Following the submittal of an amicus brief by the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) defending the city of Seattle’s authority to impose a local income tax, questions remain regarding how accurately it reflects what was discussed by board members prior to its approval.
In its Oct. 17 brief, the AWC argues that local cities have broad taxing powers and do not require explicit legislative authority to exercise this power.
However, the brief also claims that no restriction or preemption by the legislature exists that would prevent a local government from imposing an income tax. This is despite a 1984 state law that says “a county, city, or city-county shall not levy a tax on net income.” It was this law that King County Superior Judge John Ruhl used as the basis for his ruling against the city of Seattle’s income tax.
Many supporters hoped that ruling would instigate a lawsuit eventually leading to a State Supreme Court decision overturning an 80-year precedent defining income as property under the state constitution. However, Ruhl’s decision did not address the constitutional question “because the court has determined that the Ordinance is invalid on statutory grounds.”
The AWC brief in response to Ruhl’s decision does not mention the 1984 state law or argue, as has others in defense of Seattle’s ordinance, that the law doesn’t prohibit taxes on “gross” income.
When initially asked about the 1984 state law, AWC staff referred Lens to the city of Seattle’s attorney.
In a follow-up requestby Lens, AWC’s General Counsel Sheila Gall wrote that “the brief doesn’t specifically address that RCW. It focuses on protecting local decision-making authority, a long-standing core value for AWC. In general, the purpose of amicus briefs is to present perspectives and issues that could be impacted by the court’s decision, not to address all of the parties’ arguments. AWC has not taken a position in support of local income taxes.”
Although AWC’s board approved submitting the amicus brief, board member and Waitsburg Councilmember KC Kuykendall recently told Lens the discussion at that time had to do with defending “home rule” for cities. The belief that no prohibition exists preempting local income taxes “was not the position of the board. That would not be a position that the board would take. The board didn’t even go into the detail of what the filing would be really.”
“The point of the board position is that AWC has historically always defended local autonomy and argued against state intrusion or prohibition against municipal laws,” he added.
However, Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier told Lens the AWC brief asks for the entire decision to be reversed, not just the section pertaining to “home rule.”
“I could foresee where you file an amici to the court that says “as you address this case, please clarify the home rule authority (question). I was very surprised to see AWC’s brief because of the fact that the trial court invalidated the tax not on home rule, necessarily. The judge did get into the fact that the legislature had not authorized this tax, but the fact is, it was invalidated on statutory grounds. You’re asking the court to overturn the judge’s ruling based on a law you don’t address.”
He added that “there’s a question of whether or not – beyond the home rule – the city could impose a tax that the state cannot. The state cannot impose a graduated income tax, home rule or not. That’s an issue in and of itself in their brief.”