Many pieces of legislation start out as a well-intentioned idea to solve a problem, but there is a reason old-timers compare making laws to making sausage. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, and by the time everybody weighs in, that great idea may look completely different.
Such is the case with House Bill 2907, which started out as a regional approach to solving the affordable housing and homeless problem with a tax. The background says a county with at least two million (only King County) in population may impose an annual payroll expense tax of 0.01-0.02% on employers engaging in business in the county, with deductions allowed for any payroll attributable to an employee with annual compensation of less than $150,000.
Among other deductions are small business, cancer centers and grocery workers. Prime sponsors are Reps. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle and Larry Springer, D-Kirkland. Former Federal Way City council member, and newly-appointed state Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, signed on as a sponsor. While on the council, Johnson worked hard to help those in need including the homeless and renters with affordable housing.
The tax could raise $121 million per year and is supported by Seattle City Mayor Jenny Durkan, many businesses, labor unions and social service providers. King County has been low-key, but has wanted a county-wide tax for many years. The revenue would be split 43% for Seattle and 57% King County and suburban jurisdictions.
Many county and suburban leaders have urged a regional solution for years. Some, because they don’t want to spend local money, and others because they think a coordinated effort is more likely to succeed. In Federal Way there are about 74-90 businesses that would be affected, but Auburn, Renton and Kent could have more.
Then came the politics. The legislation moved quickly as it had smart supporters and sponsors. Timing was important as in the background was Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who wanted more money, with her “tax Amazon” campaign. Democrats wanted HB 2907 to be first in line. Republicans opposed the bill as a tax on business.
Several cities along with the mayors of Auburn and Federal Way, expressed their concern that they were not consulted in advance for input, although wanting to get ahead of Sawant was likely the reason for Seattle to move quickly.
The Federal Way Council discussion likely reflected other cities, and was not whether or not the proposal might be a possible solution to the homeless challenge, but that city wanted to preserve the tax option for their own use. Always fearful of appearing to support a tax, and with city elections looming next year, no one suggested that Federal Way could support the legislation and then apply to the county for some of the 57% that would be available to the suburbs, and have some of the new money spent in South King county to help solve local problems.
Johnson found himself at odds with his former colleagues. His support for the tax as a possible solution was sincere, as he had demonstrated while on the council, but another of his goals was to “start the discussion” on solving homelessness. That goal was achieved. But as he found there were many others who had their own view of the tax.
Auburn and Federal Way also worried that some businesses might move a few miles south into Pierce County where the tax would not be in effect.
Since the Legislature only has a few weeks left, supporters of the bill have been maneuvering to keep the bill out of the cutoff dates by making it part of the budget discussion. The bill was pulled because of the controversy and HB 1590, which would impose a sales tax to address affordable housing and behavioral health, passed the House 52-48 and was referred to the Senate.
Johnson voted no on this bill but also discovered how many different angles there are to legislation, and that nothing is ever easy in Olympia. And it’s even harder in an election year.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.