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Sunday, November 26, 2017
Seattle’s income tax on the wealthy is illegal, judge rules
The following article appeared in the
Seattle Times on November 22nd
Seattle’s income tax on wealthy
households failed its first legal test on Wednesday.
In a summary judgment, Judge John R. Ruhl agreed with multiple
challengers that the city ordinance adopted in July is not authorized under
Superior Court Judge John Ruhl
Opponents of Seattle’s so-called
“wealth tax” immediately hailed the ruling as proof that the city long has known the
tax was legally flawed, but nonetheless pushed it into law.
“The city knowingly violated several
laws in imposing this tax,” said Brian T. Hodges, a senior attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation,
which represented several Seattle residents challenging the law. “This ruling
is probably the worst scenario for the city and the best scenario for the
opponents of the income tax.”
While Wednesday’s decision is
“disappointing,” the city intends to appeal it directly to the State Supreme
Court, where officials always expected the question to be decided, a
spokeswoman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in an email.
In a joint statement, Holmes and Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess said
their goal is to eliminate the state’s over-reliance on regressive sales taxes
and ensure the wealthy pay their fair share.
Liberal Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess
Washington’s tax system has been
called the most regressive in the country, meaning that low-income people pay a
much higher percentage of their earnings than wealthier residents.
Passed by a unanimous City Council
vote in July and subsequently signed into law by former Mayor Ed Murray, the
Seattle measure would impose a 2.25 percent tax on total income above $250,000
for individuals and above $500,000 for married couples filing together. The
city estimates it would raise about $140 million a year.
Proponents say that money could be
used to lower property taxes, help the homeless and expand provide affordable
Wednesday’s ruling undercut most of
the city’s legal arguments for the tax, pointing out that state law explicitly
prohibits taxes on net income.
The city had argued that its tax
would apply to “total income” instead of net. The city also described it as an
excise tax, imposed on those who live in Seattle in the same way excise taxes
are imposed on companies that do business in the city.
The judge disagreed.
“ … the City’s tax, which is labeled
‘Income Tax,’ is exactly that,” he wrote. “It cannot be restyled as an ‘excise
tax’ on the … ‘privileges’ of receiving revenue in Seattle or choosing to live
The judge did not rule on whether the
tax violates a provision in the state constitution requiring all property taxes
be imposed uniformly.
The opponents argue that income is
property, so it’s not legal to single out the wealthy for taxation, Hodges
“In order to uphold its income tax,
the city would have to convince a court that individual income is not protected
by the constitution,” he said.
At the Supreme Court, Seattle
officials hope to attack the long-standing interpretation that income taxes are
property taxes, opening the door to what proponents see as a fairer tax system
“In order to build a more just and
equitable society for all, we need a serious overhaul of our state’s tax
structure,” Holmes and Burgess said in their statement.