At the request of Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, last week Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri dropped a bill that would authorize the county to pass a small payroll tax to pay for homelessness services and housing. The local officials estimate the bill would raise $121 million in its current form, and Macri says the county could leverage that money to access $1 billion in bonds.
As I argued a few hours after Macri dropped the bill, the tax would only raise enough money to address 10% of the problem. To make matters worse, on Friday business groups said they'd only support the tax if the legislation prevented Seattle from passing its own version of the tax. That's right, friends. The big idea from big business is to address 10% of the problem and then stop us from ever solving the problem completely. Thanks for coming to the table, big business! Now please take your plate and leave.
Anyway, all of this assumes the King County Council would pass the tax in the first place, and recent votes on the issue raise doubts about that body's commitment to the cause.
Though the conversation on this bill is only beginning, lawmakers must pass it out of the House Finance Committee by next Tuesday. In the meantime, lawmakers representing Seattle in Olympia have some major concerns.
It's Not Big Enough
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña said the current proposal "needs to be a lot bolder than what it is right now," and that she'd only consider supporting a preemption against Seattle passing its own version of a similar tax if the bill allowed King County to raise over $500 million per year, which would align with McKinsey's analysis of the current spending needs on housing.
Sen. Joe Nguyen shares Saldaña's concerns. He thinks the rate is too low, and he's also against a preemption under the current rates. "Local jurisdictions should still have the ability to raise revenue as they need to solve the problem," he said.
Rep. Noel Frame, who sits on the Finance committee, is open to changes. “The bill was a bit rushed and I think there are things that would make it better,” she said, without naming those things, adding that it's too early to talk about preemption.
Over the phone, Rep. Macri defended the proposal as a conversation-starter that brings to the table for the first time business leaders, local governments, labor, housing, and homelessness providers. Though the potential revenue may not adequately address the housing crisis, Macri said leveraging a billion dollars in bonds now would help "build the housing we need today" at a cheaper rate than at some time in the distant, murky future.
"Is it adequate? No," she said. "Is it the most viable conversation that I have been involved with in my time at the state level? It feels like that at the moment."
In the interest of creating space for an open conversation on the merits of the legislation, Macri preferred not to take a position on the issue of preemption. In general she believes it's "appropriate" for regional employers to want predictability and sustainability in tax code policy, and that it's "appropriate" for "people working on the front lines to want adequate resources to address the huge scale of the problem."
That said, there were "lots of different iterations of the bill," according to Macri, and though she was not involved in "the conversation that occurred among local elected officials and a coalition of businesses" about those drafts, the one she dropped didn't include a preemption.
When asked why she wouldn't introduce a bill that adequately funds the need, Macri suggested that gathering support for such a bill within the current Democratic caucus would be impossible. "People in my caucus care what business thinks. People care about retaining high-quality jobs. And people care about addressing huge inequality," she said. "Ultimately, when you do policymaking in Washington state, you need to do it in a way that ensures you have the will of the people."
Recent polls show that strong majorities of Seattle voters support raising "local taxes on big businesses and the wealthy to help pay for vital services."
But How Does Everyone Else Feel?
At a hearing this morning in the House Finance Committee, representatives from the small cities of Auburn, Kent, and Renton didn't take a position on the bill but expressed frustration for being excluded from the conversation.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus called the bill "procedurally unacceptable," as she and others outside Seattle first learned about the proposal through the press, she said.
Representatives from the insurance lobby and the restaurant lobby opposed the bill because taxes, ew.
Republicans on the committee signaled their intention to attach amendments preventing safe consumption sites and preventing encampments near parks and schools. And in a pornographic display of cuckoldry, Rep. Jesse Young, who spent the better part of MLK Day talking about getting beat up by black people, asked Expedia's representative, Richard de Sam Lazaro, if he and other big businesses would agree to shoulder a higher tax "burden" if lawmakers created a larger carve-out for small businesses. Lazaro deferred to others who would be having that conversation.
Meanwhile, representatives from labor, Tutabella, Expedia, and Hopelink, the largest homeless services provider in the region, all spoke in support of the bill.
The most compelling supportive testimony came from Dan Price, founder and CEO of Gravity Payments. He said the bill would cost him money, but it would be less than a "Throwback to the '90s" holiday party they recently threw.
I'm sure that party fucking ruled, and I'd never want to preempt businesses from throwing truly kick-ass '90s holiday parties, but Price's testimony does raise the question: If the state legislature increased the payroll tax rate to the cost of three big biz holiday parties per year, we could end the housing and homelessness crisis in King County, right? So why don't we just do that?
The answer is Democrats currently lack the will to do that, as "moderates" believe big businesses will leave the state if they get taxed to the tune of three whole holiday parties per year!!
Nevertheless, Macri holds out hope, saying she's "not convinced that the numbers won’t get higher as the conversation goes on."