Campaigns for and against the levy spent more than $600,000 combined, contesting a referendum that likely will not take place.
Foes of Seattle’s controversial head tax on big businesses shelled out more than $2 for every dollar spent by proponents of the tax, according to campaign-finance reports filed this week.
The June finance reports shed light on the circumstances surrounding the surprise decision by city leaders rescind the tax last month.
Flush with money from companies like Amazon and Starbucks, the opponents sought a referendum to repeal the tax, which would have raised $47 million a year to build affordable housing. Though their campaign lasted under a month, it spent more than $440,000, including debts that still must be paid, says a report filed Tuesday. That’s less than the price of an average Seattle home, but it’s a striking sum in local politics – approximately what City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda spent to win an 11-month race last year.
“Part of the strategy was probably to make a show of force,” Aaron Pickus, an independent political consultant who wasn’t involved in the battle, said of the effort against the tax. “It’s an above-average amount of money to spend on a campaign of this kind.”
Proponents of the levy, such as service-employee unions, spent much less: about $197,000, including debts. The disparity helps explain how the business-backed No Tax on Jobs campaign, which aimed to qualify a referendum for the November ballot, pressured the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan to reverse course. The council had unanimously approved the tax on May 14.
Polling played a crucial role, showing popular distaste for the policy. But council members also cited the big money behind the referendum campaign as a key reason to surrender, rather than risk seeing the tax voted down.
“This is not a winnable battle,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said at the time. “The opposition has unlimited resources.”
Though the anti-tax campaign had help from volunteers, the bulk of its money went to pay signature collectors. Morning in America raked in more than $330,000 for that work. The Arizona-based company consulted for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, head-tax proponents pointed out last month.
Seattle’s most recent major referendum was much cheaper. To qualify their measure in 2011, opponents of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel spent just $40,000 on signature collectors, records show.
To put a minimum-wage hike on the Washington ballot in 2016, supporters spent about $534,000 to collect many times more signatures across the entire state.
No Tax on Jobs needed about 17,000 valid petition signatures to qualify the referendum. It collected about 46,000.
The largest contributors to the campaign were the Northwest Grocery Association, which contributed $50,000, and the Washington Food Industry, which contributed $30,000. Amazon and Starbucks each donated $25,000.
No Tax on Jobs paid Cre8ive Empowerment $31,000 for work that included volunteer and social-media management. The digital-marketing company’s CEO is Saul Spady, a grandson of Dick’s Drive-In founder Dick Spady and a vocal opponent of the tax.
CBE Strategic, a Seattle lobbying firm whose partners include former deputy mayor Tim Ceis, received $15,000 for strategic consulting.
Monument Policy Group received $12,000 for communications consulting, while Awareness Analytics Partners received $5,000 for digital-media consulting and for Facebook and Twitter advertising.
The campaign that supported the head tax, Bring Seattle Home, spent about $44,000 through June and owed more than $150,000, including $50,000 for polling, more than $70,000 to the advocacy organization Working Washington for staffing and more than $12,000 to the Transit Riders Union activist group for staffing. The campaign’s workers spoke with voters on street corners, trying to dissuade them from signing the referendum petition.
Bring Seattle Home’s largest contributor was SEIU 775 Quality Care Committee, which donated more than $60,000, including in-kind donations. SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and SEIU Initiative Fund each gave $30,000.
No Tax on Jobs submitted its petition signatures to the city on June 14. The tax already had been repealed, but the campaign worried a lawsuit accusing the council of violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act might invalidate the action.
City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons said she didn’t plan to send the signatures to King County Elections because the tax was dead. The lawsuit and a second similar one have yet to be resolved.