When the Trump administration proposed adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census back in March, more than two dozen states and cities, along with the US Conference of Mayors, promptly filed lawsuits to block the move. The plaintiffs included few surprises: States like California, New York, and Illinois, along with cities like Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco, all signed on to legal action. But in recent weeks, something unusual has been happening: unlikely cities in unlikely states—think Columbus, Ohio; and El Paso, Texas—have begun stepping forward, joining the lawsuits without the state-level support enjoyed by the first wave of plaintiffs.
Last week, the city of Phoenix became the latest to jump into the legal fray when City Council members voted to pursue a lawsuit against the federal government, a move that ran in direct opposition to their state’s decision in April to steer clear of the lawsuits. The councilmembers’ primary argument was a financial one: If the Census includes a question about citizenship, Phoenix’s many noncitizen residents will likely skip the questionnaire, depressing the count and leading, ultimately, to a huge reduction in federal funds for the city.
How huge? Phoenix Deputy City Manager Karen Peters estimated thst the city could lose as much as $350 for each person not counted by the Census, leading to losses of more than $107 million per year. (Others, meanwhile, suggested the figures could run even higher if some citizens also opt out). “Phoenix and its residents have too much to lose in the 2020 Census count if it’s not done right,” Mayor Greg Stanton said in a statement.
But Phoenix isn’t the only place where activists got busy this past month, and the Census wasn’t the only battleground. A tax that demands accountability from large corporations. A program to restore drivers licenses to tens of thousands of residents. An effort to curb mass incarceration by banning private jails. These are just some of the efforts proposed and passed in May by cities seeking a more progressive path forward.
Here are the details.
Seattle vs. Amazon
It’s not every day that a city takes on one of the 21st century’s most powerful monopolies. But earlier this month, Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously to divert money from the coffers of the city’s mega-corporations—among them Amazon—to help pay for the needs of struggling renters and the homeless. The new tax, which targets companies making at least $20 million in gross revenues a year, is expected to generate $47 million, which amounts to about $275 per employee of the taxed corporations. With this money, the city plans to build or preserve nearly 900 units of affordable housing and to provide services for the homeless.
“The city’s homelessness crisis has been in a state of emergency for three years now,” says Lisa Herbold, a Seattle councilmember who sponsored the bill along with councilmembers M. Lorena Gonzálex, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda. “But we are also said to have the single most regressive tax structure in the nation. We have a really difficult lack of options to address our growing revenue needs.”
The new tax is a vital step forward, an intervention with both practical and symbolic resonance. But its reach is also significantly more modest than its drafters had hoped. As originally proposed, the tax was set to generate $75 million each year (amounting to $540 per full-time employee). But when Amazon threw the corporate equivalent of a conniption, abruptly halting construction on an addition to its downtown campus earlier this month, the mayor threatened a veto, and the City Council was forced to scale back the tax.
In the weeks since, Amazon has agreed to resume construction. Yet the fight isn’t over—either in Seattle or beyond. On May 23, news broke that the tech giant has pledged $25,000 to join Starbucks, Kroger, and several other Seattle stalwarts in an effort to put a referendum on the November ballot repealing the tax. At the same time, West Coast cities like San Francisco and Cupertino, inspired by Seattle’s bold move, have also begun mulling a tax on large local employers.
“Google has billions of dollars in cash floating around,” Lenny Siegel, the mayor of Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters, told Bloomberg. “They made billions off the tax bill. They can afford to spend a little more here.”
Editor’s Note: In a serious blow to the city’s efforts to combat homelessness, the Seattle City Council voted on June 13 to repeal its tax on the city’s biggest businesses. The decision was made under mounting pressure from Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies.
Detroit Drives Off Injustice
When Detroit resident Alexia Dunson was 20 years old, she was given a “Driver Responsibility Fee” for driving a friend’s vehicle without proof of insurance. That was 11 years ago, but until just this month, she continued to suffer the consequences.
In 2003, in an attempt to generate revenue amid a state budget crisis, Detroit began charging drivers like Dunson a hefty fine for minor driving infractions and suspending their licenses when they couldn’t pay it. Fifteen years later, some 67,000 Detroit residents had suspended licenses—a serious challenge in a city where 62 percent of employed residents commute to work in the suburbs. One of these was Dunson.
“I’m a medical assistant and a lot of those jobs require you to have reliable transportation,” explains Dunson, a single mother of three. “I was offered so many opportunities where I could have started paying off the fees, but once they saw that I didn’t have a license, all my other qualifications went out the door.… I was unemployed for three years.”
Still, the fines kept accruing, building and building as Dunson fell further behind. “It was either keep the lights on or pay them,” she says.
But this past March, recognizing the struggles of residents like Dunson—as well as a local labor shortage—Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a bipartisan state coalition pressured the Michigan legislature to forgive the fees of 350,000 Michigan residents by October 1. (The fees totaled $637 million.) And this month, the City of Detroit decided to suspend fees months ahead of schedule.
Dunson jumped at the news. After taking a 10-hour online job-readiness training—the requirement for participating in the forgiveness program—she saw $4,500 in accrued fees wiped away. “I never thought I would see the day when they got rid of it,” Dunson says. “It’s been a long time, but I have my freedom back.”
The forgiveness program comes after years of steady backlash against the fees. Last May, a national civil-rights organization, Equal Justice Under Law, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of two Detroit women who were unable to afford their driving fees. The lawsuit accused Michigan of running a “wealth-based…scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.” The most common cause of driver responsibility fees is lack of auto insurance, which is more expensive in Detroit than anywhere else in the country. An estimated half of all Detroit motorists lack insurance.
A similar issue gained traction a couple of years ago in the city of Jennings, Missouri. Not long after police murdered Michael Brown in neighboring Ferguson, investigators found that Jennings had been unconstitutionally jailing people—many poor and black—for unpaid fines and fees. The city agreed in 2016 to pay $4.7 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people who spent time in the city’s jail for traffic and other petty violations.
Tucson Turns Down the Private-Prison Industrial Complex
This month, lawmakers in Tucson delivered a resounding rebuke to the private-prison industry when they passed a resolution banning for-profit jails and detention centers in the city.
This would have been worthy news in any town, but Tucson is in Arizona, a reliably red state with the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the country. As of 2016, the state held more than 8,000 people—or 15 percent of its prison population—in private prisons, a figure nearly double the US-wide rate. The state is also home to the Eloy Detention Center, a private detention center owned and operated by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the nation’s third-largest immigrant detention center. Some 15 detainees have died there since 2003, making it the nation’s deadliest detention center. Meanwhile, a total of 38,504 people were held at Tucson’s Pima County Adult Detention Complex in 2017.
“We wanted to proactively encourage city and county leaders to take a principled stance which is not just about the bottom line—which isn’t even lowered by private prisons anyway,” says Caroline Isaacs, program director at the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Tucson, which helped craft the bill. “It’s about essential functions of government and whether or not it’s appropriate to grant these functions to the lowest bidder.”
Across the country, private prisons have facilitated the explosion of mass incarceration through securing government contracts that often stipulate “lockup quotas,” some of which promise to keep at least 90 percent of beds full at all times. In 2013, when Arizona failed to meet the 97 percent quota at one private prison, it handed over $3 million in taxpayer dollars to the private contractor to make up the difference. “The state spends more on private prisons than on public education,” notes Councilmember Regina Romero, who helped craft the bill.
Nationwide, studies have shown that private prisons tend to keep inmates locked up for longer and in worse conditions. A class-action lawsuit filed in Georgia last month accused CoreCivic, one of the largest private-prison companies, of using solitary confinement to force detainees into doing facility maintenance work for as low as 50 cents an hour. CoreCivic operates four of Arizona’s facilities.
In its decision, Tucson joins its parent county, Pima County, as well as King County, Washington (home to Seattle), and Indianapolis, which all passed legislation in the past year curtailing prison privatization within their jurisdictions.
Direct Democracy in Durham: Durham’s City Council voted to allow residents to choose how to spend $2.4 million of the city’s $429.4 million budget this year, joining a recent wave of cities investing in participatory budgeting. “It’s a vote of confidence in democracy,” Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton gushed to ABC11. “Bus shelters, neighborhood gardens, clean ups, mentoring programs. You just don’t know what they’re going to come up with and that’s part of the excitement.”
San Diego Goes Transparent: The city is requiring more transparency in campaign ads, following the example set by cities like Tempe, which approved a ballot initiative to curb dark money in campaign spending in March.
Communities Benefit in Houston: Houston just passed a bill setting a higher bar for companies seeking tax breaks from the city. Companies will be required to, among other stipulations, give construction workers safety training, advertise jobs to ex-offenders in the city’s reentry program, provide affordable housing in residential developments, and try to hire workers from poor neighborhoods and the area around a project.
Up to date in Kansas City: A City Council member is leading an effort to better define affordable housing in the city, where there’s currently no standard definition for it.