Sawant's "Tax Amazon" bill is immune from public referendum

SEATTLE -- Earlier this week, Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant reintroduced her plan to "tax Amazon," this time tying it to emergency relief over the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus cover would make it immune to being overruled by a public vote.

For years, Sawant has tried to make Amazon and other big-earning businesses in Seattle pay an added tax to pay for affordable housing. In 2018, she nearly succeeded with the widely-contested "head tax," which was passed and then immediately repealed after public backlash.

After winning her third term in office, an election in which Amazon owner Jeff Bezos donated money to support her opponent, Sawant immediately promised to go hard at the company again.

Now, with the coronavirus outbreak punishing the region's economy, Sawant and fellow Councilmember Tammy Morales are pitching a payroll tax on big business. They say it could raise $500 million, a portion of which would be used for coronavirus relief.

Citing the mayor's emergency order, the bill says it should:

take effect immediately and is necessary for the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.

Independent journalist Kevin Schofield first pointed out the impact of the bill text, drawing a connection to the city council charter, which says:

power reserved by the people is the simple referendum, and it may be exercised and ordered (except as to ordinances necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety...)

By tying the "tax Amazon" bill to the coronavirus outbreak and saying it is necessary for the protection of public health, safety and welfare, if passed it would be immune to public referendum, the people's power to overturn a city council decision. City council staff confirmed with Q13 News that is the case and it would continue to be immune even after the emergency declaration is terminated.

Sawant and Morales' bill would implement a 1.3 percent payroll tax on most companies with more than $7 million in annual payroll. While singled out as the "Amazon tax," it would affect hundreds of companies in the area. The two councilmembers said $200 million of the revenue should be tied to coronavirus relief with the rest of the money should be used for affordable housing.

Sawant has enjoyed support for her plan to force companies like Amazon to pay an additional tax, but now she's also facing criticism for using the COVID-19 outbreak as a cover for her political agenda.

"I think that she has been pushing the same political agenda even before this and it just a different coloring of the same issue," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in an interview.

Durkan said now is not the time to be talking about new taxes without a clear picture of the city's revenue and federal relief. She also pointed out that after asking large employers like Amazon to encourage working from home during the outbreak, the impact of those workers' absence is felt deeply by the small business community.

"They have learned that they can have their employees work from a lot of different places," Durkan said. "We want to make sure that as we turn our economy back on, we are turning on all of the vital parts of it so we can move forward."

While Sawant's bill would be immune to public referendum, she is not shying away from public input, filing a petition to put an initiative on November's ballot if council fails to act.

Sawant did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.