Colorado Gov. Jared Polis faces a question Democratic leaders across the country must grapple with, as budget pressures force a reckoning.
Last week, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said that it was time for privileged people like herself to “listen with humility” to those who have experienced racism. Yet after nearly 10,000 people marched on the state House, Raimondo made clear that she does not care to entertain protesters’ calls to rein in police spending. Moreover, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, she had already proposed that the state balance its budget by squeezing poorer and nonwhite communities in so-called distressed cities and towns — terminology the state uses to describe Providence and the handful of densely populated cities that surround it and whose inhabitants include the bulk of the state’s nonwhite population.
On Thursday, Democrats in the Colorado House of Representatives passed legislation that would roll back some giveaways to the wealthy and corporations included in President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill, raising roughly a billion dollars in an effort to prevent major cuts to K-12 education and reduce Colorado’s estimated $3 billion deficit. Police budgets, meanwhile, are not currently on the chopping block, though some Denver City Council members have raised the issue. The bill now moves to the state Senate, which Democrats took control of in the 2018 wave. In a state where Democrats control the entire government, the obstacle isn’t Republicans: It is Gov. Jared Polis, who wants to funnel the revenue into new across-the-board income tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the rich, leaving open the possibility that the newly blue state will choose tax cuts, austerity, and a robust policing budget over funding for education.
Urban cities, especially poorer and nonwhite communities within their limits, live in a condition of austerity even in the best of times. Now, the economic fallout of Covid-19, a disease that has been disproportionately lethal for black people, is hitting these communities the hardest. These already deadly and desperate conditions are about to be exacerbated by a cascade of deprivation fueled by cuts to funding for cities, schools, and social services, as 46 states’ fiscal years begin on July 1 — and states themselves stare down deficits of on the order of $1 trillion, equivalent to 5 percent of U.S. GDP. The federal government should intervene with more fiscal relief, but failing that, states must step up and ensure that critical spending is protected.
Unfortunately, this sort of leadership remains elusive even in states run by Democrats. Deep blue Rhode Island, with a general assembly that is 85 percent Democratic, today faces a pandemic-driven anticipated 13-month budget deficit of nearly $1 billion, out of an annual budget of around $10 billion — much more severe than when Raimondo first proposed her cuts to “distressed” communities.
Without swift engagement from activists over the coming weeks and months, Democrat-imposed cuts will serve to further entrench the racism that governors are now so quick to decry when invited onto MSNBC or while trying to placate protestors who march on their state houses.
Even Democratic state leaders default to using what tend to be regressive revenue structures (especially when factoring in the sharply regressive property taxes that states enforce as the primary driver of municipal revenues) to pour exorbitant sums into prisons and policing functions — while penny-pinching where schools, social welfare, and basic municipal and transit services are concerned. This parsimony is particularly damaging for African Americans, who represent a much higher percentage of the workforce in the public sector, especially in cities, than in the private sector — and while unemployment fell overall in May, it increased in the public sector and among African Americans.
We can expect the destruction of lives and livelihoods to intensify in the months ahead, propelled by elected officials who kowtow to their wealthiest constituents by levying relatively low income and capital gains taxes and shifting the burden to pay onto those least able to afford it. State budgets, as organizer Sochie Nnaemeka has said, are moral documents, and activists concerned with racial justice must demand a different form of accounting.
On Saturday June 6, next to where D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser had “Black Lives Matter” painted on the road near the White House, Black Lives Matter activists painted their own message: “Defund the Police.” Bowser’s budget for D.C. — which encompasses the traditional functions of both a city and a state — includes a 3.3 percent increase in funding to D.C. police, an approximately $18.5 million boost, along with a significant decrease in funding to violence prevention programs. Across the country, police departments are some of the only agencies not seeing significant coronavirus-related cuts; in many instances, they are on track to receive more public money in 2021 than they did in 2020.
Reducing prison and police budgets is a critical vector in the fight against structural racism because those systems perpetuate discrimination while diverting funds from the things people actually need to thrive. For decades, state prison spending as a percentage of total budgets has ballooned, with increases, for instance, vastly outpacing growth in education spending. In recent years, we have seen the beginnings of a reconsideration of this unchecked growth, precipitated in part by the budget deficits that followed from the 2008-2009 economic crisis (which opened more lawmakers’ minds to the possibility of cuts) and in part by advocates’ arguments about the fundamental injustices of the prison industrial complex.
As activists have long argued, funds divested from police and the prisons should be reinvested to support those communities that have long been subjected to racialized state violence and decades of state disinvestment (what the abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment.”) The #8toAbolition platform, to give one recent example, lays out various things that funds could be used for to ensure real public safety and health, including housing, health care, mental health support, grocery cooperatives, gardens, and more.
Earlier this month, Janeese Lewis George, a 32-year-old democratic socialist, defeated a moderate incumbent in the primary for a Washington, D.C., Council seat; her platform included reallocating a portion of the Metropolitan Police Department budget. “Investing in the community actually solved problems in public safety more than just sending police officers,” George told The Intercept, speaking of her experience working as a D.C. assistant attorney general.
Unfortunately, even a wildly successful “divest/invest” approach alone won’t come close to filling the budget gaps so many states now face. To simply ensure that the current, and woefully insufficient, baseline of state investment in poorer communities and communities of color will even be maintained, we will need to do more. With many states facing deficits equal to around 10-25 percent of their budgets, we must demand a restructuring so that communities least burdened by the ongoing pandemic and recession — and by discriminatory and regressive state fiscal practices — pay more.
In other words, we need to tax the rich — an uphill battle even in states like Colorado or New York, where Democrats hold both legislative chambers and the governorship. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sabotaged the Democratic trifecta in Albany, consistently preferring to close the budget gap on the backs of the state’s poorest residents, who have already experienced the bulk of coronavirus-related layoffs. The recent New York budget also rolls back hard-won cash bail reforms, condemning more cash-strapped people who are charged with a criminal offense to jail, where they are at increased risk of exposure to Covid-19.
Though his state was an epicenter of a global pandemic, Cuomo has pushed forward with Medicaid cuts that were initiated several months ago. He is now proposing $8.2 billion in cuts to municipalities, to precipitate further reductions in Medicaid spending, as well as public education, transit, and other critical services. Moreover, as New York City faces a fiscal catastrophe, Cuomo appears inclined to deny the city permission to borrow to meet its needs — even as interest rates are at historic lows and the Federal Reserve has created a facility to ease access to such funds. Amazingly, elites at the New York Times and elsewhere are pressuring New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to lean heavily into cuts — including by reducing the health benefits of public workers in the coronavirus-ravaged city. Cuomo claims that he “stands with the protesters,” but his budget plans indicate otherwise; New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams was not buying it at a protest in Manhattan last weekend, and neither should the rest of us.
Meanwhile, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom and its state legislature are in the final stages of considering passing a state budget that banks on more federal funds — and will trigger $14 billion in cuts to K-12 schools, higher education, and state employees if that money doesn’t show up. It’s far from a given that it will; a hoped-for “second stimulus” to help states weather the last economic crisis never emerged in 2009 — even though Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and presidency — whereas today Trump is in the White House, Mitch McConnell runs the Senate, and each has expressed disinterest in providing more support to states and cities.
We mustn’t forget that the regressive taxation schemes states foist upon municipalities played a role in the original Black Lives Matter protests. After demonstrators shone a global spotlight on the police murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the legal advocacy organization Arch City Defenders released a report noting that Ferguson, Missouri, had issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants in 2013 despite having just 21,000 residents. The warrants were issued because people could not pay their municipal fines and fees — charges often incurred for trivial offenses such as leaving a trash can on the street or a broken brake light that could land a person in jail if they didn’t pay up. As in many other American municipalities, the police — otherwise so concerned with protecting property rights — have become a mechanism for racialized, punitive revenue extraction, and in Ferguson, this abuse helped push residents to rise up.
Austerity is not inevitable; it is a choice. Taken together, refusing further cuts to essential services, divesting from police and prisons, and taxing the rich will mitigate the damage inflicted by the pandemic and economic crisis while also beginning to address longstanding racial injustices, even if it will take far deeper changes to meaningfully remedy structural racism. At minimum, Democratic state lawmakers should seek more than a mere reversion to an unacceptable status quo (perhaps with more police body cameras or implicit bias training). Rather, they should proactively steer a recovery through spending programs that establish a less punitive and more democratic (and, ideally, green) economy and society, even leveraging low interest rates and Federal Reserve lending support to implement stimulus programs with such aims. But they won’t do any of this absent sustained and strategic pressure from social movements.
In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” Martin Luther King Jr. reflects on the profound challenge of achieving true racial and economic justice in this country. The civil rights movement, he argues, had, to date, won only low-hanging fruit. “The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been won at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites,” King explains. “Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.” The things activists are fighting for today demand a redistribution away from police, prisons, and the capitalist class — and an increased investment in public services and everyday people. Democratic lawmakers need to budget accordingly, or be recognized as the obstacles to racial justice that they actually are.