I received an action alert last week from Housing California, the premier statewide affordable housing advocacy group. Its theme was “reform redevelopment, don't eliminate!” But none of their reforms offsets the $1.7 billion proposed budget savings from abolishing Redevelopment Agencies. Instead, Housing California argues that redevelopment helps the “most vulnerable Californians” (not to mention billionaire Eli Broad, who just got a $52 million parking structure for his high-end art gallery funded by the Los Angeles RDA), while ignoring how the “most vulnerable” would be hurt if the Governor is forced to find $1.7 billion in savings elsewhere. As California Budget Project head Jean Ross puts it, “If we don't get the money from redevelopment funding, should we shut down UC and Cal State? Take it out of K-12 education?” Housing California is among the many state and local groups who refuse to answer this question or suggest any budget-cutting alternatives. This strategy gives Governor Brown and even the most sympathetic legislators few options, and helps explain why the Governor’s proposed budget is retaining broad support.

I keep reading quotes by public officials about how great redevelopment agencies have performed, notwithstanding the conclusion by the state Legislative Analyst that “there is no reliable evidence redevelopment agencies have improved the state’s economy.” Yet an even greater disconnect is evident from Agency backers’ refusal to identify alternative cuts, even when key officials are telling them they must do so.

For example, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a former commissioner of the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles, has said local mayors “must be actively working to identify alternative budget savings in lieu of redevelopment funds.” And Governor Brown has stated, “The hallways are going to be crowded in the coming months with people who say, please keep the money coming. And my message is, the money is not there. My message is – if not you, who?”

When I ask nonprofit leaders what city or state programs should be cut instead of their own programs, the common response is “that’s not our problem.”

Well, it is their problem. And this refusal to identify budget alternatives arrogantly assumes that legislators, mayors and governors do not fully understand the value of various programs or the impact of certain cuts, when in fact leaders like Assembly Speaker Perez see no viable alternative to slashing programs they support.

That’s why progressives should unify around real alternative budgets rather than just generate sympathetic media stories about the impact of cuts. As Governor Brown has repeatedly stated: if you are not offering alternatives, your efforts to save your own budgets are not serious.

Prison Industrial Complex Off the Table

The big mystery is why Housing California and the many health and human services groups are not demanding bigger cuts in California’s massive prison industrial complex. To his great credit, Brown’s budget proposes closing the notorious California Youth Authority, but the adult prison system is only facing cuts of $486 million by the middle of 2012 and $1.4 billion total.

Some believe Brown made a smart choice in not taking on the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) by requesting more cuts. But why aren’t those defending redevelopment agencies – including nearly all the big city mayors – giving Brown and Democratic legislators the backing they need to take far more money from California’s costly prisons?

Or consider the argument that redevelopment agencies are helpful in funding police officers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop sending people to state prison for marijuana possession so that the money saved from not incarcerating them can fund cops on city streets?

You can’t save human services programs without greater cuts in the California prison budget. There is not enough other money around to make a big difference.

And considering that Brown’s $12.5 billion in cuts is the best-case scenario, and assumes voter approval of billions in new revenue, than the failure of housing, health and human services groups to wage a major public campaign for more prison cuts makes even less sense.

I hope affordable housing advocates check out some of the recent moves by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. Luxury condos and downtown projects get far more redevelopment money than Watts, with the city’s poorest districts unable to compete with failed developers and billionaires for the taxpayer funds diverted to Redevelopment control.

Demonizing Local Mayors

While polls show strong public support for Brown’s budget proposal, cities and counties will soon unveil their own painful budget proposals. These hit closer to home, and will particularly impact new mayors like Oakland’s Jean Quan and San Francisco’s Ed Lee who have yet to lead a city budget process.

In San Francisco, there is a history of community groups identifying alternative budget savings. In the late 1980’s, Margaret Brodkin led Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth to initiate an alternative “Children’s Budget.” This budget identified poorly spent or low priority funds in other city departments that could be transferred to fund children’s services, and Coleman continued offering these alternative budgets into the Newsom years.

During Willie Brown’s administration, many nonprofits joined in a “People’s Budget” Process that also identified where money could be found and then transferred to better uses. This process has also continued.

But the success of both of the above approaches has eliminated much of the low hanging budget fruit to be reprogrammed. And while San Francisco voters can pass new revenue raising measures, these are uphill fights in good times and will be even more difficult when voters are already being asked to pass state tax initiatives.

This lack of funding options will leave many attacking Mayor’s Quan and Lee for their contempt and indifference to human needs. Forgotten will be the mammoth tax breaks recently granted for the very rich, the fact that the United States spends more on the military than the rest of the world combined, and the state’s prioritizing prisons over colleges.

Until activists mount a powerful grassroots campaign to address these sacred budget cows, they will keep fighting among themselves for pieces of an ever-shrinking pie.

For hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.