In the first live Seattle mayoral debate of the election season, the two candidates — current council president Lorena Gonzalez and former council president Bruce Harrell — agreed on little except this: that tax increases are needed help the city fund additional services.
But who pays those taxes — including large employers such as Amazon — remained a point of contention.
Asked if Amazon, the city’s biggest employer, should do more to mitigate concerns about its effect on soaring housing prices and infrastructure, Harrell said the online retail giant should “pay their fair share of taxes.” He then vowed to hold the company “accountable.”
But when pressed for taxing specifics, Harrell pivoted and talked about addressing the lack of a Washington state income tax. “We will look at that tax structure and revise it,” he said.
Gonzalez, by contrast, pointed her finger directly at Amazon’s coffers. “It is critically important for us to make sure we have a mayor who is serious about requiring all large profitable corporations (to) pay their fair share.”
She added: “Let’s be real about this. I’m the only candidate on this stage who means it.”
Both candidates in 2018 initially voted to approve the so-called Amazon head tax, only to later switch their votes to repeal it.
Harrell’s road to a state income tax would be a steep one. Currently, Washington court decisions have generally held that the state constitution’s sharp limits on income taxes make a statewide, non-uniform income tax difficult without a constitutional change. (A 2019 court decision on a failed Seattle income tax might have opened the door slightly, however.)
Harrell said corporations based in Seattle should match their corporate goals with city’s civic needs.
“They have to align their corporate social responsibility goals with that of the city,” he said. “That would be affordable housing. That would be homelessness.”
Harrell mentioned Amazon’s market capitalization of more than $1.5 trillion.
“When you look at the wealth that these large corporations have, they have to not only pay their fair share of taxes, they have to be aligned with many of the issues that they caused,” he said.
At the last week’s GeekWire Summit, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy described the worsening relationship with Seattle’s political leaders.
“I think our relationship with Seattle had ups and downs, frankly,” Jassy said. “I think the first 20ish years (was) pretty collaborative. We decided to build a downtown campus. (The city) was very supportive and solicitous.”
But then five years ago, the mood changed, Jassy continued.
“The City Council has become less enamored with business or with Amazon,” he said. “It’s just been rougher.” Jassy added that Amazon increasingly is looking to nearby Bellevue for its expansion goals.
At the debate, Gonzalez indicated she’s not particularly worried about Amazon withdrawing from Seattle. Pointing to Amazon’s announced plans to hire 12,500 corporate and tech workers in Seattle, the former civil rights attorney said Amazon isn’t going anywhere.
“(Amazon’s) workers and their future workers want to live and work in this city,” she said.
Watch the full debate here.