Postponed: Seattle City Council won’t consider head tax during pandemic lockdown

The COVID-19 crisis has seen a lot of events postponed or canceled. Add the Seattle City Council’s controversial head tax to the postponed column. Unfortunately, the prospects for a cancellation remain a bit dim.

The Seattle Times reports

The Seattle City Council will stop deliberating a proposal to tax large corporations, council leaders said Thursday, citing a statewide coronavirus-emergency proclamation that restricts what public agencies can discuss during the health crisis.

The decision by Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda will stall the big-business tax championed by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, who already faced opposition from Mayor Jenny Durkan.

ST reporter Daniel Beekman reports council leaders cited the governor’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA)-related proclamation in making their decision. The relevant section states,

Subject to the conditions for conducting any meeting as required above, agencies are further prohibited from taking “action,” as defined in RCW 42.30.020, unless those matters are necessary and routine matters or are matters necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency, until such time as regular public participation under the Open Public Meetings Act is possible.

Though sponsors Sawant and Morales tried to tie their tax to the coronavirus – see our post “Seattle payroll tax – is there anything it can’t do?” – council leaders weren’t persuaded. 

“Though there are some components of the legislation that are related to the current public health crisis, there are also many components of the legislation that are intended to outlive this crisis and are just completely unrelated to COVID-19,” González said, also making her case in a memo. “As long as the bills stay the way they are, they represent a pretty significant risk … to continue to have meetings without the option for in-person viewing.”

In its recent editorial opposing the payroll tax, The Seattle Times editorial board raised the same objection.

…it’s probably illegal. Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency order, cities can only undertake “necessary and routine” or COVID-19 related matters, since the shutdown restricts open meetings.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold also expressed concern about possible OPMA violations.

The council’s budget committee, chaired by Mosqueda, met twice last month via teleconference to consider the proposal by Sawant and Morales to enact a payroll tax on corporations with annual wage bills over $7 million, and a third remote meeting was scheduled for next week. But Councilmember Lisa Herbold skipped both discussions and wrote a letter to González last week expressing concern about compliance with the state proclamation.

What’s next?

In her letter, Herbold asked González to “pursue one of two alternative paths.” The council could narrow the scope of the Sawant-Morales proposal to address only the current public health crisis or could postpone deliberations, she said.

Politically, waiting might make more sense, Herbold contended. Emergency bills require seven council votes and the mayor’s signature and are immune from voter referendum. Durkan and business leaders have criticized the Sawant-Morales proposal for various reasons, while Herbold previously has said voters should perhaps make the call.

Postponed is a start. But this is far from over.