head tax

Demonstrators for and against the head tax gather at Seattle City Hall ahead of the council vote Tuesday to repeal the head tax.

In a stunning reversal without parallel in Seattle’s recent political history, the City Council voted 7-2 Tuesday to repeal a controversial head tax on large employers.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to make the repeal final by signing it into law.

The vote, at a special meeting called by Council President Bruce Harrell, came less than a month after the council voted 9-0 to approve the tax of $275 per employee, per year to help fund housing and services for homeless people. It also came as leaders of a referendum campaign to repeal the tax had been preparing to submit their signatures.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who voted with the majority, said she felt like crying but was voting to repeal because Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has somehow persuaded the “vast majority” of Seattleites to oppose the tax.

“This is not a winnable battle at this time… The opposition has unlimited resources,” she said.

For city leaders, the vote amounts to an embarrassing about-face. Only a few weeks ago, Durkan and council members hailed the tax as an important step in Seattle responding to a homelessness state of emergency declared back in 2015.

The action represents a victory for Amazon and the other big businesses that would have paid the tax and have been funding the referendum campaign.

But the vote — which came amid loud, synchronized shouts from the crowd of “stop the repeal” — is a blow for the social-justice activists and homeless-services providers who spent months pushing for the tax, citing the severity of Seattle’s homeless crisis.

Sawant, at a rally before the vote, called repeal a “cowardly betrayal” of working people. She and Teresa Mosqueda were the two council members voting against repeal.

During the meeting, Sawant condemned the action as coming with “lightning speed” and with “zero accountability” to activists and people struggling with the housing crisis. “Bending to big business,” Sawant called it.

Proponents of the tax say Amazon and other large companies need to do more to help people living in tents, cars and shelters because the city’s tech-industry boom has contributed to inequality in recent years by driving up rents and home prices.

But the politicians didn’t count on how quickly business leaders would mount a big-money referendum campaign and apparently misjudged how many ordinary voters would support the effort out of frustration with City Hall’s handling of homelessness.

Mosqueda accused Amazon of an empty handshake in pushing last month for a lower head tax — down from the prospect of $500 per employee per year — only to turn around and fund the referendum campaign.

Durkan and the council members have no immediate backup plan to raise the $47 million per year the head tax would have collected from about 600 businesses — those grossing at least $20 million per year in Seattle.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien said the head tax is the “best tool that we have ... and yet I do not see a path” to make it law.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is for me to say that publicly,” he said.

Sawant said the council should not have feared a November vote. “We should have the confidence we can change the minds of other working people like ourselves,” who may oppose the head tax now, she said.

O’Brien pledged to get to work immediately on another funding proposal.

A regional panel on homelessness includes business representatives, called One Table, has so far failed to come up with an alternative funding plan.

Adding drama Tuesday, a gong was repeatedly rung during the pre-vote rally — as Tim Harris, founder of Real Change, explained — 6,320 times, for all the people tallied as unsheltered on King County streets on a January night this year.

People on both sides of the head-tax issue, holding “No Tax on Jobs” and “Tax Amazon; Housing for All” signs packed the council chamber and were allowed short comments before the vote. The remarks were impassioned. Many who went to the microphone attacked the courage of the council members’ convictions to help the homeless and promised to vote the officials out at the next opportunity.

Said one speaker, “In my heart, I just feel like crying... Please do not repeal this tax... Without it, where else can we get the money?”

Another, who described himself as a dad, veteran and anarchist, asked council, “Who are you to justify letting people die in the streets?”

Fewer spoke against the tax.

A speaker from Essential Baking Company urged council to repeal, adding that doing business in Seattle has become more difficult.

Editor’s note: While The Seattle Times Company would be affected by the head tax, and the editorial board has commented on it, The Times’ news coverage is separate from those functions and remains independent.