State Groups Tackle Tax Fairness

Nonprofit Quarterly Fall 2010 coverIt’s July 2010, and organizers from 10 state-level grassroots groups have traveled to Washington, D.C. Rob Brown of Opportunity Maine is at the front of the room addressing the crowd. “Firefighters and other local law enforcement are key allies in property tax-cap campaigns,” Brown says, as listeners scribble in notebooks and clack on laptops. “Their perspective tends to be universally appealing to even the staunchest skeptic.”

At the event, Brown shared best practices and lessons from Maine’s successful campaign to defeat a property tax-cap ballot initiative with leaders of grassroots state tax-fairness organizations from across the country. All groups are members of the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative (TFOC), a coalition of 28 grassroots groups in 24 states working to promote progressive-tax reform. Progressive taxes, such as the federal income tax, require upper-income people to pay more of their income in taxes than those with lower-incomes. This is different from a flat tax, such as a sales tax, which applies the same tax rate to all individuals regardless of income level. Thus, flat taxes take a higher portion of income from low-income people than from high-income people.

The TFOC is a project of United for a Fair Economy, a national economic-justice advocacy organization. The TFOC operates in stark contrast to the brassy, anti-tax, antigovernment Tea Party. The TFOC believes that government enhances quality of life and that collecting government revenue through taxes is a necessity that should be done fairly, responsibly, and through policies that reflect our society’s values.

In some communities, organizing work to promote tax fairness has taken place for decades. But in early 2000, the movement came to a head, following the bursting of the technology bubble and waning government support for public services. As more people felt the effects of severe budget cuts and imbalanced tax policies, the movement gained momentum. By 2004 the TFOC launched to strengthen state-level efforts and facilitate connectivity across state lines. The TFOC has filled an important role in the progressive movement by providing a national infrastructure for tax-fairness organizers to collaborate, share best practices, problem-solve, and learn the latest in communications from pollsters and researchers. Through the TFOC, grassroots leaders regularly convene in affinity groups to tackle common issues, such as no-income-tax states, conservative states where taxes are limited, and states fighting corporate tax loopholes. The emphasis on grassroots organizing distinguishes the TFOC from other progressive tax-policy organizations and networks.

In the states, the tax fairness movement is firmly in place. And the work is more important than ever. From New York to Nevada, grassroots organizations have led the fight for progressive and adequate revenue to support the schools, bridges, parks, and other public resources that keep our communities strong. To a large extent, these organizations are part of coalitions that include teachers, seniors, human-service associations, community organizations, unions, faith-based organizations, and various nonprofit advocacy groups. A snapshot of the work taking place in states across the country paints a hopeful picture:

  • Washington. Washington Community Action Network has led the field campaign to pass I-1098, a November 2010 statewide ballot initiative to cut property taxes and taxes on small businesses to benefit the middle class and establish a high-earners income tax for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of households (that is, families earning more than $400,000 annually, or individuals earning more than $200,000 a year).
  • Alabama. Alabama Arise has worked to remove the state sales tax from grocery purchases and to pay for it by eliminating the state tax deduction for federal taxes paid, which benefits primarily the wealthy.
  • Colorado. The Colorado Progressive Coalition (CPC) has co-led the fight to defeat three measures on the ballot in November 2010 that would cut state and local taxes, fines, and fees and prevent the funding of long-term infrastructure projects. CPC plays an integral part in the campaign to defeat these initiatives by running the fieldwork operation, coordinat- ing messaging throughout the state, and providing community-level education.
  • Tennessee. Tennesseans for Fair Taxation’s overarching goal is to modern- ize the state’s tax system. This includes working to reduce the general sales tax, eliminate the tax on food, and implement a personal income tax with generous exemptions for low-income families.
  • Nevada. The Silver State has been hit hard by the recession, unemployment, and the foreclosure crisis, particularly because of its long-standing reliance on gaming taxes and regressive sales taxes. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada advocates creating new sources of revenue to support critical public services, including extraction taxes on the state’s gold-mining industry.

In communities across the country, great grassroots work is happening, but the challenges remain acute. As more families are having trouble making ends meet, countering the anti-tax rhetoric is particularly challenging. But we all have a vested interest in our government’s tax system, since fair and adequate revenue is critical for our communities to thrive. And through the tax fairness movement, state-level grassroots organizations and their allies are working to rebuild—from the bottom up—a more progressive tax system that reflects values of fairness, responsibility, and sustainability.

Karen Kraut is a coordinator at the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative. Shannon Moriarty is the TFOC’s communications director.

Learn more about these TFOC member groups:

Opportunity Maine logo

TFT logo

ARISE Alabama logo Washington CAN logo 
Colorado Progressive Coalition logo

PLAN Nevada logo

By Shannon Moriarty and Karen Kraut. This column appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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Why Support the Higher Education Transparency Act?

Support Financial TransparencyThis week, Massachusetts residents have an opportunity to advance the movement for economic justice in the Bay State by urging their state representatives and senators to support the Higher Education Transparency Act.

Massachusetts' private colleges and universities, which are designated as non-profit organizations, enjoy tax exempt status while also receiving direct federal and state subsidies. That's because of their primary functions—to educate and to provide opportunities and services to their communities.

And yet, we too often witness the same taxpayer-subsidized institutions—some with multi-billion dollar endowments—engaging in profit-motivated behaviors, such as tuition hikes, casino-like investing and layoffs.

Also, as this rececession forces average American workers and their families to "tighten their belts," the leaders of some of these colleges and universities are being paid over a million dollars a year. 

Economic recovery requires shared sacrifice.

This bill would strengthen the financial disclosure requirements for Massachusetts’ private, non-profit colleges and universities by mandating more thorough reporting on employee compensation; how endowments are invested; agreements with outside consultants, and the total tax subsidies they receive.

Additionally, it would give the public and the legislature a way to evaluate the financial choices being made by institutions of higher learning, and the values under which they operate.

Here is a summary of the provisions of the Higher Education Transparency Act:

  • Affects private, nonprofit colleges and universities and their related organizations who have investments (defined as value of, not interest on) or real property over $10 million dollars;
  • Requires the schools to calculate the received benefit from all tax exemptions;
  • Mandates individual conflict-of-interest disclosures by trustees or directors of the institution;
  • Mandates disclosure of payments of greater than $150,000/year to outside individuals or firms for advice or services;
  • Mandates disclosure of payments of greater than $150,000/year from outside individuals or firms for advice or services;
  • Mandates disclosure of the names and titles of anyone making more than $250,000 year;
  • Requires the Attorney General to set the method and scope by which tax calculations and disclosures are done;
  • Requires disclosure of the names, amounts, and descriptions of services provided to and from vendors.

Our friends at SEIU Local 615, which represents janitors, security workers, and other property service workers in MA, RI, and NH, are leaders in the fight for this rule change to hold private, non-profit colleges and universities in Massachusetts accountable. Visit their campaign page for more ways to get involved.

If you want to add your voice to this campaign, be sure to call your elected officials by Friday, February 4th! (Click here to find your elected officials.)

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The High Price of Austerity

Austerity is the political buzzword these days. As politicians from both parties are jumping on the “starve the beast” bandwagon, few are considering the long-term impacts of the approach. What seems like tightening the belt today will likely cost us much, much more down the line.

On the subway this morning, when I grabbed an issue of the Metro for my half hour ride to work, this headline stopped me in my tracks: "HIV/AIDS funds take steep cuts in proposal."

Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and the only Black Governor in the country, had recently announced his proposed 2012 budget. In it, HIV/AIDS funding takes a whopping $2 million hit. That’s the largest proposed cut to HIV/AIDS funding in 20 years!

To make matters worse, the burden of these cuts would be disproportionately felt by communities of color. The article pointed out that Blacks and Hispanics each make up only six percent of the state's population. Yet, Blacks comprise 28 percent of HIV/AIDS patients and Hispanics 25 percent.

Sadly, this is right in line with the findings of United for a Fair Economy’s 2011 State of the Dream report: "Austerity for Whom?", released just last week. It’s shocking that here, in the liberal Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a proposed roll back of necessary programs will so disproportionally disadvantage people of color.

The most frustrating part of Governor Patrick’s proposed slashing to HIV/AIDS program budget is that, in the long run, it won’t save much money at all. In fact, it will probably cost us more. Emerson Miller, a program manager for AIDS Action, points out in the article that the investment in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment actually "saved the state millions of dollars in potential health care costs over the last 10 years."

In other words, investing $2 million dollars in the preventative health of Massachusetts residents today will save us millions in treatment over the next decade. Not to mention preventing pain and sickness for a whole lot of people. That seems like a no-brainer.

Instead, deficit hawks in both political parties are supporting the “starve the beast” approach. This, combined with the lack of political will to raise revenue by restoring taxes on the top five percent, means that the rest of us will pay more down the line. And low-income folks—particularly people of color—well, they will just die sooner.

Austerity should mean cutting unnecessary government spending. Not eliminating smart investments in the health of our people and our communities.

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A Win for an Invisible Workforce

Domestic Workers rallyWhat if you worked long, hard days in others' homes, cleaning, cooking, or caring for others' children or disabled family members; or if your workplace were in the fields of crop that feed American families, under the unforgiving heat of the sun and charge of a demanding employer — honorable work, to be sure — and yet, you weren't even covered by the most basic of federal labor protections?

That's precisely the case for domestic workers and farm workers throughout the U.S., who are also predominantly migrant workers of color, as mentioned in UFE's report, State of the Dream 2011.

In addition to a general lack of basic worker rights, exclusion from safety net programs, like social security, intensifies these workers' struggle for economic stability.

But, momentum is building to ensure rights for this invisible workforce. In summer 2010, New York state opened the doors for broader reform by passing a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights. A major organizing force behind this victory was Domestic Workers United (DWU), a NY-based group that is "organizing for power, respect, fair labor standards and to help build a movement to end exploitation and oppression for all."

A recent report (pdf) by DWU, National Domestic Workers Alliance and Urban Justice Center discusses the bill's good points, the work that remains to be done, and the way forward in an age of new rights in New York. As support builds for fair labor laws, and for a more broadly inclusive economy, victories like this will pay political dividends to workers in other industries like agriculture.

DWU member, Christine Lewis, went toe-to-toe with Stephen Colbert to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by domestic workers, to discuss the importance of their work, and to show that when people unite for a just cause, history can be made.

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Stories, Not Stats, Win Hearts and Minds

If during last night's State of the Union address, you were more moved by Obama's words than by Michele Bachmann's PowerPoint charts, you're not alone. Sure—data has it's place. But when it comes to inspiring people and garnering the support necessary to create change, it's all about the stories we tell.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama used a story that evoked our shared memory, history, and pride.

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.”

Using that Sputnik narrative as his starting point, he then made the case for meeting the challenges of our generation with large-scale investments in clean energy, information technology, and biomedical research. Regardless of what one may think of the overall message Obama delivered, the method is right on.

He could have stood up there and cited statistics from Mark Zandi of Moody’s about how each federal dollar we spend in infrastructure investments generates $1.59 in economic stimulus, but that would have fallen flat. Worse, it would have been met with skeptics who have adverse knee-jerk reactions to “government spending” of any kind. Instead, he used a powerful story that evoked a sense of pride, and in doing so re-framed the debate based on our shared history and understanding of the world. That’s how we are going to win hearts and minds.

It is through stories like these that we are able to process new information and facts. Jeff Chang and Brian Komar expanded upon this concept in an article entitled, “Vision: Bringing our Culture into Progressive Politics is a Winner,” posted on Alternet today.

“Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories -- the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change…”

That is, culture – in the form of stories, shared experiences, metaphors, and the like – is the way in which people make sense of the world. It’s the way in which facts are processed. This understanding has greatly informed the work of United for a Fair Economy (UFE). It’s part of the reason we have put the stories and culture of change at the forefront of our work.

  • Stories: When discussing her support for a progressive tax system and strong estate tax at a UFE press conference, Abigail Disney made a compelling case about how her family’s wealth (she is the granddaughter of Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner) would not be possible if it were not for the highways that brought Americans to Disneyland and the courts that protected the copyright of Mickey Mouse.
  • History: In our most recent State of the Dream report, we retell the story of how the broadly-shared prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was created through massive public investments in infrastructure and people – the interstate highways system, aerospace industry (Obama’s Sputnik story), and the GI Bill – interwoven with the story of race in America.
  • Art and Theater: To explore inequality in our workshops, we use a popular UFE exercise involving 10 chairs and 10 volunteers. Each chair represents 10% of the wealth and each person represents 10 percent of the population. By the end of the workshop, one person representing the top 10 percent is laying across seven chairs while the remaining nine are crammed onto the last three chairs. These exercises create a powerful set of shared experiences for participants that are far more memorable than watching a Powerpoint presentation.

Clearly, much work remains to be done, but the road ahead is clear and it’s lined with the stories, history, art, and shared experiences that define our culture.

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When Society Attacks: Race and People Devalued

As we close in on Black History Month, the soothsaying jesters at The Daily Show have—in brilliantly hilarious fashion—taken heed of the ways racism continues to rear its ugly head in modern day.

UFE's 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day report, citing the groundbreaking book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, acknowledges some of the societally damaging effects of economic policies that fail to account for the factors of race and inequality.

In the video below, The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac builds on that, revealing how nasty things can get when society attacks, history is ignored, people are devalued, and the most marginalized communities—like Turkey Creek, MS—are nearly wiped from existence.

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Are You a Socialist?

If you support a progressive tax system, does that make you a "socialist?"

A progressive tax is one where the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases. In plainer terms, it's one that levies a fairer share from those who have reaped the greatest financial benefits from our many taxpayer-funded economic structures.

Chances are, if you vocally support a progressive tax system, you’ve dealt with such accusations at one point or another.

Perhaps, like me, your knee-jerk reaction is to get angry. Or to accept the name-calling, figuring it just comes with the territory of being "on the left," so to speak. But Steve Schnapp, a popular educator with United for a Fair Economy, offers a more constructive approach.

Steve was recently interviewed for a forthcoming documentary by Will 2 Power Productions. In the interview, he explained how he responds to progressive activist concerns of being labeled with the 's' word.

“You can call it socialism, you can call it whatever you want,” he said. “Here’s what I stand for: equity, fairness, helping each other out. Some folks like to call that socialism, and they think if they just paint us with that brush, it will end the conversation…But I believe that these are values we all share.”

Steve’s point is a good one (and well-articulated, as you’ll see below). Whether it’s in the halls of Congress or at our kitchen tables, it’s important for each of us to remember the values that unite us rather than the partisanship that seems to divide us. After all, writing each other off with labels squashes any potential for dialogue.

With an open mind, we're more likely to find that we have much more in common with our political “adversaries” than we think.

One Man's Reponse to "Socialist" Accusations from United for a Fair Economy on Vimeo.

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The Divide Deepens

Proposed 10% Cut to Federal Workforce Will Deepen the Racial Divide in the U.S.

Late last week, the Washington Post ran a story about a bill introduced by Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) to cut the federal work force by 10 percent in the next decade. Three days later, UFE released our new State of the Dream report which documents, among other things, the disproportionate impact that federal employee cutbacks will have of Black families.

It’s important to remember that public sector workers perform very important functions in our society that benefit Americans of all races. Public sector workers are the ones who inspect our food supply, police our streets, and educate our children.  As a result, attacks on the public sector and its workers hurts all Americans regardless of race by eroding the ability of our nation to meet the needs of its citizens.

At the same time, the proposed cuts to the federal work force will disproportionately hit Black workers who are more likely to be employed in public sector jobs. In fact, Blacks are 30 percent more likely to work a public sector job than the general work force, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government in particular.

Public Sector Jobs Chart

For Blacks, the attack on the public sector workforce is a one-two punch. In addition to the eroding ability of our nation to meet the needs of its citizens, Black workers will shoulder the brunt of the layoffs at a time that the Black unemployment rate is 15.8 percent.

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Read It, Share It, Take Action — State of the Dream 2011

State of the Dream 2011 report coverJust in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we released our 8th annual report on racial economic inequality in the United States.

This year's report, State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?, surveys the impact of a belt-tightening, deficit-reducing, tax-cutting and, ultimately, government-shrinking economic agenda on communities of color.

Our research explains that if such an austerity agenda advances, Dr. King's dream of racial equality in the U.S. will be pushed further out of reach.

With this report, we are calling on Americans of all races to stand up for a more racially just and inclusive economy – one that brings people together, rather than tears us apart. We hope you'll help us spread the word.

Here are ways you can help:

  • Share this email and the report as broadly as you're able. Use social media to get this information into your online networks.
  • Read the report and write op-eds, letters to your local editors and/or blog about what it means to you.
  • Have conversations with your family, friends, colleagues and other community members, and ask them to do the same.
  • Stay informed on the issues outlined in State of the Dream 2011, and other issues of racial inequality, and take every opportunity to share your positions with your elected officials.

Also, on MLK Day this Monday, January 17th, consider participating in a day of service as a way to honor Dr. King's legacy.

"Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963

Happy MLK Day.

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Video: The State of MLK's Dream

MLK envisioned a work where the color of one's skin mattered about as much as the color of one's toothbrush. Sadly, the juxtaposition between the beauty of MLK's dream and the reality of racial and economic equality in America today is startling.

According to a new report released today by United for a Fair Economy—State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?—the racial economic divide in this country remains significant. For example: for every dollar of net wealth held by Whites, Latinos hold 12 cents and Blacks hold just 10 cents. Blacks are 90 percent more likely and Latinos are 50 percent more likely to be unemployed, and those who do work earn significantly less than their White counterparts—Blacks earn 57 cents and Latinos earn 59 cents to each dollar of White median family income.

Austerity measures supported by GOP and Tea Party activists will hurt all of us who rely on good schools, safe roads, and strong communities. But beyond that, austerity measures will simply worsen the economic inequality and prevent us from realizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream.

This video features Mazher Ali and Brian Miller of United for a Fair Economy, two of the co-authors of the report, discussing the key findings of the report.

Check out a summary of State of the Dream 2011 or download the report in its entirety.

State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom? from United for a Fair Economy on Vimeo.

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