The Budget Season Scrap for Scraps

It’s March 31st, and all over the country, elected officials, lobbyists, corporate leaders, labor unions, students, and community members are in the early stages of an annual battle royal. It’s budget season; that special time of year when competing interests slug it out to see who will get a bigger slice (or sliver) of the American pie. As various pundits have reminded us over the years, budgets are moral documents. American morality and priorities are perhaps never as nakedly displayed as they are during budget season (with the possible exception of presidential campaigns which are also in full swing at the moment). It’s a tough time of year and these are particularly tough times. The sad reality is that many effective, even essential, programs and services will be cut; casualties of budget season. Nobody wants to choose between healthcare for homeless children and food services for the elderly or between a library and an afterschool tutoring program. But these are exactly the types of decisions that will be made in the months to come.

Unfortunately, most of us wind up fighting the wrong fight during budget season. The fights we fight are often necessary; that’s why we fight them. But in the process, we often lose track of our larger goals and what we should be fighting for and against. Some of the biggest budget drains are never on the table for debate because they have too much political support and it wouldn’t be strategic or pragmatic for us to take them on. But as budgets get tighter and more and more basic services fall victim to the financial crisis, we may be forced to address those seemingly invulnerable titans of the budget.

In 2010, After 8 years of Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, voter elected the Republican candidate Tom Corbett as the new Governor of Pennsylvania. In addition to Corbett’s victory, Democrats lost 13 House seats (and their slim majority in the House) and Republicans maintained their 10-seat majority in the State Senate. Harrisburg was firmly under Republican control. As their first order of business, the new legislature slashed the state’s education funding by over $1 billion (scrapping a funding formula designed to equitably fund every school district in the state in the process).

While education was the hardest hit by the State budget cuts, other areas were slashed as well. Housing Assistance, Public Welfare, Health, Environmental Protection, and Community and Economic Development all received substantial cuts. Advocates for these systems found themselves pitted against each other as they fought for a few more state scraps to save a program here or there. Meanwhile, Military, State Police, and Probation and Parole received increases while Corrections was held harmless. Many PA Lefties lamented the State’s prioritization of policing and militarization over basic human needs, but no substantial opposition materialized. For the most part, we accepted the political cards we were dealt and fought amongst ourselves.

These massive state cuts, coupled with the expiration of Federal Stimulus funds, hit the already underfunded School District of Philadelphia extraordinarily hard. In response to the crisis, community, School District personnel, and education advocates lobbied the City of Philadelphia to increase its funding to the School District. While the Mayor and most of City Council agreed that it would be appropriate to send more money the District’s way, they disagreed on how to raise the money and how much money to send. The most controversial proposal was Mayor Nutter’s plan to tax sugary beverages by 2-cents-per-ounce. Just as advocates clashed in Harrisburg around the state budget, the sugar tax proposal pitted students and education advocates against labor and small business owners whose livelihoods depended on the production or sale of drinks like Sprite, Gatorade, Hawaiian Punch, and Tropicana.

As a youth organizer with Youth United for Change, I helped organize the fight for the soda tax. Although I felt deeply conflicted about organizing against labor and, in some cases, the parents of the very students whose schools we were attempting to save, I felt that I had no alternative. I was not alone. Many community members, organizers, activists, and advocates are faced with that same conflict of conscious every year; being forced to oppose those who should be our natural allies. But in times like these there’s no alternative…right?

Almost always exempted from these budget debates (by both Democrats and Republicans) is the United States’ largest discretionary budgetary expense: Defense (read: Military Industrial Complex/the War Machine). Depending on what you include and how you slice it, 50%-60% of the US discretionary budget pie (over $700 billion) is spent on Defense. No other country spends this kind of money on military. In fact, the US spends more on military than the next 19 highest spending countries combined. Sure, any savvy (or not completely stupid) politician will pay lip service to school children and talk about the importance of education. But money talks. When was the last time you saw some Army generals holding a bake sale to raise funds for ammunition?

The Left has been losing for quite some time now and we find ourselves in fights for survival. Naturally, it’s hard to focus on the big picture when what’s right in front of you can and will kill you. But the sad reality is that things seem to be getting worse. The Right has finally been able to target the largest non-discretionary budget items of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Perhaps discretionary social services have been stripped so bare that they’re left with nowhere to turn/cut but the basic human services that are supposed to be protected from party politics. So as we enter this budget cycle, I hope that we can find ways to target our true opponents and not each other as we scrap for scraps.

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