Has Seattle’s Love Affair With Tax Measures Come to An End?

Seattle has long been known for never meeting a tax hike it didn’t like. Now some aren’t so sure.

Speaking shortly after his committee dealt a serious blow to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s arts tax proposal last Wednesday, County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove is being very careful to not sound like an antitax zealot.

“As someone who’s fairly liberal, I don’t want to reinforce some stereotypes about taxing,” the Democrat from South King County says. However, “I’ve had a hell of a lot of Democrats supporting my current position on the arts sales tax.”

Upthegrove chairs the county budget committee, which had been scheduled to vote on the arts tax on Wednesday. However, saying the votes weren’t there to pass it, Upthegrove pulled the measure from the agenda, declaring the meaure “effectively kill[ed].” Had the tax, which would raise $67 million annually for arts and culture programs, passed the committee, it would have gone to a full Council vote and then to voters. The measure still has a path to the ballot: A Council majority could vote to pull the measure out of committee and then advance it to voters in August. Yet the opposition to the measure, from Democrats no less, suggests that passing taxes in the Seattle area isn’t as easy as it used to be.

The arts tax’s troubles came a week after Mayor Ed Murray scrapped plans to put a property-tax levy on the August ballot that would have raised about $55 million a year for homeless services. Murray insisted the decision was a pragmatic one based on his decision to team up with the county for a larger tax levy in 2018. Yet the announcement marked a sharp and surprising change of course for the mayor, who had previously said he’d rather lose his re-election campaign than see the homeless tax fail.

Two taxes sputtering in such short succession has inevitably caused some to wonder whether the Seattle area is starting to lose its appetite for taxes after years of strongly supporting them.

“Taxation is a big issue right now. That’s become very apparent over the last month or so,” says Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “People are reaching the point where something needs to shift.” She argues that the issue isn’t taxation in general, but the way we do it—through sales and property taxes, which hit the poor harder than the rich. Her group has launched an effort to create a tax on investment income for those who make more than $250,000 a year in Seattle, which, it argues, would allow policymakers to raise more revenue without harming the poor. “Two taxes have gone down. Both those are standard regressive tax sources, and both were withdrawn because of opposition that stems from people fatigued by regressive taxes,” Wilson says.

While it is unclear how big a role regressive taxing played in the withdrawal of the homeless levy, the effect on poor people certainly weighed heavily on Upthegrove’s decision on the arts tax. While a major selling point of the measure is arts access to poor county residents through things like school programs and discounted tickets, he argues that the way the measure is set up, lots of money would come from poor areas and flow into big institutions in Seattle. “The burden falls on working-class people mostly, but has very little direct investment in the poorest areas,” he says. His district, which covers high-poverty areas like Burien, Sea-Tac, and Tukwila, would see a maximum of $379,000 in direct investment, Upthegrove says, while “Woodland Park Zoo gets $4.7 million.” Upthegrove says he’d entertain another arts tax proposal next year, if it the benefits were better spread out. “I personally haven’t been arguing against this based on a taxes-are-too-high argument,” he says.

Equity issues aside, it’s also a fact voters have been faced with a lot of tax measures in recent years, funding everything from democracy vouchers to light-rail expansion, prompting some elected officials to sound the alarm. In an op-ed published April 9, King County Assessor John Wilson argued that property tax levies “are creating a tax system that is becoming unsustainable.” He notes that in Seattle, property taxes have jumped nearly 22 percent, on average, in the last two years, mostly due to voter-approved levies.

In an interview with Seattle Weekly, Wilson, who has worked for Democrats and identifies as left-of-center, says that during the Great Recession, leaders were unwilling to put tax measures on the ballot. “Now people see the coast is clear. There is no formal, or informal, gatekeeping function [of what taxes go on the ballot when], so you don’t get this taxpayer fatigue. You have the opposite, actually.” He notes that at community forums, he’s hearing a lot of tax anxiety, “and it hasn’t been the Eyman-esque refrain of ‘No new taxes,’ ” he says.

Still, the question remains: Why get tax-shy now? Murray was confident enough of the city’s appetite for more taxes in February that during his State of the City address he proposed two new taxes, the homeless levy and a soda tax. “Only in Seattle. Only here would a mayor kick off his bid for re-election by announcing two new tax increases,” a bemused Danny Westneat wrote in The Seattle Times following the address.

One theory floated about our new-found tax aversion is that, with ST3 taxes now in effect, people are feeling squeezed. Or it could be that we’re not tax-averse at all—that the two tax measures going down within a week of each other was a fluke. The arts tax still has a path, if a tricky one, to the ballot, and Murray says the homeless tax will be voted on in 2018.

But that’s assuming Murray is still around in 2018. Now seen as politically vulnerable following accusations that he sexually abused troubled teens in the 1980s, he is expected to draw many challengers for this year’s election. This first one to announce since the allegations surfaced two weeks ago was former Mayor Mike McGinn, who announced his candidacy on Monday. Among his first promises: No new property tax levies.