Getting strategic on Budgets

There are two great coalitions around that are working on City and State budget issues, both with much the same name. There's CES which stands simply for the Coalition for Essential Services. That group is focused on City budget issues. Then there's SEPCES which is the Southeast PA Coalition for Essential Services. Both of these were somewhat successful last year in preventing the worst of proposed City and State budget cuts from being implemented. But, as most of you know, substantial cuts were still made. More State budget cuts were made just a week or so ago by Governor Rendell.

The battle is about to stop even deeper cuts in an environment of shrinking revenue. Here are two ideas for improving how those of us involved with the coalitions might improve our lobbying this year and into the future.

First, we need to do something dramatic, yet simple, to get everyone’s mind away from thinking we just can’t do anything if it involves raising taxes.

I know that we’re going to fight the good fight to get taxes on the table, from a gas extraction tax, to a PIT increase, to combined reporting, to smokeless tobacco, etc. At the City level, we have fewer options, but hopefully we can get some traction for a plan to realign the BPT and get some extra income out of that. Maybe we’ll succeed in part, but I doubt we will come close to raising enough revenue to avoid more sharp service cutbacks.

What really blocks us from winning the fight for services is that we can’t get regular people to understand the value that their taxes pay for, and how much more value they’d get for additional taxes, especially if they’re progressively raised. In thinking about this, it occurs to me how the education lobby has turned the conversation around with their costing out campaign.

Good Schools PA and groups aligned with them realized that just defending status quo funding, even with challenged budgets, would inevitably result in a shrinking pie. No one could visualize that a truly effective education system would ever come about by trading tax revenue for mere maintenance of the status quo. Continuing to focus on that status quo was an inevitable loser strategy over the long term in an environment in which Republicans had successfully implanted in the public mind the notion that nothing is worthwhile that requires more taxes. So they put out a vision of a vision. Why not look at what a truly effective educational system would look like? Then, with that vision in mind, let’s push to find out what the cost of implementing it would be.

The idea was a brilliant success. The legislature agreed to fund the study. Stakeholders across the state participated in defining the parameters of what an effective system would look like. Then a professional study was done, consistent with those guidelines to come up with the funding estimates. And then, knowing that they would be purchasing a first rate product, not merely maintaining the increasingly decrepit status quo, the legislature felt the pressure to fund it.

Why shouldn’t we press for costing out studies on health, housing, parks and recreation, drug and alcohol treatment, alternative sentencing strategies, workforce development, childcare, and other high profile, important state and local services?

Of course we will have to multi-task and spend much of our time defending as much of the social service safety net as we can while simultaneously pushing a longer range strategy. But unless we can turn the accepted narrative around, namely that taxes are job killers and thus killers of everything else good, all we can do is put fingers in the dike.

Secondly, we need to combine in some rational way our state and city lobbying. Here I’m not just talking about Philadelphia lobbying, but work on behalf of local governments across the Commonwealth.

There are a few reasons for this. One is the fairly obvious one that if we can combine our forces, particularly with those who represent actual governments with political power and labor unions representing workers in those governments, we should have a much more powerful voice.

But secondly, perhaps more importantly, it just makes good economic, not to mention environmental, sense to work for stronger local communities if we’re concerned about the strength of the Commonwealth. Cutbacks in local services mean fewer workers, more distressed populations, rundown homes and neighborhoods, inadequate trash and police services, higher crime, and a generally lower quality of life. All of these things combine to mean depressed communities, higher unemployment and business failure, lower state revenues and a further ratcheting up of pressure on state-funded services.

It should not take much heavy lifting to run a campaign that is at least somewhat coordinated between focus on state and local issues. A large number of local concerns relate to taxation. The PA County Commissioners Association has a page on its website devoted to tax fairness for local governments, here: http://www.pacounties.org/Pages/TaxFairness.aspx There would be little burden on us to add its tax proposals to our own. In addition, the Association in a press release dated January 13, stated that its top priority was “funding for human services.”

Presumably there are many other local governments, and perhaps government associations, that also have needs that are compatible with those we are likely to adopt.

Social service agencies and advocacy groups have common cause with local governments when it comes to increasing aid to those governments and increasing their tax options, particularly progressive ones. And that cause will be helped by developing costing out scenarios reflecting what those governments and state government together, can do to improve people’s lives.

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