Lessons from a Year in Budget Advocacy: More Democracy, Better Budget!

by N'Tanya Lee on August 30, 2005

This is the final installment of a four-part series from Coleman Advocates.

Three years ago, Coleman took a leadership role in significantly reforming the city budget process. In that budget cycle, there was unprecedented opportunities for substantive debate about budget issues, for public input, for strong leadership from the Board of Supes, & generally stronger checks & balances between the city’s executive & legislative branches.

To view a copy of Coleman’s report following that season, visit www.colemanadvocates.org. I strongly recommend advocates & policy makers review it, as many of its concerns & recommendations are still quite relevant today. Unfortunately, despite the cooperative spirit of this year’s budget debate, it seems we have moved backwards, not forwards, in creating a strong budget process.

A few highlights from this year: The Board President, Aaron Peskin, hosted Speak Up for Kids Day in late March, which provided several hundred youth, parents, & advocates with the opportunity to articulate their needs directly to city policy makers. Almost all Supes participated.

Budget Chair Tom Ammiano did a wonderful job working collaboratively with his colleagues on the Board, submitting policy priorities to the Mayor in the spring, & negotiating a unanimous vote on the final budget package. The final addback process was streamlined, and ultimately over $20 million was added and/or restored by the Supes. For child advocates, the Mayor submitted a strong budget to the Supes that protected over 90% of children’s funding, demonstrating that the Administration heard us early in the process.

Supe Ross Mirkarimi pushed hard for the $500,000 addback for the Peace Agenda, to address gun violence especially in the Western Addition and the Bayview. His support for grassroots community activists from the SF Ground Movement was especially encouraging.

Supe Chris Daly’s push to save the wage increase for child care workers in Wages Plus was a terrific early victory, and the role his office played in raising the tough issues with the Mayor’s Office about use of the “one time revenue” was strong, responsible legislative leadership.

A few minimum recommendations for next year, for the city: 1) The Supes must hold a hearing on the Mayor’s budget instructions before they come out in November. Ask tough questions about revenue projections and expected shortfalls. 2) If the Mayor once again recommends 18-month cuts, the Supes must play a stronger role and insist either on only mid-year cuts, or on assembling a Budget Committee earlier so they can begin holding hearing as soon as possible to weigh in.

Time spent on the politics of Budget Committee membership is valuable time lost. The Mayor’s effort to propose mid-year cuts and have them annualized over the next fiscal year before the budget hearing process has even began, is an irresponsible use of the executive branch’s authority. 3) We trust the Supervisors will bring back full-scale district budget hearings, structured to allow for meaningful public input. 4) Structure in a “Plan A” and “Plan B” if more revenue materialized (as discussed in Part 1 of this series). 5) Finally, we must have more hearings on revenue options.

And lastly, a few recommendations, for the community: it’s time to think big, & get even more organized than we’ve ever been. No more politely waiting at the sidelines or asking for peanuts. Our communities are in crisis, families are suffering, & we have the resources to do more than pass out band-aids. And most importantly-don’t wait for an advocate to speak for you.

At Coleman, we are committed to a budget campaign this year that directly involves parents & youth as ongoing budget advocacy leaders more than ever before, so that policy makers hear from people most directly impacted by the decisions they make. If the folks at City Hall want to make the most important decisions about the city budget at midnight, then we will bring pizza, coffee & tents if we need to, to bring neighborhood family voices to the halls of power. Instead of a deafening silence at those key moments when they vote on millions of dollars, there must be deafening shouts of joy, when long-neglected community needs are finally met through the long, arduous, but incredibly important, city budget battle. Join us!

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