealth, data collection, and more this year.

Ingeniously flipping the script on Republicans who say that sudden rosy revenue forecasts prove our tax system doesn’t need reform, progressives say the latest revenue forecast actually highlights the volatility of Washington’s current tax structure. In June, the state forecast a nearly $9 billion revenue shortfall. However, a sequence of higher forecasts based on an uptick in retail sales tax revenue between September and March nearly re-balanced the budget.

Ingeniously flipping the script on Republicans who say sudden rosy revenue forecasts prove our tax system doesn’t need reform, progressives say the budget turnaround is being funded on the backs of low-income residents who pay a disproportionate amount of their incomes in regressive sales taxes.

Seizing on the volatility argument, and noting that the turnaround is being funded largely on the backs of low-income residents who pay a disproportionate amount of their incomes in regressive sales taxes, Democrats are pushing a sweeping tax reform agenda.

At the March 17 revenue forecast meeting, House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the revenue increase was not a reason to change course on new progressive tax legislation. “I think we have to be quite concerned about ongoing stability of our revenue system. I think that today’s forecast and other economic news will affect our discussion, but I don’t see a wholesale change in discussion [around tax legislation] in the legislature,” he said.

Wealth Tax

One of the most daring pieces of progressive legislation is the wealth tax bill (HB 1406). Sponsored by House Finance Committee chair Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), the bill proposes a 1 percent tax on worldwide “intangible financial assets of more than $1 billion.” Intangible assets include cash, stocks, bonds, pension funds and ownership in revenue-generating partnerships such as businesses. (In contrast, tangible and intangible personal property includes things like as homes, farm equipment and federal and state bonds.) The bill is currently in the house finance committee, where it is awaiting an executive session.

The Department of Revenue estimates the tax will generate an additional $2.5 billion in annual revenue for the state.

Rep. Frame surmises Bezos is already claiming residency in a different state.

One of the main critiques of the bill, along with other bills aimed at taxing the rich, is that people like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates  could just leave the state and live elsewhere. Rep. Frame said she is not worried about this. Frame told GeekWire in February that based on the DOR revenue predictions, she believes Bezos is already claiming residency in a different state. As for Gates, whose father campaigned for an income tax a decade ago, Frame believes he is too invested in his home state to leave.

Carbon Tax

The legislature is working on several environmental bills this session, including two bills aimed at curbing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. The Senate Ways and Means committee currently has SB 5126 scheduled for executive committee hearings, while SB 5373 remains in the Environment, Energy & Technology committee waiting for an executive session.

Continue reading “Democrats in Olympia Pursue Sweeping Agenda to Reverse Regressive Tax Structure”

Ballot Measure Would Reinstate Sweeps, Harrell Joins Mayor’s Race, and Republicans Hedge Bets on Capital Gains

The look on mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell’s face when KOMO TV’s Jonathan Choe asked how he felt about Black-on-Asian crime, given that “you’re biracial, your mother is Japanese American and your dad’s Black”

1. After months of will-he-won’t-he speculation, three-term former city council member Bruce Harrell announced Tuesday that he’s running for mayor. As a well-known political figure who will likely have support from the Seattle business community, Harrell joins the ranks of instant frontrunners in the race, which also includes current city council president Lorena González, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk, South East Effective Development director Lance Randall, and city council aide Andrew Grant Houston.

At a press conference outside Garfield High School, his alma mater, Harrell said he would seek public-private partnerships to fund investments in solutions to homelessness, clean up city parks where unsheltered people have taken long-term refuge during the pandemic, and work to “reimagine” the city’s police force rather than defunding it.

In a conversation with Fizz after the announcement, Harrell said the biggest problem at city hall, Harrell said, is a “lack of relationships”—between the mayor and council, the council and departments, and with outside organizations like Seattle Public Schools.

True to his past campaigns (in addition to serving three terms on the council, Harrell ran for mayor in 2013, receiving 15 percent of the primary vote), Harrell focused on style, more than policy, in our conversation. “Quite honestly, I am attracted to a situation that requires rebuilding,” Harrell said. “It’s sort of easy to hop into a leadership position when an organization is going smoothly and is high-performing. It’s a different skill set for someone to consciously jump into a situation that is plagued with dysfunction, and that doesn’t bother me.”

But he did have a few specific policy prescriptions. He said he would work to revitalize neighborhoods including, but not limited to, downtown, by promoting not just brick and mortar businesses but partnerships between small businesses (particularly women- and minority-owned) and larger ones—a kind of “business-to-business on steroids” approach to saving local businesses. “The first thing we must learn how to do is recycle our money within the economy by making sure the relationship between small businesses and big business is intact,” Harrell said.

He also said he would propose divvying up $10 million between the seven council districts so that the council member from each geographic area could determine, through conversations in that community, what local priorities should be funded. Asked how this would differ from the ongoing participatory budgeting process, which is supposed to determine how the city will spend $30 million set aside for alternatives to policing last year, Harrell said, “I think participatory budgeting is a step in the right direction, but what it still doesn’t do, I think, is have each council member directly accountable to their particular constituents in their community.”

Harrell, who grew up in the Central District and often talks about his deep roots in Seattle, provided more details about his platform in an “open letter” Tuesday morning.

2. Another former city council member, Tim Burgess, is preparing to propose a ballot measure that would change Seattle’s constitution (known as the city charter) by directing the city’s Human Services Department to fund mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment, expand access to shelter, and “collaboratively work with other City departments to ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.”

The proposal would mandate (but not fund) new shelter and services and reinstate sweeps, including the removal of encampments that pose a “public health or safety risk,” a term that is not defined and would be subject to interpretation.

The proposal does not appear to include a funding plan.

The charter amendment would require HSD to create a plan to provide services to people living unsheltered (along with individual written “service plans” for every person living unsheltered in the city) and would “require the cleaning and removal of unauthorized encampments in public spaces as these services are available.” In addition, any encampment that poses “a public health or safety risk may be immediately removed,” the proposed amendment says.

In plain language, the proposal would mandate (but not fund) new shelter and services and reinstate sweeps, including the removal of encampments that pose a “public health or safety risk,” a term that is not defined and would be subject to interpretation.

It also directs HSD to work with prosecutors, police, and public defenders to create new “diversion” programs for people who commit non-violent offenses; these programs would include unspecificed “treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.”

Burgess did not respond to a request for comment.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

To place a charter amendment on the ballot, proponents must get signatures from as many registered voters as 15 percent of the turnout in the most recent mayoral election, or about 33,000 people. After that, the city council can choose to enact the amendment, put it on the ballot, or add their own alternative to the mix. This last scenario played out in 2014, when the council proposed an alternative to a preschool initiative that opponents said gave too much power to unions. The council’s winning alternative was sponsored by Tim Burgess.

3. Despite claiming the Democrats’ capital gains tax legislation (SB-5096) would put an unconstitutional law in place, Republicans are worried that if it passes, taking the law to the Supreme Court will backfire and open the door for an income tax.

Luckily for the Republicans, moderate Democratic Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) added an amendment to the capital gains tax during  the Senate vote that stripped the bill of its emergency clause and took out language saying that the revenue from the legislation is tied to government functions. Legislation with an emergency clause, or legislation that includes language saying it’s necessary to support the functioning of state government, can’t be overturned by voter referendum. The removal of both sections clearly signals that opponents prefer to leave the bill open to a statewide referendum, rather than battling over its legality in court. Continue reading “Ballot Measure Would Reinstate Sweeps, Harrell Joins Mayor’s Race, and Republicans Hedge Bets on Capital Gains”

House Finance Committee Hears Testimony on Historic Capital Gains Tax Legislation

By Leo Brine

On Monday morning, the House Finance Committee took up Sen. June Robinson’s (D-38, Everett) historic capital gains tax legislation, which the Democratic-controlled Senate passed two weekends ago on March 6.

During the committee meeting, tech industry lobbyists and conservatives tried to slow the bill’s momentum. Tech lobbyists said the legislation, which calls for a 7 percent tax on capital gains of more than $250,000, would cause small tech startups to flee the state. Republicans chimed in, saying the tax wouldn’t merely drive away business, but it would drive away wealthy people and even the tech industry as a whole.

Specifically, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) testified that the tax will harm small tech-startups’ ability to recruit employees because stock options (which count as capital gains) would likely be taxed when the employee sells them.

According to the WTIA, stock options are a “primary compensation strategy” for startups. By offering stock options, startups can pay their employees lower salaries while allowing them to buy shares of their employer’s company at a low fixed price. Employees can then sell their shares when the company goes public or is bought out.

Molly Jones, vice president of government affairs for WTIA, implied that tech startups would pack up and head out of Washington if the tax passed. “We are concerned that passage of the capital gains tax will further drive founders, startups, jobs and future drivers of employment and economic growth out of our state,” she said. Her association polled startup members and found, she said somewhat obliquely, that 32 percent were “evaluating whether to relocate their headquarters.” She did say specifically that over 10 percent had already begun looking outside of Washington.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Republicans piled on, saying the bill will drive the state’s wealthiest to uproot and live elsewhere. They also said the tax will eventually start to affect more than the minuscule 0.23 percent of Washington residents the Democrats estimate would be impacted by the tax.

Republicans also foreshadowed their strategy going forward if the Washington State Supreme Court eventually takes up the bill, by labeling it an unconstitutional “income tax” and comparing it to previously failed income and graduated income tax bills.

House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), who told PubliCola last week that the bill is a priority, kept the discussion moving; 100 people signed up to testify, though only 28 spoke. Nearly 4,000 people signed their names into the legislative record, with more than half, 2,380, signing in support.

One Seattle tech worker, Kevin Litwack, who has received stock options in the past, contradicted the spokespeople for his industry by testifying in support of the bill. “Of course, the tech industry pays well,” he said, “but we don’t need a vast fortune.” Litwack said his peers who view taxes as an obstacle to amassing huge amounts of wealth may “take their money and run,” but “even more will come to replace them, drawn by the values of community and shared responsibility that our state embodies. We, not those purely chasing wealth, are the ones you should want here to build Washington’s future.”

None of the Democratic legislators on the committee spoke to the removal of an emergency clause from the bill that would have put the tax in place immediately and protected the bill from voter referendum. Moderate Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) sponsored and passed an amendment on the Senate side that removed the clause, irking progressives such as Seattle State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle).

The bill will head to a finance committee executive session for a vote “soon,” Rep. Frame’s office told PubliCola. The Democrats have an 11-6 majority on the committee. From there it would go to the House floor, where the Democrats are also in control.

Democratic State Senate Sends Capital Gains Tax to House

State Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett)

by Leo Brine

For the first time in Washington state history, state legislators had a floor vote on a long-proposed capital gains tax. Even more novel: They passed it.

As expected, on Saturday, March 6, the Senate Democrats, led by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett) pushed SB 5096 through the senate. The bill passed 25 to 24 with most of the Democratic majority, including all of Seattle’s delegation, voting for it. The entire Republican caucus, along with moderate Democratic Senators Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), Annette Cleveland (D-49, Vancouver) and Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch), voted against the bill. A capital gains tax has been part of Governor Jay Inslee’s biennial budget proposals since 2014 and has appeared in every biennial budget proposal since.

The bill proposes a 7 percent tax on capital gains—profits from the sale of stocks, bonds and other long-term assets—over $250,000; the Washington State Department of Revenue estimates that fewer than 20,000 people statewide will be subject to the tax. The bill would take effect in 2022 and an amendment adopted Saturday requires the threshold amount to be adjusted for inflation annually.

The tax excludes capital gains from the sale of real estate, farming and ranching livestock, certain agricultural land sales, timber and timberlands and retirement accounts.

After debating 19 amendments, the senate adopted three, including one that irks progressives; the amendment, inserted in the bill by centrist Sen. Steve Hobbs, struck down the emergency clause that would have protected the bill against a voter referendum.

The other two amendments were proposed by bill sponsor Robinson and another by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Lynnwood), respectively.

At most 18,000 people or, roughly 0.24 percent of Washingtonians, will have to pay this tax.

Robinson’s amendment directs the first $350 million collected per fiscal year from the tax to go into the state’s Education Legacy Trust account with the following $100 million going into the state’s general fund. Any more collected would go into a “Taxpayer Relief Account,” which will fund tax breaks for low-income Washingtonians.

Democrats are using the revenue from the capital gains tax to fund another bill the Democratic senate recently passed, a child care bill aimed at expanding affordable child care and early childhood development programs in the state. Democrats say the pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated the issue of unaffordable child care.

That’s certainly good scripting from the Democrats, especially if the legislation goes to a referendum. And there’s no question the pandemic has dramatized inequities in child care. But the pandemic has highlighted all kinds of systemic inequities.

Sen. Liias’ amendment stops people from being taxed twice on real estate sales. Washington’s real estate excise tax (REET) taxes the sale of all real property. To prevent the taxes from stacking, the amendment specifies transactions subject to REET would not also be subject to the capital gains tax.

The most significant amendment, however, was Hobbs’ amendment to strip the emergency clause out of the bill. Hobbs, a moderate Democrat who emerged a decade ago as a sometimes GOP ally during the Republicans’ successful efforts to wrest control from the majority Democrats, said there was no need for an emergency clause; the clause would have put the tax into effect immediately.

There was no floor debate over Hobbs’ amendment. Continue reading “Democratic State Senate Sends Capital Gains Tax to House”

Capital Gains Tax, Stalled in Previous Sessions, Moves Forward

By Shauna Sowersby

As another major cutoff date in the Washington State Legislature approaches, the once-controversial capital gains tax appears to have more momentum this year than it has since the idea was introduced nearly a decade ago. 

The bill, which is headed for a likely Senate vote today, would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains—profits on the sale of assets such as stocks—over $250,000.

Legislators have until March 9 to pass the proposed capital gains legislation out of the Senate where it was originally introduced. A variety of factors have changed the prospects for a capital gains tax since similar  measures were initially floated in 2015.

The most obvious factor: the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-3, Spokane), tacking to Democrats’ agenda, told PubliCola the bill has more momentum this year than he has seen in previous years for two reasons: uneven economic recovery and a child care crisis that has been “revealed and exacerbated” by the pandemic.

In order to deal with those issues, Billig said, legislators have two goals in mind. First make the tax system more fair. And second: “increase support for families and workers with child care expenses.”

Each year, the first $350 million in revenues from the tax would go into the Education Legacy Trust Account, which would help support schools and access to education. The rest of the anticipated revenue would be put into a new Taxpayer Relief Account. 

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

An updated fiscal note issued by the Office of Financial Management reported that only about 8,000 taxpayers would pay capital gains taxes. Those who would owe the tax would have their first taxes due in 2023, producing estimated revenues of more than $522 million, with revenues expected to climb to more than $609 million by 2027.  

There could be other reasons the bill has more support now than in the past. 

A staffer for the Senate Democrats believes there’s been a shift in narrative. The pandemic has laid bare the class divide in the state, the Democratic source said, and Washington state residents have begun to realize the upside-down tax structure is unfair for the working and middle class.

Small business owners are speaking up. During a press conference earlier in the week, Karla Esquivel, owner of the Andaluz boutique in Columbia City, added that the tax would help customers because fixing the regressive tax code would allow them to ultimately have more spending money, which in turn would be beneficial to local businesses.

Another reason the bill actually has a chance to pass the Senate—historically, the place where it hits the skids—is because Democrats have control of the chamber, which was not the case until 2017. Moreover, in the past, some Democrats such as Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) have been against the capital gains tax. The balance appears to have shifted somewhat, although not entirely. With the debate front and center, some of those Democrats who still find themselves on the fence may have a harder time avoiding the issue.
Continue reading “Capital Gains Tax, Stalled in Previous Sessions, Moves Forward”

Capital Gains Tax Opponents Received Taxpayer-Funded Aid

By Shauna Sowersby

Founders and CEOs from more than 120 Washington businesses that are members of the Washington Technology Industry Association recently sent a letter to state senators encouraging a “no” vote on SB 5096, a bill that would impose a 7 percent tax on the sale of long-term capital assets such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds valued at over $250,000.

While rejecting ideas for raising progressive revenue on a state level, at least 58 of the companies whose leaders signed the letter received taxpayer-funded benefits through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Public records reveal that at least 58 of those companies who signed the letter received nearly $34 million in funding from PPP loans, a program established by the federal CARES Act meant to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

Public records reveal that companies such as ExtraHop Networks, FlyHomes, Widenet, and Neal Analytics received more than $1 million each from the program. Software publisher ExtraHop, which is headquartered in Seattle, received nearly $10 million in assistance, for example. ExtraHop did not respond to an email seeking comment. Several other companies whose leaders signed the anti-capital gains tax letter received over $1 million in loans, although many recipients were under that threshold. 

Another corporation that benefited from the federal loans also held a public fundraiser that raised $7.6 million. AstrumU, a Kirkland business that specializes in custom computer programming services, received nearly $600,000 from the PPP prior to the multi-million dollar fundraiser. 

Businesses that use their PPP loans as outlined by the Small Business Administration can have their loans forgiven.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

 

The WTIA argued in their letter to the senate that “a capital gains tax would penalize founders and their employees during an already unprecedented period.” Additionally, they added, “taxing those gains penalizes employees and encourages founders to form their companies in other states, or to relocate to states that do not have a capital gains tax.”

Only nine states including Washington do not have a capital gains tax.

Political think tank Civic Ventures argued in a response letter to the WTIA that their argument is “absurd,” stating that “California has the highest capital gains tax rate of any state in the country, vastly higher than what SB 5096 proposes, and has more tech start-ups than any other state.” (Full disclosure: Civic Ventures is one of PubliCola’s financial supporters).

Sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), the first $350 million in revenue raised by the tax would be put into the Education Legacy Trust Account to fund education in the state, while the remainder would be added to a new Taxpayer Relief Account. The highly debated bill is currently awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.

Democrats’ Capital Gains Tax Passes First Legislative Hurdle

By Shauna Sowersby

Democrats have proposed several bills this session aimed at taxing the richest Washingtonians, and they passed one of them, a capital gains tax, out of the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Feb. 16, meeting an early session deadline. You can never count out fiscal bills in the state legislature, so some of the other bills, including a wealth tax, could factor in later in the session, but the capital gains tax, SB 5096, now has some momentum.

The bill is being sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), at the request of the state Office of Financial Management. Robinson is the Vice Chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on profits of more than $250,000 that result from the sale of certain assets, including stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Unlike a similar capital gains tax that was introduced in the House, Robinson’s version would exclude real estate sales. Other types of capital assets including retirement accounts, timber and certain types of agricultural land would be excluded as well. 

Wealthy households in the state currently only pay about 3 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest pay more than 17 percent.

Scott Merriman, a legislative liaison for OFM, noted that the measure is a way to balance Washington’s tax code, which is one of the most regressive in the country. In addition to having no state income tax, Washington is one of just nine states that does not have a capital gains tax. Because revenue in the state is heavily dependent on property tax and sales tax, wealthy households in the state currently only pay about 3 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest pay more than 17 percent, according to a 2018 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. 

“This bill is a key part of helping to provide the resources to support the proposed expenditures in the budget for your consideration,” Merriman told the committee.

In Robinson’s bill, $350 million of the yearly revenue from the capital gains tax would go towards the state Education Legacy Trust Account, which would help fund education. The rest, an estimated $200 million, would be put into a new account called the Taxpayer Relief Account, whose exact purpose legislators have not determined.  Continue reading “Democrats’ Capital Gains Tax Passes First Legislative Hurdle”

Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down

1. Prior to her State of the City remarks earlier this week, Mayor Jenny Durkan made a hot-mic comment deriding Council President (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González; the comment came during some apparent technical difficulties immediately before the livestreamed speech.

“Slow down a little bit, please,” Durkan says to someone off camera, apparently referring to her remarks on the screen in front of her. “There’s, like, all sorts of shit gone now,” she continues, laughing. “We’ll just go to the top and I’m going to, like, do the best I can.”

“If it was easy,” Durkan continues, “it’d be Lorena’s rebuttal.”

Durkan then proceeded to deliver a State of the City speech that clocked in at just over six minutes—the shortest, by far, in recent memory.

Per custom, Council President González, who announced she’s running for mayor after Durkan announced late last year that she would not seek a second term, did provide a response to Durkan’s State of the City speech. However, far from criticizing the mayor or her comments,  González actually thanked Durkan and city employees for “working hard to keep our City government running smoothly every day since the pandemic first hit our region a year ago.”

During a Town Hall Seattle forum on women in politics on Wednesday night, Durkan said she decided not to run for a second term, in large part, because if she stayed in the race her opponents would “feel like they have to be oppositional,” even if they agree with her, “because they’re running against me or supporting an opponent.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “that was my job: Doing what was right for the city.”

Despite Durkan’s insistence that running for reelection during a crisis would elevate politics over what’s “right for the city,” campaigning for office while running the city isn’t unprecedented or irresponsible. In fact, it’s a standard part of a mayor’s job description.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess and SoDo Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman have formed a political action committee to support an initiative related to drug use, homelessness, and behavioral health in Seattle. The new PAC, called Seattle Cares, has received an initial $15,000 contribution from the Downtown Seattle Association. Last election cycle, Burgess formed a PAC with the similarly anodyne name People for Seattle, which worked to defeat council members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant and to oppose then-candidate Tammy Morales.

Although the committee has not filed initiative language yet, clues can be found in a poll PubliCola reported on earlier this month, which asked respondents about their support for a ballot measure that would give police additional tools to remove homeless people from public spaces, apparently in combination with some kind of behavioral health and addiction treatment funding.

The poll asked respondents their opinion of a Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure, according to the poll, would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments across Seattle until the city council eliminated the team in last year’s budget.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

It’s unclear where the funds for the measure would come from or what kind of “behavioral health” and addiction services would be offered to people experiencing homelessness. Supporters of encampment sweeps, quoted in media such as KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” series, often tout non-evidence-based approaches such as involuntary treatment for people with addiction. Burgess said Thursday that the official committee filing “was meant to comply with legal requirements but we are still debating and crafting what we might do, if anything.”

3. Speaking of polls, another poll in the field this month—this one funded by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21— asked about a potential city policy that would impose a surcharge on medical marijuana, specifically, to fund training and certification for people who sell cannabis products. The poll framed the new certification program as an opportunity for professional growth and a way of promoting equity among cannabis retailers, and tested a message positioning the surcharge as a way to fund improved service and support for medical marijuana consumers. Continue reading “Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession

Let’s start out by stating the obvious: Barring a miracle, the “Amazon Tax” proposed by Seattle council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales will not become law in its current form. The bill, which the council will continue discussing into next month, would slap a 1.3 percent payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in payroll expenses, raising more than $500 million a year from about 800 Seattle companies.

Sawant and Morales decided to designate the bill as an “emergency,” which makes it invulnerable to a future voter referendum; the tradeoff is that they need 7 votes for approval, plus the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, since the city charter requires mayoral approval of all emergency legislation. In other words, even if Morales and Sawant got five other council members on board—unlikely, if comments at Wednesday’s budget committee from council members who are ordinarily sympathetic to tax-the-rich arguments are any indication—the mayor could simply let the proposal die without a formal veto. Durkan fought Sawant’s last effort to “tax Amazon,” a $275-per-employee tax on employees of companies with gross receipts of more than $20 million, and is implacably opposed to this one as well.

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There is also some question whether the proposal complies with an emergency order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, and extended this week, barring public agencies from adopting or discussing legislation unless it’s “routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.”

Despite all that, it’s still worth taking a look at the legislation, which dwarfs the “head tax” the council passed in 2018, then overturned, by a factor of more than ten. What would happen if, against all apparent odds, the bill were to pass in its current form?

In its first year, 2020, the legislation would fund cash payments of $2,000 over four months to 100,000 low-income Seattle residents to respond to the COVID crisis. (This is the part of the bill most obviously compliant with Inslee’s order). Because revenues from the tax wouldn’t be available until 2021, the bill would fund these checks by taking a short-term loan from six city funds that, according to a companion bill, have “sufficient cash” to contribute up to $50 million each. Those funds would be paid back in 2021, plus $5 million interest.

From then on, assuming all the assumptions that went into the proposal remain correct, the tax would pump more than $500 million a year into funding for “social housing” for people making between 0 and 100 percent of the Seattle median income, operational support for permanent supportive housing, and funding to implement the Green New Deal, which includes strategies like weatherization and converting buildings from gas to electric heat. The amount of funding from the tax would be less, of course, if the number of businesses spending more than $7 million annually on payroll declined because of the recession.

Even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor.

The $200 million “interfund loan” would come from six voter-approved levies and taxing districts, including the Move Seattle levy; the Families and Education Levy; the Seattle Parks District; and the Library Levy. Some of these funds do have “sufficient cash” to give up $50 million in the short term, but it’s worth taking a look at why that is, and how this might impact their ability to fund promised projects.

The Low Income Housing Fund, which receives money from the Housing Levy and payments from developers through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, has more than $146 million on hand because property taxes have continued to flow in to fund future projects that are not yet off the ground. That money is in the city’s “bank,” but it’s already spoken for. Other funds, such as the Library Levy Fund, the Move Seattle Fund, and the Parks District Fund, have significantly less than $50 million lying around. The Parks District fund, in fact, is actually in the red; the 2020 budget makes up a $6 million shortfall with an interfund loan, to be repaid as more revenues come in. Some of these funds simply aren’t that big to begin with—the library levy, for example, is supposed to raise just over $200 million, total, over seven years,

None of that might matter if the $200 million could be repaid in just one year as proposed. But even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor. If funding from the tax didn’t come through quickly, or ever, it’s unclear how the $200 million would be repaid. If, say, the Library Levy found itself short $50 million, that could significantly impact the library’s ability to provide services promised to voters—especially as the recession eats into the city’s tax base.

There are also other interests competing for that money. As city budget director Ben Noble noted in his grim revenue forecast presentation Wednesday, the city may have to dip into some of the dedicated levy funds to pay for basic services—using the parks levy to fund basic maintenance instead of new capital projects, for example. “If the base levels of funding for which the levies were intended to be additive are no longer feasible, the question is whether it would make sense to use the levy funds for operational purposes,” Noble told the council Wednesday. Continue reading “Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession”