Proposed County Sales Tax to Fund Arts Held Back in Committee

The county budget chair blocked the executive’s proposal because sales taxes disfavor the poor.

King County Councilmember and budget chair Dave Upthegrove removed from tomorrow’s budget committee agenda Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal to put a $469 million sales tax on the fall ballot to pay for arts and science programming targeted at poor people and seniors, according to a press release. In effect, the fall arts tax is dead, says Upthegrove—though the full council could override his decision.

In a council press release, Upthegrove said he killed the tax proposal because its funding mechanism—a sales tax—burdens the poor more than the rich. The fancy word for this is “regressive” taxation. Rich people and poor people consume roughly the same amount of cereal, gasoline, and toothbrushes each month, but have vastly different abilities to meet the new burden of an additional sales tax on each of those bought-and-sold items.

“This is the wrong proposal at the wrong time,” said Upthegrove in a press release. “As currently configured, the funding is distributed in an unfair manner that hurts, rather than helps, our efforts to achieve equity. The sales tax burdens working class folks the most, yet the lowest income parts of our county continue to be neglected.” Upthegrove said he might reconsider the tax next year.

Deputy Executive Sung Yang said that Constantine’s office is still hopeful they can get enough votes to put the arts tax on the ballot. “Councilmember Upthegrove has expressed his position…but we know there is broad support on the council,” says Yang. “I feel things can get worked on until the deadline. We still have more time, and we look forward to working with all the councilmembers” to get to a tax package a majority can support, he says.

Part of the context for Upthegrove’s decision is the possibility of a homelessness tax this fall. Its history is complicated. First, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray proposed a property tax on this fall’s ballot that woud have doubled the city’s homelessness funding. Then Constantine proposed another fall tax—the sales tax Upthegrove just smothered in committee—to fund arts and science education stuff. Then county councilmembers Larry Gossett and Rod Dembowski introduced legislation to put a sales tax on the county ballot in August. Then, as we reported, Murray announced that he was abandoning his $275 million proposed property tax levy to fight homelessness and will instead partner with King County Executive Dow Constantine to put a 0.1 percent county-wide sales tax increase on the 2018 ballot to fund regional services.

Now, after all that swapping, Constantine’s original arts proposal may be dead—or may not. Either way, it’s not clear whether Gossett and Dembowski’s 2017 tax or Murray and Constantine’s 2018 tax to fund homelessness mitigation will triumph in its wake, or whether some other proposal will emerge from the murky, protean sea of Seattle/King County policymaking.

This post has been edited. Certainty of the arts tax’s demise in an earlier version was overstated; we regret the error.

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