Monday afternoon, as organizers prepared to submit a petition for a ballot initiative to overturn Seattle’s new head tax with more than double the 17,000 or so required signatures, they were surprised by an announcement out of City Hall.
Council President Bruce Harrell had introduced legislation that would overturn the controversial tax on Seattle’s top-grossing businesses less than a month after all nine councilmembers unanimously approved the plan. What’s more, Harrell called a special meeting for Tuesday and indicated that the Council expected to vote on repeal.
John Murray, a spokesperson for the “No Tax on Jobs” organization leading the referendum campaign, told GeekWire the petition had 45,833 signatures as of Tuesday morning. The campaign was launched by a coalition of businesses and received support from many in the tech industry. Amazon, Vulcan, and Starbucks each donated $25,000 to the effort.
Harrell insists that the abrupt reversal is in response to swelling opposition to the tax from constituents, not from the campaign. In an interview with KING 5, Harrell brushed off questions about whether the surprise special meeting is an effort to preempt the referendum campaign.
“Whether it’s preemptive or not, to me, I don’t even consider that issue,” he told KING 5. “What I consider is whether — again this is part of the Democratic process — whether we are listening to the public. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they’ve got the signatures pretty easily. That’s fine.”
On May 14, the City Council unanimously approved a per-employee tax on businesses with more than $20 million in annual revenue to raise money to build more affordable housing and fund homeless services. Seattle is facing a historic homelessness crisis and the head tax debate has highlighted deep divisions about how to best address the problem. The tax comes out to about $275 per full-time employee, per year. It would raise about $47 million annually.
The tax ultimately approved by the Council is a compromise between the business community and the city, brokered by Mayor Jenny Durkan. That makes the news that the Council may overturn the law all the more surprising.
Durkan and seven of the nine councilmembers signed a joint statement indicating support for the repeal:
“It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”
Stay tuned to GeekWire for coverage of this issue from Seattle City Hall later today.