SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL: Today at noon, council members plan to repeal the head tax (also known as the employee hours tax) less than a month after they unanimously passed it. They were facing an expensive, ugly battle against businesses that heavily lobbied against the tax and started a negative (and successful) campaign to get it on the November ballot. The business coalition's plan was to get city voters to repeal the head tax.
The only two council members who said they'd vote against the repeal bill: Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda. Sawant tweeted that it was a "backroom betrayal" planned over the weekend without notifying her office or activists who pressed hard for the tax. Mosqueda said she couldn't back a repeal without an immediate alternative plan to address the homelessness crisis.
As a recap, the tax would've brought the city $47.5 million a year in revenue, and taxed the top 3 percent of businesses $275 per employee per year. Most of the money would've been dedicated to building affordable housing and the rest to homeless services.
The council's largest supporters of the head tax who now back the repeal—Mike O'Brien, Lisa Herbold, Lorena Gonzalez—have placed blame on businesses for influencing public perception of the tax, essentially forcing their hand at the repeal.
What's behind the sudden shift? In short, council members knew they were losing the PR fight, and could be up against a costly suicide mission with buckets of corporate money to the likes of Amazon, Starbucks, and Vulcan.
O'Brien told PubliCola that part of the appeal of the head tax in the first place was that it didn't need to be put to a city vote. Not only would city officials have to worry about the employee hours tax, but they're already facing a campaign for the 2018 education levy—an increase in property tax to help close the K-12 achievement gap and improve preschool and college access.
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce supports the 2018 education levy and in the past has helped advocate for the measures (both the Preschool and Families and Education levies). Now, as voters seem less amenable to more property taxes, the support could be more important than ever—and the head tax fight risked straining that relationship.
Even if Seattle could muster a win for both head tax measures and the education levy, O'Brien said there's still a question of whether the head tax could last if Olympia also tries to repeal it. Republicans want it gone, and Democrats leaning more conservative than Seattle officials and running for election could campaign with an anti-head tax platform.
O'Brien: "We know that last time, Seattle suburbs were not running against their opponent; they were running against the Seattle City Council. The head tax is a perfect thing for them to run on. There’s a real possibility that even if we do everything right and win, we end up hearing nine months from now spending millions of dollars, bruising each other up immensely, with no new revenue to address the problem."
All of this could've also been anticipated a month ago, but the stark shift in public perception was a big enough blow to push council members over the edge. Unfortunately for activists who have been pushing for the head tax for years, there's no coming back from this anytime soon.