The Seattle City Council’s abrupt decision to repeal the Employee Hours Tax leaves Seattle with no coherent plan to address the homelessness crisis – or any other urgent issue.
by Geov Parrish
On Tuesday, June 12, at about 2:30 PM, the window for progressive policy change in Seattle politics slammed shut.
To be sure, it may be forced open again from time to time on particular issues. The grassroots activism that has forced a string of progressive policy changes in recent years still exists. But as people and wealth pour into Seattle, the dominance of money in local politics has now reasserted itself, a demographic pendulum swing I’ve been warning about for years but I didn’t anticipate that it would be boosted further by a reactionary anti-tax backlash that Seattle’s biggest businesses have now legitimized in their campaign to repeal the Employee Hours Tax.
This new reality will impact not just homelessness, but every issue that needs money to address it. Seattle politics has been dominated by local corporate power throughout most of its history. But the money and power now involved is unprecedented – as is the toxicity, fueled by social media and the era of Trump, that poisoned the EHT saga.
There are two, and only two, primary reasons why a Seattle City Council majority secretly hatched a plan to repeal the Employee Hours Tax, and then passed it less than 24 hours after making it public. Those reasons both rhyme with the word “Damazon.”
Less than a day after Mayor Durkan signed a business-approved compromise EHT bill last month, local big businesses reversed themselves and announced that they were opposed to the new law. By weeks’ end, they had launched a referendum to repeal it.
That effort had less than a month to gather 17,632 valid signatures (by June 15) to qualify for November’s ballot. After last weekend, organizer claimed that they had over 47,000.
Perhaps more importantly, polling released last weekend showed what Councilmember Lisa Herbold called “overwhelming public support” for the repeal. Most immediately, that polling is what led Herbold and two other co-sponsors of the EHT bill, CMs Mike O’Brien and Lorena Gonzalez, to agree to the repeal. The repeal of a bill passed unanimously less than a month ago was ensured.
As CM Kshama Sawant pointed out, such polling by itself doesn’t mean much this early; the repeal referendum hadn’t even qualified for the ballot yet, and the anti-repeal campaign wasn’t even set to launch in earnest until next week. Sawant also noted that even if the anti-repeal campaign lost, it would still lay important groundwork, in public education and networking, to build stronger support for whatever came next.
But left unspoken in the council’s repeal meeting was the corporate money the repeal referendum would draw. Financial filings are incomplete, but show that the referendum had already raised at least $379,067 for its signature-gathering, with far more in support pledged by Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other major employers. Ballot measures have no donation limits; the potential millions such companies could spend on an already-popular repeal effort is why council members decided the referendum vote was both inevitable and unwinnable.
The second major reason for the council vote, rhyming with “Jamazon,” is next year’s council elections. If business interests failed to repeal the EHT by ballot, the obvious next step would be to replace the council members who supported it with ones who would repeal it. Herbold, O’Brien, and Sawant all face re-election next year, and they’re all vulnerable. Herbold won her West Seattle district by literally dozens of votes in 2015, in a campaign in which she was outspent 3-1 by her business-friendly opponent. For years, O’Brien has been despised by the angrier anti-homeless neighborhood activists in Ballard and Magnolia. And Sawant’s 2015 Capitol Hill district race shattered previous records, with nearly a million dollars raised overall.
This is no longer even 2015. Just in the last three years, Seattle has added over 50,000 residents and untold wealth. Between individual donations and third-party PACs, Jenny Durkan’s successful mayoral run last year raised a staggering $1.9 million – including a $350,000 PAC donation from Amazon that more than paid off in the EHT fight.
Other businesses, noting Amazon’s successful investment, will be even more willing to buy candidate loyalty in 2019. The effort to unseat Sawant alone – in a district that has now become one of Seattle’s wealthiest – will likely top one million dollars, and the neighborhood zealots targeting O’Brien figure to have powerful new allies as well. Both O’Brien and Herbold have hundreds of thousands of reasons not to make themselves further targets by refusing to support a seemingly inevitable EHT repeal. The days of successful shoestring campaigns for city council are gone forever.
The lessons of city council’s abrupt EHT capitulation are many and sobering, and extend far beyond homelessness. Seattle’s 20-year failure to plan for its ambitious population growth targets (density!) have more than been met, but concomitant investments in essentials like utilities, schools, transportation, affordable housing, and social services haven’t come close to keeping pace. City leaders pushed a downtown tunnel plan that was billions of dollars more expensive than other Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement alternatives; They also chose to spend billions more on waterfront development, Mercer Mess beautification and other South Lake Union amenities; another $1.7 on convention center expansion, and still more on a streetcar system nobody asked for and few are using. While those and other pricey real estate schemes got funded, utilities are aging, traffic is frequently gridlocked, road and bridge repairs are backlogged by two decades, schools and buses are overflowing, and on, and on.
Cities routinely use economic boom times to invest in those kinds of basic, big-ticket projects – made even bigger, in Seattle’s case, by its past planning failures. Instead, city leaders have now effectively given Amazon and other big businesses effective veto power overpaying for any of them, and allowed a vocal anti-tax contingent to further delegitimize attempts to raise new revenue. The feds and state aren’t helping any time soon. With a state ban on personal or corporate income taxes, the city is forced to rely on regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes for much of its revenue, and has already raised those as much as it’s politically feasible to do. Lost in the EHT debate is that the hour’s tax or something similar was about the only tool Seattle had left that could pay for a major new initiative. Now that option appears dead, too.
Meanwhile, there will be an enormous and critically needed families and education levy on this fall’s ballot, as well as several other potential ballot measures. All of those campaigns just got much harder due to big property tax increases this year and the anti-tax framing used to repeal the EHT. Future ballot measures are going to be impacted heavily as well. After the EHT repeal, Seattle’s civic leaders literally have no idea how our growing city will pay for its needs.
“There Is No Plan B”
That includes dealing with affordable housing and homelessness crises that affect everyone who pays residential property taxes, everyone who rents, and everyone who can’t afford housing at all. As Herbold and others noted in the meeting where the EHT was repealed, “There is no Plan B.” After the sudden jettisoning of nearly a year of advocacy and work by thousands of people, homeless advocates and their elected allies must start over.
Convincing the city to devote significant resources and help to any marginalized class of people is always going to be a tough sell. It’s even harder in a city that’s also rapidly getting richer, whiter, and more male. In this environment, and in the era of Trumpian self-interest, “it’s the right thing to do” by itself is not a winning argument; it falls on too many indifferent ears among the privileged majority. Even in liberal Seattle, while every corporate EHT opponent took pains to emphasize how much they care about the homeless, they still weren’t willing to help.
Beyond all of that, at every step in the EHT saga, proponents were out-messaged and out-strategized. The framing of the tax as benefiting the (largely unsympathetic) homeless, rather than what the money would buy (affordable housing, social services) was one messaging problem; the popular name “head tax” a second; and its reframing as a tax issue, a third. The business community put out an enormous amount of misinformation in fighting the EHT, and anti-homeless residents pitched in with a lot of frothing ignorance; little of that was effectively addressed by EHT backers. city leaders have wasted a lot of money over the years (anyone remember the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness?), but the city has also done some things right and helped save a lot of lives through past programs. That record was never seriously defended, and the improvements reflected in EHT spending plans rarely touted.
And the business community had plans, backup plans, and backups to their backup plans at every point. Proponents…didn’t. Appealing to altruism got the EHT passed, but wasn’t enough to save it. There was no Plan B.
Money Talks, Homeless People Die
In the mere two and a half hours it took city council to negate a year’s work, there was about a one in 32 chance that a homeless person would die in Seattle. Those odds are getting worse, not better, with every month that passes.
In the aftermath of repeal, Mayor Durkan is talking about the regional One Table initiative, which hasn’t done anything at all during the two and a half years of Seattle’s so-called “state of emergency” on homelessness. Those other cities and counties are just as limited in their potential revenue sources as Seattle, with even less political will.
Homeless advocates are already analyzing lessons from the EHT fight and planning how to regroup, but the simple fact is that only government has the resources to fund the kind of comprehensive response needed. Private philanthropy helps, but it’s capricious and not coordinated among different funders. Nonprofits are essential but can only do so much. It will always come back to government. Social justice activists will also organize for ballot measures and next year’s elections, and they’re still a significant force in Seattle. But the playing field just got a lot less level.
And still, people are dying.
Featured image by Alex Garland