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What’s Next for Homelessness and the Head Tax?

After nine months of meetings, hearings, and headlines, an Employee Hours Tax to help fund affordable housing and homelessness services has finally passed – and raised even more questions for the future.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a last-minute compromise on Employee Hours Tax (EHT) legislation, also commonly called a head tax. The exhaustion and relief was explicit Monday in many of the councilmembers’ comments. But for both elected officials and for the business leaders and community activists who squared off over the issue, there is no resolution. Not really. There is only the next phase of a series of vexing problems with no easy answers.

The compromise legislation is designed to raise about $47 million a year for the next five years, with the revenue dedicated to building permanent affordable housing and expanding homelessness services. That’s less than the $75 million a year that would have been raised when the bill passed through committee last week – and much less than the $150 million a year in new revenue urged by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force – but more than the Amazon-approved $40 million in Mayor Durkan’s last-minute alternative plan. And it’s far more than the $25 million in annual revenue that last fall’s failed EHT package was intended to raise.

Similarly, the 66 percent of that $47 million in annual revenue intended for affordable housing construction (about $32 million) is less than the 75 percent of $75 million (about $57 million) in the original package, but far more than the $10 million a year that Durkan wanted.

However, the city’s estimate that the final bill will fund 591 new housing units over five years assumes a per-unit cost of about $270,000 – significantly lower than past construction estimates of over $300,000 a unit. Given that Seattle real estate prices continue to explode, over five years that target of 591 units may not be realistic. And while every new unit helps, a business-funded study released earlier this month estimated that King County overall would need to spend $410 million on new housing each year just to house those who were homeless here in January 2017 – and even then it would take seven years to catch up with the backlog.

When the January 2018 one-night estimate of our county’s homeless is released later this month, it likely will be at least ten percent higher than last year. Unless the growth in homelessness slows over the next five years, that means hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, beyond the $410 million per year estimate, will need to be found for still more affordable housing. And that’s just to house the homeless. Such units will also be heavily in demand from poorer and working class residents who are currently housed but who are also being squeezed out of Seattle’s private housing market.

Everything Counts In Large Amounts

Such good news/bad news dichotomies abound in considering where Seattle can or will go next on these issues. Seattle’s new EHT is the largest such tax ever passed in the U.S. In part, that’s because many jurisdictions use payroll taxes instead to accomplish the same revenue goals, but it still means that in the end, the council and even Mayor Durkan stood up to a business lobby that did not want this tax at all – in a city that is now far more reliant on a single employer than any other large city in the country.

That business opposition has not gone away. After the vote, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce issued a statement decrying the compromise. So did Amazon. The obedient Seattle Times editorial board urged a citizen initiative to overturn the tax – a plan that would work better if Medina residents could vote in Seattle elections. But if such an initiative can get on to this fall’s ballot – and while they would need to get 17,632 signatures by June 15, there are plenty of people in Seattle who would sign such an initiative just because they despise the homeless – there is no limit to the amount of money that anyone can contribute to an initiative campaign. That’s how, for example, an attempt to ban plastic bags a few years back was killed single-handedly by the chemical industry and other interest groups.

Beyond that, the elections next year for Seattle’s seven districted council seats offer business interests another, perhaps easier opportunity to control 2020’s city council in a way that would make repeal a likelihood and an initiative unnecessary. More on that below.

For companies like Amazon, which took the unusual step of threatening to pull jobs out of Seattle if the original bill had passed, the $20 million a year the original proposal would have cost them was never the point. The point was to avoid setting a precedent that other jurisdictions might emulate, especially as Amazon conducts a noisy public search for a city that will give it the most tax incentives to locate its second headquarters there. Amazon failed to prevent this precedent. In the end, even Mayor Durkan, with her anemic last-minute proposal, stood up to Amazon and got them to give their reluctant approval. Likely those were difficult conversations, in which Durkan had to explain to some Amazon government affairs executive that political realities required that Seattle act on its crises, and that businesses like Amazon would have to pay something.

The Fight to Repeal the Head Tax, Again

But whether they’ll need to pay for it much beyond 2019 is an open question. In January 2020, Seattle’s seven district city council representatives will be sworn in for a new four-year term. Only four council members opposed the original EHT proposal this spring – and three of them (Bruce Harrell, Debora Juarez, and Rob Johnson) arguably represent what are now the three most liberal of the seven districts. Moreover, it’s being widely speculated that both Harrell and the fourth opponent, Sally Bagshaw, will not seek re-election.

The converse, however, is also true: three of the five EHT supporters on council are also up for re-election, and all are vulnerable. Kshama Sawant’s 2015 re-election campaign against Pamela Banks turned into the most expensive council race in Seattle history, and even more business and third-party money will nbe spent to unseat her next year. Budget Committee chair Lisa Herbold – who also spearheaded last fall’s failed EHT proposal – won her seat against a business-oriented opponent in 2015 by literally dozens of votes. And anti-homeless activists have been baying for Mike O’Brien’s head for years, and may have new business allies in 2019.

Amazon gave a record $350,000 in independent money for Jenny Durkan’s 2017 victory. Her one veto threat last week, and the compromise that resulted, will save Amazon $7 million in 2019 alone – a two thousand percent return on investment in just the first year of the tax. That successful investment didn’t go unnoticed. Even if Harrell is replaced by a more progressive council member in the south end – which seems likely at this early point – if Juarez and Johnson are safe, and either Bagshaw or another business-oriented candidate holds the downtown seat, defeating two out of the three pro-tax incumbents up for another term (Herbold, Sawant, and/or O’Brien) would give the business lobby enough votes to repeal the tax. They have enough money to dominate all of these races, if they choose to do so.

And we’ve been here before. The city turned to a head tax rather than a more equitable payroll tax because implementation would be easier and cheaper. The systems to collect it are still in place from Seattle’s last experience with a head tax, in 2007-10. That history got remarkably little attention during the past year’s debate in part because of how the tax ended: Backed by new developer money, a largely unknown pro-density environmentalist named Mike McGinn campaigned for mayor in 2009 promising to repeal the head tax as an impediment to fighting climate change. That claim hasn’t aged well, but after McGinn was elected, he made head tax repeal one of his first items of business. Approaching 2019’s elections, that ancient history suddenly becomes quite relevant.

Awash in new wealth, Seattle’s local elections next year are going to shatter all previous records for fundraising – and the just concluded head tax debate will be back with a vengeance.

The Bills Come Due

That’s doubly unfortunate because it’s likely to eclipse an even bigger problem over the coming year: the failure of at least the last four elected mayors and two decades’ worth of developer-friendly city councils to adequately plan for Seattle’s explosive population growth. While nobody in 1998 could have known that Amazon would become a global juggernaut, a coalition of developers and climate change-obsessed environmentalists have successfully pushed a develop-at-any-cost approach to increased population and density that ignored existing neighborhood plans. It concentrated development near arterials but left many single-family home neighborhoods nearly untouched.

The unintended impacts included building new market-rate housing on land made available through the destruction of affordable housing Seattle now desperately needs. But while city leaders underwrote development and funded expensive real estate development schemes and civic amenities (the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel and waterfront development, convention center expansion, etc.), they failed to fund numerous infrastructure improvements that were needed to absorb so many new residents. That includes not just affordable housing, but transportation (including badly backlogged maintenance projects), public transit, sewage and utilities, public school capacity, and much, much more. Homelessness and housing were simply the focus new because that’s the crisis that already has a death toll. But it isn’t be the only crisis.

After 20 years of misplaced priorities, the bills are coming due. The businesses that city leaders have encouraged while heavily taxing everyone else are the only serious remaining source of money that our city can turn to in order to address a whole series of urgent issues. That funding was already going to be a tough sell, with taxpayers reasonably asking why city leaders should be trusted to collect still more taxes when they’ve gotten it so wrong in the past. That argument already surfaced with objections to the head tax based on that crisis having worsened despite past funding increases. Now, those objections are also fuel for business interests who, between Amazon’s successful extortion and the unprecedented money that put Durkan into office, also have a political road map for how to stop any effort to tax them further.

How to Spend the New Tax

Most immediately, as part of its annual budget process the city council and mayor will need to decide this fall how, exactly, to spend the new revenue. That will also be contentious.

As a companion to the new legislation, city council also passed a resolution outlining its priorities for spending the new revenue. But that resolution isn’t just non-binding; its numbers were hashed out behind closed doors over one weekend, with no study or public input, and are likely to be challenged this fall on several fronts.

The most obvious is the reduction in the compromise proposal, both as a percentage and in absolute terms, in the amount of money dedicated to new affordable public housing construction. A lot of people will push to see that component reprioritized. They’ll face resistance. Mayor Durkan has continually pushed to move dollars away from housing and into homeless services for reasons that are unclear, given that the sole focus of the city’s current “Pathways Home” approach to homelessness is to steer people into affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist. And as noted above, the goals for this section of the spending resolution seem unrealistically optimistic – as well as still falling far short of the need.

There will also be several activist-led fights over the services portion. Durkan has already indicated that she wants that money to go primarily into expansion of existing programs, many of which service providers and advocates have been decrying for years. For starters, there’s the dramatic escalation in homeless encampment sweeps in recent years – a homelessness “service” which cost the city over $10 million last year alone and which has continued apace under Mayor Durkan.

Beyond that, Durkan wants to spend much of the money on expansion of Navigation Teams – which connect individuals to case managers and services, but not, usually, to housing – and a private market voucher program that most advocates seem to regard as not only ineffective, but somewhere between a brief respite and a cruel fraud for those seeking to escape homelessness. Increased spending for all of those programs will face opposition. Beyond that, there’s also the noisy band of residents who seem to loathe spending money of any kind on the homeless. They’ll be around, too.


Meanwhile, Back in Reality…

While wrangling over this tax has droned on, and more fighting over both the tax and how its revenues will be spent seems inevitable, the problems the EHT proposal was meant to address keep worsening. The King County Medical Examiner is now recording, on average, almost four homeless deaths a week so far in 2018, a pace that would shatter last year’s record. The release later this month of last January’s “one night count” is also likely to not only set another new record, but chronicle the spread of increased homelessness into every corner of King County.

Rent increases have slowed a bit in recent months, but an average Seattle apartment still rents for close to $2000 a month. With the standard measure of affordability being 30 percent of income, that means affording even a basic apartment in our city requires a household income of around $80,000 a year. If you’re, say, retired, disabled, or otherwise on a fixed income, or working one or more low-wage jobs – as many homeless individuals are – a case manager can’t bridge that chasm. Activists are sure to push a variety of non-EHT reforms this year to help reign those costs in, from more relocation assistance to protection of remaining affordable housing and increased “in lieu of” fees for new housing to (gasp) rent control.

We’ve learned several important things from the EHT debate so far. One is that even the political power of Amazon can be overcome – for now – if the need is urgent enough and the demands for it are loud and disruptive enough. Another is that while this victory was important, it does not nearly meet the scale of the need, and it may not be possible to pass anything that can meet the scale of the need.

But the two most important takeaways are that, one, the battle to overturn this tax – or divert its revenues to other needs – is ongoing. It’s not over. And secondly, as competing interests continue to block more comprehensive solutions, people keep dying on Seattle’s streets. Every week.

Durkan’s Alternative Head Tax Proposal: Details and Analysis

What you need to know about the competing plans.

BRIEF TALKING POINTS

Durkan’s plan:

* Is timed to kill the existing proposal, and delay any solution.

* Is even more grossly inadequate to the scale of the problem.

* Abandons any serious effort to build additional badly needed permanently affordable housing.

* Puts more money into homelessness programs that only help a small segment of the homeless population.

* Rewards Amazon’s extortion, and gives companies like Amazon effective veto power over what our city does on any issue.

DETAILS

Both plans raise money based on the number of employee hours worked in Seattle each year by the top three percent of the city’s companies, based on gross revenues of at least $20 million. Durkan’s plan would charge about $250 per full-time employee per year; the existing plan charges about $500. Annual revenue would be under $40 million rather than $75 million.

Durkan’s plan eliminates the proposed 2021 shift to an equivalent, more traditional payroll tax. Instead, the head tax would continue, but then end after 2023.

Durkan’s plan also shifts spending. The previous plan dedicated about $50 million to building permanent affordable housing; $20 million to homeless services; and the rest to administration. Under Durkan’s plan, homeless service funding from the tax would increase from $20 million to about $28 million, but the affordable housing component would be reduced by four-fifths, from $50 million a year to only $8 million.


ANALYSIS

1. A report released yesterday estimated that King County needed to add 14,000 new affordable homes just to address 2017’s homelessness – let alone any future increases. The previous plan was an inadequate but important step in starting to address this shortfall. On this point, Durkan’s head tax plan moves from being inadequate to being nearly irrelevant. It would build about 24 housing units a year, or about 120 over the course of its entire five-year existence.

2. Durkan has already said that she wants to see head tax revenues for services funneled into the city’s existing “Pathways Home” programs, particularly its Navigation Teams and a private rental market voucher program. The Navigation Teams are meant to connect homeless individuals with a case manager and support programs that, if completed successfully, essentially allow the person to apply to get on waiting lists or for vouchers. Since most waiting lists are frozen or years long, this usually would mean the vouchers, in which people are given three- to nine-month rent support and then left to fend for themselves and counted as “permanently housed.”

Under Durkan, the city this year tried to defund most of the city’s existing emergency shelter network, on the grounds that they did not require guests to become part of this program. The city council blocked this attempt, which would have literally left thousands of people with nowhere to go while they wait for affordable housing that does not, as yet, exist.

The Navigation Team approach is far more comprehensive per person, but also far more expensive per person. Given the lack of overall additional revenues, this necessarily means helping far fewer homeless people.

At best, the city’s approach is to focus service on those individuals whose homelessness issues are personal and can be “fixed” or managed – substance abuse, mental health, etc. – while deemphasizing structural economic reasons (e.g., rent in Seattle is hella expensive). It presumes that people can easily afford a $2000/month private rental unit once their vouchers expire, since the personal problems which led them to become homeless will have been resolved. And some homeless individuals do fit that description. But most don’t – the issues are economic, or a complex mix, or not easily resolved in a few months.

That’s at best. At worst, Durkan is doubling down on an approach that amounts to corporate welfare to landlords, while abandoning most homeless people to fend for themselves.

3. Durkan’s plan would raise only a quarter of the revenue originally recommended by last winter’s Progressive Revenue Task Force, the most representative public body so far to consider the issue – and the task force acknowledged that its $150 million per year recommendation was inadequate to the scale of the problem. Durkan’s $38 million a year and 24 new homes a year isn’t a bad joke – but it’s close.

4. Durkan’s plan extends for five years one of the major problems with the existing proposal: its reliance on gross revenues, making no distinction between industries with large profit margins and those with notoriously thin ones.

5. Due to past decisions, the city doesn’t have any obvious constituencies other than its wealthier businesses from which it can raise significant additional revenue. But the scale of Durkan’s proposal appears to be a response not to the need or to any long-term plan, but to appease Amazon and other big business opponents of the original proposal. There are reports this evening that Amazon has said it would lift its freeze on two major downtown developments if Durkan’s plan passes.

6. Unlike the existing plan, which was developed over eight months and countless meetings and public hearings, Durkan’s plan was developed secretly behind closed doors “working with people across the city” who she has not yet named.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Durkan’s plan is supported by the four pro-business city council members who have opposed the existing head tax plan, including CM Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee considering the existing proposal. That proposal is co-sponsored by four council members and supported by a fifth, Kshama Sawant.

Friday morning, May 11, Bagshaw’s committee meets at 9:30 AM for what was expected to be a final committee vote on the existing plan. A full council vote on that plan is scheduled for the next business day, Monday, May 14.

The existing plan has the five votes to pass but is opposed by the committee chair and does not have the six votes needed to override what would now be a certain veto by Durkan.

At minimum, the timing of the release of Durkan’s plan is designed to maximally delay any final decision. Bagshaw is likely to call to postpone any vote pending new hearings and studies on the competing proposal – even though it clearly does not have the votes to pass council. Neither side has a clear path to its proposal becoming law now. Serious lobbying will start to either find a middle ground or (more likely) try to peel off at least one of the sponsors of the existing plan, with the explanation that “it’s the best that we can do.”

Durkan’s announcement delays badly needed additional revenues of any sort for a crisis that is now in its third year as a formally declared city emergency, and that is now literally killing people in our city each week. And the fact that Durkan’s plan is based not on need but on appeasing our city’s largest employers sets a terrible precedent. If her last-minute proposal ends up carrying the day, the City of Seattle is giving companies like Amazon effective veto power over city laws and policies. Is that the city, and government, we want?

Let’s Call Amazon’s Bluff

Amazon says they’ll halt new office projects if Seattle enacts an employee head tax. Good.

The debate over a proposed Employee Head Tax (EHT) on our city’s largest employers, with revenue dedicated to affordable housing aand homelessness services, is coming to a head. After eight months of debate, the Seattle City Council is scrambling to meet a self-imposed mid-May deadline for trying to pass the proposal, with a final vote currently scheduled for Monday, May 14.

In the face of civic activists demanding long-overdue major action on Seattle’s critical affordable housing and homelessness crises – and packing council meetings to press their demands – five of the nine council members have said that they support the current bill. At least one of those council members must change their minds to kill or significantly weaken the bill. That effort, already in full force, was turbocharged this past week by Amazon’s freeze of two new office facilities downtown, suggesting it would “rethink” further Amazon expansion in Seattle if the new tax passes.

Ordinarily, this alone would be enough to kill the bill. A notorious Seattle Times headline last year – “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s Biggest Company Town” – wasn’t wrong, but politically and economically, it missed the larger context. Seattle has always been a company town. Before Amazon, it was Microsoft; before Microsoft, Boeing; and before Boeing, a century ago, Weyerhaueser, and before that, servicing the Yukon Gold Rush. The history of Seattle has largely been shaped by its political leaders giving the boom economy of the day whatever it wanted. Amazon is just the latest and biggest company whose displeasure is, for a certain type of Seattle politician, unthinkable.

Most recently, political obsequiousness has basically created our city’s twin crises in affordable housing and homelessness – crises so extreme that this tax might just pass anyway.

And it should. Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff.

The Opposition

It’s impossible to understand why our city should defy what is now by far its largest employer – Amazon already has 20 percent of Seattle’s office space – without understanding the literal bankruptcy of tax opponents’ arguments. These fall into two broad categories: the people objecting to such a tax being collected, and those objecting to what it’s being spent on.

In terms of its purpose, homeless advocates and social service providers have expressed serious concerns about how Mayor Durkan has said she wants to direct any EHT revenues, particularly the portion that would go to services. Durkan wants to funnel that money to Seattle’s badly flawed “Housing First” approach, in which emergency shelter, transitional shelter, and support services are defunded in favor of forcing the homeless to sign up for waiting lists for affordable housing units that don’t exist, and sweeping the unsanctioned encampments that spring up in lieu of organized ones. For example, Durkan wants to put more money into the “Navigation Teams” that help refer homeless people into resources. Yet despite official claims that thousands of local homeless were housed in 2017, the Navigation Teams successfully referred exactly one homeless person into permanent affordable housing. One.

The bulk of the new EHT money would go not to services or shelter, but to building badly needed permanently affordable housing – but even funding that is halved from the $150 million EHT recommendation of the task force city council created after last fall’s failed EHT bill. And the task force acknowledged that its recommendation would only put a dent in the need for tens of thousands of new affordable units.

Meanwhile, while even that inadequate level of housing is being built, where are homeless people supposed to live? Defunding shelter and services only forces more people onto the street – making their path out of homelessness far more grueling and difficult, and in some cases deadly. Seattle set a record for homeless deaths in 2016, and again in 2017, and is well on its way to a new record in 2018, with dozens having already been lost. With any other group of people, that would be an international scandal. For Seattle’s homeless, it’s just another number.

Despite those problems, advocates for the homeless unanimously support the current EHT proposal, figuring that the fight over how revenues are first spent is less immediately important than establishing a long-tern, dedicated revenue source for addressing the issue. But Seattle has plenty of people who object to any public money being spent to help our city’s most vulnerable residents.

That Trumpian impulse was on full display at a Ballard town hall meeting on the EHT proposal this past Wednesday. The panel format, hosted by EHT bill co-sponsor CM Mike O’Brien, never happened, shouted down by a loud, abusive, ill-informed mob that spewed hate at every speaker not in their tribe and that drowned out with denials anyone who patiently tried to present simple facts on the issue. It was so bad that the notorious Alex Tsimerman, an abusive, obscenity-spewing nutcase whose unhinged rants have routinely gotten him banned from city council meetings, was one of the more lucid speakers.

The Ballard fiasco was a stark reminder that, contrary to the placid belief of many Seattle liberals, the ignorance, hatred and fear that, with Russian help, propelled Donald Trump to the presidency isn’t strictly a red state phenomenon. There’s plenty of such residents here, and plenty of demagogues (like KIRO-FM’s execrable Dori Monson) willing to transform even legitimate concerns into vehicles for punching down. Regardless of how the head tax fight plays out, that contingent will surely produce candidates running against the bill’s sponsors next year. If any of them gain traction, the big business opponents of the tax will face a difficult choice.

As is, the Tsimmerman contingent is a de facto ally in the anti-EHT fight with our city’s economic giants. In testimony to city council, local business leaders have taken pains to emphasize how much they love the poors, and how much they already have done to help them. (Such claims from a Vulcan executive drew spontaneous, derisive laughter from an otherwise polite pro-tax audience.) But corporate help, those leaders cautioned, can’t come through taxation and publicly accountable programs, because…..uh, reasons. Essentially, the position is: we’re notwilling to make less money, so if we’re taxed by this we’ll have to cut expenses elsewhere – by either cutting jobs or relocating to a place, any place, that doesn’t have this tax.

But companies don’t create new jobs because they’re generous and have the spare money for it. They do so because they need those jobs to meet the demand for what they sell, or as an investment to create that demand. A job is created when, and only when, a company thinks the expense of it will be more than offset by the money that position helps earn. An EHT that amounts to about $500 a year for a full-time employee, for Seattle’s largest employers, is not a serious hit – as demonstrated by the lack of difficulty such employers have had absorbing much more costly minimum wage increases across the country despite identical arguments.

But for a company like Safeway or Kroger or Amazon, with not just national but global employee bases, the cost of a Seattle tax isn’t the point – it’s the precedent that tax would set for all those other jurisdictions.

A recent study put the annualized global median income for an Amazon employee at $28,000 a year, far lower (and more likely to contribute to homelessness) than the $110,000 median income for Seattle Amazon employees. But those figures imply far more than a reason for Amazon to extort our city. Amazon owns Seattle now; it doesn’t need a good reason to extort us. That’s how company towns work. The companies are inevitably going to leave. Sooner or later, Amazon executives will look at that $110,000 figure and start “rethinking” it.

For reference, Seattle’s previous company “owners” haven’t gotten any smaller – they’ve just deemphasized our region. Microsoft has lost much of its tech dominance to Google, Facebook, and others, but it still has enough lucrative global monopolies to be a hugely profitable company. But for a couple of decades it has quietly been putting more and more of its resources into lower-wage countries like India.

Seattle’s previous owner, Boeing, was and remains a high-profile extortionist of our local and state governments. A 2013 Olympia special session of our state legislature, held in three days with no public notice or input, had as its sole purpose responding to a Boeing threat by approving the biggest single package of state tax breaks in US history, worth $8.7 billion. But Boeing has bled jobs from our state anyway, mostly to lower-wage, non-union states. Similarly, Boeing’s 2001 move to Chicago wasn’t because Seattle was untenable; it was because Seattle could not come close to matching Chicago’s offer of huge incentives and tax breaks. And even Weyerhaueser, a century on, remains one of the world’s largest owners of privately held timberland. Most of it just isn’t in the Pacific Northwest now.

In the race to the bottom, someplace else is always cheaper. And as a global empire, Amazon has no more home town loyalty than Boeing or Microsoft or Weyerhaueser. To pretend otherwise is naive.

Amazon’s current rapid expansion in Seattle won’t last. At some point, it will conclude that those $110,000 a year jobs can be performed more cheaply elsewhere. If it’s not the EHT, some other pretext will be used to justify it/

The other lesson of those past dominating companies is that despite the initial panic, Seattle is doing just fine with their reduced footprints. We’ve somehow still got the best local economy in the country. If Amazon pulls back, our city has a very good track record of replacing those jobs with other, likely better jobs.

The Social Contract

Meanwhile, Seattle literally cannot keep growing like this. Twenty years ago, Seattle was a national center for the dot-com boom. Since the height of that boom, though, our city has added more than a fifth of its population, growing from 563,374 in the 2000 Census (and 513,269 in 1990) to an estimated 704,352 in 2016 – all with making virtually no significant infrastructure investments to accommodate all of that growth.

Certainly, Seattle’s revenues have grown along with that population and job growth. Where has the money gone? Some of it to expand existing amenities such as parks and libraries, to be sure. But many of its biggest-ticket items have been real estate schemes disguised as infrastructure – the Mercer Mess, streetcars, the downtown tunnel.

Though light rail is finally being built out – years after many mostly smaller U.S. cities (e.g., Portland, Salt Lake City) started their systems – Seattle still only has one line with 16 stations, with the next expansion – three more stops on the same line – not due to open until 2021. Seattle’s busses and schools are bursting at the seams. Traffic gridlock remains a constant, and as one neighborhood after another gets terraformed – 27 major neighborhood upzones are in the pipeline – parking spaces will become mythological. Our garbage and sewage systems are beyond their capacities. And, of course, our social services are wholly inadequate to the demand as Seattle’s gap between rich and poor widens.

Seattle, like a handful of other cities (including Portland and Vancouver B.C.), has pioneered a new political and ideological alliance to justify its rapid growth this century: the need for urban density in response to climate change became an environmental justification for real estate development at any cost. In Seattle, this meant that 20-year neighborhood plans, carefully developed with resident input, were simply ignored under the mayorships of Nickels, McGinn, Murray, and now Durkan. When neighborhood councils strongly objected, the city just stopped funding the councils. When commercial and residential property values (and rental and lease rates) skyrocketed as a result, the city doubled down, in the Randian (and idiotic) belief that more extremely expensive new housing would somehow be a solution for the loss of existing affordable housing stock.

In short, many of Seattle’s growth problems can be traced directly to city leaders’ past, decades-long failure to plan to address the consequences of future growth. Even now, in the EHT debate, the city’s Housing Now fiction that thousands of homeless are being housed each year is apparently preventing leaders like Mayor Durkan from acknowledging that at least until new public housing comes on line, still-exploding housing costs inevitably mean that we need to plan for even more homelessness in coming years. (Conveniently, while this year’s “one night count” was taken in January, its sure-to-be-a-new-record results aren’t set to be released until the end of this month, after the EHT vote.) Perpetually ignoring today’s problem has required, for decades, that they not be anticipated as even bigger future problems.

Fixing those problems won’t be easy. Seattle’s options for funding solutions are limited. Thanks largely to its lack of an income tax, our state has the most regressive tax system in the country, and a study released last month showed Seattle to have the most regressive taxes in the state. Lowe and middle class taxpayers in Seattle are already maxxed out.

The city tried to address this last year by passing a high earners’ income tax, but that measure is on hold pending court challenges. That leaves local big businesses as the only remaining stakeholders financially capable of absorbing a major initiative. The only alternative is increased property or sales taxes that will, essentially, tax the poor to help the poor. It’s a complete negation of the social contract that liberals in particular are supposed to hold dear.

That social contact – the basis for the “commonwealth” language beloved by this country’s founders – is the centuries-old notion that justifies modern government. It holds that we, as individuals in a society, surrender some of our rights in order that other, larger rights might be protected. A corollary is the inverse: that we do better as a society when we each do better individually. An injury to one is an injury to all.

No one bill can solve the many problems brought on by Seattle’s poorly planned growth. Housing and homelessness are only a part of what’s gone wrong – though they’re arguably the most urgent part, the part with an ongoing death toll. And the EHT bill is an important step, but only one step, in addressing these crises. But if even this proposal can’t be passed – after eight months of negotiation, for a tax Seattle has already had – how will anything else succeed?

Does Seattle, as a city, want to honor its social contract? Or does it want to adapt to climate change by becoming a comfortable ark for the wealthy, floating on ever-rising sea levels while everyone else drowns?

When Amazon issued its threat, EHT bill co-sponsors issued a statement insisting that the debate over their bill wasn’t about Amazon. Of course, it is, at least for that certain type of owned politician Seattle has always had.

But in a broader view, the co-sponsors are right. Honoring our social contract – before the path to arkdom becomes irreversible – is more important than what any one company, no matter how large, chooses to do. And setting precedents isn’t just an Amazon concern. If Seattle stands up to its corporate overlord, that statement of priorities will resonate far and wide.

Seattle should call Amazon’s bluff. The city council should pass the EHT proposal without weakening it, and Mayor Durkan should sign it.

The alternative future, in which the debate is over which and how many of us are disposable, looks a lot like that town hall mob in Ballard.

Initial Thoughts on Tonight’s Attack on Syria

So…we’re bombing Syria *right* *now*.

Some very initial observations:

1) Of course Assad is a monster, and has been for his entire reign. He’s also used chemical weapons (by my rough estimate) at least a half-dozen times in recent years. And the US has spent the last decade in the region fighting Assad’s primary enemy (ISIS), and thus helping to keep him in power. And other parties in the conflict have also allegedly used chemical weapons at times.

2) After reporting last week that Trump told his military leaders he wanted all US troops out of Syria, we have today. Now the reports have Trump having wanted a more expansive response than his military leaders advised. This is a deeply incoherent response, in a war zone with multiple parties whose complexity on the ground has stymied even policymakers who knew what they were doing.

3) Trump, of course, has no idea what he’s doing, and that’s even less likely during a week when he has by all accounts been melting down over the raids on Michael Cohen, James Comey’s new book, and all manner of other Russia investigation developments.Trump’s past MO is to trot out a massive distraction when the news isn’t going his way. That would be the worst possible reason for this attack.

4) Initial reports are of explosions in Damascus (the capitol and second-largest city in Syria). It’s not clear what the targets are, or whether they include civilian areas. Based on past US actions, that seems likely.

5) It took John Bolton exactly nine days to get one of his two favored wars. North Korea is the other, and Kim Jong-un is set to meet with South Korean President Moon two weeks from today. Just sayin’.

6) Trump, in his speech tonight, emphasized that this would not be an indefinite engagement. Past announcements of such US attacks ALWAYS include this reassurance. Sometimes it’s even true.

7) Trump also called out “tyranny everywhere,” which is laughable given his bromance not just with Putin, but Turkish President Erdogan (whose military recently launched an offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds, who are our only actual non-Israeli ally in the conflict) and neo-fascists from the Philippines to Poland and Latin America.

8) Trump called out Russian support for Assad, which marks, so far as I’m aware, the first time he’s personally criticized the Putin regime in three years. That includes when Russia used a chemical weapon on British soil. Putin is not going to ignore this.

Earlier today McClatchy reported that Robert Mueller’s team has evidence supporting one of the last major unproven allegations in the Steele Dossier, the charge that Cohen met with Russian contacts in Prague as a go-between between the Putin government and Trump’s campaign in 2016. If Russia has a pee tape, I hope we’ll see it soon.

Better that than a fresh world war.

UPDATE: James Mattis just announced that the initial bombing operation is over, and any further response depends on Assad’s response. Fingers crossed.

Congestive Failure

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement that she wants the city to come up with a plan for “congestion pricing,” to toll surface streets in downtown and South Lake Union, is only the latest in a growing tradition of city policies that are meant to sound and feel good, but that are deeply delusional and throw Seattle’s working poor under the bus – in this case, literally.

As with many of these policies, the general goal of Durkan’s edict sounds laudable – to get more people out of their cars and using public transit, thereby reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. As Durkan notes, the last four mayors have been trying to reduce Seattle’s carbon output, but it has remained basically stable over that time. That doesn’t mean past efforts have failed – on a per capita basis, they’ve had impressive success. But explosive population growth, both in the city and in our region, has offset the per capita reductions. Durkan wants more.

Okay – but at what cost, and to what benefit? Seattle’s contribution to national carbon emissions, let alone global ones, is miniscule. In absolute terms, reducing it by ten percent – which would be a lot, given that Seattle’s population growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon – just doesn’t matter much. It does allow Seattleites to feel smug about ourselves, and it would help to shame a somnambulant federal government, if Republicans were capable of shame. But by itself, it won’t do much to actually slow down climate change.

Seattle is even unlikely to influence other American cities, several of whom have already considered and rejected congestion pricing. Most famously, New York City has had several such proposals to toll access to Manhattan in the last decade. No US city has actually enacted such a plan. The best-known examples of congestion pricing are European: Stockholm, Milan, and especially London, the first major city to implement it.

But as we should have learned with bicycles, homelessness, and any number of other issues, Seattle is not Europe. Our geography (especially the sprawl) is different. Our levels of poverty and our social safety net programs (such as they are) are different. Even our hills are something that regularly cited bike-friendly models like Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t have.

In this case, cities like London can use congestion pricing to reduce car usage because they have a well-established public transportation system that people can and do use instead – especially rail, which takes people off the streets entirely and is more carbon-friendly than buses.

For example, Greater London, with 14 million people, has not only a robust passenger rail network, but its subway system – The London Underground, or The Tube – has 11 lines, 270 stations, 250 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers annually. Metropolitan Seattle, including Pierce and Snohomish Counties, has a quarter of London’s population – but Link Light Rail has only one Seattle line, with 16 stations, 20 miles of track, and 23 million passengers annually. That’s less than two percent of London’s ridership, or eight percent of its per capita ridership. And, of course, Link light rail’s one line doesn’t even serve most King County neighborhoods, with the next expansion – the relatively modest four mile extension from UW to Northgate – not due to open until 2021, the same year Durkan wants congestion pricing to start. Assuming no delays, the first stations on a second, Eastside line will open in 2023.

Metro buses are also a problematic option to replace car usage. Every year recently has seen record ridership, but for years Metro funding hasn’t kept up with demand. Voters approved a record $930 million transportation levy in 2015, but the city is quietly getting ready to announce reductions in the projects that levy was meant to fund, due both to escalating costs and the predictable loss of federal funding under the Trump Administration. Some projects will be hit harder than others – particularly the projects, like the proposed seven new Rapid Ride lines, that were expecting to rely heavily on federal funding. Without those new lines, bus options won’t be much better in 2021 than they are now, with central city routes already frequently at capacity during precisely the same hours as the vehicle gridlock that congestion pricing will supposedly address.

At this point, congestion pricing resembles nothing so much as Seattle’s current approach to homelessness, which is to dismantle most emergency shelters and social support services in favor of funneling the homeless into permanent affordable housing that does not exist, at least not in anywhere near the amount needed to meet the demand. A similar dynamic awaits those who decide to turn to public transportation rather than paying to drive downtown. After decades of political leaders using transportation money to fund vanity projects and real estate development schemes, Seattle doesn’t have the public transit infrastructure a city our size should have – let alone one that can accommodate our projected future growth, let alone our ambition to, uniquely among US cities, get people out of their cars.

And beyond all of that, congestion pricing, like so many of Seattle’s other revenue sources, is extremely regressive. Someone who can afford a downtown condo or rental won’t even notice downtown tolling – but someone who works downtown but has been forced out to Kent, Lake City, or some other outpost in search of slightly less outrageous housing costs faces a light rail system that’s irrelevant and a bus system that’s frequently packed in rush hours but doesn’t even serve many areas well on nights or weekends. What are they supposed to do? If they’re driving because, like in most American cities but unlike the rest of the world, there are no practical alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to force them out of their cars until those alternatives are in place. Having to choose between increased driving costs and, say, rent or food seems pointlessly cruel – but people in that situation are precisely the ones who will be impacted by most variations on the type of plan Durkan wants.

But, as with the homeless waiting in vain for alternatives, the city’s policies doesn’t really much care about the working poor. Instead, Seattle simply hopes they’ll go away, in this case in service of a largely symbolic goal. It hasn’t worked with the homeless, and it won’t with this, either. It will simply place more burdens and misery on the lives of people far removed from the eco-friendly confines of City Hall. Most good Seattle liberals would be mortified by the comparison, but there’s something positively Trumpian about city leaders that make policy decisions based on the city they imagine, rather than the one that actually exists.

The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, and Retractable

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., first used the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in 1958. The quote itself dates back to 19th Century abolitionists. Now, in the 21st Century, it is once again in doubt.

This week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inevitably is provoking a fair amount of “How Far Have We Come?” and “How Far We Have Come!” commentary. But more disturbing, for our nation and the world, is where the most prominent facets of Dr. King’s moral universe – racial and economic justice and Gandhian nonviolence – are going. Many of the signs are not good.

In commemorating the anniversary, the New York Times today included a front-page photo of the Lorraine Motel, the inner city motel where King was shot and killed. What the Times article didn’t mention was what has happened to the Lorraine itself and the area around it. City leaders used the Lorraine to site a new National Civil Rights Museum, which in turn has been used, despite community protests, to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood and drive out its historically poor, black residents.

In other words, a city seeking to turn an awful historical event into tourist dollars – and that only this decade, after years of community pressure, took down its Confederate statues – is monetizing Dr. King’s death for real estate developers. It’s s grim twist to the sort of economic displacement going on in central city areas across the US, leading to chronic shortages in affordable housing – and record levels of homelessness – among the people Dr. King championed most.

This is not an isolated development. On issue after issue, a half-century after a white supremacist shot and killed Dr. King (probably, as a Memphis jury later decided, as part of a broader conspiracy), King’s greatest achievements are being rolled back, from voting rights to economic opportunity to basic economic and public health indices.

The process began the same year Dr. King died, when Richard Nixon used his now-infamous “Southern Strategy” to win the presidency. The white supremacism Nixon appealed to has since steadily grown in power, to the point where it is now the unifying ideology of a political party that controls not only all three branches of the federal government, but 31 of 50 state governments and the vast majority of our country’s non-urban counties. Democrats have the upper hand in only four states not on the Western or Eastern seaboards – Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico, all of which have large urban centers that control their states. Everywhere else, the corrosive influence of white supremacism has given the lie to the belief that King’s legacy is secure.

To be sure, there have been periods of pushback, most recently in Barack Obama’s election and the explosive growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s a measure of how much we’ve lost that the #BLM movement – a movement launched during Obama’s presidency – explicitly branded itself around black peoples’ right even to exist.

The triumph of Obama’s election led directly to the presidency of Donald Trump, a living embodiment of the rejection of Dr. King’s legacy who first rose to political prominence with the explicitly racist birther conspiracy. Control of federal law enforcement now rests with the neo-confederate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose federal judicial nomination was rejected – one of only two such rejections in US history – because his overt racism was, in the Reagan era, too much even for the Republicans of the day. Now such racism is Republican orthodoxy, voter suppression and racist gerrymandering are the norm in Republican states, and the Voting Rights Act is dead.

The good news is that while Republicans have seized power, a majority of our country’s people, and the majority of its wealth, are in its cities, which generally reject that Republican orthodoxy. But even as Democrats are poised to make major gains in this year’s elections, it’s essential that they campaign not just against the general train wreck of the Trump Presidency, but explicitly against the hatred, fear, and bigotry that propelled it to power. Dr. King’s other legacy was his championing of Gandhian nonviolence – an ethos diametrically opposed to the bitterness and hatred that now dominates all facets of American politics across the ideological spectrum.

Democrats need to be explicitly rejecting not just racism and the policies it has spawned as a cornerstone of their campaign efforts. They also need to make clear that they care about all Americans, including poor and middle class whites being ripped off by Trump’s oligarchy. Otherwise, the politics of division will simply be America’s politics – the final rejection of King’s moral universe. And the groundwork for more white supremacist gains in the future will be securely in place.

That ethic of universal dignity and love is what made Dr. King a figure of global inspiration. It is now also in retreat in much of the world, a victim of predatory global capitalism, the rise in influence of anti-democratic kleptocracies like China and Russia, and the battle for resources made scarcer by population growth and climate change.

In the end, King’s vision is not only morally just, but may be the key to our survival as a species. That arc, his legacy, and human survival are by no means guaranteed.

Olympia Update

What legislators got done this year was important. What they failed to get done was important, too.

For the first time in what feels like living memory, the state legislature in Olympia is not going into special session to pass its budget bill this year. That means, under our state constitution’s archaic, 19th Century tradition, that our “part time” legislators needed to wrap up all of the state’s pressing business in 60 days this year so that they could embark on the arduous journey back home, on trains or their horses and buggies, in time to plant this year’s spring crops. Seriously.

Washington is not alone in this. While we are one of the most populous of the states with a part-time legislature, fully 41 states have them, almost all of them a relic of original state constitutions and unable to keep pace with the demands of federal requirements, a modern economy, or any of a host of societal problems. Each year, our state’s legislators generally are confronted with between two and three thousand bills, with only 60 days to consider them – or 90 days in the years when they must also pass a highly time-consuming biennial budget.

Between a limited legislative calendar and legislators’ own limited time and interests, only a fraction of that firehose of bills passes in any given session – and if it’s not an emergency (or being pushed by a small army of lobbyists, as with anything beneficial to Boeing, Microsoft, or Amazon), it often gets left behind. This year, for example, a badly needed bill to create an ombudsman position for the Department of Corrections passed with broad bipartisan support. This was the tenth consecutive year the bill had been introduced. Olympia is littered with such stories.

Here, then, is a quick look at how some bills of particular interest to Seattlites fared this year – ones that passed, and ones that didn’t make it.

The biggest items were also the most notable examples of what can get done when Republicans aren’t forcing legislative gridlock: the budgets. The legislature passed its supplemental budget on time, as well as a capital budget – something it was unable to do last year. And the supplemental budget came up with the money to finally comply with the education demands of the state supreme court, by moving the teacher pay raise in last year’s compromise education funding deal from Fall 2019 to Fall 2018. For Seattle area teachers whose pay has been eroding for two decades, that’s a big deal.

On the single biggest emergency issue facing the Puget Sound region – affordable housing – Olympia did manage one important reform. It passed a bill, similar to the law Seattle passed last year, that prohibits discrimination by landlords on the basis of income source. For fixed income renters, especially seniors, the disabled, or welfare recipients, who need to compete for limited affordable housing with full time workers, this can be the difference between living in a modest apartment and living under a bridge. That will make a difference. But once again, more sweeping reforms, like statewide impact fees, investments in public housing, or (gasp) allowing local jurisdictions to impose rent controls, never got serious consideration.

Legislators also managed modest progress on gun reform, by banning bump stocks in the wake of last October’s Las Vegas mass shooting. Reform demands in the wake of the more recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida came too late for introduction of new bills – so even modest changes like raising the minimum age for purchase of automatic, military-grade weapons will have to wait for a special session, or, more likely, next year. Even then, such measures will be a heavy lift; the National Rifle Association spends more money electing sympathetic legislators in Washington than in any other state, and that includes some key Democratic votes. Maybe next year.

Another failure this year, despite full Democratic control of Olympia, was some form of the carbon tax that has been proposed by Gov. Inslee for the last several years. This year, a carbon tax proposal at least got a hearing in both chambers, but again, not all Democratic (and no Republicans) were on board. This may not need to wait for next year, however; as soon as the legislature adjourned last Friday, environmental groups announced that they would try to get a carbon tax initiative on November’s ballot. Their chances of getting the necessary signatures by July are good.

The need to fund public transportation (and move away from fossil fuels) also killed a modest proposed tax break on car tabs,which would save car owners money by using the Kelly Blue Book valuation as the basis for car tab fees. The problem? Democrats couldn’t figure out how to replace the lost revenue that would create for Sound Transit light rail expansion.With the Trump Administration’s proposed infrastructure plan and budget, which would gut federal funding for such projects, the state simply couldn’t afford the tax break without coming up with a replacement revenue source. Maybe next year, unless Tim Eyman isn’t too busy with his legal problems to get such a measure on this year’s ballot.

One more highly publicized measure that failed was abolition of the state’s death penalty. The abolition bill had bipartisan support – at least some Republicans object to the high cost of trying capital cases – but despite coming closer than it has in many years, it fell victim, like so many other bills, to the firehose of legislative business.

One measure that did pass was a compromise bill that finally changes the state’s uniquely impossible standard for prosecuting on-duty law enforcement killings. The previous standard required prosecutors to prove not only that the officer wasn’t acting in “good faith,” but that he or she harbored “personal malice” for the victim. I-940 had already gathered the signatures to put an initiative ending this standard onto this year’s ballot, but its sponsors, other stakeholders, and Democratic lawmakers crafted a replacement bill that ends the personal malice standard and redefines, more broadly than I-940 did, the good faith requirement. But pro-law enforcement Republicans objected to the legislative jujitsu Democrats used to replace the initiative, and are demanding that the new law, I-940, or both still appear on November’s ballot. We’ll see if they take that demand to court, and, if so, whether they prevail.

There was much more – a compromise bill to phase out commercial salmon farming, for example – but urgent major needs, like reforming the state’s antiquated tax structure, are hard to pull off in only two months. Or three. This is a major reason (along with gridlock and lifetime political sinecures) why so many such issues wind up being the targets of initiatives. It’s not the best way to choose among competing priorities – that’s the job of legislators. But it’s the system we have. Next year.

Important Personal Health Update

I need to trade some teeth for a kidney

As some of you know, I’ve been living on borrowed time for a number of years. In 1994, I received a then-experimental double organ transplant – kidney and pancreas – that, if everything went right, was supposed to extend my life for a few years.

That was 24 years ago. Despite some serious complications along the way, my non-native organs have lasted far longer than me, my doctors, or anyone else expected. It’s been miraculous.

But the clock has always been ticking. The underlying disease, the various illnesses that come with immunosuppression (which prevents organ rejection), and the toxic drugs I need that create immunosuppression all take their toll over time. This week I’ve been dealing with two major personal health developments.

The first is that my non-native kidney has finally deteriorated to the point where I am now eligible to be listed for another kidney transplant.

This has been coming for a while, but it’s still something of a shock to have that eventuality become real and present. Transplants carry a lot of risks, and recovering from my first one was a long, arduous process. And I was a lot younger and stronger then. Going through another transplant now is a prospect that’s … daunting. But we do what we need to in order to survive.

I’ve already taken and cleared most of the tests and procedures needed to actually get on the wait list for a kidney. The one major one remaining is that I need a fair amount of dental work done. Transplantees need a pristine mouth because of the high risk of infection.

The second bit of news this week has been that after a number of delays, I finally got a detailed treatment plan and cost estimate for the dental work needed to clear the wait list requirements. It comes to $2,951.00.

This is actually an improvement from the first estimate I got, which was over $7,000. And it’s probably the best I can do. I need some specialized work due to the immunosuppression. Even without that, the only major remaining charity dental care program in our area for low-income patients has a wait list, too, of over 3,500 people. (Surely many more local people than that actually need such care.) And now time is a factor – the sooner I get on the list, the likelier I am to get a transplant before my kidney fails completely. Dialysis can be a stopgap, but for various reasons I don’t do well on dialysis; I likely wouldn’t survive more than a few months on it.

Ironically, Medicare and insurance will cover most of the costs of the transplant itself. (At least for now – by the time of my surgery, who knows what Trump and his minions will have done? But first things first.) However, to become eligible for that care I need to come up with thousands of dollars out of pocket, because for some insane reason – and yet another feature of the American health care system found nowhere else in the world – we don’t treat dental or vision care as health care.

At this point, my non-native kidney could last several more years, or give out next month – it’s notoriously hard to predict in situations like mine. But the sooner I get on the transplant list, the better my chances of survival are.

Every few months for the last couple of years I’ve needed to appeal to friends and readers for financial help to meet basic expenses (and bless all of you who’ve helped over that time). This is not that. My personal cash flow for living expenses is actually fine this month. But like most people, I don’t have an extra few thousand lying around. No money, no dental care … no waiting list … no new kidney … and, sooner than later, no Geov.

It’s ridiculous, but people die in this country due to fiscal absurdities like this all the time. I don’t want to be one of them.

I’ve set my first dental appointment – the extractions – for Thursday, March 4, because time matters and in the faith that, somehow, I’ll be able to have the necessary funds in hand by then. (Payment is due up front, of course.) I have a few prospects for friends and family that can help, but almost nobody I know has that kind of money lying around; mostly, I’ll need to crowdsource raising the necessary money.

I’m happy to share the treatment plan or other details anyone would like offline, but the bottom line is, if you can help me raise a nearly $3,000 bill in the next two weeks, it literally would mean the world to me. There’s a PayPal button at the bottom right of my geov.org home page that I’m using for this fund; PM me if you want to make other arrangements for a donation.

Whatever you can do, either yourself or by sharing this with others, I’m profoundly grateful for.

As I’ve written before: In the end, in Trump’s America, all we have is each other. And caring about and for each other is the best rebuke we have to the New Cruelty his regime champions. Thanks for reading!

P.S. Feel free to share widely!

Inquests on Trial

In Washington State, police officers may soon lose their right to shoot and kill people with impunity – except in King County

On January 8, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a moratorium on the county’s unique inquest process for fatal on-duty law enforcement shootings. The moratorium will extend until a task force, named by Constantine in December, reviews possible reforms to the process. That task force’s recommendations are due in March.

Changes in how King County reviews fatal police shootings are something community activists have been demanding for decades. The format of the inquest process – in which a six-person jury is led through a narrowly defined “fact-finding” series of questions, and then asked solely to decide whether the shooting was “justified” or “not justified” – is not meant to determine criminal or civil liability. But in practice, it’s virtually guaranteed to return findings that appear to exonerate law enforcement officers. Of the several hundred such shootings since King County adopted its current system in 1971 – including ten in 2017 and over 70 in the last ten years – only once has an inquest jury concluded that the shooting was “not justified.” That was the notorious 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T.Williams.

That one exception proves the rule: the inquest process is stacked against victims’ families and against any attempt to hold officers accountable for questionable shootings. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but two of the most basic are defense attorneys and cross-examination.

Jurors hear from witnesses, who testify under oath – but those witnesses don’t face any cross-examination. That means attorneys for the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting can coax a narrative out of the officers and any supportive witnesses (e.g., other cops) with no critical scruntiny. Jurors are left to choose between what the officers say and what anyone else might say if it’s contradictory – and in that circumstance, officers’ testimony will almost alway be given more weight.

The narrowness of the questions that witnesses receive, and that jurors must answer, doesn’t include an assessment of what might have been done differently. “I had no choice but to shoot” is an unassailable statement if jurors aren’t told that there were, in fact, other choices. And that doesn’t even get to larger questions about police training, possible patterns of past abuses by the officer, or any of a number of other possibly critical factors. The jurors simply aren’t told.

Moreover, in navigating that unusual and frustrating process, families of shooting victims are on their own. Unlike a criminal trial, in which public defenders represent defendants who can’t afford a lawyer, the county doesn’t provide an attorney for the families of police shooting victims. This means that for what may be a family’s only opportunity to get sworn testimony about what happened to their loved one, a family who has already faced that lost also has to pay for legal representation to help find out what happened. Having an attorney doesn’t mean there will be any accountability – but not being represented virtually guarantees that from a family’s standpoint, nothing useful (like testimony that can be used in a later civil case) will come out of the inquest.

Instead, an inquest jury’s finding of a “justified” shooting invariably is used in the defense against any subsequent civil case. And this is why, despite the inquest system’s having been a target of criticism for over a generation, the need to reform or replace it has gained sudden urgency. It appears likely that I-940, the De-Escalate Washington initiative that would change our state’s absurdly impossible standard for criminal prosecution of bad law enforcement shootings, will make it onto this year’s ballot for statewide voters. If it passes, it would, for the first time in modern history, make the prosecution of law enforcement killings possible in Washington State.

Except in King County.

Because in King County, if an unreformed inquest process continues to return “justified” verdicts with near-automatic precision, prosecutors have to weigh that result in deciding whether to bring charges in a controversial shooting. And even if the statewide standard for such prosecutions is relaxed, most prosecutors are unlikely to try to bring a case that has already been through a testimony and jury process that returned what police invariably characterize as an “exoneration” of their officers – even if the current inquest process was never meant to, and cannot possibly, provide that sort of a definitive judgment.

In other words, the passage of I-940 risks making prosecution of law enforcement officers easier in 38 other counties, but not in the county – ours – that accounts for by far the largest number of fatal law enforcement shootings.

In that context, what Constantine’s task force decides to recommend, and how King County Council members respond to the issue, becomes critical. And there’s no guarantee that any changes will be made at all. We’ve been here before, most recently in 2008, just before Constantine replaced Ron Sims as County Executive. Sims also appointed a task force to review possible reforms to the inquest process. That committee was unable to agree on any recommendations, and no changes were made.

This time, the five committee members publicly announced include two African-Americans – attorney Jeffrey Beaver and retired King County sheriff’s deputy Fabienne Brooks, who in 1999 became the first black woman in KCSO history to be promoted to the rank of Major; King County Superior Court Judge Dean S. Lum, who has in the past been willing to rule against the police in some criminal and civil cases; former Seattle Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) director Sam Pailca, who in six years (2001-2007) of running the civilian OPA was highly limited in her effectiveness by, among other things, the OPA’s inability to collect its own evidence or compel testimony; and Native American activist Rick Williams, who, as John T. Williams’ brother, witnessed first-hand the truly nightmarish process in that shooting’s inquest. And that was the only instance, out of hundreds, in which the process “worked.” (Those five members were charged with picking a sixth, final committee member.)

In particular, Williams’ presence on this committee will be critical. King County’s charter archaically limits membership on a County Executive-appointed committee like this one to “long time property owners and business owners,” a restriction that for this issue rules any renters – and most of the family members of the disproportionately lower-income (and non-white) victims of police violence. Williams could either provide a valuable reality check or be exploited as a token cover. Or both.

In either scenario, it’s hard to imagine Constantine’s group can generate anything more than modest proposals in only the three months they’ve been given. Most likely, they’ll confine themselves to long-planned legislation introduced in King County Council this month that would, finally, provide legal representation to families of victims. That would surely help, but it would still leave in place a format that doesn’t allow for any real examination of culpability. And even that relatively benign change faces opposition. Even before the task force had met, the county’s largest police union, the predictably reactionary Seattle Police Officers Guild, tweeted that “SPOG does not believe that the current inquest process should be changed.”

Why would it, when that process has “exonerated” officers almost without fail for nearly half a century – and
would continue to do so, whether I-940 passes or not?

[Author’s note: I’m poor, permanently disabled, and dedicated (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us.

If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

Dr. King and Mr. Trump

”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 89 today. He has been dead for a half century, far longer than he was alive. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good “I have a dream” whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it’s more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King – because as we live in the era of an openly racist president and his proudly racist supporters, much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.

As we lose, each year, more of the people who personally witnessed King’s career, his impact is also being steadily minimalized – not just by a president who, today, became the first president since the King holiday was established to pointedly ignore it (Trump went golfing instead), but also by a White America that has little beyond the most basic notion of what King did and why, and by a new generation of black activism that draws more from the legacy of Malcolm X and especially the Black Panthers than it does from Dr. King. At this point, the King history is in danger of being reduced to a context-free ritual, its invocations of a post-racial society sounding less like a lofty vision and more like a cruel joke.

Even before Dr. King’s assassination, in the mid-’60s virtually every major city in the US saw riots. Those riots were centered in its black ghettos and frequently fueled by systemic police violence against its residents.

In 1973, only five years after King’s death, a young Donald Trump represented his father’s real estate company, Trump Management, against a sweeping Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the Trumps systematically discriminated against blacks in renting their New York City apartments.

Another 13 years later, in 1986, an Alabama attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions became only the second nominee since World War Two to have his nomination for the federal judiciary rejected – explicitly because of Sessions’ overt racism.

Now, an unrepentant Sessions, as head of the Department of Justice, has along with his Congressional allies taken sweeping measures to try to undo much of the legal framework of non-discrimination that was the signal accomplishment of the Civil Rights era. Sessions oversees, among other things, housing discrimination complaints, suppression of black voting (now done with computer-aided precision unthinkable when King fought Jim Crow), and investigations of local police brutality against non-whites in cities across the US.

Sessions was picked for that job by the same Donald Trump who inherited a local real estate empire built on discrimination, and who won the presidency in large part with explicit appeals to racism.

Just how long does that arc need to be before justice takes hold?

King’s faith-based optimism in the moral goodness of humanity may, after a half-century that has seen tremendous progress as well as widespread regression, seem quaint and naive at best, irrelevant at worst. But his moral vision is not the only reason he is remembered today, and it’s not the only lesson the history of his spectacular, all-too-brief career offers as we confront Trump’s America.

The Forgotten History

King, the man, is internationally revered on the level of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as last century’s most champions of nonviolence and human dignity – even though, unlike Gandhi and Mandela, he spent relatively few years in the public eye. Dr. King spent his life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents. King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks to his own life (and eventually lost it) fighting for a higher cause.

King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.

Most importantly, King was a brilliant political tactician. He never held public office, but as a private citizen became the leader of tens of millions of Americans widely thought to have no power, showing how they could, along with white allies, exercise power effectively enough to win. He exploited divisions in his racist white opponents, pitting the die-hard segregationists against white-owned businesses crippled by economic boycotts. He gained allies in long-time segregationists like Lyndon Johnson, who was responding to King’s power politics, not his moral appeals. That’s a part of King’s legacy that’s squarely relevant today for marginalized communities of all types.

What little history TV will give us around King’s holiday this year is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary; that government, at every level, sought to destroy him; and that the type of men who ran those governments have seized power again. We hear “I have a dream”; we don’t hear King’s powerful later indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don’t see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don’t hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.

Pop culture’s MLK has no politics, no history, and even no faith. We don’t see retrospectives on King’s linkage of civil rights with global liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers’ strike), while organizing a multi-racial Poor Peoples’ Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King’s fellow leaders weren’t nearly so polite. Cities were burning. Selma got the movie, but Watts, Newark, and Detroit made a difference, too.

We Could Each Be Dr. King

Sixty-three years after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, blacks are being newly systematically disenfranchised in our elections. Affirmative action and school desegregation are dead. Urban school districts across the country are as segregated and unequal as ever. A conservative US Supreme Court has helped usher in a new era where possible redress for discrimination has been steadily whittled away.

Gifted African-Americans like Barack Obama can achieve at a level unthinkable in King’s day. But the better test of a society’s marginalization of discriminated-against groups is not how the most talented people of each group fares, but how the mediocre do. A black mediocrity like George W. Bush could still never, ever become President of the United States. A wealthy black con artist like Donald Trump would be doing hard time.

Resisting Trump requires that we acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery in 1955 is still a central feature of America in 2018. It shows up in our geography, in our prisons, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, in our law enforcement, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.

King used the moral outrage of white Americans to force change; in a new, far more cynical century. We don’t go much for moral outrage any longer. It’d take a whole lot more than Bull Connor’s police dogs to make the news today. And social media has transformed activism – elevating the voices that are the most eloquent and incendiary, often at the expense of organizing that can change public policies (or prevent past public policy victories from being gutted).

But in 2018, we also have strengths not available to Dr. King. The forces of racism and hate notwithstanding, ours is now a far more multi-cultural society. Far more people have personal relationships with people of other races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, or classes. Appeals to abstract moral principles mean something, but injuries to people we know personally mean more. And social media’s impacts are also positive – enabling s new generation to be not only interconnected in ways unthinkable in King’s time, but able to quickly organize and to resist injustice at a scale he could never have imagined. The 1963 March On Washington took months to organize, drawing between 200,000 and 300,000 people to witness King’s most famous speech. Last January, after the newly installed president enacted a Muslim travel ban, a similar number swarmed airports across America in hours. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin never dreamed of such possibilities.

But the saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King’s career – and the aspect with the most transformative power – is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his willingness to act at enormous personal risk to do what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action — if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.

MLK has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don’t. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a schlocky greeting card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a literally whitewashed file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling politicians of all colors.

His image is misused in these ways precisely because he was powerful. The movement he led and inspired gained power not just because its cause was just, but also because of the risk-taking, courage, and determination of both King and millions of other less well-known people.

How they demanded change, and won it though the exercise of power nobody thought they had, should inspire all of us. Now more than ever, their story needs to be told. As it inspires us to action, that arc might just start bending back toward justice again.