Analysis

New Jersey’s Governor Just Proposed a Millionaires’ Tax. So Why Is the Legislature Opposing It?

In an era of “alternative facts” and absurd promises about huge tax cuts for the wealthy paying for themselves, it’s refreshing to encounter an elected representative who is willing to speak a simple truth: You get the government you pay for.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is battling his Democratic colleagues in the state legislature over this very premise. The legislature is hesitating on Murphy’s proposal for a millionaire tax hike, restoring the sales tax to a pre-Gov. Chris Christie rate of 7 percent, and an end to budget gimmicks that made his predecessor’s fiscal plans seem more responsible than they were. At stake are investments in public education, transit, affordable child care, and other pillars of economic security. The showdown couldn’t be more relevant for antipoverty advocates or anyone interested in a more equitable economy.

The governor’s argument is simple: Lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to balance the state budget. If New Jersey residents want to make these fundamental investments—and they do—there must be adequate and sustainable revenues.

So straightforward, and yet …

Many lawmakers still don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy, in part because they fear it will cause those residents to relocate. However, research shows that millionaires are less likely to leave a state than middle- and working-class families, and tax hikes on wealthy residents have a negligible impact on their moves out of state. Additionally, despite overwhelming popular support for asking the wealthy to pay their fair share, too many Democratic elected officials still worry that they will pay a political price for raising taxes.

Murphy’s predecessor cut $9 billion from public schools

But if you don’t raise taxes on the wealthy, you’re left with … budget gimmicks. You end up using one-time revenue sources such as draining funds that were earmarked for the Clean Energy Fund, or fuzzy math instead of transparent accounting. People deserve a government that plans for the long-term funding of its core functions and obligations, instead of one that reels from budget crisis to budget crisis, leaving constituents uncertain at best or pessimistic. People also respect a politician who is honest about the trade-offs and implications of budget decisions.

In the case of this budget fight, the stakes couldn’t be more clear: New Jersey’s millionaires just got an average federal tax cut of $21,700 courtesy of the Trump Tax Scam. In contrast, in the 8 years leading up to Murphy’s election, his predecessor cut $9 billion from public schools, which resulted in axing academic and extracurricular programs, teacher layoffs, and increased property taxes for working-class and middle-class families. If the choice is between protecting New Jersey millionaires from a negligible tax increase or restoring funds for public education, health care, transit, and other basic needs, there is a clear answer that is good politics and smart policy.

Despite low national unemployment, people are still rightfully worried about their own family’s ability to afford necessities like health care or save for a future home or college education. And while there is positive GDP growth, people know that the rich are getting richer while the rest of us aren’t—nearly half of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense. If advocates, policymakers, elected officials, and others want to connect with the American people and address their economic struggles, they need to be straightforward in their message and forward-looking in their policies. Rather than protecting millionaires due to unwarranted fears about a political price, let’s be clear about what it will take to fund the government that the people want and deserve.

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First Person

A Death in Emerald City

Jerry Maren passed away last month. That may mean nothing to you, but for Little People like me, he was an icon. Jerry Maren is credited as being one of the last living Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie I watched so many times as a child that I wore out two VHS copies.

I don’t remember the first time that I saw “ The Wizard of Oz”. I know there was a period of time before we owned it on VHS, because I remember what a big deal it was for my family the first time it went on sale. Both of my parents were also little. My mom ran a Disabled Students Center at a Community College and my dad served on the board of a Center for Independent Living, so disability issues were a constant topic of conversation around the dinner table (and in the car, and pretty much everywhere).  My mom and dad felt very strongly that it was important for me to grow up seeing positive images of people like us in the media, to offer an alternative to teasing and bullying that we were subjected to out in public. The film sat in a plastic vertical towers of about a dozen VHS tapes, along with those big plastic-encased Disney films, “Transformers,” “Jem and the Holograms,” “Willow,” and “Time Bandits.”  That was my library of cinematic masterpieces, designed to keep me away from my dad’s collection of Mel Brooks films.

Growing up in a family of Little People (LPs), this was totally normal. Those films weren’t the “little people” movies, they were just movies in the typical rotation. But, for some folks with dwarfism who are the only people like them in their families, “The Wizard of Oz” was the first time that they had ever seen themselves anywhere. That was how my parents grew up. They were the only Little People in their families: my mom in California as number 5 of 8, my dad in Alabama as a twin in a family of four children (his sister is Average Height). As kids, they went decades without seeing their bodies reflected anywhere, except in a 1939 MGM film.

It is impossible to disconnect “The Wizard of Oz” from its legacy as it relates to the representation of people with disabilities, and specifically LPs in Hollywood. No film before or since has cast so many disabled actors—at least 124. It cemented a relationship between the dwarfism community and Hollywood. LPs as a community can complain about the lack of quality roles in the media—for every Tyrion Lannister there’s the third elf on the right in a home improvement ad during the Christmas season—but they cannot complain about the lack of roles writ large. It wasn’t until recently that we started seeing average height actors “made short” by computer-generated imagery, instead of hiring LP actors for films like “Tiptoes” or “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

The Munchkins had a community and a culture, onscreen and off, that was the first of its kind.

That legacy is still complicated. The Munchkins are a fictional people, but far too often that word is used as a derogatory term to describe actual Little People. The characters are entirely white, objectified, and don’t get any development. But at least they existed. They had a community and a culture, onscreen and off, that was the first of its kind. Imagine showing up at MGM because of a casting call you heard about in some corner of small town America, and walking into a set in Los Angeles where there are hundreds of people at your eye level. Not having to ask people to reach things for you, not having to struggle to hear a conversation going on over your head, not having to explain why it was inappropriate to pat you on the head. Walking places with people who walk the same speed as you, talking to people who understand what it’s like to be teased, taunted, or abused for the very same difference that you have. It was such an intense experience that at the end of filming many of the LPs who played Munchkins decided to stay and settle in the Los Angeles area. In the time spent filming the movie, they met significant others onset and fell in love.  Many had families and stayed in Hollywood for work. It was the beginning of the development of a community of multi-generational LP families.

Several years later, actor Billy Barty, Texas Instruments engineer Lee Kitchens, Anna Dixon, and several other little people formed Little People of America. Jerry Maren was one of the first members. Because of the Wizard of Oz and the attention paid to the film, the formation of LPA became news, and Ed Sullivan had Billy Barty on his show to talk about the first annual conference. My maternal grandfather Jesse happened to see that episode, and for the first time he saw an adult with a similar condition to the smiling freckled red-headed daughter he had at home. It gave him a sense that her future would, in fact, be ok. That encouraged him to reach out to the local chapter and get my mom involved. A few years later, at a convention, met a rebellious boy from Alabama who drove a ‘69 Camaro all the way from Selma to San Francisco for a date. That was my dad.

Jerry was a regular attendee at the national conferences, and he always took time to greet the new families who were unsure of what their child’s life would be like. I remember how excited he was when I went to college; for most of his generation, our people didn’t go to college and many didn’t graduate high school. Those were the days before Section 504 or the ADA required physical accessibility of colleges and universities, and the public in general. School, and most everyday jobs, were physically inaccessible to Jerry’s generation. It would seem like light years until people actually started believing that people with disabilities could learn, could achieve, could love.

To adult LPs, Jerry and his wife were elders of our community. They were the folks you would point out to your kids when you saw them in the hotel restaurant. To kids they were heroes. To adolescents, they were a little something more complicated. When you’re plagued with feelings of not fitting in, and you find yourself fending off insults by both peers and members of the general public, it was easy to feel embarrassed by those that portrayed the Munchkins.

I will admit that snarky teenager still lives in me a bit. The last time I saw Jerry at a Little People Convention, I stood in line with my husband to get an autograph for our future children. I found myself wondering, aloud, what would be the most creative pick-up line you could use if you were the last living Munchkin. The list was long, and served to embarrass my husband for over an hour.

Now as an adult, and a parent myself, we’ve watched the film with our kids. My kids are still young, but I imagine that they’ll grow up with us having similar conversations about representation, about history, and about why things like “The Wizard of Oz” matter. And while it leaves us with longing for better, more well-developed work, its legacy laid the groundwork for that.

So thank you, Jerry. Thank you for the work you did to put our people in front of the camera, for taking the time to talk to so many scared families, for encouraging so many awestruck kids, for sharing so many stories, and for helping create a community at a time when so many of our people felt so alone. And for the other 123 of you changed history that day in October 1938, thank you for making it possible for me to be here now.

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First Person

I’ve Worked for Tips for Most of My Life. It’s Time to Pay Us the Minimum Wage.

Next week, D.C. residents will vote on whether tipped workers should make the minimum wage. The ballot measure, Initiative 77, would gradually raise the current base wage for tipped workers from $3.33 an hour, until it matches the city’s minimum wage in 2026. As far as local ballot initiatives go, this one has been contentious: the city is covered in signs, and our local press has been churning out hot takes for weeks. But people like me — people who have had to survive on tipped minimum wages — have mostly been shut out of the conversation, or too scared of their bosses to speak up.

I’ve worked in the service industry for 18 years, which means I’ve been a server in a restaurant for more of my life than I haven’t. There was the sports bar in Florida where we had to wear Catholic school girl uniforms, the barbecue joint in South Carolina next to the arena, the tiny Irish pub in South Charlotte, and the tiny English pub in South London. There was the café in pre-gentrified Brooklyn where the chef made the fluffiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, and the Mediterranean place in Helena, Montana with the teal ceiling and bright red chairs.

Clashing color scheme aside, that Mediterranean restaurant is one of the only places I’ve been able to feel at home. The other servers had worked there for years, and we actually made enough money to live on. I shared an apartment with my sister that overlooked Mount Helena, and we had enough left over after we paid our bills that I could make roast beef at Christmas and throw my sister a surprise party to make up for her third-grade birthday party when no one came.

Montana is one of the eight states that does not have a subminimum wage for tipped positions. In North Carolina, I only made $2.13 an hour, but in Montana I made the state’s minimum: $8.30 an hour, and tips were a bonus. For the first time in my life, I could save money. I could get a drink with friends after a good week, and still be confident I’d be able to pay my rent after a bad one.

After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks

I never even meant to live there. I went out to visit my sister after a car accident left me depressed, rattled, and unsure about my direction in life. I stayed because it gave me time to heal.  By the time I left, nine months later, I was a first-time thousandaire. I had enough money in the bank to start over again in Philly, where I was back in restaurants that paid a subminimum wage. After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I drained my savings and had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks to pay my bills while I moved to D.C.

Now that I’m here, D.C. residents actually have a choice to get rid of the tipped minimum wage.  The debate has been one-sided: Besides the signs, restaurants have pushed their workers to vote against Initiative 77, or to keep their opinions to themselves if they’re voting for it. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is filled with residents asking if anyone knows what tipped workers actually want, with most of us staying uncomfortably silent.

The truth is, I would not have been able to support myself as a waitress in North Carolina, Florida, or Pennsylvania had it not been for my family’s help. That support is a luxury. Most tipped workers are well into adulthood, past the age that they can expect family to support them. The other servers I know work second and third jobs just to buy the basics, and almost half of us still need to rely on government assistance. Even though federal law says that restaurants have to make up the difference if a worker doesn’t earn the state-wide minimum wage in tips, that math never worked for me. Employee wages are perpetually pilfered by restaurants that feel their base wages, low as they are, are somehow enough.

One well-known restaurateur I worked for, who owns one of the most prominent restaurants in D.C., has a habit of arriving at his boutique restaurants in a chauffeured car, occupying several tables, ordering more than $800 of food and wine, and then leaving without tipping his server. His reason for not tipping was that he paid our wages, which added up to about $8.50 after the three hours of service he demanded. To him, that was enough. For me, it never was.

That restaurant owner thrived by underpaying us. He would still be successful if he paid us a fair wage. And the data shows that’s true across the industry.

Initiative 77 could help us. I’ve seen it first-hand. So, me? I’m voting yes.

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First Person

We Can Choose How We Remember Pulse

Pulse Nightclub is not a glamorous downtown Orlando club, if such a thing is even possible. For 14 years it has stood on Orange Avenue, a four-lane road that, like the rest of the state’s infrastructure, is strained from overuse. If it isn’t clogged, you could get from there to Orlando’s real downtown in less than 10 minutes. But it’s always clogged.

The black concrete building sits across the street from a Wendy’s, next door to a window tinting business, and catty-corner to a Radio Shack that is somehow still in business. I’ve driven past it thousands of times because Pulse was always on the way to somewhere else: Publix, I-4, or friends’ houses. When I was young and terrified of my orientation, I had trouble even looking at it. I was afraid someone would see my eyes linger a second too long and my secret wouldn’t be a secret any longer.

It is not a coincidence that the city’s premiere gay club was relegated to its outskirts. If you wanted to go to Pulse, you had to go to Pulse. And people did, from all over Central Florida. Straight people, or people who want to go to a not-queer bar, have the luxury of going downtown knowing that when they arrive there will be a suite of options from which to choose. There are different atmospheres, vibes, and themes. It’s entirely reasonable to arrive downtown and have no idea where you will start, let alone end, the night. Queer people who want to be with other queers don’t have that flexibility. Finding that space required commitment and a clear purpose: Tonight, this is where I want to be. Pulse Nightclub was a destination.

Now it is holy ground. In the immediate hours after the attack, mourners flocked to the dark concrete block building and constructed a memorial to the 49 victims. At the makeshift shrine built of flowers and flags, mourners lit prayer candles and knelt before the chainlink fence and in their lamentations, established the path of a pilgrimage that continues today.

Clubs have always acted as a kind of church for queer folks.

Clubs have always acted as a kind of church for queer folks. They’re a communal space for people who share an innate love for something larger than themselves. We’ve lost these spaces before—usually to the gentrification that comes with the mainstreaming of queerness. But what about this space, this nightclub-turned-sanctum? It’s not filled with cishet women on their bachelorette parties—it’s the home of a stunning act of violence. Instead of losing a place where we felt safe, we have gained a place that reminds us that we never were.

And now, we have to decide how to handle that.

The onePULSE Foundation, a private organization founded by Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has taken on the responsibility of building an onsite memorial to the attack. After briefly considering selling the club, Poma created the foundation and an accompanying task force comprised of victims’ families, survivors, and community leaders, to collectively decide on a memorial and museum in the coming years. A survey was sent out last fall to gather community opinions, the results of which informed the interim memorial that opened in May. A permanent memorial, also onsite, will open at an undetermined future date.

The survey’s results were disappointing and mostly unsurprising. One of the questions asked respondents, “when you think of this memorial, what do you want to feel?” People rarely want to feel anything but “generally good,” so it’s not a shock that 43 percent of the votes went to the words “love,” “unity,” and “acceptance.” “Loss” garnered only four percent support. “Sadness” got two.

That desire to gloss over the harshness of what happened is reflected in the current memorial. It’s more polished and less personal now: A long wall winds around the club and obscures the building itself. There is a single glass panel through which visitors can see the names of the victims engraved on a dark vertical slab, and at night a light illuminates the holes in the bathroom walls where survivors escaped. There are no permanent pictures of the victims, nothing about their short lives. Instead, there are hundreds of photos of the response to the attack: the handmade mementos, mass gatherings, landmarks lit in the colors of our flag, and a sign with a rainbow outline of the city skyline.

Looking at it, I felt like I was witnessing a theft. It wasn’t much of a memorial to the victims, just a memorial to Orlando itself. That falls right in line with the larger narrative the city has pushed since the attack: We’re “one Orlando” with “one pulse.” That focus on communal grieving erases an essential truth: All of Orlando wasn’t attacked. Forty-nine people—mostly queer, mostly brown—were massacred. And that didn’t just happen, it’s another chapter in the long history of violence against our communities.

LGBT people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than any other minority group.

Even now, LGBT people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than any other minority group. And for hundreds of years, the government pursued queer people as criminals. This is not the distant past: Until 2002, it was still illegal in 14 states to have intercourse with a member of the same sex. Until 2014, towns in New Jersey had laws prohibiting dressing as “the incorrect sex” in public, and multiple states are still pursuing legislation policing where people go to the bathroom.

That kind of prolonged abuse doesn’t get erased just because I can receive a marriage certificate at city hall. It lives on today under the current administration—the one that calls people animals and jokes about hanging us all—as the acceptance of LGBTQ+ peoples goes down for the first time since we started measuring it. Hate crimes are up since the current president began his campaign, but my state, Florida, still voted him into office less than five months after the Pulse attack.

This treatment of marginalized groups is too ingrained in our society to attribute solely to Trump. It’s the life expectancy for trans women of color, the rates of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, and every bullet hole in the walls at Pulse. The memorial and the survey respondents are preaching the importance of love, unity, and acceptance. Do they understand what they are asking us to accept?

I am learning to accept that Pulse does not only belong to our community anymore. But I will not accept that anyone but us owns it. As the space enters its second life as a public memorial, its first life shouldn’t be forgotten. It was a home for a specific group of people, a haven where we could commune with impunity. Queer people built that place as a shrine to their humanity and they were murdered for it. Refusing to center their legacy is also an act of violence.

The interim memorial will stand for the next few years as we collectively decide how we want to honor the victims with this space. The only honor that would amount to anything would be to end violence against marginalized communities. But we have no hope of solving a problem so intrinsic to American society if we refuse to acknowledge that it even exists. Just like the LGBTQ+ community needs space where we can safely be ourselves, society needs dedicated space to publicly reckon with its role in fostering that violence.

I know a perfect place to start.

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First Person

Michigan’s Governor Is About to Sign A Bill Kicking Families Like Mine Off Medicaid

For 20 years, I worked as caretaker. Sometimes I was a personal nanny, other times I worked at daycare centers, and most of the time those jobs didn’t come with health insurance. But when I became pregnant with my first child, Medicaid was there to make sure we were both healthy. And when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after years of chronic pain, Medicaid was there for me then too.

My family does not have a lot. I am raising three kids on less than $45,000 per year, and it’s not easy. But because of Medicaid, we’ve at least had our health care.

Now, the state is threatening to take that away. Any day now, Governor Snyder is expected to sign a bill that would add work requirements to Healthy Michigan, Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program, which helps nearly 700,000 Michiganders. Under the legislation, people who can’t find a job or get enough hours at work would be locked out of receiving health care through Healthy Michigan for a full year.  About 350,000 people, including students, parents, and caretakers, would be affected. And while the bill’s sponsors claim the requirements would exempt people with disabilities, many would be caught in the cross hairs.

I am one of those people. I am unable to work because of my health condition, but because I don’t receive federal disability benefits, I could still lose my health insurance if this bill becomes law. As a result, Michigan’s one-size-fits-all policy will jeopardize the life my family has built.

The lawmakers behind this bill assume that the vast majority of recipients are not working, when reality shows the opposite: 6 in 10 working-age adults who receive Medicaid in Michigan are working, and 3 out of 4 are part of a family with at least one working member.

My ex-husband worked through our entire marriage, and ever since chronic pain drove me from the work force, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. In the past two decades,  I’ve raised three kids and I’m so thankful for that experience. But this bill would punish every person who makes that choice—and every person who had that choice made for them, like me.

Living from paycheck to paycheck is not easy. But my family has made do with what we have because we know that at the very least, we could see a doctor if we were sick.  Taking away Medicaid not only jeopardizes that sense of security for me and hundreds of thousands of Michiganders—it could end up costing people their lives.

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