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Another Path

A November ballot question asks voters to weigh in on a progressive budget plan.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jeff Napolitano has been closely tracking the federal budget debate, and what he sees is far from heartening.

On one side is the ideologically driven Republican proposal, shepherded by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, that would "roll back the clock many, many years in terms of just dismantling the safety net," said Napolitano, director of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Mass. "On the other side, we have the president and his supporters in his party that are in favor of a slightly less austere austerity program than the Republicans. The president and the Democrats, by and large, are not terribly serious about preserving the safety net or doing things like cutting the military or even proposing a serious jobs program."

But there is another proposal, one that's not getting much attention: the "Budget for All," put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which promises to create jobs, address dire social and environmental needs and correct economic inequalities while cutting the deficit.

The Budget for All has found limited support in Congress; when the measure came before the House in March, it failed by a vote of 346 to 78. But this fall, close to one million Massachusetts voters, many of them in the Valley, will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on the budget proposal, via a non-binding question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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The Budget for All, in the words of the Progressive Caucus, "puts Americans back to work, charts a path to responsible deficit reduction, enhances our economic competitiveness, rebuilds the middle class and invests in our future." It would invest $2.9 trillion in job creation, much of it focused on infrastructure improvements and green technology; increase funding for social programs and education; preserve Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans' benefits; cut military spending; and create a public-finance election system to "[get] corporate money out of politics for good." The plan would also shift more of the tax burden from the working and middle class to the wealthiest, raising taxes on the richest two percent, eliminating tax rules that favor corporations, and enacting the so-called "Buffet Rule" (that no household making more than $1 million per year should pay a smaller share of income in taxes than a middle-class family)," among other measures.

According to the CPC, the proposal would reduce the federal deficit by $6.8 trillion, "by focusing on the true drivers of our deficit—unsustainable tax policies, the wars overseas, and policies that helped cause the recent recession—rather than putting the middle class's social safety net on the chopping block."

Napolitano was one of many volunteers around the state who collected petition signatures to get the Budget for All question on the ballot. (In addition to the AFSC, several dozen national, state and local organizations sponsored the campaign, including Arise for Social Justice, the Mass. Green-Rainbow Party, Progressive Democrats of America and several labor unions.) In the end, they gathered enough signatures to get the question on the ballot in 24 state representative districts, including, in the Valley, the 5th Hampden (Holyoke), the 1st Hampshire (Northampton, Southampton, Westhampton, Hatfield and Montgomery) and the 3rd Hampshire (Amherst and Granby).

The non-binding question asks voters whether their state legislators should support a resolution calling on Congress and the president to pass the Budget for All. While legislators don't have to follow that directive, Napolitano predicts most will heed it. "They don't have to do the work, just reinforce the call that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has made," he said. "It doesn't requite a lot of heavy lifting on the part of our state representatives and state senators, but it does ask them to have a little bit of spine in pushing our Congressional representatives and our president to do the right thing."

Several members of the Massachusetts delegation, meanwhile, are already on board: U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, Barney Frank, Ed Markey, Jim McGovern, John Olver and John Tierney are all CPC members. (Olver and Frank are both retiring at the end of the current term.)

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Susan Theberge, an Amherst activist also involved with the Budget for All campaign, said the ballot question will help shift the public conversation to issues that largely have been ignored in the current election cycle, like the military budget and domestic needs. "These issues need to be addressed, and there's not a lot of conversation around it," she said.

When she was out collecting signatures, Theberge said, the people she talked to supported overwhelmingly the principles of the CPC budget: increasing taxes on the wealthiest, shifting spending from the military to social programs, addressing crises in education and the environment. "We have things to be putting our resources into that are life-sustaining and earth-sustaining—not wars," she said.

Napolitano believes the ballot question will pass by a large margin. "I'm a fairly pragmatic person—some would say a pessimistic person," he said. "But on this issue, it's such a no-brainer for voters, and it's such an easy ask of our state representatives and state senators."

If the principles of the Budget for All have such strong universal support, why has the proposal found such little purchase among members of Congress and political candidates? Because, Napolitano said, "it does not resonate with the military industry, with the healthcare industry, with the wealthy in general, because it addresses corporate loopholes, off-shore bank accounts and raising taxes on people who make more than a quarter-million dollars. So they've deemed it unworkable."

But to Napolitano, it's the nation's current spending priorities that are unworkable. He quoted a line from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

"If we're actually going to have a society that's at all a modern, civilized society, we've got to put a cap on the amount we spend on war and the military," Napolitano said. "Something has got to change, [or] we're on that road to spiritual death."

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