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Patterson ’12: When political nuance falls on deaf ears

By
Opinion Columnist
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

 

The Brown Democrats would like to respond to a column by Matt Brundage ’15 concerning our recent meeting with Mayor Angel Taveras (“Holding the Brown Democrats accountable,” April 17).

Unfortunately, we have to begin with a quick lesson on tax policy. Municipal governments control property tax, while state governments set sales taxes and other fees, and the federal government legislates income tax rates. Property tax is a particularly regressive tax. People of lower economic means have a higher proportion of their wealth tied to real estate, namely their homes. State tax increases can be structured more progressively so that those who can contribute more do, but this is an issue to bring up with state elected officials, not the Mayor, as Brundage implied in his article.

We need to start with the main factual inaccuracy within Brundage’s article. Two Brown Democrats did, in fact, speak up in contention with the points raised by the mayor. Vice President Taylor Daily ’13 questioned why Brown was being asked to contribute a disproportionate amount of this potential new revenue. College Democrats of Rhode Island President Jesse Towsen ’12 asked whether the mayor’s framing the debate around an issue of fairness was creating a wedge between the University and the city. To describe the event as riddled with “amiability” is misleading and inaccurate.

Taveras understands the financial plight of the city better than anyone. By raising property taxes you hurt those who are already hurting. Liberal Democrats elected him mayor not because he “would dramatically cut funding for public schools, fire all teachers in the area … and refuse to increase taxes on its more affluent constituents,” as Brundage suggests in his piece, but because he was an individual we knew would make the hard decisions to prevent the city from going bankrupt. Taveras and the Brown Democrats have worked to increase the University’s payments to the city, adjust state funding toward the cities and cut costs where possible.

At the municipal level, I understand that the mayor cannot wait for state aid that might never come. He has two options: ask for greater payments in lieu of taxes from non-profits or begin dramatically cutting public services. We as an organization have thought long and hard about the issues facing the city, and we understand how to change the status quo. We do not, however, believe that putting political officials on the defensive is a fruitful strategy, nor do we believe that the mayor’s position on this issue should cause one to question what “qualifies him as a Democrat.”

Brundage argues for increasing property taxes on the more affluent members of the city. I see no more affluent entity in Providence than Brown. The mayor is asking more of those who can afford it. Brundage rightly calls on us to demand higher taxes, but he misdirects his concern toward the mayor’s policies. The mayor and the Brown Democrats are seeking increased revenue to avoid further cuts to public services. We are just pursuing less regressive means of achieving them through statewide reforms that can alleviate municipalities across the state from having to make future harsh cuts in health services and education. If Brundage is not referring to large nonprofits when he talks about affluent members, he should be reminded that the mayor’s authority ends at the city’s limits. Besides the tiny pockets of affluence on the East Side, I am unaware of what untapped revenue he could be referring to.

With those points made, I feel compelled to address the hints of hypocrisy contained in Brundage’s piece. Asking why a group failed to criticize a policy that you consider too conservative – a point we as an organization would contest – that you yourself were unwilling to criticize is duplicitous at best. Our meetings have always been completely open to the public. Anyone who comes with a concern is willing and able to bring them to the attention of our speakers and our executive board. In this instance, however, the members acknowledged that the mayor’s plan was a legitimate proposal making the best of a terrible situation.

Brundage argued that the Brown Democrats need to be held accountable. I find it difficult to see any way in which this organization is not. Our meetings are open to the entire student body, regardless of political affiliation. Every student who attends is given full voting rights in elections, endorsements and policy decisions.

By painting the members of the Brown Democrats as self-interested internship-seeking controversy-shirkers, Brundage does a disservice to the countless hours of hard work this organization has poured behind progressive issues such as marriage equality, environmental protection and yes, a fair tax policy. We have spent enough time involved in the political process to know that elected officials are not childish enough to consider spirited debate a sign of disrespect. Brown Democrats have turned down jobs running campaigns and interest groups because they conflicted with our principles – any accusation against these principles is simply wrong.

Our meetings continue to be open to the public.

 

Shawn Patterson ’12 is president emeritus of the Brown Democrats and enjoys baking. He can be reached at shawnpattersonjr@gmail.com.

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