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A Corporate Versus a People's City Budget

By       Message shamus cooke     Permalink
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How are government budgets created, and in whose
interests? In Portland, Oregon the city recently held the second and last of
its public budget forums, where the community could offer feedback to help
craft the city's budget. Over 200 people attended the meeting at Cleveland
High School, much more than city officials anticipated based on the lack of
chairs, food, and electronic remote controls that were handed out to attendees
to provide answers to survey questions (this writer was among the many not
fortunate enough to receive a clicker or a chair).   





Those who had remote controls responded to the
demographic questions that began the event, and revealed that much of the city
was vastly under-represented; the poor, minorities, and the largest
working class neighborhoods of North and outer East Portland.





The attendees spent the first hour of the two-hour
event being talked to. What we were told was as much ideology as fact. For
example, city officials based their budget on the following
premise: Because the recession has caused a major drop in tax returns,
large cuts in services and jobs had to be made. There was no
alternative. Zero mention was made of raising taxes on those who could
afford it -- the wealthy and corporations.  There was also zero mention of
using the city's large financial reserves to save jobs and prevent cuts. Shockingly,
there was no mention of the layoffs the city was planning, or the immense need
to create new jobs in a city that has a much higher unemployment rate than the
nation's average. With a "cuts only" budget, creating jobs cannot be
a topic of conversation.   





After the "cuts only" solution was
presented, much of the event was dedicated to discovering the community's
"priorities," presumably with the intention of having the least
prioritized services being cut, since cuts were mandatory.  This
inevitably pitted the different attendees against each other, with large
sections of the crowd cheering for parks and recreation or transportation
instead, in the hopes that their services or jobs wouldn't be cut. If one accepts
the city's premise of a "cuts only" budget, this must be the sad
outcome.     



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Why did the city limit its options so?
Unfortunately, Portland is simply following a national trend on a city, state,
and federal level where Democrats and Republicans have agreed that taxing the
wealthy and corporations must not be an option in addressing the social crisis
that resulted from the Great Recession, regardless of the vast inequality of
wealth that has erupted over the last 30 years. Presumably governmental officials
have chosen this route because their political parties depend on the wealthy
for campaign contributions to ensure winning elections and staying in power.  





Because politicians tell us that we cannot take
money from the wealthy, money must be taken instead from public workers through
wage and benefit cuts or layoffs; or be taken from other working people in the
form of fee increases, sales taxes, or cuts to services provided by public
workers in the form of school, community center and park closures,
transportation cuts (buses, trains and roads), crumbling infrastructure,
library closings, etc.   


 


Public comment at Portland's budget meeting was
severely restricted. After we gave the Mayor our budget
"priorities" via remote control, we were split into large groups to
talk with city officials who led large departments -- each were mobbed by dozens
of attendees begging not to have their programs cut.   





This writer joined a large contingent of city
workers who pinned down Portland's Chief Accounting Officer, who was asked why
the city refused to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars of reserve
funds. The official revealed in coded language that much of the funds were
needed to calm the fears of rich investors, who profited from buying Portland's
Municipal Bonds. Without maintaining a large cash horde Portland's AAA bond
rating could be threatened, and investors might worry about the return on their
investment. This dynamic is present all over the U.S., as cities have
chosen this "attract the wealthy" model of budgeting (so-called Urban Renewal), to the detriment of working and poor
people.      



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On May 5th in Portland a coalition of community
groups and labor unions are organizing a Community Assembly to create a
People's Budget. This event will begin with the exact opposite premise as
the Mayor's event; because the recession has caused a major drop in tax
returns, we must raise revenue by taxing those who can afford it while using
available reserve funds to save and create much needed jobs (the private sector
has failed to solve the jobs depression; the public sector must step in to help
relieve the crisis).   





Instead of ignoring or blaming public workers for
the recession, we plan to honor them and the services they provide to the
public, while giving support to the various ongoing union campaigns that are
fighting cuts. Instead of prioritizing a "cuts only" budget, we
will prioritize our needs -- for jobs and against cuts. Instead of hiding
Portland's Urban Renewal scheme, we plan to bring it into the light, along with
other ways that the city has shaped its policies with the rich investor first
in mind. 



Shamus Cooke is a social worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)
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Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)

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