Head tax is a ‘redefining moment’ for Seattle and start of a larger discussion, councilmember says

Seattle city councilmember Lorena González (left) and Seattle Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Strickland discuss the controversial “head tax.” (GeekWire Photo / Kaitlyn Wang)

Debate over Seattle’s controversial “head tax” often focuses on what the city is or isn’t doing about a surging homelessness problem in the city, and the obligation of Seattle’s businesses to play a role in a solution. But for Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González, one of the sponsors of the head tax legislation, the implications are much bigger.

Speaking at Seattle City Club’s Civic Cocktail on Wednesday alongside Seattle Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Strickland, González said she believes the head tax debate is the first step in a larger discussion about social issues like income inequality and systemic racism not just in Seattle, but also across the state and the nation.

Seattle city councilmember Lorena González (middle) and Seattle Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Strickland discuss the controversial “head tax” with Joni Balter (left.) (GeekWire Photo / Kaitlyn Wang)

“When I think about this issue [the head tax], I think about the environment as a whole, not just here in our bubble in Seattle and King County but how we as a community and as a nation really are struggling with what I think is a little bit of a moral crisis in terms of how will we define ourselves,” González said.

She continued, “And I think it’s fair to say that this is a redefining moment in the city of Seattle, and my goal is that we can define ourselves in a way that will continue to be true to what I believe Seattle’s progressive values should be and ought to be and have always been.”

Those in favor of the tax are looking to stem the consequences of Seattle’s sudden boom in the tech industry and its associated growing pains. Those against it say that the city is anti-business and that taxing businesses will not provide a sustainable solution, and it would impact jobs as companies adjust for the added cost.

Strickland, who opposes the head tax, did not disagree that homelessness is a pressing issue in Seattle and surrounding King County. Instead, Strickland said, the city has not been efficient with the resources it does have to deal with the crisis.

“It’s a conversation about priorities and making some really hard choices,” Strickland said. She questioned whether the homeless crisis in Seattle has been treated as a state of emergency, even after it was declared one. She asserted: “It hasn’t been treated like one in the past five years.”

Strickland said businesses do have a role to play: they should be allowed to create more jobs and increase employment instead of being forced to become “the city’s ATM.”

She added: “People are doing good work, and they want to do it voluntarily.”

The head tax will charge top-grossing companies, most notably Amazon, $275 per employee each year, and use the money for affordable housing and homeless programs. It comes as the homeless crisis mounts in Seattle. The tax that was originally proposed would have charged $500 per employee. After an impassioned debate, the City Council passed an amendment that lowered the rate.

A business coalition including small and mid-sized businesses has launched a campaign to overturn the tax. They hope to get enough signatures by mid-June to get a referendum on the bill.