Voices of the People’s Budget: Kshama Sawant Opening Remarks

On the evening of October 30th, labor leaders, community organizers, social service providers, and engaged citizens came together for a People’s Budget Town Hall. Here they shared their concerns about the Mayor’s business as usual budget and began a conversation about what is necessary to make Seattle affordable for all.

Kshama Sawant’s Opening Remarks at the People’s Budget Town Hall

Transcript of Speech as Delivered

I really appreciate everyone being here, taking time out to help build a social movement in Seattle. And I’m happy to see so many familiar faces, but I’m also happy to see so many faces that I don’t know, because that means that our message is reaching more people.

I apologize for getting started a little late. We were trying to make sure that all the people we wanted to reach out to had been reached out to—it’s been a big effort. And your presence here means a lot, to everybody in the City of Seattle, even people who may not be engaged in the budget discussion but whose lives are very much affected by what happens in City Hall.

Needless to say, we’re doing things slightly differently. I didn’t want to stand up there [at the dais] or there [at the table], I wanted us to have a discussion together, and I’m really thankful to Seattle Channel for being available, so that this becomes part of the public record.

I’m going to introduce the discussion, and we’ll have public comment. But I wanted to urge everybody to look at this meeting as a different kind of discussion. All of the public hearings that we’ve had on the budget so far and every year, people are asked to come and beg for crumbs, from a very small pot of money. And very little changes from year to year. The question that we want to ask today is: what are the needs of the people of Seattle? Can we start there? Rather than saying, all we have is about a billion dollars—how can we allocate it? And what are the programs that are going to be cut? What are the programs that are going to see a margin of expansion?

All throughout this budget process so far, which has been my first budget process at City Council, and all throughout the nearly ten months that we’ve been here, one thing has become very clear: money talks.

Money talks in many forms, and it’s especially clear in this budget season. Why? Because the City’s budget is perhaps the most indicative and comprehensive political and moral statement of the city government’s priorities. So, what I mean is, regardless of the words that are uttered at the other times of the year, regardless of the lip service that is paid to the needs of the people, if those needs are not backed up by actual dollars to fund them, if those needs are not backed up by actually prioritizing what the ordinary people in this city need, then it doesn’t matter what you say as an elected official.

And so we think, we as socialists, as representatives of working people, take this job seriously. A lot of people asked me why are you holding a People’s Budget Town Hall when you’ve already had public hearings, my answer to them was, “Well, we haven’t had a real discussion about what we need in this city. We haven’t had a chance for ordinary people to weigh in. The Chamber of Commerce has had that chance.”

Five Councilmembers and the Mayor have joined them, have joined corporate lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce at their special retreat during the budget season. And that’s another place where money has talked.

We know that the Alaska Airlines CEO was at the retreat. We know that the Vice President & CFO of Boeing was there at the retreat. We haven’t seen any such concentrated time that has been devoted to labor or to human services. And so, because money talks for corporations and the wealthy, we have to mobilize ourselves. Our energies. We have to build together a movement in solidarity. And that is why we’re here: To get our real demands registered.

And, as far as the budget is concerned, it’s a seven hundred page document. It is a very clear document of the real priorities of the government. There is a lot of talk about human services, yet the budget essentially says that it is sixty million dollars short for human services. That is not a commitment for human services. And we have to change the framework in which these decisions are made entirely.

The question cannot be, what few hundred thousand dollars can we allocate to this or that or the other. The question should be: how is it that when the needs for these social services are skyrocketing, and that they need at least sixty million dollars, how is it that only a very small fraction of that amount is being talked about? How is it that these changes are only discussed in the margins?

The coalition of human services, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, has made it very clear: they are fully committed to continuing to provide these essential services for the most marginalized and repressed in this city.

But they have said that the needs for these services are increasing, and they’ve also said that their own workers need a living wage job, because otherwise they struggle with this deep irony where the people who are serving the homeless are themselves on the brink of homelessness.

The Mayor has run on a ticket of change. But the change is so marginal. This budget is a continuation of previous City of Seattle budgets. It is the result of previous budgets, as well as what we see around us, a massive housing crisis, a shocking growth in homelessness, as the economy booms at the same time, a drastic under-funding of social services, an inadequate public transit system, as our traffic grows more and more horrendous by the day, and a growing income, gender, and racial inequality.

This status quo budget does not serve the vast majority of the people of Seattle, but it is working really well for the big real estate developers and the downtown business interests who are reaping record profits.

The budget does have some positive initiatives, but if we take a step back, as we should, the budget overwhelmingly reflects the domination of wealthy interests on Seattle’s government.

This meeting, on the contrary, is a meeting to let the people talk—not the money. That is what a People’s Budget has to be based on. Today we’re going to hear from a number of speakers, from human services, from labor, from the community, all around the city.

All I can say is this: Everywhere I go in this city, the message that I hear is completely different from what is discussed in the hallowed halls of the City Council. People are demanding affordable housing. They’re saying, “don’t kick the can down the road, simply by appointing an advisory committee, many members of which are big developers.”

Instead, we propose rent control!

We propose a resolution demanding that the state government remove the undemocratic ban on rent control on municipalities and bring a legal challenge to it.

We propose real representation of working people on the Mayor’s Housing Advisory Committee.

We demand that the developers pay the maximum “linkage fee” allowed under the law, which is 10%, to help fund affordable housing.

We demand that there are no rent hikes for Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) tenants.

We demand that “Stepping Forward” is scrapped.

We demand the Mayor and the City Council only appoint new members to the SHA Board of Commissioners, who have unambiguously opposed rent hikes and a proven track record for fighting for affordable housing.

The SHA tenants have already brought forward a proclamation that I have signed, but we need to demand that other Councilmembers be held accountable, and sign that as well.

We demand that public housing is built. Massive numbers of high quality public housing that is affordable for working people, funded by a public bond sale, using city-owned surplus properties.

People are demanding public safety.

In contrast to the lip service that we’ve heard often, this budget continues the conditions, the social conditions which have led to increased crime and anti-social behavior throughout our city.

While Murray talks about improving public safety, he continues to dramatically underfund the human services and does not address the severe problem of gentrification that is displacing existing communities and undermining the social cohesion which is essential for healthy and safe neighborhoods.

Nor does the budget address the huge and growing danger of oil trains running through the city—an issue that is relevant to public safety and climate change. We support the blockades being carried out by activists in Seattle and around the state against oil and coal trains.

We demand that oil and coal companies, and the rail companies, pay, through a regulatory fee, for all the necessary health and safety precautions that the city needs to make.

We want Metro late night service hours to be expanded, through a business head tax and an increase in the commercial parking tax. This is important for many people, including women and swing-shift workers, who depend on reliable transit to take them home.

We need a democratically elected civilian review board, with real oversight powers over the police and the ability to set policy on police and related public safety issues.

People are demanding that we tackle head on the problem of income inequality.

We organized together to pass $15/hour, which was a huge and historic victory for all of us. However, this budget denies some of the workers employed by the City departments themselves $15/hour. The Mayor announced an Executive Order which has not been followed through in action.

I am proposing to bring forward the idea of funding $15/hour for all City workers. “How would we do that,” they ask me. “Where is the money?” There are many overpaid executives employed by this City. We say cap all executive salaries at $150,000, which would generate the revenue to bring all workers to $15.

We’re also talking about mass transit.

The passage of Prop 1 on November 4th, if it goes through, will provide additional Seattle funding for Metro. It will be a step forward.

But the City can and needs to go further by implementing the head tax on corporations and an increase in the commercial parking tax as Councilmember Licata and I proposed earlier.

Groups like the Transit Riders Union have been urging for years that we need to revamp Metro service, because it needs to keep up with the needs of the working people in this city.

This is urgent. This is not going to be an icing on the cake as they would have you believe. This is necessary service for everybody in this city. When Councilmember Licata and I proposed this, during the discussion of the Transportation Benefit District, we were told by other Councilmembers, “this is not the right time to discuss this. Let’s talk about it during the budget season.” Well, here we are in the budget season, and it is your job, as well as mine, to hold all Councilmembers accountable to their word.

So all and all, my message is this: I am not willing or able to rubber stamp a budget of business as usual. My vote will go for all the improvements, however small or big, in the interest of working people, women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and against discrimination of any kind.

I will only vote yes for a budget that serves the needs of the people—and unfortunately, at this moment, we’re miles away from that.

We need to build a strong movement to demand that, and that is why we are here. This is only the first step towards that.

Now it is true that, as the Mayor says, this city’s current revenue does not match its needs. And you will hear the constant drumbeat that the state has tied our hands. That is true. However, the question we have to ask City officials is this: Why is Murray’s budget ignoring the potential options that do exist under the law for the City to tax the wealthy and large corporations? Why aren’t they exploring a millionaire tax? Why aren’t they exploring a major increase in fees on developers? Why aren’t they willing to sign on to the business head tax? Why aren’t they here today to talk about a People’s Budget? Why aren’t they talking about an excise tax on banks, on big box retailers, and mansions?

Murray could do this. Murray could also generate millions in savings by reining in the executive compensation in the City departments. He could generate revenues by cutting the funding of unnecessary vanity projects like the Waterfront and handouts to developers.

We are going to be fighting for whatever we can within this budget. I mentioned $15/hour for City employees. We’re also going to be fighting for human services, so they can get the revenues necessary, to be able to be sure that their workers go up to $15/hour without any cuts in services. The human services coalition has also put forward a very well laid out proposal which they call “Moving the Needle.”

They say, correctly, that if we are to even have a modicum of social services in this city, then we need at least thirty three million dollars funded next year, and sixty two million dollars in 2016. I will be bringing that proposal forward.

We’re also going to be proposing $120,000 to enable a low barrier women shelter by WHEEL. We’re also talking about $120,000 to support Tent Cities.

Now, many of you might already know by now, that the City Council of Seattle pays each member of the City Council at least $120,000 dollars per year. This salary is second only to the City of Los Angeles. I pledged during my campaign, and I have fulfilled my promise, of taking home only the average worker’s wage of $40,000. After taxes are paid, all the balance of the money goes into a solidarity fund, which funds social justice movements.

I am going to be putting forward during this budget a proposal that the salaries of the City Councilmembers and the Mayor be cut by $50,000. That’s ten city officials, which would raise $500,000. We could do quite a bit with $500,000 if you knew where to put it.

I mentioned a few things that could be funded through the $500,000. The tent encampments, the low barrier women’s shelter, we could talk about extra beds for LGBTQ youth who struggle with homelessness. There’s a lot that we can do.

We don’t have a shortage of great ideas. What we have a shortage of, on the City Council, is the political will to carry them out. And we need to build that political will, not only by putting pressure on the existing city government by having a movement-building approach, including meetings like this one, but also going forward, ensuring that our representatives are put forward to hold government positions, so we don’t have to lobby them, but that they will be out there fighting with us and for us.

And to make this kind of fundamental change, we need to access the huge wealth and resources of our city and our country, and we need to continue building these powerful campaigns to fully fund the needs of the 99%.

There is no answer from the Mayor and City Council to the dismal failure of the capitalist market to provide affordable housing for the 99%. There is more of the same old big business agenda in this year’s budget, giving the corporations and the developers what they want. That is the credo of all corporate politicians.

That is why to win real, fundamental change we need the powerful movements of working people.

We need a People’s Budget: A budget based on what is needed by the people in Seattle, not the corporations.

So I appeal to you all to build a movement to force our needs on the political agenda. Let’s see what we can win this budget season, and I need you with me to fight for that.

But let’s also build the momentum to develop and outline a People’s Budget as an alternative to this business as usual budget. Let’s stop letting big money run the city. Let’s put people over profits.

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