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‘We’re going to get this done:’ Councilmember Johnson pledges support for city income tax

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Caption: District 4 representative Rob Johnson speaks to around 150 people at University Heights Center, Thursday, March 23 in support of a Seattle-specific income tax on wealthy households. Photo courtesy of the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

President Trump unveiled his disastrous first budget blueprint last week, which included $54 billion in cuts to most all government agencies aside from Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Specific programs and agencies — many of which have had a measurably positive impact on communities across the country for decades — face debilitating cuts in funding, and include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Office of Violence Against Women.

While the fate of these programs and services is uncertain at a federal level, a coalition of citizens and activist groups is taking direct action to “Trump-proof” Seattle against devastating cuts by paving the way for a Seattle income tax.

Fixing Seattle’s tax structure, and then Washington’s

Lead by the Seattle Transit Riders Union (TRU), the Trump-Proof Seattle Campaign purposes an income tax that would affect the adjusted gross income of households in Seattle earning more than $250,000 a year. If upheld in the Washington State Supreme Court, the group estimates the 1.5 percent tax on income earned above that threshold could bring in more than $125 million per year, which would help offset the overwhelming cuts potentially imposed by a Trump budget. Aside from bringing in millions that could help fund everything from the state’s public education system to the city’s homelessness problem, the tax would reverse our state’s notoriously regressive tax structure.

“This will be an actual progressive tax,” Stephen Gose, the vice chair of the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, told seattlepi.com in early March. “Most people in the city don’t make enough money that this will affect them.”

Washington’s tax structure is currently the worst in the nation for low and middle-income earners, and places an undue burden on the most vulnerable in our community. The creation of an income tax was ruled unconstitutional in Washington — despite being overwhelmingly favored by citizens at the time — by Supreme Court court decision made in 1933. KUOW reports that enacting a state income tax has come up seven times since that fateful Supreme Court decision, but every time voters have rejected it. It was most recently brought before voters in 2010 in the form of Initiative 1098, which sought to establish a statewide tax on adjusted gross income above $200,000 for individuals and $400,000 for couples. The Office of Financial Management estimated it would generate $11.1 billion over five years, which would be funneled exclusively to education and health services. It was defeated in every county, including King County. Seattle voters, however, overwhelmingly supported the measure, with 63 percent of voters in favor of passing the tax, according to a 2011 Seattle Times article.

“I-1098 failed statewide, but passed in the city 2-to-1. I think Seattle is open to discussing a more equitable tax structure,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said at the time.

Despite its past struggles, tax-structure reform and the fight for a statewide income tax is a progressive step toward broader wealth distribution, which means high-income earners pay their fair share while low-to-middle-income earners get the break they so desperately need.

Councilmember Rob Johnson: ‘With your support, we’re going to get this done’

To build excitement and educate Seattleites on the benefits of an income tax, around 150 people gathered at the University Heights Center in the University District Thursday evening, March, 23 for a resident-organized town hall with District 4 representative Rob Johnson. The event was a joint effort between  TRU and the District 4 Neighborhood Action Coalition, and hosted panel speakers from Upgrade Seattle and 350 Seattle. The initiative itself is support by around 40 community organizations and groups, including the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“Seattle is a great place to be rich, and a sucky place to be poor,” said TRU General Secretary Katie Wilson, referring to the fact that Washington taxes the poorest 20 percent of residents at 16.8 percent, versus a 2.4 percent tax rate for the top one percent. “We’re creating a tax haven for the rich, and the revenue [generated] is not keeping pace with the wealth of the region.”

Seattle has largely failed to balance its prominence as vibrant technology hub with maintaining a steady supply of affordable housing for anyone who isn’t pulling in a six-figure salary. The median sale price of single-family homes and condos in Seattle in January 2017 was $594,975, according to a report by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Renters don’t fair much better, with one-bedroom units renting for a median of $1,820, according to San Francisco-based apartment rental site Zumper. As of November 2015, the city remains in state in a state of emergency over its homelessness crisis. With threats from President Trump’s “skinny budget” looming, Seattle is already ill-prepared to handle any more cuts in funding.

“I’m a big believer that this is one of the best ways for us to stand up and say we’re going to fight back,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, who was specifically referring to Trump’s proposed cuts to programs that maintain Puget Sound environmental health. Trump’s budget, if passed in its current form, would see the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget for Puget Sound clean-up decimated by 93 percent. “With your support, we’re going to get this done,” Johnson promised the crowd.

Johnson was cagey about a timeline, and said it was important to move in lock-step with organizations and coalitions backing the tax and develop a sound legal strategy, which could take time. ”As a member of the budget committee, I commit to making this a priority,” he said. “Will that happen this year? Maybe, maybe not. But by this time next year, we’ll have a plan well-baked and ready to go so that by 2018, you’ll see something come forward from us, for us.”

Moving forward, TRU plans to continue organizing town hall events in voting districts to get other councilmembers and their constituents on board. Organizers are gathering pledges of support, and hope to bring the measure directly to the City Council. Questions still remain about how exactly the money collected from the tax will be used, and whether or not the city of Seattle actually has the authority to pass tax based on income exists in a legal gray area. But despite the questions, the Trump-Proof Seattle campaign is gaining real momentum, and now seems as opportune a time as any to take up the fight for economic justice and wealth redistribution.

“November came and it brought November rain,” said TRU co-founder Scott Myers, who jokingly referenced the Guns N’ Roses song and also Trump’s presidency.  “But you know what? Now spring is in the air.”

Connect with TRU and other organizations that were at the event:

Trump-Proof Seattle campaign website

Transit Riders Union on Facebook

Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition

Upgrade Seattle

350 Seattle

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