Around the country, state budgets have been in crisis. Rhode Island’s budget is no different, with a deficit in the hundreds of millions – a big number for a small state. Newly-elected Republican Gov. Don Carcieri began a campaign to trim the budget by forcing teachers and state employees to contribute more to pension and health care plans and reducing funding for child care.

But unions and community groups came ready for the fight. Many of the state’s anti-poverty advocates banded together and created ONE Rhode Island, a platform of policies to improve state programs that affect working families. A broad group of state legislators introduced proposals for modest increases in areas such as food stamps, affordable housing, child care, health care, and cash assistance.

Over 130 groups endorsed the program, from service-based groups like the United Way, Goodwill Industries, and the RI Food Bank, to faith-based groups like the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and the state Board of Rabbis, and labor unions including Service Employees 1199, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 217, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as community-based groups such as Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the Day Care Justice Co-op, and ACORN.

A well-coordinated series of lobby days, letter-writing campaigns, postcard drives, phone banks, constituent meetings, and a rally attended by over 500 Rhode Islanders pressured the state legislators to resist the proposed cuts. Independent of the coalition, many groups called for fairer tax structures.

In the end, a one-time “windfall” from the Bush tax program brought enough revenue into the state to fund the teachers’ and public employees’ benefits, restore almost all of the cuts in child care, create an Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families, improve access to food stamps, and construct more affordable housing. Both the House and the Senate have ample votes to override the governor’s threatened budget veto.

And yet it remains to be seen how funds will be secured next year to win many of the other programs that were not funded this year. Can a strong coalition of groups be built to create a fairer tax structure?

Few Democratic legislators will want to call for tax increases in 2004, especially as the governor tries to re-build the state’s weak Republican Party by running candidates against them and wielding the discontent of unorganized private sector workers as a weapon against the better-organized public sector.

To counter the governor’s divisive strategy, the labor movement in Rhode Island must shift the terms of the debate, so that unorganized workers come to see these pension and health care benefits as entitlements and ask, “Hey, how come I don’t have a pension or health insurance?” instead of, “Hey, why do my tax dollars have to pay for that guy’s pension?”

In Rhode Island, this partial victory has given the coalition of groups a sense that in order to win big, they must continue to think big. More information on the ONE RI platform can be found at www.povertyinstitute.org

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