Earlier today, King County Superior Court judge John Rhule announced he would make a decision before Thanksgiving regarding the constitutionality of a progressive income tax in Seattle, after hearing the first round of oral arguments in Kunath v. City of Seattle. The hearing was the first step of an attempt to overturn the tax, passed by the Seattle city council in July. Those opposing the tax have cited the Washington state constitution, which directly prohibits any taxes that are not “uniform upon the same class or property.”
During its arguments, the city attempted to exclude Seattle’s tax from the state constitution’s prohibition by asserting that income is not property and that the measure in question is not an income tax at all, rather, a “transaction tax” for the benefit of living in Seattle, according to reporting by Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier. Former Washington attorney general Rob McKenna, who argued on behalf of the opposition, pointed out that a local tax is unconstitutional and cited state supreme-court precedent defending overturning the tax.
McKenna is correct — three times, in 1933, 1935, and 1936, the Washington supreme court ruled a similar tax was unconstitutional under this uniformity clause. Plus, graduated income taxes are widely unpopular in Washington; 64 percent of voters voted “no” on a ballot measure to establish one in 2010. The measure lost even in King County, which encompasses Washington’s largest metropolitan area.
Rhule is expected to rule against the tax, but the city will likely appeal to the state supreme court.