Voters back taxes on employers to fund investments in city's needs
Visualization of NPI's July 2021 JumpStart poll finding

Hap­py Labor Day! In the runup to today’s cel­e­bra­tion of the gains won by work­ing peo­ple through­out our coun­try’s his­to­ry, Seat­tle’s Jump­Start rev­enue pack­age has been back in the news, most­ly because Ama­zon recent­ly dis­closed that it wants to hire a lot of peo­ple for posi­tions based in the Emer­ald City despite the City Coun­cil’s 2020 adop­tion of a new tax on big employ­ers that’s meant to fund needs like attain­able hous­ing, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, and com­mu­ni­ty development.

“Amazon’s hir­ing spree is con­cen­trat­ed in Seat­tle, where the com­pa­ny, Wash­ing­ton state’s largest pri­vate employ­er, has near­ly 12,500 open roles, more than in any oth­er city,” a Sep­tem­ber 1st arti­cle by Seat­tle Times reporter Kather­ine Long explained. (Those open roles are for jobs on Ama­zon’s cor­po­rate and tech side, though it’s also look­ing for more ware­house workers.)

An impor­tant sub­se­quent pas­sage in Long’s arti­cle notes that Ama­zon is doing all of this hir­ing in spite of the City Coun­cil’s deci­sion to enact Jump­Start.

“The company’s hir­ing plans offer a degree of rebuke to con­cerns from busi­ness groups that Seattle’s Jump­Start pay­roll tax, which took effect this year, could prompt large employ­ers like Ama­zon to leave the city. The Down­town Seat­tle Asso­ci­a­tion and Seat­tle Cham­ber of Com­merce, for instance, have warned that the tax, of between 0.7% and 2.4% of salaries over $150,000 for busi­ness­es with at least $7 mil­lion in pay­roll, could have a chill­ing effect on business.”

Dan­ny West­neat tacked on to Long’s report­ing in a col­umn than ran yes­ter­day.

“Yeah, the thing about that pay­roll tax — it’s just not a show­stop­per. It’s a per­cent­age or two, levied in tiers on salaries above $150,000,” West­neat observed. “Sure, Ama­zon could move every­one to Belle­vue to avoid it, but, believe it or not, tons of Seat­tle Ama­zo­ni­ans don’t want to com­mute to Belle­vue. And if Ama­zon were to move to most oth­er places around the coun­try, they’d pay more in income tax­es than this pay­roll tax anyway.”

That’s all true. But what’s also impor­tant to note is that unlike a few years ago, when the City Coun­cil approved a sim­i­lar tax on firms like Ama­zon, only to reverse itself a few weeks lat­er after polling showed the tax would like­ly not sur­vive a bal­lot fight, the Jump­Start plan enjoys deep sup­port from voters.

We know because we asked vot­ers for their views on Jump­Start back in July as part of our July 2021 Top Two sur­vey of the Seat­tle electorate.

We found that 67% of Seat­tle vot­ers sup­port Jump­Start, with 27% opposed and 6% not sure. That’s a mar­gin of well over two-to-one.

Notably, fifty per­cent of respon­dents — that’s half of every­one who took the sur­vey — said they “strong­ly” sup­port­ed the Jump­Start plan.

Voters back taxes on employers to fund investments in city's needs
Visu­al­iza­tion of NPI’s July 2021 Jump­Start poll finding

And these num­bers were obtained an entire year after the Coun­cil vot­ed to pass Jump­Start. Clear­ly, the pack­age has aged well with the pub­lic in addi­tion to hold­ing up just fine in court. (The Cham­ber chal­lenged its legal­i­ty in King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court, but so far, Jump­Start remains intact.)

Here is the exact ques­tion we asked and the respons­es that we received:

QUESTION: In July of 2020, the Seat­tle City Coun­cil levied a new tax on large employ­ers to fund eco­nom­ic relief and core ser­vices dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. The tax, which is expect­ed to raise more than $200 mil­lion per year for long term hous­ing, local busi­ness assis­tance and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment, is only paid by employ­ers with over $7 mil­lion in annu­al pay­roll expens­es and who have at least one employ­ee mak­ing $150,000 a year or more. Do you sup­port or oppose this tax?


  • Sup­port: 67% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 50%
    • Some­what sup­port: 17%
  • Oppose: 27%
    • Some­what oppose: 9%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 18%
  • Not sure: 6%

Our poll of 617 like­ly August 2021 Seat­tle vot­ers was in the field through Mon­day, July 12th, through Thurs­day, July 15th. All respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was con­duct­ed by Change Research for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

We’ve noticed across all of our polling that vot­ers in the Pacif­ic North­west are very enthu­si­as­tic about requir­ing the rich and big cor­po­ra­tions to pay more in tax­es. The inequity in our tax code and the chron­ic under­fund­ing of our essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices are both prob­lems that can be addressed with pro­gres­sive tax reform.

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has exposed even more painful­ly the need for tax reform at every lev­el. And it’s led to long over­due action. A few months after Seat­tle enact­ed Jump­Start, the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture final­ly — final­ly! — vot­ed to approve a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy, in one of the biggest vic­to­ries ever for pro­gres­sive tax reform in this state. Like Jump­Start, that leg­is­la­tion is now being chal­lenged in court, but has yet to be chal­lenged at the ballot.

The Cham­ber’s oppo­si­tion, while mis­guid­ed, is to be expected.

Read­ing Long’s arti­cle from last week brought to mind a pas­sage from one of my old Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment text­books about lob­by­ing. The pas­sage was in a chap­ter about inter­est groups and their lob­by­ing activ­i­ties, and it not­ed that many busi­ness own­ers sim­ply don’t have much in com­mon aside from a desire for low­er tax­es and few­er reg­u­la­tions. All busi­ness­es would like low­er tax­es, so the Cham­ber fights for that, the text observed. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The prob­lem with this mind­set is that it views tax­es as an afflic­tion when in fact that is not the case. Tax­es are invest­ments. It is only by pool­ing our resources that we can afford all the things that busi­ness­es needs to be suc­cess­ful, whether that’s inter­state high­ways, air­ports, and sea­ports for get­ting goods to mar­ket, or courts to enforce con­tracts and resolve busi­ness dis­putes, or fire depart­ments to save build­ings from burn­ing down, or envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions that stop pol­lu­tion and pre­vent deple­tion of renew­able resources like fish­eries and forests.

Busi­ness exec­u­tives know all this.

Yet many con­tin­ue to disin­gen­u­ous­ly argue for low­er tax­es on their com­pa­ny or their indus­try or even the pri­vate sec­tor as a whole despite the coun­try’s increas­ing­ly dire social and infra­struc­ture needs. Then some of those same folks turn around and say we’ve already bor­rowed too much and we can’t afford the invest­ments that Pres­i­dent Biden and con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats have proposed.

Actu­al­ly, what we can’t afford is to not make those investments.

If we fail to act now, we will still need what’s in the Jobs & Fam­i­lies Plan down the line, but it will cost us more. The Jobs & Fam­i­lies Plan does­n’t only make moral sense, it makes finan­cial sense, too, just like Wash­ing­ton’s new tax on the wealthy’s cap­i­tal gains or Seat­tle’s Jump­Start rev­enue plan.

Tax cuts do not cre­ate a foun­da­tion for broad pros­per­i­ty and nei­ther does aus­ter­i­ty. Only invest­ments in essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices do that, for, in the words of George Lakoff, the pri­vate depends on the public.

Busi­ness­es and busi­ness groups, Ama­zon includ­ed, need to frame shift. They need to stop look­ing at tax­es as a neg­a­tive and see them as a pos­i­tive, just as Seat­tle vot­ers are already doing, accord­ing to our research.

If Seat­tle is to house its home­less pop­u­la­tion, for instance (some­thing we know the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty wants to see hap­pen) then we need to con­struct more attain­able hous­ing. And we know from expe­ri­ence that mere­ly rely­ing on mar­ket forces to sup­ply that hous­ing isn’t going to work. That’s why it’s so impor­tant that we not only keep Jump­Start in place, but build on it.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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