The Economic Opportunity Institute’s John Burbank was instrumental in the push for a Seattle income tax. Photo by Nathalie Graham

Years of Prep Preceded Lightning Fast Passage of Seattle Income Tax

Activists say the new law has its roots in past failed efforts … and Trump.

In April, Mayor Ed Murray announced his support for an income tax.

“We all know that Washington state has a regressive system,” Murray said to the audience of several hundred packed into the Seattle Mennonite Church for the first mayoral debate, hosted by the 46th District Democrats. “We can all argue about what we’re going to do about it—these discussions have been going on since I was a kid in this city—but what I am going to send to Council in the next few weeks is a proposal for a high-end income tax.” Here, Murray had to briefly pause for applause. “It’s going to be challenged…in court, but if we win in court and we can get that high-end income tax, we can shift our regressive taxes, our sales tax and property tax, onto that high-end income tax.”

The comments came as a surprise to many—not least to the two activists credited with leading the push for a city income tax. “We heard some rumblings about it earlier that day, but it was certainly a surprise,” says Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (TRU). “We were given, like, a two-hour advance notice,” adds John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute.

After months of grassroots organizing in Seattle, the push for a city income tax had hit the big time. The next day, Burbank says, he met with Murray and Councilmember Lisa Herbold to “sketch out how best and most expeditiously to proceed.” Which more or less led us to Monday, when the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to create a 2.25 percent tax on individual income over $250,000 and joint income of more than $500,000.

How did an income tax—which will inevitably be appealed to the state Supreme Court—go from a progressive pipe dream to gaining the full support of the Seattle City Council and mayor in just a few months? The short answer is: It didn’t. Passing the income tax took years and multiple failed attempts, the rotten guts of which served as compost for this year’s blossoming effort.

Rewind to fall 2010, when a statewide income tax failed by a margin of nearly two to one on the ballot. But Seattle voters supported it by about two to one; the only majority-No areas were in Magnolia and a couple of other rich neighborhoods. Following that defeat, says Burbank, EOI turned its sights toward cities, searching for an opportune vehicle with which to implement an income tax.

“We did polling, we looked at Seattle and Olympia,” says Burbank, “and there was an agreed-upon decision to try and move this forward in Olympia in 2016.” EOI and other groups successfully got an income-tax measure on the ballot that would have taxed household income over $200,000 by 1.5 percent. The proceeds would have gone to fund college tuition. However, the Olympia tax failed 48 to 52—on the same day that Donald Trump was elected president. Devastating as those results were for progressives like Burbank, he says he quickly saw an opportunity in the wreckage. “We…were obviously disappointed by the election results,” he says, “but they created this catalytic moment that the best way to move forward was to focus on local efforts for progressive activity, because we knew nothing good was going to happen at the federal level.”

Trumped at the federal level and stymied in Olympia, the taxivists turned to the Emerald City. Here, Wilson—who hadn’t been as deeply involved in the Olympia effort—joined Burbank in cobbling together a pro-income tax coalition consisting of dozens of organizations, including 350 Seattle and the Neighborhood Action Coalition (NAC). She handled field work, he produced the policy.

Also deeply involved in this effort were Nickelsville, SHARE/WHEEL, and Safe in Seattle, says Daniel Goodman of NAC and TRU. “Five days after Trump’s election when the NAC was born, conversations there led to meetings between myself and Ximena Velazquez-Arenas from the NAC and Katie Wilson and John Burbank,” says Goodman. “This was the birth of the Trump Proof Seattle Coalition.”

After the election, Wilson recalls “looking at the landscape and realizing, ‘My God, national politics are going to be a nightmare.’ ” Given these lemons, Wilson and other taxivists decided to make lemonade by naming their coalition Trump Proof Seattle.

The effort also benefited from a rare moment of high turnover on the Council. In 2013, conservative businesswoman Faye Garneau sponsored a successful ballot measure that turned seven of the Council’s nine at-large seats into local, district-based seats. 2015 was the first year that the districts took effect, and all nine seats were put up for grabs rather than the typical staggered Council election cycle. The result was that four of nine Council seats received new butts to warm them. The new, younger Council has taken a more activist, even aggressive approach, passing a slew of progressive legislation in its first year.

Garneau’s stated purpose for creating Council districts was to make councilmembers more directly accountable to their constituents. In the case of the income tax, that’s exactly what happened. “I think that the districts do offer an opportunity for more focused pressure to be put on individual councilmembers,” says Wilson. “It makes it easier to get constituents involved, because it’s something you can wrap your head around: ‘This is my district, and our job is to get my councilmember on board.’ It’s a manageable goal, where if you have nine councilmembers, maybe you don’t know where to start.”

The effort included a “Lunch and Learn” event in Council chambers at City Hall, sponsored by Councilmembers Herbold (who had previously spoken at the Trump-Proof Seattle campaign’s kickoff event in January), Mike O’Brien, and Kshama Sawant. In the following weeks, Trump-Proof Seattle held seven town halls, one for each Council district.

These town halls laid the groundwork for the income tax. Still, Trump-Proof Seattle didn’t have a timeline for when they’d actually see an income tax in front of the Council. Then that candidate forum up in North Seattle came around. Murray’s announcement that he’d be sending income-tax legislation to Council was the tipping point.

The “character” of the town halls changed after Murray’s announcement, says Wilson. “There wasn’t that tension around, ‘Oh, is the councilmember going to support it?’…I think we could still have done it without [Murray], but it wouldn’t have happened as fast.”

Murray’s surprise support for the tax came at an interesting moment for the mayor. At the beginning of the year, he was looking at a clear path to re-election. But by April 20, a lawsuit alleging he sexually assaulted a homeless teen in the 1980s was weeks old. The suit brought to light other accusations of sexual misconduct from Murray’s past (all of which Murray denies), leading to calls for him to resign his seat and unleashing a flood of new challengers. Other candidates in the suddenly competitive race were making the income tax an issue, especially former mayor Mike McGinn. “It was significant that when McGinn declared he was running, he included the income tax in his initial announcement,” says Wilson. “If there weren’t those election pressures, it would’ve probably been more difficult to build pressure to get the mayor on board.”

Murray’s campaign staff say the shift in the race didn’t initiate the mayor’s decision to pass an income tax, but it did speed him up. “The mayor did mention that work publicly at the first debate, a little sooner than he would have otherwise, because other candidates who had jumped into the race had started talking about an income tax, and he felt it was important for people to know that he had his own proposal in the works,” says Sandeep Kaushik, a campaign advisor.

The dynamics seem similar to those present in the 2013 mayoral race between then-mayor McGinn and then-state senator Murray. That year, Murray won in part by coming out in favor of the $15 minimum wage before McGinn did. But if McGinn’s announcement of support for the income tax was intended to outflank Murray on this year’s cause célèbre, then Murray upped the ante by means available only to a currently elected official: by actually passing legislation. Murray, of course, has since dropped his re-election bid. But his play on the income tax had its effect.

That same night, Bruce Harrell publicly supported the tax for the first time, thus creating a Council majority in its favor. “That was really a turning point in the campaign,” says Wilson. “Having the mayor come out and say he supported it moved several of the councilmembers.”

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca. In that sense, the taxivists, Burbank and Wilson most especially, got profoundly lucky with the Seattle income tax. They spent years preparing via trial and failure. Then the 2016 election transformed the political landscape, locally and nationally, and that preparation finally paid off. Seattle’s leaders, knocked off-balance by an election year, were swallowed in an unstoppable flood of grassroots organizing and popular support. At one public hearing where more than 60 people testified on the proposed tax, only a handful (I counted three) were opposed.

Just because Seattle voters overwhelmingly want to tax themselves progressively, however, doesn’t mean they can. The state of Washington strictly limits the kinds and amounts of self-taxation municipal bodies can perform. As we’ve reported, a judge will likely decide whether the income tax violates the Washington state constitution. If it does, then that’s all she wrote. If it doesn’t, then Seattle will overturn nearly a century of court precedent prohibiting income taxes; this could potentially revolutionize taxation around the state.

And it all began with failure. “We could have decided in November that there was nowhere else to go,” says Burbank, after the failure in Olympia, “and sort of give up.” Instead, he says, “we decided to persist.”

This post has been updated.

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