Morning Fizz

Centerpiece of Sawant's Reelection Platform Aspirational and Likely Unconstitutional

A "misleading" campaign pledge, a contrarian campaign position, and an arty campaign endorsement.

By Josh Feit October 7, 2015

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1. Nearly every city council candidate we’ve interviewed has mentioned the need to reform Olympia’s tax structure, specifically calling for an income tax. None of them are running for the state legislature, of course, so the parade of progressive city council hopefuls have mostly noted it as a harrumph or as a values statement about their objection to regressive taxes.

Some of them brought it up when talking about schools. District Four candidate Rob Johnson, for example, told us “an income tax would help us build more schools, pay teachers better, and reduce class sizes.” In the same context of K–12 funding, District Three candidate Pamela Banks told us point blank: “We need a state income tax.”

Others have mentioned an income tax when talking about the new transportation levy. District One candidate Shannon Braddock, noting the slate of regressive choices on the table (she cited the parking tax in particular), told us: “None of them [parking tax, employer head tax, property tax] are my favorite. The state needs to change our tax system.”

And District Four candidate Michael Maddux brought it up in the context of his unease with the heavier and heavier property tax burden in the city: “We have a lot of infrastructure needs in the city of Seattle. We’re relying more and more on property tax levies. Frankly, we need to do something and I would rather have a progressive income tax.”

Another candidate, lefty lawyer, Lorena González told us: “I know people have talked about a city income tax. I would be interested in exploring it. I don’t know enough about the legal implications.”

Of course, González’s practical question is on point and prevents any candidate from bringing up an income tax as their go-to game plan. (The state constitution outlaws income taxes, and even when the state legislature passed the idea in the early 1970s twice, voters rejected it, twice.)

Any candidate except one that is. Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, whose red campaign signs read “Tax the Rich,” has made a “millionaire’s tax” the front-and-center tenet of her platform. At last Sunday’s debate with her opponent Banks, for example, Sawant brought it up a several times. She said she would use a millionaire's tax as a way to fund Seattle transit and social services. “We need a millionaire’s tax,” she said, “to fully fund public transit.” She threw in free Orca cards for students and the disabled too.

As for González’s reality check, Sawant has actually looked into it. Last year, Sawant, with the support of council members, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, passed a budget amendment, known as a sly for Statement of Legislative Intent, that asked the city attorney to research the legal possibilities of a millionaire’s tax.

“I was intrigued,” Rasmussen says now, remembering when Sawant brought it up. “I’d like to see a state income tax. Did she know something legally that I didn’t know? I was happy to take a look at that, and so we put it into a sly.”

The official City Attorney’s Opinion (CAO) came back to the council members earlier this year, on April 9, but it’s confidential due to attorney-client privilege.

I’ve asked Sawant’s office if she still feels the idea is feasible. She hasn’t responded.

Rasmussen, who told me he wasn't allowed to hand over the city attorney's opinion, did call Sawant’s campaign pledge “misleading” and that “people running for office should propose real solutions. Or at least be honest. The honest thing to do,” he said, “would be to say, ‘elect me, and I will work to change the state constitution.’ You could have nine city council members for an income tax…and I think we do…but we’d have to change the state constitution to do anything.”

He said Sawant’s campaign platform “flies in the face of all we know to be true. It’s a good applause line,” he concluded, “but what's her legal authority? For someone to continually say we can [enact a millionaire’s tax] is misleading people.”

Sawant ran for state legislature in 2012 and lost to Democratic speaker of the house representative Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford).

2. As part of its voters guide, the labor backed group Working Washington asked all the city council candidates to address any endorsements, contributions, or independent expenditures from the Seattle chamber in their respective races.

In the District Five race (North Seattle), lefty Reverend Sandy Brown took the opportunity to point out that his opponent, attorney Debora Juarez (who’s received $28,000 in outside independent expenditures from Native American tribes), doesn’t support the statewide Initiative 735 to repeal the Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited corporate spending on independent expenditures with zero disclosure.

Brown wrote:

“Unlike my opponent, I support I-735 and its call for a constitutional amendment to undo the influence of Citizens United v. FEC. Our District 5 race had the largest total amount of independent expenditures of any race in the 2015 Seattle City Council primary. We deserve a fair hearing of our issues without big expenditures from outside organizations attempting to influence votes and buy elections.”

After noticing Juarez’s outlier answer on her 46th District Democrats Questionnaire—“I oppose the Citizens United ruling and I support measures that would lessen corporations’ undue influence in American politics. However, as an attorney and a judge it is my professional opinion that any amendment to the constitution must pass an extremely high bar”—we asked her to elaborate.

She told us:

I’m always skeptical when people want to go right to the constitution to change a societal problem. There’s a lot of reasons to go to the constitution—voting rights, slavery—[but] right now, I see it more as a political issue with the will of the people changing it and the supreme court rather than a legal issue of constitutionality.

3. A long list of nightlife, arts, and music leaders published an open letter yesterday backing city council president Tim Burgess for reelection against his tenants' rights opponent Jon Grant.

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The list includes: filmmaker Lynn Shelton, Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman, restaurateur Linda Derschang, Vital Five director Greg Lundgren, restaurateur and music entrepreneur David Meinert, and former city office of film and music head James Keblas. 

One name that's missing is former Burgess opponent John Roderick. Roderick, a local indie rock celebrity and a member of the city's music commission, lost to Burgess and Grant in the primary.

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