‘Tax Amazon’ activists petition for ballot initiative to raise $300M/year for affordable housing

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Protestors carried signs that read ‘Tax Amazon’ on the company’s campus during the 2018 ‘head tax’ fight. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Seattle activists introduced a petition Thursday for a ballot initiative that would tax hometown tech giant Amazon to raise millions of dollars for affordable housing and other objectives.

A group that calls itself the “Tax Amazon movement” filed the initiative and is collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot. Its organizers say the tax would raise at least $300 million a year by taxing the payroll of the top 3 percent of Seattle businesses at a rate of 0.7 percent. That group is defined as companies that have the highest payroll expenses. Small businesses, nonprofits, and co-ops are exempt.

The majority of the funds would go toward building affordable housing that meets sustainability standards. The remaining 25 percent will be used to convert existing housing to renewable energy sources.

Seattle City Council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales unveiled separate draft legislation earlier this month with the same goal. Their proposal would raise $300 million annually using the same taxing mechanism as the ballot initiative. Sawant said Thursday that she would like to increase the tax and provide relief funding for the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit the region hard.

“Big business has long been enjoying a tax haven in Seattle and Washington State,” she said in a statement. “That’s why my office, along with Councilmember Tammy Morales, is demanding that big businesses immediately start paying $500 million/year as the Amazon tax to fund COVID-19 emergency relief, which should be continued as an ongoing Amazon Tax for Social Housing and a Green New Deal after the pandemic is over.”

Sawant is promoting the petition filed by the “Tax Amazon” group in her “personal capacity.”

The councilmember was charged last month with violating ethics rules by using her public office to promote the “Tax Amazon” ballot initiative.

Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said Sawant’s plan is a threat to the region’s economy in a statement.

“Councilmember Sawant’s idea for a new tax right now will be as effective in helping Seattle’s economy recover as President Trump’s European travel ban was in stopping the spread of coronavirus in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re staring at a deep recession, and the city must do everything it can to help our local economy, not harm it.” Amazon did not respond to our request to comment on the initiative.

Amazon is funding a variety of initiatives to help mitigate the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The company is providing grants to small businesses in its neighborhood. Retail operations that rent space in Amazon buildings will have rent covered through April, the company said. Amazon is also hiring 100,000 warehouse workers.

Amazon and Microsoft each donated $1 million to a relief fund organized by Seattle nonprofits to help organizations on the frontlines of the crisis.

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