Column: Communities Need Officials Who Will Protect Human Services

This story was written by Adam Porton, Badger Herald
Though it most likely went completely unnoticed by the University of Wisconsin student body, the County Board held a listening session last Thursday to hear public comments on the county budget they will pass in late November. The budget, which was developed by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, contains millions of dollars worth of cuts to basic human services, while increasing funding for the Dane County Sheriffs office.

At the hearing, dozens of community members and organizational representatives from those who give vital care to our countys developmentally disabled adults, to environmental watchdog groups, to defenders of our public libraries spoke against eliminating so many vital resources, especially in a time of economic distress. What made the situation even more disheartening is the fact that county taxes would not increase if the human services budget was at the very least maintained at its previous level. In light of these cuts, the fact that one of the few areas actually receiving more money next year will be the sheriffs office, which continues its inhumane practice of reporting the names of undocumented detainees to ICE, paints a sad picture of the kind of priorities this county has.

Luckily, though, there is still time to undo some of the damage. The progressive wing of the County Board, led by Progressive Dane-elected Supervisors, is working hard to restore some of the cut funding. One amendment currently under discussion would add enough money to the human services budget so that the nonprofits which do work on behalf of the county could give their employees a very modest cost of living increase.

If this and other proposals make their way into the final budget, it will prove once again the need for and efficacy of elected officials who do not exclusively affiliate with either major political party. This is because such officials will have brought attention to crucial issues where both major parties are already in agreement. In this case the County Executive and many Democratic and Republican affiliated members of the County Board all want to make drastic budget cuts. The only debate among them is how drastic. But of course the real question for us as a county is not how much should be cut, but why should any be cut at all? Without a third party on the board, that question would never have been asked.

The situation is the same at the state and national levels, only much worse. With no representation in the statehouse and virtually none in congress, third parties and independents have very limited sway over the scope of political debate. So the mainstream media presents us with only the frustratingly narrow and repetitive policy fights which occur in the Legislature and on the campaign trail. For example, the two major presidential candidates have gone back and forth over how many troops to leave in Iraq and Afghanistan after a partial withdrawal, but have never once discussed if the United States should have a military presence in the Middle East at all. They have used up volumes of breath fighting over the economy, but both agreed with and voted for the bailout, never questioning the fact that for the first time in history the government will be socializing risk while privatizing profit. While one candidate has made some gestures in the direction of increasing need based financial aid, it is unthinkable that the question of whether or not public universities should cost students anything will ever be asked.

The reason Progressive Dane, and other local third party candidates, have had electoral successes are the reduced barriers they face compared to their counterparts vying for higher office. Most importantly, in Dane County, local elections are held using a run-off system whereby the number of candidates in a city or county race is fist reduced to two in a nonpartisan primary. This negates the so-called spoiler argument and is in part what allowed Dane to get its foot in the door and grow to the point where they are now considered the second, if not the first, party in many areas of the county.

With this in mind, the obvious solution for opening the way to electing third parties to state and federal government is to institute some type of instant run-off voting or proportional representation system at those levels. But even now, Id encourage voters not to dismiss a vote for a third party candidate this Nov. 4, as such a vote will hasten the day such systems are implemented. I think Ralph Nader put it best when, in a recent Nation article, he said of the purpose of his campaign: We kept the progressive agenda alive for the future. With an Obama victory all but assured in Wisconsin, consider helping strengthen that agenda.