Ideas for a new tax on big businesses like Amazon swirl in Seattle as debate heats up again

Daniel Beekman and Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE -- Politicians, activists and business leaders are scrambling to stake out positions ahead of another debate brewing in Seattle over taxing large corporations, less than two years after the City Council passed and then almost immediately repealed a "head tax" under pressure from a potential referendum and critics that included Amazon.

There's enthusiasm among local progressives to try again in 2020 -- tapping into a national discussion about taxation and the wealthy amid the Democratic presidential primary -- but with various ideas about how to proceed. Labor unions could play a pivotal role as Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Mayor Jenny Durkan and others work on competing proposals, with the possibility of a King County tax in the mix.

Boosting the stakes are questions about how much huge companies and their executives are paying in taxes across the state and country. Amazon isn't the only business under the microscope, but its outsized Seattle presence has made the tech and commerce juggernaut a primary target.

"We still can't solve our housing crisis, let alone achieve urgent goals like carbon neutrality or providing affordable child care, without substantial new revenue," said Katie Wilson with the Seattle Transit Riders Union advocacy group, partly blaming Washington state's regressive tax structure. "Large corporations need to step up and contribute. We have a huge opportunity this year to make that happen."

Sawant, the third-term socialist determined to harness momentum from her November reelection, planned to restart the 'Tax Amazon' campaign that she led in 2018 with a rally Monday at Seattle's Washington Hall.

Sawant hasn't presented a detailed plan but says another head tax based on employee hours or a percentage tax on total payroll could work. The prior head tax would have raised an estimated $47 million last year for affordable housing and homeless services had it not been repealed. Sawant wants much more.


She says she intends to introduce legislation soon to raise money for housing and, like in 2014 during discussions about a $15 minimum wage, use the threat of a ballot initiative to exert pressure.

"I don't think going directly to the ballot is the way to go," she said. "The council can play a bold, progressive role."

Democratic Socialists of America activists already are preparing to collect signatures for a ballot initiative, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold says she and her council colleagues could draw up a tax proposal and send that measure to the ballot.

"We're not relying on the council," said Democratic Socialists activist Philip Locker, noting opponents could again try to referendum any legislation.


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