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On Reimagining State and Local Budgets in an Abolitionist Moment


Brian Highsmith (@bd_highsmith) is an academic fellow in law and political economy at Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University.

This post is part of a symposium on Black Lives Matters.

For nearly three weeks now, masses around the country have taken the street to protest the violence that is routinely inflicted upon Black people by unaccountable police. Their demands for change, made in the tenor and tradition of abolitionist organizers, swiftly have coalesced into a shared refrain: Defund the police.

Behind this demand is a call to fundamentally reimagine community safety, beginning with permanent enacted reductions to—and ultimately, the wholesale replacement of—our current policing and punishment infrastructures. Amid an economic contraction that has already eaten a nearly trillion dollar hole in state and local budgets, concurrent ruptures are prompting an overdue reassessment of our budget priorities. This scrutiny has extended well beyond policing budgets: a prominent collective of abolitionist organizers released a document calling for, among other structural changes, states to “[d]isconnect property taxes from school funding.” Fiscal structures and funding priorities that local public finance experts have long taken to be intractable are being challenged by a new generation. Seemingly overnight, the parameters of our collective public imagination have widened.

Of course, no political reimagination truly happens overnight.

Although the scale of these actions certainly is new, community groups and local activists have long used tax and budget advocacy as a means for abolitionist organizing. In California, for example, a statewide coalition organizing under the name Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) emerged out of activists’ efforts, amid a projected $38 billion state budget shortfall in 2003, to begin unwinding California’s bloated punishment system by shuttering a woman’s prison.

On its website, CURB explains its conviction that a public “budget is not only a fiscal document but also a vital moral document that demonstrates [our] ethical priorities.” And indeed, although the “defund” slogan emphasizes public spending reductions, organizers’ vision is as much about investing in alternative systems that support communities as it is about the absence of punishment infrastructures designed to oppress. As I noted in a recent American Prospect article, CURB’s proposed “COVID-19 Public Health & Safety Budget,” co-authored with JusticeLA, outlines a cost-saving “shift of fiscal priorities” to provide immediate relief to vulnerable communities while also addressing persistent crises like chronic houselessness.

Similar advocacy can be seen on the revenue side of our budget ledgers. Particularly following the Department of Justice’s 2015 investigation into the Ferguson police department, advocates and litigators have fought the raft of extractive financial charges that are imposed on vulnerable people in heavily-policed communities, through their contact with the criminal system. These charges are pernicious for reasons extending beyond the regressive economic burdens that result from their “successful” payment: non-payment often results in consequences as severe as imprisonment, perpetuating brutal cycles of poverty and punishment.

To the extent that budget constraints—both real and perceived—often function as a key source of opposition to decarceral reforms (particularly on the revenue side), public finance experts can be an important ally in the fight to end governments’ reliance on these harmful changes. Similarly, understanding the ways in which these charges result from our public finance design can help advocates fighting monetary sanctions target their efforts to the underlying source. See for example the testimony, from Joanna Weiss of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, opposing a proposal from New York Governor Cuomo to make permanent the state’s property tax cap. As she explained, “When local governments cannot use property taxes to fund the services their residents need, they fill revenue gaps by increasing both the number of tickets issued for traffic and low-level municipal code violations and the amounts of fines and fees imposed for those violations.”

A public finance analysis can help advocates identify and target the underlying root causes of these systems, rather than attending to their downstream consequences. But while this perspective can help open up space for some of the deeper reforms that are sorely needed, it would be a mistake to imagine these policy choices as being driven mainly by fiscal pressures—or that mechanical budget reallocations might be sufficient to dismantle these systems of oppression. Rather, these structures illustrate Monica Bell’s point that the current uprisings and the organizing that led to them cannot be understood merely as a reaction to the brutal impunity of police violence. Our fiscal priorities are prime examples of the structural violence—reflecting “white fear of property loss” and necessitating “fundamental redistributions of power”—that Bell’s work highlights.

Many limitations on state and local tax authority result from efforts to protect white property owners from redistributive taxation benefiting Black people. As a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recounts, Alabama’s highly restrictive property tax limits were adopted “[d]uring state constitutional conventions called in 1875 and 1901 to re-establish white dominance following Reconstruction.” Similarly, wealthy white landowners in Mississippi enacted a constitutional provision requiring a supermajority for all state tax increases in 1890, at a convention where delegates also disenfranchised nearly all the state’s Black voters. Beginning in the 1970s, states passed a wave of new tax limitations in response to white backlash against civil rights advancements and fomenting fears of racial wealth redistribution. The most famous of these—California’s Proposition 13—helped create the conditions for the state budget battles that led to the creation of CURB. (These fights also were the subject of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s famous account, “Golden Gulag,” which describes the dramatic growth of California’s prison system after 1984 as a deliberate policy response to the political and economic displacement of marginalized people.)

This is why it is no puzzle that the same fiscal pressures repeatedly cited by policymakers as a reason they cannot afford to abolish extractive fines and fees have not threatened our massive spending on policing and punishment. One recent study of northern backlash against the Great Migration found that policing is the only public investment to increase in metropolitan areas with more Black migration. Another recent cross-country comparison found that when economic inequality rises, so does “guard labor”—people employed in policing, corrections, courts, weapons manufacture, and the military—as a share of the workforce. These findings are part of an extensive interdisciplinary literature showing that the combination of anti-Black racism and gross economic inequality works together to drive both our underinvestment in social services as well as our overinvestment in policing and incarceration.

It would be a mistake to think that these laws reflect a history that has run its course. Take, for example, the fight over Florida’s Amendment 4. In November 2018, voters overwhelmingly voted to enfranchise about 1.4 million people by repealing a Jim Crow–era law that had permanently revoked suffrage from anyone with a felony on their record. But the state’s Republicans—precisely because they feared the consequences of this historic franchise expansion—raced to undo the initiative by withholding voting rights from those unable to pay any associated fines and fees. Their attempt—recently stalled by a successful constitutional challenge—must be understood not as a reasoned response to budget pressures, but rather as an extension of historical efforts to uphold white supremacy.

So it is with good reason that abolitionist organizers like Mariame Kaba teach that the racialized harms imposed by these systems are not accidental byproducts of good intentions; they are its primary feature. The system is not ‘broken,’ they remind us. In the words of Alec Karakatsanis, “If you actually think that [the] purpose [of our criminal system] is controlling certain populations, oppressing certain people, conserving the hierarchies of wealth and power, then it’s actually functioning very well.”

The oppressive systems of punishment and social control that we’ve constructed are rooted deep; to unwind these structures, we will need to use every tool available. Abolitionist organizers like CURB are showing us how an understanding of budgeting practices and public finance concepts can help dismantle unjust social and economic systems. And the resurgence of popular interest, over these past weeks, in public budgeting indeed represents an opportunity for fiscal policy researchers to leverage their expertise in contribution to longstanding fights for equality and liberation. But public finance scholars must not forget that these structures reflect the racialized violence and structural inequity that pervade our social order. If our work is not part of the larger project of challenging those systems—and the ways in which power and opportunity are unjustly allocated across our society—it will not be enough.