The Seattle City Council and Seattle Mayor both signaled Wednesday an appetite for compromise in the hotly debated head tax proposal.
Union workers and homeless advocates both filled up the chambers Wednesday for what was originally billed as a final committee vote on the issue.
The legislation aims to tax the top 3 percent of businesses 26 cents per hour per employee or $500 an employee per year. The Council says it would raise at least $75 million a year for new affordable housing and homeless services. The ordinance has been met with significant resistance from business, including Amazon, which says it has paused construction awaiting an outcome in the case.
The Council’s Finance and Neighborhoods committee discussed the issue for several hours. The committee is made up of four council members, but all nine attended the meeting, perhaps signifying the magnitude of the decision.
Councilmembers Lorena Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien all sponsored the legislation with a fifth, Kshama Sawant, also backing the plan. Normally, the majority would end a discussion on any legislation, but the fight appears to be whether the council has a super majority, six votes, to override any potential veto.
Based on today’s developments, that appears to not yet be the case.
Council President Bruce Harrell and Councilmember Debora Juarez both expressed their concerns with the legislation, with the latter saying she was concerned the $500 level was “too high.” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee, also expressed her reservations.
“I respect the proposal and what we're trying to do," Harrell told reporters. "I have a lot of questions about how we're spending the money.”
“I don’t think we’ve convinced the public we’re spending our money wisely,” he added.
"If 7,000 jobs leave, it isn't just those 7,000. It's the people that eat their food, buy their shoes,” Juarez said, referencing Amazon’s threat.
Juarez says she’s had 22 letters from labor interests against the proposal and eight or so that are for it.
“We have to hear that,” she said.
Mosqueda stood by the legislation, calling it a “common sense solution. It is about shared responsibility.”
She says she’s not concerned with any threat about business moving elsewhere as a result of a new tax.
“What I'm concerned with is people getting pushed out of this city right now – pushed out of their homes because they can't afford to live here,” she said.
All three council members said on the record they believe the committee will take a final vote on Friday, with the full council vote on Monday.
But the hesitation from the undeclared council members may be key towards a final resolution.
The Council needs a super majority to wave off any potential veto from Mayor Jenny Durkan.
Durkan on Wednesday weighed in for the first time publicly, saying the proposal “doesn’t meet the requirements that I have as mayor. That is very clear.”
Durkan said she would like to have more accountability measures, as well as a “sunset clause,” in which the policy could be reviewed or phased out.
It is apparent that all sides would like to calm the tensions over the issue, which has engulfed much of the attention at City Hall.
“We are getting close. What we don't want to see is divisiveness and chaos,” said Juarez.
Yet, on Wednesday labor-backed Working Washington sent out an email blast comparing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to a “mob boss,” and asking the state Attorney General’s Office to pursue felony charges against Amazon for threatening to leave.
On the flip side, Republican State Senator Joe Fain tweeted, “If you don’t like where Seattle is head-ed, you do have options.” The post was accompanied by a photo montage and another slogan: “Get A-Head without being charged in South King County.”
Council members have also been positioning potential amendments for spending the new funds.
Councilmember Sawant appeared to publicly align herself with a proposal to ban any new spending on sweeping unauthorized encampments. Herbold appeared to do the same with one on garbage collection, making a point that the City has collected 50,000 pounds of garbage near encampments, and her language would allow new funds to collect double that.
Those spending plan amendments, however, are in a resolution form, meaning nothing would be final until the formal budget process this fall.
The tax wouldn’t go into effect until January, barring any sort of legal or state legislative challenge.
Outside the meeting space, opposing views found common ground. A group of tech and construction workers discussed the proposal.
“I feel like we’ve got to stick together,” said one man.
“We need additional revenue to offset the negative impacts that these large companies, like the one I work for in Seattle, are having on our community,” said Jeffrey Atkinson.
“But this isn’t the answer, going for a head tax on Amazon,” said a man in a hard hat and hi-visability vest. “…It’s got to be like we talked about, capital gains or something of that nature.”
“…Something that’s going to be more fair, where everyone participates in putting money in the kitty,” he added. “Right now, there’s nothing fair.”
It was a small group of people looking for solutions together—a stark contrast to the debate that has so far only divided Seattle.
“I want a job, I want my members to have work,” said Jesse Scott-Kandoll, of the Northwest Carpenters Union.
“It really makes me angry that they’re using these folks’ jobs as political bargaining chips,” said Atkinson. “That tech workers and construction workers and cafeteria workers are going to stand together and build a city in Seattle, and a state in Washington and in America that works for all of us.”