Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant are 0 for 2 on their effort to replace property taxes with business and parking taxes.
Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant are 0 for 2 on their effort to replace property taxes with business and parking taxes. City of Seattle

An alternative way to pay for transportation improvements supported by Council Members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant died in a council committee today. Just like the last time they tried this.

Instead, the council unanimously passed a slightly amended version of a $930 million property tax levy pitched by Mayor Ed Murray.

Where Murray's plan relies entirely on property taxes, Licata and Sawant wanted to also make businesses and people who park in commercial parking lots pay.

Their pitch would have reduced the property tax levy to $600 million, increased the commercial parking tax, and created a new employee hours tax. That would have required businesses, except some exempted small businesses, to pay a flat fee per employee. Those fees would have funded transportation projects.

Both Licata and Sawant argued this approach was more progressive—something we should be running toward in the state with the most regressive tax system in the nation.

Others on the council both argued against the merits of parking and employee taxes and said the city should save those types of taxes for other needs we have later. Licata called them out: "Either it’s bad or good," he said. "If it’s bad, it’s going to be bad later on as well."

A business tax is definitely progressive—you have more employees, you pay more. What about the parking tax? As others have pointed out, that one's not so clear-cut. In theory, people with more disposable income are more likely to head downtown and pay to park in a lot. But working people may park in those lots too, and you pay the same no matter how nice your car is.

When Sawant said "working people will support" more progressive taxes, Council Member Tom Rasmussen said he sees blue-collar workers parking in commercial lots too. (He sees these workers, he humble-bragged, when he's at his gym downtown at 6:15 a.m.)

“To say working people support this," he said, "is not borne out by any evidence I’ve seen or polls.”

Council Member Bruce Harrell voted against the Licata plan while also saying he might support using those kinds of taxes for something else someday.

"I don’t say no," Harrell said. "I say not now."

Sawant said the better answer would be now and later and going to the legislature for more taxing authority for this city.

"We should be pushing for this now," she said, and then "going to battle with the state legislature" for other kinds of progressive taxes cities currently can't enact.

Notably quiet during this conversation: Council President Tim Burgess, who led the charge to repeal the city's previous employee tax and has been talking a lot about progressive taxation lately.

Even after the Licata/Sawant plan failed, they continued arguing for the lower levy amount. Licata said he's worried voters won't be willing to approve a $930 million levy. And a loss at the ballot box could put SDOT's budget in serious trouble. That's a theory the mayor and the majority of the council dismiss.

Council Member Jean Godden said she recognizes the total "sounds like a 'gulp!' number," but that transportation is the "number one issue" in the region. Rasmussen said there was "strong political and public support for this measure" and voting to keep it at $930 million "is consistent with what the public wants."

It's true Seattle voters are generous with their property tax dollars, but it's worth noting, as Crosscut has, that the measures of public opinion on this massive levy have been imprecise.

The effort to trim the levy failed, again 7-2.

The council is likely to give the levy final approval at its full meeting Monday. Then it's on to your November ballot.