TRANSIT RIDERS UNION We believe the city should consider more progressive options first.
  • Alex Garland
  • TRANSIT RIDERS UNION "We believe the city should consider more progressive options first."

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On Tuesday I asked you, dear readers of Slog, how you like your citywide taxes to save Seattle's Metro bus service from drastic cuts: progressive or regressive?

The public comment session on this question last night at City Council provides a sense of how that fight is shaking out. On the one hand are Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata, and a host of organizations supporting a plan to reinstate the employee head tax and increase commercial parking taxes. On the other hand there's the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the University of Washington, Virginia Mason hospitals, and large NGOs and labor leaders who've long supported the Democratic party. They're backing a proposal by Mayor Murray that relies on an increase in the sales tax. Both proposals also include a $60 bump in vehicle license fees.

David Freiboth, chairman of the King County Labor Council, opened the session by declaring that Mayor Murray's proposal in Seattle "isn't actually the mayor's proposal." He said it was the result of three years of coalition-building with stakeholders, including business owners.

"I'm frustrated that our friends on the left think this is the time to make a statement on tax policy," Freiboth declared. "Other proposals are counter productive. They confuse the message." When voters are confused, he said, they don't approve new taxes. This analysis was "ditto'd" later on by a representative of the nonprofit advocacy group FutureWise.

"The commercial parking tax has been absolutely misconstrued as a tax on business that would be more progressive," said Josh Kavanagh, UW's Director of Transportation. "It is a tax on people." He, along with a student representative of UW's student government, cast the parking tax as an unfair burden on low-income students who've been gentrified out of the city and have no choice but to commute by car.

The Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices, and League of Women Voters all voiced support for Murray's "pragmatic" proposal (though the League warned that its language is not specific enough for voters to feel confident that their most important bus routes will be funded and protected).

There are holes, however, in these arguments, which supporters of the Sawant/Licata transit plan seized upon. Michael Taylor-Judd of the West Seattle Transit Coalition said his group supported Proposition 1 back in April, but a poll of its members shows that they overwhelmingly prefer higher commercial parking taxes to sales taxes to fund transit. Businesses have a direct interest in making it easy for their workers to commute by bus, he argued, citing comments from former Downtown Seattle Association head Kate Joncas (now deputy mayor) that 40 percent of downtown workers ride the bus to work.

"There's nothing confusing about this," Taylor-Judd said. In fact, unlike the sales tax, the commercial parking and employee head taxes can be passed by the council itself, leaving only the vehicle license fee for approval by voters this fall. "That would then allow you to put a smaller, easier-to-understand package on the ballot."

Tim Gould of Washington's Sierra Club chapter echoed that and added, "We've used the sales tax far too much," he said. "It makes sense to have a modest employee per capita fee."

In the end, the strongest-sounding argument against the Sawant/Licata proposal I heard is that people displaced out of Seattle by the high cost of living who have no choice but to commute by car will suffer a higher tax burden. The University of Washington, on its own, is an interesting case.

Sawant tells me that UW can easily "absorb the impact" of higher commercial parking taxes, citing its building of new stadiums and the huge $768k salary of its president. But UW itself doesn't pay that tax, according Kavanaugh, its transportation director. The commercial parking tax, under current city law, is levied directly on people who pay for parking (it's itemized in their receipts). He argues that means it's the opposite of a progressive tax—instead, it'll hit late night workers and students who with second jobs who can't rely on buses. (He didn't have any data at the ready, however, to prove this).

UW could, of course, lower its parking rates in order to ease the heavier tax load on those drivers. But, Kavanaugh says, the "terrible irony" is that the university already use its parking revenues to fund the U-Pass bus passes for students. As for whether UW should do more to shift resources from salaries or athletics towards supporting students' transportation needs (it should), that question is above his pay grade.

But the fact that UW is using its parking revenue to support bus ridership, and the fact that certain workers and students at the university have to use cars instead of buses to get there? All of that gets back to the failure of Mayor Ed Murray (formerly of the State Senate in Olympia) and much of the City Council to build mass transit. Which is why it's a bit galling for them to insist that now, we should use regressive taxes, instead of (mostly) progressive ones, to sustain Metro service at current levels.