A Green New Deal for Bloomington

posted on Jan 3rd, 2020

In his inauguration day speech, the Mayor proposed a .5% increase in the LIT to create a climate justice fund. This would generate about $8 million for the city. He didn’t propose how that money would be spent.

Here’s the thing about the LIT - it’s a flat tax, which means it’s regressive. The sting of that tax is going to be felt much more deeply by low income people who can ill afford any tax increase.

That means, if this is truly going to be a climate justice initiative, then the money needs to be spent first and foremost on programs that will help those who are struggling.

Climate justice now - Attribution: Markus Spiske (https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske)

It’s important to know, in this discussion, that a progressive income tax is off the table for us. Like so many things, it’s banned at the state level. The battle for home rule is one we need to fight at some point, but we need climate response now - it cannot wait.

The idea of a 0.25% increase in the LIT to support the public transit system has been on the table since the Spring’s Democratic primary campaign. Everyone in those conversations is very hesitant to propose raising the LIT, because they all recognize its a regressive tax.

With that in mind, I spent all summer desperately trying to find stuff we could cut to create money for climate programs. I came up blank. There just isn’t much in the city budget, at least with the granularity that I’ve got access to, that we can cut with out directly impacting programs people rely on.

We can bond for climate programs, but bonds are not free money. We have to pay them back, with interest, out of the budget. Most of the stuff on the table that we could cut - parking garages, for instance - is bond funded. I believe we should cut those and spend the money on busses and bike lanes, but we would still need annual income to run those busses.

If we’re going to hit the IPCC’s targets for 2030, we need to install $1 billion worth of solar just in Bloomington (or weatherize to cut emissions in half), in the next 10 years. In addition to that $1 billion, we need to cut our transportation emissions by 45%. We need to cut our natural gas use by 45%.

The entire annual city budget is $90 million / year. The whole thing.

Obviously, we’re not going to hit that target on our own. But we also cannot pretend someone else can do this for us.

We’re not going to survive this with out making some sacrifices.

Prior to the Mayor’s proposal, having spent a summer and fall desperately trying to come up with funding for a climate justice program, I had started quietly exploring the idea of using the LIT to fund a wide range climate justice initiatives. Since the Mayor’s kick started the conversation, I’m going to go ahead and put this idea/proposal out there. A counter proposal to the Mayor’s. And where the Mayor didn’t propose a use for that money - I will.

Call it a Green New Deal for Bloomington.

The Proposal

Here’s what I propose, don’t stop at 0.5%, we’ve got a lot to do and we need the money to do it, so max it out. We can go to 2.5% total LIT, we’re at about 1.25%, so raise it the remaining 1.25%. That generates about $20 million /year in revenue for the city.

Here’s how we use it:

Transit: Give $10 million to the transit system. Make transit fare free. That doubles the Bloomington Transit system budget. It allows them to implement full Saturday and Sunday service. It would allow them to massively expand service - more frequent busses, more routes. And it would be free - saving low income people $300 / year (the current cost of an annual bus pass).

Housing: Put $5 million into the city’s affordable housing fund. Require that it be spent on non-profit housing and public housing that helps low income and homeless people. By restricting it to non-profit and public housing, it assures that it’s going to permanently affordable housing and building capacity in organizations that will continue to work towards affordable housing outside of the city government. Eventually, we could build a strong enough cooperative, community land trust, and public housing sector that they could begin to force the overall cost of housing down.

Solar: Put $2.5 million into a zero interest solar loan program that prioritizes low income families. Structure the loans so that they are zero down payment and so that the monthly payment is equal to the average previous electric bill. For those in the lowest income brackets, offer a grant program. Last year, Indiana Solar for All helped install 12 solar systems. This money could fund upwards of 125 per year. Since part of it is structured as a loan program, the amount of new systems installed would increase every year, as the recipients paid back their loans through their utility bills.

Weatherization: Put the remaining $2.5 million into weatherization grants. Prioritize low income and marginalized people. Weatherization can have massive returns in emissions reduction, and poorly insulated housing is a huge cost for a lot of low income people. So give grants to low income home-owners to weatherize and insulate their homes. This will help them cut their utility bills and their emissions.

For someone making $20,000 a year, a 1.25% tax costs them $250 /year. They make that back on the bus fares alone. If we can help reduce the costs of housing, and their utility bills, at the same time, then this tax will be a net benefit to low income people, rather than a burden. And that’s a start for local climate justice.