Despite small wins, Sawant sees city budget falling short as a 'moral' document

The Socialist councilmember believes business interests trump concerns about the city's most vulnerable.
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Kshama Sawant

The Socialist councilmember believes business interests trump concerns about the city's most vulnerable.

As the Seattle City Council began slogging through over 100 recommended city budget changes at a committee meeting on Friday, one of the first members to comment on a specific item was Kshama Sawant.

The budget item was a "statement of legislative intent," a type of directive that the Council can use to call for further study of programs or policies. The council considered 16 of them on Friday and approved them all unanimously. The one that Sawant was commenting on said that the city should consider options to increase penalties for employers that commit labor violations. "If a worker was to steal form a boss, then they would lose their job, they would probably go to jail," she said. "We need penalties for businesses that are systematically violating labor law." Some of the audience in the chambers applauded Sawant's remarks. None of the other councilmembers chimed in to offer additional comments, and a staffer read the next budget item for the record.

Mayor Ed Murray has described the city budget as a moral document. But as rookie City Council member Sawant works through her first budget-making process, she disagrees. "I don't think the budget overall," she said, "lives up, in any way, to being a moral document." To meet that standard in her view, Sawant said the budget would need to do more to address the needs of the city's working class and most vulnerable residents, by putting greater emphasis on issues like affordable housing, mass transit and human services.

"Overall the budget is quite out of touch with those realities," she said. "The fight is for a people's budget."

The Council's work on the budget mostly happens around the edges. The members typically move around only a small fraction of the money allocated in the mayor's spending plan, which totals nearly $5 billion in 2015 and 2016. But as the Council has taken on the often-dry work of re-allocating and trimming funds, Sawant, a Socialist, has worked to nudge the budget toward the values that she and her supporters endorse. At the core of their political platform is a strong emphasis on reducing income inequality.

In some small ways, at least, Sawant has achieved success. Tucked within the statements of legislative intent and the 91 budget actions that the Council committee worked through on Monday were several proposals she has pushed for.

As the councilmembers have proposed and considered budget changes, Sawant has formed some unusual alliances. For instance, she joined forces with not only Mike O'Brien, generally considered one of the Council's more progressive members, and Nick Licata, one of her most common allies, but also Tom Rasmussen, a member with whom she has butted heads in the past. (During a meeting last month, where the Council discussed new fees for real estate developers, Sawant called one of Rasmussen's amendments a "Trojan horse.")

But as the Council has worked to chisel its signature onto the mayor's budget, Sawant and Rasmussen have both endorsed some left-leaning statements of legislative intent. One called for investigating the possibility of an excise tax on individuals and households earning over $1 million, another said the city should explore a bond sale to fund affordable housing projects. They also both backed $120,000 in annual funding for a women's homeless shelter

Along with Licata and O'Brien, Sawant also pressed for a $100,000 per year allocation to assist people living in the city's tent encampments. The money would go to pay for items such as tarps, portable toilets, water, electricity and camp cell phones.

Even though some of the spending ideas Sawant supports have gained traction, she remains skeptical of the budget process and the Council. Sawant believes the Council often moves urgently to address concerns raised by business interests "but when it's a question of providing basic services," she said, "then it's subjected to endless scrutiny." 

"It really shows you where the majority of the Council really stands," she added.

One of the more notable budget changes that Sawant championed, and which the committee approved on Friday, concerned the minimum wage for city government employees. The measure would set aside $1,080,000 in 2015 and $775,000 in 2016, to cover the cost of increasing the minimum wage for Seattle's public workers to $15 per hour next year.

Under the mayor's proposed budget, those employees were set to see their wages rise more modestly, in line with the city's private sector employees, and in accordance with the rules in Seattle's $15 minimum wage ordinance that was passed earlier this year. This means city government employees would receive a minimum wage bump to $11 next April, and then to $13 the following January.

On his third day in office, the mayor signed an executive order instructing departments to come up with a plan for paying employees $15 per hour. At that time, roughly 660 city employees earned less than $15 per hour, most of whom worked for Seattle Parks and Recreation or Seattle Center. About six months after Murray signed the executive order, however, Seattle's landmark $15 minimum wage ordinance was passed.

While the Council unanimously approved the package of budget "modifications" that included the item related to the public worker pay floor, Councilmember Sally Clark did raise questions about whether the proposal could interfere with the city's collective bargaining process.

But for Sawant, there was no question about whether the item should be included in the budget.

"This was absolutely the correct thing to do," Sawant said, referring to the committee's approval of the minimum wage funding. She said that since the mayor issued his executive order, city workers had been waiting in limbo for the wage increase.

The Mayor's Office has been cool toward the proposal and did not return a request for comment about it on Friday.

Licata has served on the Council since 1998 and currently chairs the Budget Committee. He views the budget as a "strong step in the right direction toward making a moral statement," and toward making sure that more people share in the economic growth taking place in Seattle.

"These issues really represent what's boiled up from the general public," he said after Friday's meeting. Licata is generally seen as a keeper of the Council's liberal flank and has worked with Sawant on a number of legislative issues during the past year. Asked about whether he thought business was driving priorities when it came to the budget and other policies, he had his own theories.

"It's not like business is calling the shots," he said. "I think, overall, the Council members I've known throughout the years, their hearts are certainly with the poorest and the neediest." But Licata added: "I think on the scale of weighing opinions, there's a bias toward considering the concerns of the people they're most familiar with."

"They're not familiar with the people living in encampments," he added.

Whether it's a lack of familiarity, or bias on the Council's part, or something else, Sawant said that voters are looking for something different. "People are sick and tired of politics as usual," she said. "They're hungry for real fighters on elected bodies."

Sawant's popularity seems to reflect that.

A recent telephone poll by the firm EMC Research found that 50 percent of respondents citywide viewed her favorably, as did 61 percent of the respondents in her Council district. Citywide, 80 percent knew her name. Her district favorability rating was higher than any other councilmember and, citywide, she ranked second only to Licata who was seen favorably by 51 percent of the respondents. (In contrast, only 30 percent of district and citywide respondents viewed Mike O'Brien favorably and, even though he has been on the Council since 2010, only 40 percent recognized his name.)

But Sawant says that it's not her actions as an individual, but rather the coalitions that she has helped build, that have raised her profile and that created pressure for the mayor and the Council to pass the city's $15 minimum wage legislation earlier this year. "You can't do this if you're just one person," she said, adding that she wants to use her popularity to get more people engaged in city policy and politics.

Asked whether she would run in Council District 3, where she lives, or for one of the two citywide seats available in next year's election, Sawant said it was "a question that needs to be looked at carefully." Asked whether that meant that her plan for now was to run in her district, she said it was still too early to answer.

For now, she said, her focus is on the budget.


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