America's Alternative People's Budget

In Florida and California, proposals for budgets that prioritise the needs of the poor are aspirational but should be taken seriously

In 1909 Britain's prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and chancellor,
David Lloyd George, presided over an extraordinary budget. It raised
taxes on Britain's landed, wealthy elites, so as to provide a raft of
social services, from pensions to unemployment benefits. In many ways,
it laid the groundwork for the welfare state that emerged after the
second world war.

One hundred and one years later, the People's Budget,
as it came to be known, still has the power to amaze and to inspire. It
was a piece of politics ahead of its time, brave in its identification
of the pressing social problems of the age, willing to take on the rich
and powerful in order to help society's most vulnerable. It was also one
of the very few national budgetary strategies, in Britain or anywhere
else for that matter, that acquired both its own name and its own
distinct place in the popular consciousness. It is hardly an
exaggeration to argue that in one fell swoop it catapulted Britain into
an age of governmental modernity.

In the century following
the People's Budget, social reformers in countries as diverse as
Bangladesh, Namibia and Brazil have talked of "people's budgets" and
participatory budget processes designed to recalibrate social priorities
towards meeting the needs of the poor. It has become a slogan, a
catchword epitomising the hope that governments can meet the profound
needs of the moment.

Fast forward to 2010, and the emotive power of the name continues to resonate down the ages. Florida governor Charlie Crist, a Senate hopeful
trying to find a new, independent constituency that might send him to
the US Senate after his own Republican party's faithful ditched him for a
Tea Partier, recently put forward a people's budget
for his state. At a time of swingeing education cuts in many states,
his budget tries to protect schools. It also doesn't go after public
sector employees in the way many other state budgets are now doing. It's
by no means a perfect budget,
cutting children's protective services, law enforcement and community
affairs budgets by large amounts, but compared with what's going on in
so much of the country these days, it's at least somewhat rational,
deliberative, in its approach to government services.

in California, a coalition of civil rights groups and criminal justice
system reformers, led by the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Centre,
has begun touting its own people's budget, that, if ever passed, would
push for wholesale reform of the state's huge criminal justice system as
a way to save the state money and release funds to protect education
and other vital elements of the social compact.

coalition is calling for a public health, rather than an incarceration,
strategy to deal with low-end drug crimes - converting all death penalty
sentences to life without parole sentences and reforming the state's
notorious three strikes law so that it only applies to violent crimes.

convicts on death row cost the state far more - in legal fees, in costs
to maintain, and to guard, their separate living quarters, and in the
endless appeals processes - than do lifers; since three strikes creates
huge pools of increasingly elderly prisoners who tend, over time, to
cost the state's department of corrections a fortune in medical costs;
and since numerous studies have shown that imprisoning drug criminals is
both more expensive and less effective than treating them, these
proposals have the potential to be massive money savers.

claim they could save the state $12bn over five years. Whether that
dollar amount is accurate or not, clearly there are significant savings
that can be brought into play here. Given the ongoing budget crisis California faces,
such a plan ought to be getting wide play. Conceivably, large numbers
of politicians ought to want to associate themselves with the
alternative budget and its commonsense recommendations.

politics not being a particularly brave game in California these days,
the 2010 people's budget has a snowball's chance in hell of being
passed. It is an economic and, by extension a philosophical, aspiration
in search of its own Lloyd George. Most Democrats won't touch it for
fear of appearing "soft on crime." Most Republicans won't touch it
because philosophically they're quite comfortable with the state
spending ever more on security apparatus and, at the same time, less on
social programmes.

California is currently without a budget. If the governor has his way, the state's public sector employees will be paid minimum wage
from this current pay cycle until the budget crisis is resolved. And,
whether he has his way or not, the state has, for the third year in a
row, a nearly $20bn hole in its financial heart.

people's budget may not be an adequate fix, but it ought to at least be
taken seriously and built upon by other reform-minded groups and
individuals. As a concept, in this age of austerity budgets and anti-tax
ideology, the people's budget is as evocative today as it was a century
ago. Yes, done well, government can, indeed, serve the people. Done
well, budgeting can indeed help rather than hurt the poor and

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