Seattle’s progressive income tax on the very wealthy is a right-side-up reform that allows us to solve problems together, and equitably.
Last week’s elections included landmark victories for progressive candidates in cities and states. Several transgender women, immigrants and former refugees, African-Americans, and Latina and Asian women took seats of elected office across the nation. At home, we now have a Seattle City Council that is, for the first time in our city’s history, both majority women and majority people of color, as well as the first woman mayor in almost a century. This repudiation of Trump-era politics takes us a step toward proving our mettle as a society that values opportunity for all people.
In Seattle, we’re facing another test. Friday, our new, progressive income tax will have its first hearing in King County Superior Court against some privileged interests who are defending the status quo.
As the city grows and changes, we’re faced with an affordable-housing crisis, people without homes or shelter dying on our streets, preparing for environmental challenges, and inadequate transit. We also have constant threats of budget cuts from the Trump administration. As residents, we want a city where everyone can prosper with world-class schools and reliable public transportation.
The other side
“An income tax at the local level is clearly illegal … Those advocating for an income tax should not willfully violate state law and the constitution with the hope that five justices undo eight decades of case law,” Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center, wrote in a Nov. 5 Op-Ed, “Local income taxes are illegal — but that’s not stopping Seattle.”
Nonetheless, with the status quo in place, we can’t make important improvements to our city without the revenue to pay for them.
The Seattle City Council has two options for raising revenue — increasing the sales tax or the property tax. But these taxes adversely — and inequitably — affect the poor and middle-class more than the rich, making it harder for the people who are already struggling.
The income tax on Seattle’s very wealthy — passed by the City Council unanimously — allows us to fund important improvements without making the poor and middle class pay more. Low-income households already pay proportionally seven times more in state and local taxes than the very wealthy.
According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, the uber-wealthy in Seattle and Washington benefit from a system in which they only pay 2.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the middle class pay 10.1 percent, and the poorest pay 16.8 percent.
The city has assembled an expert team of lawyers, some of the city’s top attorneys, including outside counsel. This same team helped us craft a bill that will best withstand court scrutiny on Friday.
Our system is demonstrably the most upside-down city tax structure in the country. Seattle’s new progressive income tax is a reform that helps us begin to turn the system right-side-up. If we can raise revenue more equitably, we will also be able to lower income and property taxes to help alleviate the cost of living for everyone else.
Now the Freedom Foundation is trying to turn our municipal tax reform into a state issue. Yet, this year’s state Supreme Court decision on the gun safety tax upheld Seattle’s uniquely broad powers in creating its own revenue policy. The Freedom Foundation wants you to distrust the government and believe it is working against you. They want to protect the special deals that only the very wealthy enjoy.
Government is more than bureaucracy. Our schools, our parks, our fire stations, our buses, our police and our libraries are how we function as a community. Elementary schoolteachers and firefighters don’t benefit from an upside-down tax structure; the very wealthy do.
A successful judgment on the progressive tax on the very wealthy will be a testament to its legality. The decision of those to test its legality is an indictment on the morality of those who want the middle class to pay more than the rich to live here and who turn a blind eye to those who can’t afford housing at all.
On Friday, I hope the court decides that Seattle can be a place where everyone works together to solve our problems, and the rich no longer get a special deal.