Public employees warn of Trump budget

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Literally life-threatening cuts to public services proposed by the Trump administration range across such a broad swath of programs that members of AFT Public Employees poured out personal stories, examples and warnings during their professional issues conference June 1-3.

Basic water quality, infrastructure and worker safety are imperiled by President Trump's budget proposal, in spite of his attempts to gloss over deep cuts using smoke and mirrors. The proposal assumes unrealistic economic growth while cutting about $6 trillion from vital federal programs over the next decade—money that would go to tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Speakers at AFT Public Employees conference

"Don't do it, America, it doesn't work!" implored AFT-Kansas President Lisa Ochs, whose members in the Kansas Organization of State Employees worked long and hard with their coalition Rise Up Kansas and state legislators, finally persuading them to repudiate Gov. Sam Brownback's similarly disastrous tax-cutting experiment on June 6, when they overrode his veto so they could raise money owed for critical public services. (Pictured above, from left, are AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker with public employee leaders Jan Hochadel, Lisa Ochs and Wayne Spence.)

"Brownback enacted the worst tax policy in the nation," Ochs told fellow members, "but now that we're in perpetual budget crisis—the highways need repair, the water needs testing so we don't end up like Flint, and the schools need to open this fall—the conversation is starting to change. Dare I say it? We ain't done yet."

Now all of America is threatened with a federal version of the Brownback debacle. Trump's 2018 budget would cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent—which could impair routine checks of drinking water—and would cut Labor Department programs by 20 percent, wiping out OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) worker safety training. And while Trump's proposal includes a $200 billion commitment to infrastructure (nothing like the $1 trillion he promised last year), that would be more than offset by $206 billion of cuts to existing infrastructure programs, and would impose a costly and inefficient layer of privatization.

Legionnaires' disease is showing up in hospitals again, said water chemist Jill Cohenour, president of the Montana Federation of Public Health and Human Services Employees and chair of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council. "Who's going to do this testing? Our members may not believe that their jobs are political, but our jobs are linked to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. If we lose our funding, these jobs are gone. And our jobs mean security for people, that when they turn the faucet, their water is pure."

Weingarten: Despite everything, optimistic

In her keynote address to members, AFT President Randi Weingarten recounted the ways the Trump administration is trying to undermine basic public services in its budget. "This administration is doing things that fly in the face of what the public says it wants because the administration thinks it can get away with it," she said.

Nevertheless, Weingarten told members she feels more optimistic than ever. "When I walked in here, the energy from the room and the conference was incredible," she said. "There is something happening within our membership. There is something happening on the ground, not to take anything for granted anymore, and to do something about it."

"We are breaking through," she added. "When we go to the halls of Congress, the staff and lawmakers are listening from top to bottom. That's the energy moving forward."

So what exactly is Trump's idea with cutting federal funding streams? His idea is to shift the burden to states. This shift would happen in spite of the fact that 19 states are still taking in less revenue than they did before the Great Recession, and 33 states are still operating in the red.

In a session on building public will for revenue, Elaine Mejia of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pictured below) advised AFT members to describe their vision for public works and services in language like this: "We have a beautiful city. We need to take care of it. Here's what we could accomplish."

Elaine Mejia

When the issue of taxes inevitably comes up, Mejia agrees that "people are very skeptical, sometimes with good reason." She recommends helping our neighbors realize that cleaning up the tax code is within their power, with statements like this: "We have an upside-down tax code in which ultra-rich people aren't paying what they owe. We need to reform the tax code by eliminating tax breaks that the wealthy have created for themselves. We can scale back out-of-control tax breaks."

Empower people, Mejia added: Say, "We have choices in making sure we get the revenue we need, so that powerful interests can't manipulate this out-of-date, unfair tax system. We need to ask some people to pay what they owe. We can make our communities stronger." And, "We face a choice: invest in the things that help our communities thrive and all of us prosper, or hand out yet another tax break to a few of our state's wealthiest people."

Rational approaches

The conference included many examples of how public employees are using science, facts and reason to serve the public. For example, Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's commissioner of health, fought the abuse of opioids in her city last year by issuing a blanket prescription for naloxone, a powerful antidote to heroin. Since then, the policy has saved more than 800 lives in Baltimore.

Public health officials should be able to get naloxone into everyone's hands, Wen told conference participants, noting that AFT members who work in healthcare and public safety are on the frontlines, trying to save lives.

Public employees must fight stigma with science, Wen said. "The stigma of addiction causes some to say, 'Why give naloxone; it will only make people use heroin more.' That's like saying, 'Why administer an EpiPen for a peanut allergy; it'll make them eat more peanuts.' I hear this rhetoric all the time. It doesn't make sense, and it's not based on science."

Workshop participants

Even though members of AFT Public Employees have more than 3,000 job titles, a lot of their work relies on science, whether it's providing mental health services or testing concrete.

Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation and an AFT vice president, observed that it takes five to 10 years for citizens to realize what they've lost after a round of tax-cutting. During a panel discussion with Ochs and AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel (who is also an AFT vice president), Spence revealed that his state no longer has enough in-house civil engineers to double-check the work from outsourced engineering projects. For example, he said there are three types of concrete: for sidewalks, for bridges and for underwater structures. If sidewalk concrete is used for bridges or other structures, it will fall apart.

"It's dangerous and de-professionalizing when we are no longer testing the concrete," Spence said. "Imagine that outside contractor now testing the concrete themselves. Five to 10 years down the road, our citizens will pay the price."

Public service is not an ATM to finance austerity budgets, added Hochadel, but actually is what it's called: services for the public good.

When her state's assistant attorneys general organized and joined the AFT, Hochadel said, it "opened the floodgates because now there are all these other professionals who want to organize. Even public service managers want to be back in the union because they felt like they had a voice with the union."

[Annette Licitra]