Sawant goes it alone in rogue ‘Amazon Tax’ committee meeting

The inauguration night upporters couldn’t be at Thursday’s committee in person but Sawant said they tuned in with “more than 100 members of the public” taking part in the virtual meeting

There was only one Seattle City Council member logged in to participate in Thursday night’s “rogue” committee meeting on an “Amazon Tax.”

The major proposal from Central Seattle representative Kshama Sawant to tax big business to the tune of $500 million per year seemed to be moving through the council last month. It had a public hearing in late April and seemed on its way to a committee vote this month. But it was suddenly stymied as council president Lorena González tabled the tax proposal over concerns that dealing with the legislation could violate public meetings law during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sawant announced she would take up discussion of the proposed legislation in a committee she controlled despite the warnings, a rogue move in defiance of Gonzalez’s decision.

Sawant’s special meeting of her Sustainability & Renters’ Rights Committee Thursday evening continued discussion of the measure she made the centerpiece of her reelection last fall.

But Thursday night, Sawant was the only council member in attendance.

“Let’s be very clear here: the Democratic Party political establishment is trying to use the cover of legal arguments — and not very competent ones at that — to try and quash our growing movement and protect big business from taxation,” Sawant said. Continue reading

With no bike share in Seattle, sharing in the city takes another hit

Rarely does an industry have such a quick rise and sudden drop as the bikeshare business has had in Seattle. Last year it would have been odd if you didn’t see a mass of multicolored bicycles across the streets, from red Jump bikes to the yellow Ofos and green Lime bicycles.

Lime took its 2,000 bikes off Seattle streets in December and now the Jump bicycles will be temporarily absent, as well, with Lime taking over the red bike’s business operations this month. Lime acquired Jump on May 7 after Uber, which owned the latter, led a $170 million investment in Lime that “reaffirms Lime’s market strength and positions the company to build a long-lasting business that empowers people with sustainable, safe and affordable transportation options,” the company said in an announcement.

This comes as the bike rental business has fallen off a cliff during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were just 23,400 trips in April, compared to 158,600 trips in April 2019, according to Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) data.

“We recognize that the COVID-19 has impacted all areas of life including new mobility companies, and we are evaluating our options with these impacts in mind,” SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said in an email. Continue reading

Facing opposition from mayor and chamber advocates, Seattle tax on big businesses for COVID-19 relief and housing moves toward May vote

Measures to tax big business accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic took another preliminary step at the Seattle City Council Wednesday as a torn cohort of public commenters weighed in on the suite of bills.

Proponents of the legislation criticized Mayor Jenny Durkan for opposing the tax and touted its ability to address multiple issues at once, while opponents called it a “tax on jobs” and claimed it could stunt response to the outbreak that has sickened more than 6,000 in King County.

“We are on the eve of a major economic downturn and instead of negotiating over new streams of revenue for city programs, we need our city leaders help and focus on getting our local jobs and economy back online,” said Don Blakeney, the Downtown Seattle Association’s vice president of advocacy and economic development.

The plan, spearheaded by council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, would, in the long run, tax the largest 2% of businesses to fund the construction of up to 10,000 units of social housing and the conversion of homes to environmental standards in line with the Green New Deal starting next year.

But Sawant and Morales have pushed the plan forward to also create a $500 a month Seattle COVID-19 relief payment program for up to 100,000 households beginning later this year. Continue reading

Testing, testing, testing: At forefront of U.S. cities responding to COVID-19 crisis, here’s what Seattle’s mayor talked about in her first ‘virtual town hall’

A mobile COVID-19 testing clinic Friday on 14th Ave

Pounded early by COVID-19, the Seattle area has found itself an early indicator of what is to come in big cities across the country. Last week, the city’s mayor focused on Central Seattle including Capitol Hill and the Central District as part of what her office said will be a series of “virtual town halls” in neighborhoods across the city to talk with residents and try to connect communities with needed city resources.

Testing and the resources needed to bolster the effort were at the center of Jenny Durkan’s conversation as the Seattle mayor made it clear Thursday that the city does not have enough testing capability to tackle COVID-19 and likely will not have that capacity for a long time, weeks into a pandemic that has more than 5,500 cases across the county and has killed nearly 400. The city’s potential $300 million hole in its budget, of course, was also on the minds of Durkan’s citizens.

“There is not adequate testing and I wish I could tell you that that’s gonna happen soon. We don’t know when it’s gonna happen,” she said in the virtual town hall, noting the state is pushing for access to “millions of test kits.” Continue reading

With another $310B lined up, Rep. Jayapal — and Seattle small business owners — question federal Paycheck Protection Program

(Image: Sea Turtle via Flickr)

Rep. Pramila Jayapal told her Seattle constituents this week that she was torn on how to vote on a new $480 billion COVID-19 relief package, acknowledging positives such as money for desperately needed testing but said she was worried the massive package won’t address the needs of working people.

UPDATE 3:35 PM: Jayapal joined her colleagues in approving the aid package:

My constituents are desperate for help. I voted for this bill because Democrats took an insufficient Republican bill and made it better—but this package is so far from sufficient.  It does too little to respond to the public health emergency and stop the economic free fall. Every minute we do not act is another death, another family devastated, another business shuttered.

One small victory for Democrats like Jayapal concerned about large companies muscling in on the previous rounds of payroll protection funding — $60 billion of this round will be earmarked only for small lenders.

ORIGINAL REPORT: “It has good principles in it, but I have heard from all of my constituents that it is not serving the needs of too many people,” Jayapal said at a meeting of Seattle’s 43rd District Democrats via video conferencing Tuesday night. “It is not getting money to the unbanked, it is not getting money to people who are not high on the list of the banks that are out there.”

The U.S. Senate approved the package, which would give an additional $310 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Tuesday and the House is expected to vote on it Thursday. Jayapal called the small business aid program into question during the meeting, citing economists she’s spoken with who say the PPP “won’t solve anything.”

“It is not bold enough, it is not big enough,” Jayapal said. “We are trying to use systems that are from, in some cases, the 50s and other cases maybe the 70s or 80s to respond to a crisis that is in 2020 and massive.”

In an online Q&A session with Seattle small business owners earlier in the day on Tuesday held by the GSBA business advocacy organization, Mark Costello, Deputy District Director for the federal Small Business Administration, tried to relax concerns from owners who applied but didn’t receive approvals from their banks and lenders before the first round of PPP funding dried up.

“I believe your application is in there,” Costello said. “You’ve done everything you need to do. Try to have patience as SBA tries to work through the really daunting level of demand this program has spurned.” Continue reading

May Day: Sawant calls for ‘Rent Strike’ in Seattle — UPDATE

UPDATED 4/16/20 following our interview with council member Sawant

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant says the COVID-19 crisis calls for a rent freeze and relief for vulnerable populations dealing with economic hardship as thousands of workers have been laid off.

Her office representing Capitol Hill, the Central District, and nearby neighborhoods is now planning a May 1st rent strike to put pressure on landlords and politicians to get a statewide suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments.

“[T]he political establishment will not act, given their ties to corporate landlords and big business,” she said on Facebook. “It will take a real fight, it will take a Rent Strike! And we will need to be organized, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, while of course maintaining social distancing.”

While nearly 9,000 have signed a petition urging Gov. Jay Inslee to immediately enact such a suspension as well as a freeze on rent increases for the rest of the year, Sawant says more needs to be done.

“It’s not that anybody is telling them not to pay rent, they simply don’t have money to pay rent,” Sawant says of the call for a strike.

The Socialist Alternative council member says she is launching this new effort because “individual renters and families, working families, simply saying ‘Well I can’t pay rent, so I’m not gonna pay rent’ doesn’t protect you from eviction. That doesn’t protect you from the corporate landlords and the big banks.”

“We need to understand that renter organizing is no different fundamentally from workplace organizing.” First, she says, renters must collectively organize.

Continue reading

Capitol Hill ‘comfort station’ part of Seattle scramble to help homeless people get through COVID-19 crisis

UPDATE: The city has provided this new map with updated information

The City of Seattle has deployed a Capitol Hill “comfort station” at Cal Anderson Park as part of efforts to increase access to sanitation for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, another dangerous health crisis has emerged here with a disturbing increase in hepatitis cases in the city.

While modeling shows that Washington may have passed the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, people who are unsheltered are feeling the worst of its effects as minimal access to clean running water and restrooms mean the virus can spread rapidly among this vulnerable population.

This was the tense topic of discussion at a Wednesday meeting of a Seattle City Council committee as officials were confronted with local activists calling on them to reopen public spaces and staff them with the National Guard so they will be available to people who are experiencing homelessness.

At the Chief Seattle Club in Pioneer Square, the club’s executive director Colleen Echohawk told the panel that they had to limit bathrooms to four people at a time to comply with social distancing guidelines. One woman, who Echohawk said was menstruating, begged her to use the bathroom.

“I could tell you many, many stories of just desperate need for bathrooms and showers,” Echohawk said. Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, added, “What we are seeing unfold in our city is a truly shocking experience.” Continue reading

Sawant loses fight but ‘Tax Amazon’ COVID-19 relief and housing proposal begins path through Seattle City Hall

With COVID-19 set to tear up the city’s budget, District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant has turned again to a familiar target: Amazon and the biggest two percent of businesses. But Monday, her council counterparts opted to send a proposal for a new tax on Seattle’s largest companies to provide emergency relief from the pandemic down a legislative pathway not controlled by the Socialist Alternative representative for Capitol Hill’s District 3.

More than 5,400 people signed a petition to the council spearheaded by Sawant to enact the new tax proposed last month with South Seattle rep Tammy Morales. Another over 1,100 people emailed council members calling on them to send the legislation to Sawant’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee.

Monday, the suite of three bills was sent unanimously to the Select Budget Committee, chaired by council member Teresa Mosqueda, who said she would work to get the legislation a robust discussion with urgency.

Sawant levied criticisms against council member Lisa Herbold and council president Lorena González for their votes to repeal her head tax on Amazon in 2018.

Monday, several council members, including Herbold, pushed back against Sawant for promoting the idea of a divided council during an emergency.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to really promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business,” Herbold said. “I think this council acts in a way that’s fair and respectful of one another.”

Council member Debora Juarez said “this type of politics in the midst of a lethal pandemic, to me, is unacceptable and a waste of time.” Continue reading

Washington schools to remain closed for rest of school year

Capitol Hill’s Stevens Elementary’s campus is taped off and closed (Image: CHS)

Washington school campuses will remain closed through the rest of the school year as the state’s districts do what they can to ramp up distance learning to finish the academic year.

“We simply can’t take the chance of reopening onsite instruction in this school year,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday.

“Your educators will continue teaching but it will look different than what you are used to,” Inslee told students Monday, asking young people to also do their part to help.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal foreshadowed the move last week when he said that K-12 school buildings throughout Washington could remain closed for the rest of the year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know if we’re coming back to school this year and I want to be honest about that, Reykdal said. “I think you should expect to be in this distance learning model for quite a long time.”

Monday, he described the challenges and costs of cleaning a campus if students of instructors get sick and echoed Inslee’s concerns about continuing to try to slow the pandemic.

The decision “does call into question this fall,” Reykdal said, adding that state officials have begun planning how to approach the next school year.

Washington now joins more than a dozen states in closing its school campuses for the year, Reykdal said.

UPDATE: Here is Reykdal’s announcement of the closure: Continue reading

With cuts beginning, officials sorting out COVID-19 budget damage from Seattle City Hall to Olympia

A view of Seattle during the COVID-19 crisis

Doesn’t look so bad from up here (Image: CHS)

As COVID-19 rages on both locally and nationally, one big question that looms over governments at all levels is what this means for budgets and the services they fund.

With weakening revenue forecasts and increasing unexpected expenditures, Seattle and the state are scrambling to rejigger budget estimates as they constantly evolve in a rapidly changing situation as a virus with over 7,500 cases as of Saturday rages on in Washington.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s Finance and Housing Committee, has been holding weekly check-ins with the City Budget Office to assess the impact this could have.

The 40% of the general fund made up by sales and business and occupation taxes is going to get hit pretty hard with less activity in the city, CBO director Ben Noble said. The B&O tax is paid quarterly and the sales tax comes on a six-week lag, meaning it can take time to fully understand the shortfalls that could result from such a devastating pandemic.

“We’re kind of blind to the impact in the moment and we don’t know how long this is gonna last,” Noble said. “There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

The federal relief bill might give the city some “flexible money,” according to Noble, but not much. Continue reading