Put a Human Face on Spending Priorities

Across the country, state legislatures are grappling with billion-dollar deficits. The prevailing narrative among Republicans–and many Democrats–is cut, cut, cut. But in some of the nation’s most populous states, a few legislators are pushing back.

Although these leaders acknowledge that some cuts are inevitable, they argue that we can’t just rely on cuts to provide for our country’s future. We have to raise new revenue to pay for the things we believe in: good schools, safe roads, adequate police and fire protection, and so on.

Some of the hardest-hit states are also among the largest: California, Illinois, and New York.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a budget emergency. On the one hand, he has called for cutting spending on higher education by $1 billion and slashing health and welfare programs. On the other hand, he’s considering pushing for a special election to extend needed revenue increases and has proposed closing corporate tax loopholes.

In Illinois, state lawmakers voted in January for responsible revenue measures to stave off horrific cuts to social services and an equally horrific threat to the state’s bond rating. To pay for the state’s most pressing needs, they raised the personal income tax from 3 to 5 percent and the corporate rate from 4.8 percent to 8.4 percent.

The tough vote in Illinois didn’t happen by accident. A group called the Responsible Budget Coalition–led in part by Citizen Action/Illinois and made up of teachers, human service providers, public sector and labor union workers, advocates for children, and others–made the difference. The coalition led a multi-year campaign to put a human face on the state’s budget crisis, effectively changing the narrative from “there’s too much fat in government” to “which of these people do you want to hurt?”

Similarly, Citizen Action of New York launched an “Every Street, Not Wall Street!” campaign (www.everystreet.org) that ties health care, education, taxes, jobs, and campaign finance together. “Bad policies have helped the rich get richer, while leaving everyone else behind,” explains the group’s website. “Our state and federal governments can raise the money for better schools, quality health care and human services by asking the richest people to pay their fair share through fair taxes.”

We face the same choices on the national level. Even while calling for a five-year cap on most federal spending, President Barack Obama recognized the choices we face. Raising the specter of a rapidly growing China and India during last month’s State of The Union address, he called for more investment in research and technology. “This is our Sputnik moment,” he said.

What binds us as a community, a state, or a nation in the face of budget challenges? It’s the knowledge that planning for the future requires more than simple austerity. It requires investments. Dollars spent on public education now mean dollars saved on prison beds later. Dollars spent on infrastructure now mean less costly repairs in the future. As an added benefit, these investments create jobs.

The next time you hear “cut, cut, cut” as the prevailing narrative for addressing budget shortfalls, challenge that assumption. Ask: what are we sacrificing and at what cost?

David Elliot is communications director for USAction, a grassroots advocacy group with affiliates and partners in 24 states. www.usaction.org