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Seattle income tax not likely to survive, former justice says

It appears one of the judges got cold feet and switched his vote -- perhaps after receiving his income tax form in the mail.
Animation by Drew Christie
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An illustration of the state Supreme Court justices deciding on income tax legislation in 1933. A link to this strange story is below.

Seattle officials took a big step to change Seattle's tax structure this month by passing an income tax on high earners. It’s the first income tax in Washington state.

A former state Supreme Court justice says the plan could face a tough road in the courts.

It’s already facing one lawsuit by a Seattle area businessman.

The Seattle City Council legislation will levy a 2.25 percent income tax on individual income over $250,000 a year (or $500,000 for a couple). For someone making $300,000 a year, they would owe $1,125 in city income taxes.

Former chief justice of the Washington state Supreme Court, Gerry Alexander, was against the legislation all along for legal reasons.

He says the income tax violates two state statutes. 

“Cities only have taxing authority that's given to them by the state Legislature, and cities have not been authorized to impose an income tax," Alexander explained. "In fact, there's a statute that says they can't impose a net income tax."

He said Seattle's proposal could be challenged on both of those issues.

Alexander said if those statutes don't stop the income tax in the courts, there's another problem: The state constitution says property has to be taxed at the same rate, and income is considered property in Washington. Alexander said that would prohibit a tax on some people's income but not others'.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said they wrote the measure with those legal concerns in mind.

"We not only work with our law department, in this case we brought in outside legal attorneys, so people with expertise in taxation from the region as well as in other states," Herbold said.

The city attorney’s office said it cannot comment on pending litigation related to the new income tax.