Fighting for a people’s budget in Seattle

November 6, 2014

Steve Leigh reports on a hearing called by Seattle's socialist City Council member to challenge the pro-business and police priorities of the Democratic Party establishment.

OVER 100 community members gathered in the Seattle City Council chambers on October 30 to demand a "people's budget." The hearing was organized by socialist Council member Kshama Sawant to challenge the budget proposals being advanced by the city's Democratic establishment.

Seattle has a booming economy for rich while most residents are getting left behind. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Seattle has one of the most extreme distributions of wealth in the U.S. The top 20 percent of households saw their income jump more in one year ($15,000) than the entire average income ($13,000) of the bottom 20 percent.

City tax revenues are up. Construction cranes are everywhere. The population is growing, and 9,000 units of new housing were started in 2013. But the foreclosure crisis continues, and many residents are forced to pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent.

There are 58,000 millionaires among the 2 million-plus people in Seattle and its suburbs--and other three thousand sleeping on the street or in their cars. The population of the city is getting wealthier and whiter, as working class people and people of color are forced out due to high housing costs. At the same time, transportation is more difficult as the bus system recently cut services.

Raging Grannies camped out in front of the hearings in Olympia on crude oil trains
Raging Grannies camped out in front of the hearings in Olympia on crude oil trains

How is Democratic Mayor Ed Murray responding to this crisis? With a lot of excellent rhetoric and policies that maintain the status quo.

Murray's 2015 budget calls for spending 56 percent of the general fund on "public safety," with the police department alone taking 30 percent. This is a higher percentage than the U.S. government spends on the military!

The mayor is proposing to hire 100 more police officers over the next four years. At the same time, Human Service funding stagnates at only 7.5 percent of the general budget. Seattle jointly funds the Seattle-King County Public Health Department, which is facing a $15 million deficit. Murray plans to "solve" this by allocating a mere $400,000.

Protest movements in Seattle have won the passage of several new reforms, including mandatory sick leave, banning employers from requiring criminal records in job applications, and--most famously--transitioning to a $15 minimum wage. But Murray proposes to enforce these laws, which cover thousands of employers, by adding only 5.5 new positions, whose first priority will be to "educate" employers rather than punish them.

Murray has also gone back on an executive order that he signed early this year that to quickly raise the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour. Now the mayor plans to apply the law covering private employers to city employees as well, which means they will have to wait three to seven years to reach the $15 minimum.

THE CITY'S real priorities are shown in other expenditures. According to John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, the City has spent nearly a billion dollars in the last ten years on corporate development in the South Lake Union area. The City is
spending almost the same amount on re-development of the city's waterfront, and billions more on a tunnel to replace the aging and unsafe Alaska Way viaduct--this in spite of much cheaper proposals for a surface street option put forward by activists.

Most of the waterfront spending is necessary to shore up the sea wall, but much of it is devoted to what critics have labeled "vanity projects". All of these projects, which are boondoggles for construction companies, are displacing lower rent apartments and increasing the housing crisis in the city.

The housing crisis is compounded by regressive changes at the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), an independent agency that provides low cost housing to the poor. Under its new Stepping Forward plan, public housing rents for many will skyrocket more than 500% over the next six years.

Besides the skewed priorities, the city budget discussions reveal a couple underlying structural problems in city financing and service provision:

1) The city subcontracts human services to private non-profits. This makes funding and provision more precarious and makes it easier to cut services because the city does not see these services as central to its mission.

2) Many important projects are funded by special tax levies and bond issues. This has two basic problems: the bond issues are paid off through regressive property taxes and the bond issues pay interest to already wealthy bond buyers. The alternative would be to tax the rich directly to provide these needs, rather than to pay them to lend the City money.

THE GOOD news is that the Mayor's budget is being opposed by a loose coalition demanding a " people's budget." First on October 24, housing residents and activists confronted the city council and demanded that only appoint SHA board members who will pledge to end Stepping Forward. Only two of the nine council members agreed to sign the pledge, though the rest are verbally critical of Stepping Forward.

Then on October 30, dozens of people gave powerful testimonies about the urgent needs in Seattle that need more funding.

Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute reported that Murray's budget would cut $200,000 from hygiene services for the homeless and didn't allocate any money from the general fund for low income housing. She also noted that 40 homeless people have died in Seattle this year as a result of exposure and violence on the streets.

"We need to double our transit services," declared Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union. "Until we do that, we will continue to have polluted air and gridlock." John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition denounced the "socialism for the rich" of so-called "private –public partnerships" and tax breaks to corporate developers. Jeremy Griffin of Stand Against Evictions and Foreclosures (SAFE) called for a moratorium on foreclosures and an audit of fraudulent foreclosures by the banks.

This is the first time in Seattle that a "people's budget" hearing has been held. The obvious reason is that for the first time in nearly a century, Seattle elected a socialist City councilor in 2013. Sawant's statements calling for taxing the rich, instituting rent control (now banned by the state), and funding for human services--as well as the hearing itself--showed the large gap between the needs of ordinary people and the prevailing Democratic Party politics of the City government.

This gap was further shown by the contempt the other councilmembers showed to the hearing. Besides Sawant, only Nick Licata even bothered to send a representative. The seven other councilors and the mayor were no-shows.

Like many large cities, Seattle is virtually a one-party town. The mayor and All the city councilmembers other than Sawant nestle firmly within liberal Democratic Party politics. They talk a good game about income inequality, racism, and calls for diversity, but their real priorities are shown in funding, not nice political speeches.

SAWANT rightly called for strong independent movements to challenge the government and to elect representatives who are committed to people's needs. She has made specific proposals that would improve the budget, proposing to increase revenue by raising taxes on millionaires and corporations, cutting the salaries of the mayor and city council, and placing fees on oil and coal trains to pay for safety measures along the tracks.

Sawant proposes that this increased revenue be improve conditions and services for the majority of Seattle residents. Her proposals include raising the pay of all city workers to at least $15 an hour, increasing transit routes and hours, building tens of thousands of units of high quality affordable housing, building a new shelter for homeless women, supporting tent cities, and creating a Civilian Review Board with real power over the police department.

These are excellent proposals that should be widely supported! Unfortunately, the coalition pushing for these changes is too small as of yet to have the needed impact. The only constituency that has been widely mobilized has been SHA tenants. The participants in the people's budget hearing were mostly service providers and representatives of organizations, without many of their members present.

The fight over the budget is part of a long-term battle. Activists might make some impact this year, but as Paul Bigman from the Labor Council said at the hearing, "we need to build now for next year".

In laying the basis for a stronger movement on the budget, several issues need further discussion and development:

1) A stronger stand against police abuse and the priority on police funding. It is hard to fund human services when "public safety" absorbs nearly 60% of the general budget.

2) Specifically and directly confronting racism and sexism, including a critique of the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative, which has a lot of excellent rhetoric but mostly calls for lots of consultation, discussion and study with little real substance.

3) Replacing bond financing with taxes on the rich. This is one weakness in Sawant's proposals---she actually calls for a new bond issue to fund some needed projects

4) Stopping the privatization of human services.

5) Banning oil and coal trains rather than just taxing them.

As we continue to build a movement for a people's budget, these issues will need to be debated out. In spite of its initial small size, it is an excellent step forward that this movement has formed in Seattle.

The movement for a people's budget also shows why it is important to build politics independent of the Democratic Party. Grassroots movements are the most powerful force we have, but it helps to build these movements to elect people to office who can represent the movements rather than reflectively further the interests of big business.

Socialists elected to office cannot bring about socialism, but they can make it easier to build movements that can begin to challenge the priorities of capitalism!

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