Will Seattle voters do the same thing twice? That's what Mayor Ed Murray is counting on. Back in April, Proposition 1, which would have staved off huge cuts to Metro bus service by using a combination of $60 vehicle license fees and a 0.1 percent sales tax, soared in Seattle, passing with 66 percent support. But it failed badly across King County.
So on May 2, Murray surrounded himself with a bevy of liberal nonprofit leaders, five members of the Seattle City Council, and state lawmakers to announce a plan to rerun Proposition 1 in Seattle on the November ballot—but just in Seattle, so that Seattle voters can buy back their Seattle bus routes, 150 of which are now slated to be deleted or cut in frequency. Crucially, Murray's $45 million plan wouldn't stave off the first round of cuts to Metro service, which are set for September. But it would preserve Metro's "Night Owl" bus lines, which serve those who Alison Eisinger, from the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, described as "people who would literally be left stranded if we didn't keep those buses going."
The city council will have to approve Murray's plan before it comes before voters, but with a majority of the council standing at his side—Council President Tim Burgess, transportation chair Tom Rasmussen, and members Jean Godden, Sally Bagshaw, and Sally Clark—Murray's plan looks likely to sail through. Burgess told me he's confident it will pass.
King County executive Dow Constantine was standing next to Murray as well, offering his own support for the plan, one day after he challenged cities to buy back their own Metro service. He said he was streamlining the county's process for drawing up bus service contracts with individual cities. That's his contribution to the collective effort to put Metro-funding stopgap measures in place until the state legislature offers Seattle a more permanent solution.
But the Murray-led agreement did raise some questions, among them: What happened to Murray's previously stated concern about a "balkanization" of King County Metro, now a regional transit agency, into city-run fragments? "Even while we take this step, Seattle must act regionally," Murray insisted. "This is not a move to create fortress-Seattle." (That metaphor came just days after Murray warned that Seattle is also not a hobbit village—see News Shorts on page 11 for more on that.) Murray's warning against balkanization had come on May 8, as he delivered personal and piercing attacks on the transit advocates behind on Keep Seattle Moving, an effort to raise Seattle's property taxes to fund Metro. Backers of that idea included former mayor Mike McGinn. Their measure would have been more progressive, since the property tax impacts low-income residents less than the wealthy, unlike a sales tax, which does the reverse. But the group has suspended signature-gathering for the initiative, and its leader, Ben Schiendelman, a former blogger who Murray had sarcastically dissed as Seattle's "transit czar," says he's not sure if anyone on the council will take up the property-tax proposal now.
For the moment, much like on the issue of the minimum wage, it looks like Murray's networked, slow-bore, yet irrepressibly pugilistic approach has won out over insurgent activists attempting to outflank him on the left.
It's a tactical win, for sure, but is it an ideological win? Murray touts himself as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive: someone who isn't a toady for the rich and who believes in the power of Seattle government to create "equity," a buzzword he's fond of dropping. That's reflected in, for example, his Metro plan's emphasis on preserving the Night Owl bus service. But at the same time, he now wants to use flat taxes to fund Metro, which, when compared to the property-tax idea, is clearly the more conservative option. Murray gets passionate and animated on this question. He gestures emphatically with his hands at press conferences, cites disproportionate poverty rates for black and Latino children in Seattle, and declares that universal preschool, which he wants to be funded by a Seattle-only property tax, is the most important thing he'll do as mayor. He doesn't want to compromise it, he says, by putting a competing property-tax measure on the ballot this fall.
The accuracy of Murray's fear is debatable; his own budget director, Ben Noble, told me that there's enough "capacity" in the city's property-taxing authority to fund both pre-K and Metro in the short term. Plus, Seattle's voters tend to be generous with the property tax. In this analysis, the two are not mutually exclusive. But Murray doesn't buy that, and he fears another recession could restrict the city's property-tax capacity in the long term. So in his analysis, they are mutually exclusive.
Which means that in Murray's mind, Murray's just as progressive as he's always been. "When you're using a regressive tax for a progressive purpose... it is not regressive," Murray argued when asked about all this at City Hall. Council President Burgess added that he lobbied Murray against using property taxes for both universal preschool and Metro funding, and he apparently got his way. He'll unveil his preschool initiative on May 13. Seattle, this is your conservative progressive establishment in action.
Additional reporting by Anna Minard.