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What we heard at the ‘March on Amazon’ as Seattle business tax fight comes to a head

With reporting and photography by Alex Garland

With its planned vote on a new tax on its largest 3% of Seattle businesses, the city will be up against history Monday afternoon, District 3 representative and Socialist Alternative firebrand Kshama Sawant said Saturday as she prepared to lead her “March on Amazon.”

“This will be a historic victory,” Sawant told CHS. “This will be seen by every city where Amazon is building towers. But also every city in the United States. Because every city is facing a housing and homelessness crisis.”

But first the deals must be struck. Saturday’s march and rally from Capitol Hill on the massive Seattle employer came as Seattle City Hall contemplates two futures for a tax on its largest companies to help pay for affordable housing and homelessness services in a booming city where the problems of people living unsheltered is teetering on disaster.

In the first, the $75 million plan narrowly approved by a Seattle City Council majority Friday is finalized by a full-council vote Monday only to be vetoed by Mayor Jenny Durkan leaving Seattle with no “head tax” at all and a restart on any effort to raise new funding to begin to put any dent in the city’s share of the some $400 million required per year to get the region out of its homelessness mess.

In the second, a compromise is reached via new amendments to the legislation during Monday’s session in the City Council chambers. There is a push for elimination of transitioning the program to a more complicated payroll tax. There is a push for a “sunset clause” that sets up eventual elimination of the tax. And there is the largest push led by the Durkan camp on behalf of many of the companies that meet the proposed $20 million in annual revenues threshold — simply make the tax smaller.

At Saturday’s rally and march to South Lake Union, the crowd of around 200 Sawant and tax supporters began its part of the negotiations with speeches, musical performance, and a hike up Broadway then down Roy and Belmont across I-5 to a backside approach to Amazon and its giant spheres.

It was “because of our strength,” Sawant told the crowd, that the council committee approved the $75 million plan Friday.

Beforehand, Sawant told CHS her movement’s strength would put Mayor Durkan in a tough spot when it comes to killing the tax.

“Mayor Durkan, we call your bluff. If you are threatening to veto then let us see you do it,” she said. “Because then you have to be exposed to the light of day.”

Sawant also said Durkan’s opposition to the plan isn’t surprising. “Last year when she ran for election, Amazon threw down $350,000 for her campaign,” Sawant said. “So it’s not a coincidence that politicians who are funded by corporations do the bidding of corporations.”

The effort already has forced Durkan’s hand in addressing a possible big business tax in the first place. Last week, Durkan found herself in the surprising position of offering a compromise tax plan of her own that would have raised about $40 million per year, basically slicing the employee tax in half. The plan was not approved but may have succeeded in putting an early end to any possible wavering from the four on the City Council — Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, Rob Johnson, and Debora Juarez –who have opposed the $75 million plan.

The employee-hours tax would be approximately $500 per year for a fulltime employee (about 26 cents per employee-hour worked) at companies reporting $20 million or greater in annual “taxable gross receipts.” An accompanying resolution lays out the spending plan for the first five years: 2019 through 2023. It’s a high-level plan that allocates the revenues to several categories of investments and calls upon the executive branch to deliver a detailed implementation plan by December.

Friday morning before the vote, the architects of the legislation, the city council’s Lisa Herbold and Lorena Gonzalez, met with Capitol Hill business representatives in a chamber of commerce meeting to address concerns from the small business community about the proposed tax on large corporations. During the session, business reps said they were frustrated with inefficiency at City Hall and were concerned that revenue from the employee tax might also be wasted. Herbold and Gonzalez said the City Council will be doing more to increase oversight of the city’s projects. “We’re upping our game on oversight,” Herbold said.

Saturday, Sawant drew a distinction in business opposition to the spending plan. Workers and small businesses who question the city’s approach to homelessness are right to ask hard questions about how the money has been spent “for decades,” she said. But similar questions from the likes of Amazon, Starbucks, and more are more often “disingenuous,” Sawant said.

“When, it’s a question of Ivar’s, and big business, and larger property, land owners, and Wall Street interests, the city and the state shell out billions of dollars,” Sawant said Saturday. “Boeing got $9 billion in 2013 and Amazon has got sweetheart deals for South Lake Union. But when it’s working people, they suddenly talk about money.”

Sawant also described the push for an “Amazon Tax” as a logical next step for the Socialist Alternative effort.

“That is why our movement’s larger message is that we need our own independent, work force candidates who don’t take money from corporations,” she said. “And we need our own party that is not beholden to corporate interests.”

Rent control and starting “the fight to provide economic eviction assistance to renters” later this year, will be her and the movement’s next goals.

The fight, Sawant said, is for the future of Seattle.

“If our vision is that only rich people can live here, then we are right on track,” Sawant told CHS. “But if you have a vision like me, that it should be a city where everybody is welcome and everybody is able to afford to live here, then we have to fight for it.”

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10 thoughts on “What we heard at the ‘March on Amazon’ as Seattle business tax fight comes to a head

  1. The ‘Tax the Rich’ narrative gets old quick especially when it comes from Sawant and her ilk (is Sawant still only keeping $40K of her $117K+ salary?). Additionally, while I’m not a fan of Amazon, if there was any doubt that this law was crafted and targeted almost specifically towards Amazon, it’s been removed. Other companies that meet the criteria are just icing on the cake.

    The problem isn’t that they don’t have enough money. The problem is that the money they have isn’t being targeted towards programs that work. Homelessness is a multi-faceted problem without an easy quick fix, as we all have seen. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is just allowing them to do whatever they want wherever they want – as we all have also seen.

    • Taxing Amazon is not a good idea, the new tower they are building to house 7,000 employees might be finished & rented out to other companies. Amazon may just down size their Seattle office and move to a better location. The homeless living in tents don’t have jobs, who will pay for their affordable housing if they don’t work?

  2. “Rent control and starting “the fight to provide economic eviction assistance to renters” later this year, will be her and the movement’s next goals.” The fight, Sawant said, is for the future of Seattle.

    This is where Sawant wants to take our city. This tax on Amazon is just one step in her march to turning Seattle into a socialist mecca. I’m sorry. This is not my view of Seattle. And I think I’m in the majority. Can’t wait until the next City Council elections to see. I still believe the answer is involving the business community rather than taxing it. She is the one initiating the extortion.

  3. Bailey Boushay House was ready to offer 50 shelter beds to its day program clients who are living on the streets and who desperately need the HIV meds management, drug treatment coordination and housing search facilitation Bailey Boushay was ready to offer. They gave a presentation at a Madison Valley Community Council meeting and had the overwhelming support of the council and those in attendance. Literally one person voiced concerns. The rest of the crowd had nothing but compliments for Brian Knowles from Bailey Boushay on his proposal. The city shot it down. Why? What other funded, ready to roll out shelter programs has the city shut down and why? This is a story I’d love to see CHS or other media cover.

    • Do you have any articles about the shelter being shut down? I can only find scant information that they were even seeking to open it up, as of January 2018. I can find nothing about it being approved or denied.

  4. This mess is what we got because some folks latched on to the simple catchphrases she spouted, not understanding the ramifications. I hope a lesson has been learned here and we refrain for electing another socialist.

  5. The rallying cry needs to be ‘find an alternative to property tax’. With over half Seattle renting, we have a serious disconnect between endless city initiatives, and our ability to pay.

    Arguably a headcount tax is another spin on income tax, but without the ‘you can’t have an income tax’ problem..

  6. Well, except the head tax isn’t really a spin on an income tax, because it taxes businesses instead of people. And it only taxes a very specific group of businesses. And it taxes gross income rather than profit, so it’s really arbitrary in that it dramatically hits businesses with large gross numbers but who happen to work in a category of business with extremely low margins. Right. Other than all of these things it’s a lot like an income tax.