Housing Levy Follow Up
Last Monday, November 30, in the afternoon and evening, the City of Spokane City Council passed an amended version of "The Housing Levy" on a 6 to 1 vote. I wrote a preview on the City Council action on The Housing Levy (ORD C35982) for last Monday's post (November 30).
You can watch the November 30, 2020, City Council Briefing Session or the City Council Legislative Meeting by clicking here and selecting it. It's a considerable time investment to do so, but it is an education in the function of city government. Adam Shanks (Spokesman) reported on the meeting the next day (see below).
I especially recommend watching Breean Beggs' pre-final vote comments in the Legislative Meeting Video at 3:14:45. In his five minutes he speaks eloquently of the challenges and complexity of legislating for needed change. Among his comments was a nod to the state Legislative District 3 (central Spokane) legislators (Billig, Riccelli, and Ormsby) who sponsored a state law that authorized municipalies to add a maximum of 0.1% to the local sales tax, limited to use for low income housing. In listening to Mr. Beggs it is clear it was a complicated multi-step process to bring this motion to a vote--a process of which the vast majority of the citizenry of Spokane was unaware.
Everyone on the Council and all of the public testimony to which I listened spoke to the need for the Council to promote affordable housing in the City of Spokane. So why was this so hard? In a word: taxes. Consider the framing. "The Housing Levy" first draws attention to the taxation but not the purpose of the taxation. The casual reader/taxpayer/citizen might be excused for wondering, from this title, if the intent of the legislation were to raise money for something by raising the tax on their own housing, rather than seeing the measure as a way of promoting affordable housing.
The next day in both the Spokesman's paper and online versions the titles of the articles on the "Housing Levy" led with the words "sales tax" before any nod to the purpose of the ordinance. The message conveyed? Whoa! This is going to cost you something! Pay attention!
Buried in the fine print is the notation that a 0.1% sales tax increase will cost the average Spokane family between $16 and $25 per year. Will the citizens of Spokane rise up and vote the Council out of office for this heinous taxation? (After all, there is some adverse psychology in the fact that this bump of 0.1% will raise the sales tax to a conspicuous round number, 9%.) Sadly, that's probably a worry for the council members. It is a worry for them in part because of the way "The Housing Levy" is covered in the media.
As the news coverage details, the Council amended the ordinance so that the tax part of it will not be imposed until April 1, 2020. In the meantime the City is instructed to search for other sources of $6M of annual funding. If no source is identified, then the tax bump is triggered automatically. (Aside: notice the different framing in the words "bump" and "hike".) The amendment to delay the tax, according to Mr. Beggs (who cast the deciding vote for the amendment) was necessary to insure the whole measure's final passage. (To listen to the meeting, it sounded as though the amendment was part of a last minute negotiation that took some members a little off guard.)
These days any increase in taxation for anything, no matter how worthy, is viewed warily. Taxpayers need to be convinced their money is going to be well spent. For at least the last half century the Republican propaganda machine has been been pushing the notion among the citizenry that all government is inefficient, suspect, corrupt, and wasteful. (Remember Grover Norquist and his "I want to shrink government until it can be drown in a bathtub.")
In this Republican anti-government narrative, any tax, regardless of size or purpose, is then framed as either a burden on the little guy (a "regressive" tax) or as creeping taxation wasted on funding nasty "big government"--or both.
Michael Cathcart, the voice of Republicanism on the Council, and the lone vote against final passage of the amended ordinance, leaned on the anti-tax theme by making special reference to the burden he believes a sales tax adds to the little guy's financial burdens in the pandemic [3:09:52 in the video]. Perhaps there's another time for such a tax for such a worthy cause, he says, but not now as we face a possible "pile on" of taxes. (So when, Mr. Cathcard? How about a non-regressive tax to relieve the statewide burden on the little guy, like a graduated income tax?) After nixing a sales tax bump to help deal with the housing shortage, Mr. Cathcart argued for major changes in zoning and land use regulation--the standard Republican plea for unleashing the power of private developers in a much less regulated "free market."
From Adam Shank's article in the Spokesman on Tuesday, December 1 entitled "With reservation, Spokane City Council tentatively approves sales tax to fund affordable housing"*:
While council members agreed that more funding is much needed to address the city’s housing crisis, some struggled ahead of Monday’s vote with the idea of imposing a new tax in the midst of an economic downturn. Some specifically took issue with the notion of increasing the sales tax, calling it regressive and disproportionately burdensome for low-income people.
We are left with coverage that focuses on the tax--and not on the benefit to the community of having this steady revenue stream to support affordable housing. Our collective tax allergy drove the Council to postpone the collection of the tax by three months. The original January 1, 2021, start might have gotten then ball rolling in time for the effort to address some of the housing disaster we face from pandemic evictions.
Keep to the high ground,
* In the paper version of the Spokesman the low front page article by Adam Shanks was entitled "Council will spend winter exploring alternatives to sales tax to fund housing"