GOP-Style Democrats Moving to Sell Out Poor, Liberals: Lessons From the DC Budget Fight

GOP-Style Democrats Moving to Sell Out Poor Liberals Lessons From the DC Budget Fight

A homeless man in Washington, DC. (Photo: Daquella manera)

It's been less than two weeks since a guerilla campaign by local activists managed to restore about 20 percent of $131 million in budget cuts targeting Washington, DC's, neediest residents – with little help from the mainstream media, which essentially ignored a looming shutdown of the city's shelter, poor and disabled aid services that could have thrown thousands into the street. The city's reluctant Democratic leadership only bowed at the last minute to under-the-radar pressure to reverse some of the most obvious, draconian cuts with $27 million in restorations, especially services to the homeless.

Andy Silver, an attorney and organizer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, has an optimistic perspective on the shelter crisis that was averted: “People need to be creative. You can still win without mainstream media attention.”

Other sources familiar with the lobbying to restore homeless funding point out that some leaders in the local downtown business community were concerned about the impact on the city's image and tourism. There was a real prospect of a PR nightmare if 1,500 homeless single adults and 300 families wandered the streets after shelters closed down. So, they pressured city leaders to save the shelter system in the same week that liberal activists stepped up protests at the District's city hall, the Wilson building, with a “Reality Tour.” One influential voice was developer Benjamin Miller, who wrote in The Washington Business Journal:

“It is unacceptable to cast 1,500 homeless people out on the streets of the District, but that is surely what will happen if the D.C. Council fails to restore year-round operation of shelters for single homeless adults. I am asking my colleagues in the business community to reach out this week to D.C. Council members and urge full funding for homeless services. This is one of those rare opportunities for the council to do right by business, by the taxpayers and by our most vulnerable residents.”

Yet, a Democratic mayor and a Democratic city council were on the verge of shutting down the entire shelter system except during below-freezing weather and cutting a mere $250 a month in aid to the disabled waiting for their Social Security claims to be processed. But then, a small-scale grassroots revolt generating hundreds of emails and even fewer calls prompted them to reconsider. Yet, on top of all that, the council rejected any income tax increase on the city's wealthiest residents, including a mild proposal from the mayor, which would have added $35 million in revenues, even though 85 percent and more of the public in a poll – including those earning over $100,000 – wanted taxes on the wealthy raised to save city services.

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Keshini Ladduwahetty of DC for Democracy asks, “Who are they listening to? Who are we fighting? How can we fight forces we can't even see?”

But it's really only a partial win, because other vital programs and even affordable housing services are being jettisoned altogether or slashed to the bone, including children's mental health, in a city where three clinics serving the poor already closed in the last six months. “They made a bad budget worse,” says Ladduwahetty, the activist with DC for Democracy, a DFA affiliate, that's organized a last-minute attempt to stave off yet another tax giveaway to mostly rich residents with the nation's only tax exemption for out-of-state bond funds.

The council voted by a slim majority two weeks ago to end that exemption, but powerful city figures, including the corruption-plagued Chairman of the City Council, Kwame “Fully Loaded ” Brown, are moving to take away the revenue gains by extending the tax loophole to current bond holders.

And on Tuesday, as part of the budget's final vote, leading members of the DC City Council threatened to give away that $13 million in potential tax revenues to the city's wealthiest residents by grandfathering those who receive the exemption. That's why groups like Save our Safety Net and DC for Democracy are urging liberals to call their council members – especially those at-large members, who may reverse previous votes for ending the exemption, including Marion Barry, Harry Thomas and Vincent Orange – to ensure the revenues from ending that exemption remain.

A majority of the City Council voted to add funds to some of the most vital programs for the poor only if a hoped-for windfall of $33 million in tax revenue becomes available. It's the GOP-style Democrats' version of voodoo economics. But as DC for Democracy pointed out in an alert issued Sunday, blaming the “fiscal irresponsibility” of the council for rejecting any tax increases on the wealthy, this economics move:

… relied on $33.5M in hoped for funding contingent on updated revenue forecasts from the CFO [Chief Financial Officer] to fund critical human services, including homeless services, affordable housing, children's mental health, libraries, and childcare subsidies. Even assuming they materialize, these funds would most likely be available for one year only. CFO Natwar Gandhi has warned against using this kind of “contingent budgeting.”

All told, though, the deep cuts and the apathy of most mainstream media organizations to the impact on the poor should be a wake-up call for progressives everywhere: “This can happen in a Democratic city,” says Ladduwahetty, so, she contends, you can't count on the Democratic Party to stand up for a progressive agenda in upcoming state and local budget fights.