Amazon, homelessness test limits of politics

The Amazon e-retailing giant grew rapidly in Seattle, making its founder Jeff Bezos and other major stock holders wealthy.

Today, the e-commerce firm is mulling where to build a second headquarters. Whatever it decides, Amazon should remember that as Seattle’s largest employer with 45,000 workers high-growth firms have responsibility for helping to keep our Northwest region livable.

That means paying a fair share in taxes in our state and lending a hand to solve the housing affordability crisis that afflicts central Puget Sound communities.

House and apartment prices are skyrocketing in part due to the pressures of growing high-tech, biotech and e-retailing, which Amazon pioneered.

Unfortunately the recent fight at the Seattle City Council over a per-worker “head tax” on major Seattle employers, including Amazon and Starbucks, was not the best approach.

Amazon was right to oppose the $500 annual tax per employee that would have been earmarked for construction of thousands of lower-cost dwelling units.

A scaled-back plan adopted by the Seattle council on Monday enacts a $275 per worker “head tax” on about 600 companies that have gross revenues of $20 million a year or more. This is expected to provide some $48 million a year for housing programs.

The smaller head tax won’t cause Amazon to halt plans for a new 17-story office building in Seattle.

But it does raise questions about adequacy of local government efforts to tackle a regional problem. A Seattle housing task force recommended a much larger housing investment.

Unfortunately cities and counties are limited by the state tax code in where they can go for funds. That is why we need to fix the state code and ensure that our region’s biggest economic winners pay their share into government treasuries.

This isn't happening today. Our upside-down state tax system relies excessively on sales taxes, business taxes, and property taxes. These place a higher relative burden on those less able to pay.

In response, Seattle city leaders have tried to adopt new taxes that won't work. Last year the city council voted to enact a municipal income tax, which is clearly not allowed under state law.

The same desperation to raise revenue is in part behind Seattle’s push to impose its tax on employment to solve a homelessness problem that may be larger than any one city can solve.

Though we applaud local efforts in Seattle and Olympia to get the most vulnerable individuals off the street, under a roof and with services to help those with addictions and mental illnesses, more is help needed at the state level.

This is why leaders of Amazon and other major, successful corporations that thrive in the greater-Seattle region need to support more progressive tax options at the statewide level.

Our communities are facing emergencies over housing. Though we live 60 miles from Seattle, we cannot look away as housing prices soar in King County and create an upward ripple effect on home and apartment prices across the region, including here.

Olympia voters have stepped up. In February they voted to raise the local sales tax and help non-profit groups build hundreds of low-cost housing units. These local funds also can help pay for treatment programs and get the most needy tenants into apartments that also have nearby services.

Seattle could learn from the Olympia approach, which relied on a broader tax and avoided - unlike Seattle’s action - demonizing large employers.

Public investments alone won't end homelessness. City partnerships with private sector firms and nonprofits is another path that can help ease the crunch.

In the end, it cannot sit well with any of us that so many are unable to find a meal or get under a roof in rain storms.

In the end, it matters in Olympia whether Seattle and its King County suburbs solve their housing affordability problem by getting more lower-cost units in play. This should also matter to the rest of the state, too.

Critics of Seattle’s tax actions should remember that we all have a responsibility to help those unable to help themselves.

Amazon's suggestion that Seattle just needs to spend money more efficiently carries a grain of truth. But it isn't the whole truth.

We all need to do more. That includes Amazon and those earning windfalls. It will take all parts of our state pulling together to ensure that our largest earners pay a fair share toward fixing our shared problems.

And that new tax money is spent wisely.