Adopting a budget each year is arguably the most important thing the Alachua County Commission does, but, historically, the general public has largely ignored the annual cycle of public hearings and deliberations. Over the past two years, that has changed.
The Gainesville-area Tea Party has been systematically attending hearings, making comments and writing letters to the newspaper. They’re taking democracy seriously, and they’re putting in the hours necessary to learn the process and the issues. They’re having an impact.
It’s not a large group, but they’ve had the field to themselves. Media coverage of the county budget process last year was dominated by quotes from Tea Party members, because they’re the only ones making comments. This sets up a dynamic where elected officials have to respond to their issues, and further deliberations and options revolve around their proposals.
In other words, the Tea Party is framing the debate. This creates an atmosphere of a besieged and evil government, defending itself against a universally angry and disaffected “public.” It creates a sense of crisis and opportunity, and it motivates turnout for their side at election time.
So, what do they want?
The commission is now discussing whether the county needs an Environmental Protection Department. Commissioner and Tea Party member Susan Baird has repeatedly expressed her desire to sell off public conservation lands. Every public interest and environmental regulation is now suspect. Sidewalks and bicycle paths are frivolous luxuries that we can’t afford, and transit is a waste of money. Sprawl is the fulfillment of the American Dream. Social Services spending is government charity that should be eliminated.
The war begins at home. We need progressive voices at county and city commission budget hearings this spring and summer. Local government needs to hear from people who believe that it’s an important and legitimate function of government to protect our natural resources, build transportation alternatives and provide a basic safety net for our most vulnerable citizens.
Several local groups are organizing to follow the county budget process this year. Stay tuned into the Iguana to find out more.