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Originally published March 15, 2014 at 5:04 PM | Page modified March 15, 2014 at 9:31 PM

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City’s progressive dreams have steep price tag

Are Seattle voters ready for a taxation spending spree of historic proportions? The proposed parks levy is just the start.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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In the elections last fall, Seattle politicians were dreaming big. Our city, they said, should be the most progressive in the nation.

It wasn’t empty sloganeering, as it turns out. They’re going for it. Seattle, on fire economically right now, may be uniquely situated among American cities to try bold experiments on income inequality, education, the environment and more.

So with some of the experiments starting to take shape, how’s it looking?

Well, one thing we’ve learned is this “most progressive” title isn’t going to come cheap.

Last week new Mayor Ed Murray released the first concrete plan — the idea of a special district with its own taxing power for Seattle parks. It’s born of a sense that the parks are declining, and that new parks would give present-day Seattle “our own legacy for future generations,” as the mayor put it.

But the tax to pay for this would be the largest property-tax levy in city history — and not by a slight amount. At $54 million a year, it’s 35 percent bigger than the Seattle record-holder, the 2006 “Bridging the Gap” street-repair tax, which is still in effect.

The new parks tax would be more than double the last parks levy. Plus, under this plan it could be nearly doubled again without going back to the voters.

“This is too much to ask the people of Seattle to pay,” read the minority view on the advisory group that hatched the plan. “With the many competing issues coming before the voters, parks should not ask for such a significant increase.”

Is it really too much? By itself, probably not. Two years ago the city doubled the size of the Families and Education Levy and voters scarcely blinked (though this mammoth parks levy is 65 percent bigger than even that doubled Families and Ed Levy).

Parks are not alone, though. Another plan, for universal preschool, is due in April. A report to the City Council showed that extending pre-K to all young kids in Seattle who aren’t currently enrolled could cost $30 million to $70 million annually, depending on how it’s structured.

So the parks levy may not be the biggest in city history for long.

Then there is the $15 minimum wage. While most of that would hit businesses, there are big tax implications too (again, depending on the details.) Nursing homes and social-service providers can’t pay such a high wage without government help. That would likely cost tens of millions more.

On top of these three Seattle-only ideas is the countywide vote in April for a sales-tax increase and $60 car-tab fee, to raise $130 million a year for the Metro transit system.

Add it all up and the dream comes with some sticker shock.

It’s not that these are bad goals. Take preschool for all. It’s probably the single best thing government could do to help struggling parents, boost kids’ futures, improve the education system for the long term and strike at the heart of inequality, all in one fell swoop. It’s a great idea. Not at any cost, but close to it.

But when the first plan out of the gate is as huge as the parks measure, something is in the political wind. Seattle appears to be heading off on a “we want it all, we want it now” binge.

So will you pay? There is no way, locally, to “tax the superrich,” as new Councilmember Kshama Sawant nevertheless keeps recommending. It’s on us — which with the inequality measures blunt some of the point. Will middle-class Seattleites agree to foot the bills for these pricey policy visions?

We are entering a period of unusually bold progressive experimentation. It may end up testing something it wasn’t intending to: the old axiom that Seattle has never met a tax it doesn’t like.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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