The following video and transcript were originally posted by the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. You may view the original post by clicking here. We would like to thank the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation for granting us permission to re-post their content.
Bill Kopsky: Tax Reform & Organizing from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation on Vimeo.
If you look at the history of the organization, you can sort of see the exact same evolution and analysis that happens in almost any community group with activists that begin to get interested in an issue. At first they think, well this is wrong; we just need to tell people that it’s wrong. And that’s a little bit effective. And then they say, well we just need to find the right people and tell the right people it’s wrong and show them there’s a better way and that’ll solve everything. And they do that, and lo and behold, there’s other powerful interests, or culture or history or whatever that’s keeping things from changing the way they should change. People end up realizing, we need a lot more of us working together to get this done. And that’s exactly the – that’s the story of the Panel from beginning to now.
In the 80s they became really, continuing to look at economic issues, but Arkansas is one of the most regressive tax systems in the country. We tax poor people in this state at twice the tax rate that we tax the wealthy. So, if you make over $250,000 a year, tax burden in Arkansas is a little over 6%. If you make $17,000 a year, your tax burden is 13%. We view it as immoral, we also view it as really bad economic development policy. We think it’s holding the whole state back. So in the 80s, there was a young governor named Bill Clinton, and Brownie and our other leaders convinced him that we should form a blue-ribbon commission on tax reform, which he did. I think that he believed that he could win the argument with the business community that it would be better for the state’s business culture to reform our tax code, which, undoubtedly, it would be. And so the Panel was actually hired to do the policy staff for that blue-ribbon commission. And sadly, those reports are still about as valid as they were in 1984 and 85. We did that work for a number of years, and the governor realized he wasn’t going to win the support of the business community that he needed. And he withdrew his support. We had invested years of work into it. That was around 1987. Governor Clinton was starting to think about something else and I think wanted to move on to things where he could be more successful, which makes sense. And we rethought our strategy.
We had kinda had a number of experiences of showing the state that there is a better way that it could be done, whether we’re talking about welfare reform or you’re talking about tax code. But simply being right is not enough. And so they started thinking about, well, what would be enough? And they realized the biggest problem in Arkansas is not this issue or that issue, but that we just don’t have enough community people involved in the political process. And we really tanked most of the policy work we had been doing and started reorganizing to become a community organizing group and started doing that in the early 90s, kinda using the original women’s model of, we listen a lot and we kind of respect what local community folks say, we don’t presume to know all the answers. So we brought a lot of leaders from across the state together and said, we’re thinking about moving in this direction. Does this make sense to you? What should we do? What would be helpful to you? And what they told us was really stunning. They said that they really valued the education we did about how the political process works and how the policy process works and to continue doing that and expand on it. Tonight, I’m doing a workshop on how to lobby up in Fayetteville for the League of Women Voters there, so it’s still a big part of our work. They said that the local organizing we were helping communities do was also vitally important and they felt like they were pretty effective sometimes at changing things in this community or that community, working with the school board or city council or whatever. But, they said, they felt like when they left their local community, that they were isolated at the state legislature trying to address any change there, and that they were just getting crushed by all the corporate interests and lobbyists and special interests that control our political process here. And so they asked us, they noticed that those business interests tend to stick together and work in coalition, so they asked us, “Can you help us form a grassroots coalition of our own of community organizations from across the state, across the issues, just to work on boosting the voice of regular grassroots folks in the political and policy process?”
And we said, sure. And it came to be called the Arkansas Citizens First Congress, which we launched in 1998 and it’s still kicking now.