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Kshama Sawant: Why I Voted No On A Business-As-Usual Budget

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On Friday, November 14th, the Seattle City Council introduced amendments to the Mayor’s 2015-2016 budget. Multiple progressive amendments were passed, including my amendments to raise all City workers to $15/hour next year, fund a year-round women’s homeless shelter, and provide critical services to transitional homeless encampments. However, the positive amendments introduced by the City Council only marginally change a $4.8 billion business-as-usual budget. On November 24th, I voted against the budget package as a whole. You can read my press release here, and watch my speech above.


I cast my vote on the 2015 and 2016 City budgets with mixed feelings.

The Council unanimously passed a series of amendments last week that made significant positive improvements to the Mayor’s budget, including implementing $15/hour for City workers and increasing funding for human services. These will make a real difference in real people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that this budget as a whole, despite the positive amendments adopted by the Council, is only marginally different from last year’s.

This business-as-usual budget fundamentally fails to address the most important issues faced by working people in Seattle.

There has been no serious effort from the majority of this Council or the Mayor to address the massive housing crisis, the severe underfunding of social services, inadequate mass transit and gridlocked traffic, and regressive taxation. There has been no effort to look into addressing the root causes of anti-social behavior seen in the growing problems of crime and public safety.

Next year will be the last year in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness – yet homelessness is on an alarming rise.

Over a hundred thousand households in this city – more than one in three – are paying more than they can afford in housing costs.

Meanwhile, issues important to wealthy interests like the $1 billion waterfront commercialization project and the highly opaque $300 million police department budget are barely discussed even though they dwarf the human services budget.

The question is not one only of improvements to the Mayor’s budget – as valuable as these improvements are.

The question is one of the hundreds of millions of dollars NOT being used to address the day to day difficulties faced by working people in this city.

The question is one of the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue NOT raised from progressive taxation.

Seattle is a city increasingly divided between the millionaire and billionaire class, and the rest of us. The council in its amendments reallocated a few million dollars in a $4.8 billion dollar budget – we welcome this, but it only scratches the surface of the crisis facing Seattle’s working people.

During this budget cycle it has also become clear to me why, year after year, the City and its elected officials fall so short of meeting the needs of poor and working people in Seattle.

I saw the Mayor and the majority of the Council attend a luxury retreat – paid for with $10,000 of tax payer money – with the Chamber of Commerce to hear big business’s budget priorities. I saw how many of the budget decisions are driven by informal agendas where the powerful have more access, rather than being driven by the needs of Seattle’s working people. And I watched as no other Councilmembers were willing to consider lowering their own salaries – the second-highest for city elected officials in the country – or capping City executive salaries to pay for increased social services to address the multiple crises faced by working people, youth, the elderly, and all who are marginalized.

These problems are systemic. This is a process that has been perfected over years to protect and enshrine the interests of the rich and powerful, while giving elected officials the ability to claim that they are standing up for working people because of the amendments to marginal funding.

This is the sort of cynical politics that caused the voter turnout in the recent elections to be lower than any election since 1942.

I welcome and have fought hard for the each and every improvement to the Mayor’s budget:

  •  The Mayor´s proposed budget denied the city´s workers $15/hour minimum wage. I´m proud that through the efforts of the coalition of City Unions, and their labor allies, the budget now includes $15 for all the City workers!
  • The labor and immigrant rights movements were able to fight to strengthen the Office of Labor Standards, fighting for more money for outreach to workers, and more investigators. While not sufficient, this is an important step forward.
  • The Seattle Human Services Coalition, human service workers, and their unions were able to win increased funding – but far from enough – to raise wages in an industry that for years has paid poverty wages for some of the most important and difficult work in our city.
  • And my statements of legislative intent allow us in 2015 to organize discussion and debate on the Council to implement taxes on the rich and seriously address the housing crises, but we will need to strengthen our movement to make that a reality.

These – and other positive amendments that were just passed – show that it is possible, when working people mobilize and build political pressure, we can win gains that improve the lives of ordinary people and overcome the resistance of the political establishment and their business backers.

I want to sincerely thank all Councilmembers who worked on and supported these positive amendments, and in particular Committee Chair Licata for his commitment to these issues.

However, the fact remains that these were only marginal changes to an inadequate budget.

I cannot endorse a fundamentally unjust budget which continues to ignore the severity of the crises growing in this city, especially the growing inequality across wealth, racial and gender lines.

Therefore I will be voting NO on this budget. But I will continuing to be working on the People’s Budget with community activists and workers. I invite all Councilmembers to join me in this effort.

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This morning, at the Budget Committee, I voted NO on the business-as-usual budget.

I have worked for and advocated for all the positive amendments to the Mayor’s budget – amendments that were passed by the Council ten days ago. I sincerely thank Councilmembers for working on and supporting amendments to raise City-employed workers to $15 per hour next year, provide critical funding for transitional homeless encampments, and sustain a year-round women’s homeless shelter. Other amendments passed were the continuing of the funding for the Urban Rest Stop, and the increase in funding for the new Office of Labor Standards.

Special gratitude goes to Budget Committee Chair Nick Licata and to the entire Central Staff headed by the wonderful leadership of Staff Director Kirstan Arestad. The City is fortunate to have this dedicated and talented group of people. I also want to thank my own staff: Ben Peterson, Adam Ziemkowski, Clay Showalter, and Ted Virdone.

There seems to be some confusion indicated by the media reports. What was passed by 9 to 0 votes in the Council Budget Committee ten days ago was not the City budget. It was the package of amendments that made the Mayor’s budget a little less skewed against working people and the poor. And let’s keep the dollar amounts of these amendments in perspective. The amendments impacted a few million dollars in a nearly 5 billion dollar budget.

These positive amendments are not the natural course of corporate politics. They were absent from the Mayor’s budget. They were passed by the Council as a result of political pressure from community activists, labor unions, workers, and human service providers.

Human Service workers, unions, socialists, homeless advocates, transit advocates, civil rights and women’s organizations, environmentalists, affordable housing advocates, and so many others have begun to come together to organize for a budget based on the needs of Seattle’s people. Some of you are here, and I want to thank you: Got Green, Casa Latina, 15 Now, Socialist Alternative are here. So are Sally Soriano and Carlos Hernandez.

This beginning of a movement for a People’s Budget was able to win a series of important amendments. These gains will make real differences in the day to day lives of people in this city.

But the budget still falls far short of what is needed.

The state government in Olympia has placed many right-wing restrictions on cities’ power to carry out progressive taxation. But this budget ignores even the potential options that do exist under existing law – such as a major increase in fees on developers, a greater increase in tax on commercial parking and even a modest a business head tax. There is no serious attempt to employ measures of excise taxes on big banks, big box retailers, or on mansions. The budget also fails to rein in excessive compensation to City government executives and cutting funding for unnecessary vanity projects and handouts to developers.

The fight for a People’s Budget will continue beyond today’s vote and grow stronger to win greater victories a year from now.

It is clear the establishment which runs Seattle, and the majority of this council, whose elections are funded by them, is unwilling to take the necessary steps to seriously address the crisis of affordable housing and the spiraling phenomenon of homelessness.

The political establishment accepts the existing framework which underfunds our needs in the interests of the richest 1%.

To make fundamental change – to access the huge wealth and resources of our city and country – we need to build powerful struggles.

As a socialist, as a labor activist, as part of the environmental movement, I was elected to challenge and be a voice of opposition to this agenda of business as usual and corporate politics. My job as a representative of Seattle’s working people is to challenge the “me too” groupthink mentality that has dominated the government for so long. This mentality has served the wealthy and big developers and corporations extremely well, but is leaving an increasing number of the rest of us in the cold.

Seattle has witnessed increasing inequality along class, racial, and gender lines. The city has the dubious distinction of being the ninth-worst among the fifty largest cities in median black household income. If the budget is indeed a moral document, then how come this inequality has increased year after year – and year after year the budget has passed.

I am therefore voting No to the business as usual budget of the political establishment.

And let’s be clear – it’s not about “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s about fighting for every possible progressive change but not limiting ourselves to what is acceptable to big business.

To move beyond opposition, to achieve a budget based on the needs of the ordinary people of Seattle, the working and poor people of Seattle will need to get involved, organize, protest and take bold collective action to insist that our City puts people over profits!

That is why I hosted the People’s Budget Town Hall right here in Council Chambers. That is why we will need to organize ourselves in the face of the Ferguson grand jury results expected later this evening.

Let’s keep working together. I invite Councilmembers to join me in this effort.


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