Thanksgiving Thoughts On Safety Nets

November 23, 2010

Let me be up front about this. I’m having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit.

I know I’ve got an enormous amount to be thankful for — my health, my loving and ever-patient husband, my home, which is now fully restored from the fire damage of two winters ago, friends, an extended family, including a wonderful second mother, an occupation and a nest egg that should keep us secure through our “golden years.”

But I can’t stop thinking about the millions of Americans who can’t count all these blessings — and who are now dependent on a tattered safety net that’s likely to be yanked out from under them. Surely will be if the Republicans in Congress stand fast on their pledge to drastically roll back federal spending.

I’m acutely anxious for those whose plight I know best — my fellow District of Columbia residents. So many unemployed or in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford the high cost of living here. A chronic problem made worse by the recession. For many of them, an upswing in the local job market won’t be enough.

Budget cuts have already damaged the local safety net. And now we’re told there have to be more cuts to get the budget back in balance. Councilmember Jack Evans is all for this. “Make as many cuts as possible,” he says, “so we can stay away from revenue hikes.”

I’m thankful not all Councilmembers share his view — especially thankful for my own Councilmember Tommy Wells’s outspoken support for a tax increase.

He’s of course concerned about the safety net programs under the jurisdiction of the Human Services Committee he chairs. But the argument he’s making for progressive reforms in our tax system reaches beyond his turf.

His recent response to a DC for Democracy questionnaire echoes remarks he made during the last budget cycle. The Council, he observes, made “steep cuts in services for the most vulnerable…. My wife and I were not asked to make any sacrifice.”

Nor were my husband and I. But we’d pick up our share of the burden in a heartbeat. Because we know first-hand what a strong safety net can mean.

Back when that fire broke out, our safety net was homeowners insurance.

We called our agent as soon as the smoke cleared enough for us to get back in the house — and discover that we had no heat and a bedroom open to the great outdoors.

Within an hour, someone was on the phone telling us about reservations they’d made for us in a comfortable, centrally-located hotel. Our agent showed up with a check for incidental expenses.

The next day, someone else called us to talk about what sort of apartment we’d like and where. And someone else to tell us about the company’s arrangements for storing our belongings, sending our smoke-reeking clothes for specialized cleaning, even lining up a restoration expert for our beloved “art collection.”

Without this safety net, we’d have been literally homeless. In our car for the night, I guess. Then in separate shelters for men and women until we somehow located something more stable and secure — and figured out how we’d liquidate assets to pay for it.

My wish for the District is a safety net that’s as broad, responsive and individualized as ours. I understand this is pie in the sky.

But I hope that next Thanksgiving we’ll have a budget that puts a higher priority on basic human needs than on the investment portfolios of the wealthiest residents.

If you hope so too, Save Our Safety has an editable letter you can send to the Council. Or use the text to leave a message for Chairman Vincent Gray at 202-724-8032.

UPDATE: The Save Our Safety Net letter is now addressed only to Council Chairman Gray.


New Hopes For DC Tax Reforms

November 18, 2010

Local listservs are buzzing. Advocacy groups are huddling. We’re all concerned about how the DC Council will close the $175 million gap in the current budget.

We know that spending cuts will be at least part of the answer. What they’ll be and how big are open questions. But if past is prologue, programs that serve the needs of low-income residents will be highly vulnerable.

Last year, funding for human services and other programs for low-income people took at $49 million hit — the second largest after public education. And it could have been worse if the District hadn’t still had unused federal stimulus funds for our schools.

It would have been better if Mayor Fenty and the DC Council had focused more on the revenue side of the ledger. What we got were a couple of sales and excise tax increases, plus freezes in the homestead property deduction and the standard exemption and personal deduction in the income tax — all disproportionately costly for low-income residents.

This year a similar story. Some fee increases, a couple of highly targeted taxes and one regressive expansion in the sales tax, which now covers soft drinks, but not various services used mostly by higher-income residents.

But maybe the day for a serious look at the local tax structure has dawned. Soon-to-be-mayor Vincent Gray has remarked that services have been cut to the bone. “Actually, we’ve cut down to the bone marrow,” he’s said.

More importantly, he’s reportedly told attendees at two successive ward meetings that he’s ready to consider new or expanded revenue raisers.

As you may recall, the Save Our Safety Net coalition championed two news brackets last spring — a 9% rate for residents with incomes over $200,000 and a 9.4% rate for those with incomes over $1 million.

SOS-DC is back on the case — hopeful that it can help shift Gray and a couple of other Councilmembers to the “yea” column. How many have to shift depends on when the Council gets around to voting.

SOS is still working as the grassroots arm of the Fair Budget Coalition and an overlapping coalition including FBC members, local labor organizations and some faith-based and other community groups.

They’re now focusing on one new tax bracket — 1% higher for residents earning over $200,000. This, I assume, is after the adjustments the federal tax code permits.

Gray has said that he thinks District residents will at least be open to tax increases if they understand how damaging a cuts-only approach to budget balancing will be. “If we can make the case that the vulnerable are going to be imperiled, I think there are going to be a lot of people who are going to entertain some sort of tax increase.”

“Some sort,” of course, covers a lot of territory. But a new top tax bracket certainly could be there, along with some other measures that would increase both revenues and fairness. I’m still hopeful eliminating the District’s almost unique exemption for interest paid on out-of-state bonds.

Gray has reportedly challenged advocates to make the case to the public. Originally, I thought this was shifting the burden where it didn’t belong. Now, however, it appears that what he actually wants are the facts, figures and, very importantly, the stories to help him make the case.

He’s planning to work with fellow Councilmembers on a list of potential budget cuts and then seek public input on whether taxes should be raised instead. So look for announcements of public hearings — or maybe just one of those all-nighters the Council sometimes perpetrates.

In the meantime, there’s a need to show that we, like Gray, wouldn’t mind paying more if the trade-off were protecting investments in our safety net and other key programs that can give low-income residents a better chance at finding full-time, living-wage work.

SOS-DC has an editable letter we can send to our representatives on the Council. A quick, easy way to voice our support for a balanced approach to budget balancing.