Progressive Taxation

Seattle City Council Repeals the Head Tax

Council member Lisa Herbold said "there's so much more to lose between now and November."

By Hayat Norimine June 12, 2018

What had been a momentous victory for head tax supporters only a month ago ended with resounding defeat on Tuesday when council members repealed the tax in a 7-2 vote. 

Through heckles and hisses in the packed chambers, council members who were longterm proponents of the tax—Mike O'Brien, Lisa Herbold, and Lorena Gonzalez—told the public they faced a losing battle against businesses who campaigned against the tax, affecting public perception and destroying any paths forward. Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda were the only votes against the repeal.

"The Chamber of Commerce has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites—they now believe that increased human suffering is a result of government inefficiency," said council member Lisa Herbold, who gave an audible sigh before she began speaking and looked on the edge of tears. Herbold had unsuccessfully pushed for the tax to be included in previous city budgets.

"People who are saying that we are bowing to political pressure, nothing could be further from the truth," Herbold said over jeers and protests. "There’s so much more to lose between now and November that will hurt our longterm fight for progressive taxation."

The repeal leaves the city short of the $47.4 million in annual revenue they had banked on to invest in affordable housing and homelessness, and with no new plan. Council members on Tuesday promised to look for an alternative solution when a month earlier, they had insisted the head tax (also known as the employee hours tax) was their only option that excluded more sales or property taxes. 

Council members who supported the tax also didn't walk back statements that they felt it was their best option to address the homelessness crisis, going so far as to say that people living on the streets will suffer from the repeal bill. 

“The announcement from Mayor Durkan and the City Council is the breath of fresh air Seattle needs," Chamber CEO Marilyn Strickland said. "Repealing the tax on jobs gives our region the chance to addresses homelessness in a productive, focused, and unified way."

While the vote relieved businesses from pouring expenditures into their anti-tax campaign, social service workers are left worrying about their next step.

Downtown Emergency Services Center employees who showed up to the vote said they don't know how they'll meet the needs of their clients, and those who have been on the seven-year waiting list for housing, without that new money. 

"It feels really hopeless sometimes," said Julie Nordren, a project assistant at DESC. "We were so close to get our people the help they deserve and the help they need, and we've been thwarted." Nordren and Michael Swann, a case manager, say DESC's four shelters and 18 housing units are all at capacity. 

King County's point-in-time homeless count this year showed a 15 percent increase in the unsheltered population—a 46 percent rise in those living in vehicles—while the total homeless population rose by a smaller gap of 4 percent. 

Council member Kshama Sawant pointed to the vote as a sign Democrats were out of touch and failed progressive movements, saying that elected officials have a responsibility to fight the misleading information in the anti-head tax coalition by campaigning against it.

She told PubliCola a campaign "absolutely would've been worth it," and that council members placed the movement for a head tax into a much worse off position now than if the measure were put to a vote in November and lost.

"There has been a tsunami of propaganda from big business, lies and distortion," Sawant said. "Yes, it has had a temporary effect on public opinion...but I have a news flash for Seattle City Council. This was never going to be easy." 

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