This afternoon, Council member Tim Burgess finally responded to my week’s worth of inquiries and explained why the proposed legislation creating a tax on distribution of sweetened beverages is being rushed through the legislative process despite obvious differences of opinion among Council members, the Mayor, community members, and business and labor leaders on major aspects of the legislation and indeed whether the tax should even be levied.
It turns out Burgess’s explanation makes some sense, even if it may not fully justify the final sprint to the finish line.
First, Burgess insisted that the bill isn’t being rushed through, since they have been working on it for a year (echoing a point he made in the last committee hearing on the long timeline for the bill). When I pointed out that on Wednesday he moved to suspend the Council’s standing rules to move up the final vote by a week despite the divided report coming out of committee, he partly conceded the point. But he noted that he had broad support from the Council, including the two Council members who voted against the bill in committee: his motion to suspend the rules passed with a 7-0 vote. He also explained that he didn’t need to take a vote on suspending the rules at all; as the committee chair he has the authority, if Council President Harrell consents, to suspend them. But by asking for a vote of his fellow Council members he gave them an opportunity to object. Now as I noted earlier this week, this was an imperfect process: Council member Herbold, who voted against the soda tax bill, voted for the motion to suspend the rules because she didn’t want to be seen as a sore loser after her fellow council members rejected her amendments and passed the bill. As a result, she has a week less to try to change her colleagues’ minds.
As to the reason for pushing it through quickly: it’s about upcoming elections, but not the way you think. Burgess believes those who oppose the soda tax are likely to file a petition for a referendum challenging the ordinance. It’s too late to have it on the August ballot, so the next potential election would be in November. But there are many steps in the process for putting a referendum onto a ballot:
- The referendum’s sponsors need to write the petition.
- The sponsors need to collect signatures from Seattle voters who wish to see the referendum on the ballot. The City Charter requires a number of signatures equal to 8% of the total number of ballots cast in the last Mayoral election. In 2013, a total of 204,319 votes were cast for mayor, so the petition’s sponsors would need to gather 16,345 signatures.
- The sponsors need to submit their petition to the City Clerk with the required number of signatures before the law takes effect (30 days after the Mayor signs it). As soon as they file, the effective date of the ordinance is suspended until the referendum is resolved.
- The City Clerk reviews the petition for completeness and then forwards it within 3 business days to the King County Records and Elections Office for signature verification.
- Once the King County Records and Elections Office verifies that there are at least 16,345 valid signatures, it issues a Certificate of Sufficiency back to the City Clerk. There is no specific timetable for how long the verification process may take.
- The City Clerk transmits the petition and the Certificate of Sufficiency to the City Council. This must happen no later than 20 days after the petition was filed.
- The City Council adopts a resolution authorizing the referendum for the ballot on a specific election date.
- The adopted resolution is submitted to King County Elections.
And here’s where it gets tricky: in order for a referendum to end up on the November ballot, the legislation authorizing it must be submitted to King County Elections by August 1st. This is a very tight timeline.
The hard-and-fast deadline is filing the petition with the City Clerk: that must happen before the law takes effect or there can’t be a voter referendum on the ordinance. Assuming the Council adopts the ordinance on Monday and the Mayor signs it next week, the filing deadline for the petition would be around July 10th.
If the sponsors meet the filing deadline, but the signature verification takes too long or the Council for whatever reason doesn’t authorize the referendum by the August 1 deadline, then the referendum would be scheduled for a later election ballot. The Council, at its discretion, could choose to either place it on the ballot for the next primary election in August 2018, or to schedule a special election for February 2018. Both of these are bad choices: August 2018 is a long time to wait for an election (and for the soda tax ordinance to be in limbo), and a special election would cost taxpayers money. Also, according to Seattle Municipal Code, if the petition contains signatures equivalent to 20% of the votes in the last mayoral race (40,864 votes) then the Council would be required to request a special election in February rather than wait until next August.
What all this means: if a petition for a referendum on the soda tax is filed, Burgess is highly motivated to give its sponsors enough time to get it onto the November ballot.
If an ordinance is challenged and it survives a referendum vote, then the suspension is lifted and it takes effect five days after the election unless the ordinance specifies otherwise. But a soda tax is complicated to implement and it will take time for the city to put everything in place to assess, collect and enforce it. Burgess has anticipated this, and wrote two options into the bill:
Section 17. The tax imposed by Chapter 5.53 of the Seattle Municipal Code shall be assessed on every person engaging within the City in the business of distributing sweetened beverages beginning:
A. January 1, 2018, if there is no election on a referendum on this ordinance pursuant to Seattle City Charter Article IV; or
B. April 1, 2018, if, pursuant to Seattle City Charter Article IV, there is an election on a referendum on this ordinance.
He chose a date for the second option with an understanding that a referendum might not be voted upon until next February — though it doesn’t anticipate waiting until next August.
Given the soda tax bill received five “yes” votes on Wednesday when it was considered in committee, it is likely to pass into law on Monday with at least those same five Council members’ approval. Then the clock starts ticking and we’ll see if Burgess is right and a petition for referendum is filed.
Burgess’ reasoning for expediting the final stages of the legislation is understandable. But whether it is valid is another question: the bill is being passed through by an uneasy alliance of Council members with overlapping yet distinct priorities, and the various communities of stakeholders are still deeply divided as to whether a regressive soda tax to pay for health, nutrition and education interventions is justified. If the ordinance does end up in front of voters, it’s unclear whether it will survive, since it will draw the opposition of many community groups with strong voices. It is also unclear whether it will find favor with a populace increasingly experiencing “tax fatigue.”
A common last-minute plea of a bill’s opponents is asking the Council to slow down the process and give it more time for reflection. Given that in the case of the soda tax even its supporters aren’t of one mind, slowing down might this time be the wisest course of action — even if it means an inevitable special election early next year.
References for understanding the referendum process in Seattle:
The King County Elections Jurisdiction Manual. Chapter 10 lays out the rules for petitions for a referendum.
The Seattle City Clerk Guide to the Referendum Process.
The City Charter:
- Section IV.1.H lays out the powers of the voters regarding referendum, including which ordinances are subject to referendum. It also says that a petition requires a number of signatures equal to 8% of the total votes in the last mayoral election.
- Section IV.1.J describes the process and deadline for verifying signatures, and notes that an ordinance is suspended when a petition for referendum is filed.
- Section IV.1.M says that if the voters approve the ordinance in the referendum vote, then the ordinance takes effect 5 days after the election unless otherwise specified in the ordinance itself.
Seattle Municipal Code Sections 2.12 and 2.16.