Taxation representation

So Call It a Commuter Tax

Nickels, Conlin, and Burgess want to repeal an unpopular green-minded tax. But maybe it just needs rebranding.

By Eric Scigliano June 23, 2009

It’s campaign time, and the votergenic tax cuts have started flying. Today Mayor Greg Nickels, who’s up for reelection and keeping mum about shopping bags, urged repealing Seattle’s employee hours tax, aka the "head tax," which charges downtown employers $25 per worker per year to fund transportation projects. Tim Burgess and Richard Conlin, two city councilmembers who opted not to run against Nickels and so are welcome to share the limelight, joined him in the proposal.

At first glance the logic’s impeccable: The tax, instituted as part of a transportation package in booming 2006, discourages employers from creating jobs, something the city very much wants to encourage. But wait. Is $25—two or three hours’ entry-level wage—a serious disincentive to hiring someone? Any data on that, or just grumbles from a few businesses? Maybe this is actually a problem of branding, not taxing. This “employee tax” actually only taxes those who drive solo to work; employees who walk, pedal, carpool, or ride transit are exempt. So it’s also an incentive to behavior the city very much wants to encourage. Maybe it would be more popular if it were called a commuter tax. Or even road hog tax.

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