Mayor Emanuel should be applauded for proposing a budget that seeks needed new revenue while refraining from making deep cuts to important programs.
As an advocate for people living in poverty, the importance of government is crystal clear to me. The core services of government—those involving public safety, education, help for people at risk, opportunity for all, and a strong economy—are supported by a strong consensus. These vital functions are important to all of us, not just those who are poor or at risk. The most basic and first priority of governing is to identify these vital functions and ensure that they are taken care of. That is done by putting together a spending plan and ensuring that there are revenues to cover it.
Reasonable people can argue about the variations of all this, but the first priority of governing is to see to it that the process gets done. Many other important matters, sometimes including reforms and new policy directions, require leadership. But that leadership is flawed if it does not include the will and the ability to take care of the basics, first and always.
Taking care of these basics is often extremely difficult, especially when it includes the need to raise adequate revenue to fund the spending plan. Raising new revenue is hard, and it should be hard. People rightly demand a strong justification for any increase in taxes they will have to pay. The burden of proof is difficult.
But raising new revenue also runs into much more than a burden of proof. Political opponents find it easy to take advantage of people’s instinctive resistance to new revenues. Ideologues who oppose just about any form of government activity will never support a revenue proposal, no matter how necessary, how overdue, or how reasonable. Opposition is easy, because it can be done with high rhetoric but no requirement to take responsibility to put forward some sort of realistic alternative.
So resisting the urge either to cut vital programs or kick more debt down the road, and instead proposing increases in revenue needed to fund core functions, takes courage. It can sometimes lead to political defeat. And thus it takes leadership.
The City Council is debating the contours and details of the budget, including the needed new revenues, as it should. Ultimately, the budget may or may not come out exactly as the mayor proposed it. But I think we should take a moment to appreciate the leadership it took to look the situation in the eye, factually and realistically, assess what is needed from government and what is needed to pay for it, and then put the needed revenues on the table.