Vermont politics have undergone a profound shift in the last 20 years. During the recession of the early 1990s, it was a Republican governor, Richard Snelling, who insisted that even in difficult times Vermont “cannot and will not set lower standards for the education of our children, for the health of the population, for assistance to the troubled, jobless or homeless, or for the protection of the environment.”
By contrast, this recession has inspired statements from both Democratic and Republican leaders such as: “The truth we must all accept is that we can no longer afford the level of services we have come to enjoy.” And “everything is on the table; everything will be reduced.”
When Snelling spoke, Vermont didn’t have the money to meet all the responsibilities he cited. But rather than turning his back on Vermonters in need, he and the Legislature raised taxes (especially on the wealthy) and allowed the state to run a deficit in order to meet those pressing needs.
Today, neither the administration nor the Legislature starts the budget process by determining what must be done to maintain our standards of education and health, to assist the troubled, or protect the environment. Nor do they reach out and ask Vermonters what they need from their government.
To their credit, Montpelier made a commitment in 2012 to a new approach to raising and spending money. A new statute enacted in 2012 says, in part, that the state budget is intended for “the common benefit, protection, and security of the people” and that the budget “should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.”
The goal of this new statute is to create a people’s budget — to return Vermont to the commitment it honored 20 years ago, to put people’s basic needs at least on par with the bean-counters’ need to balance the budget.
One response to the idea of budget policies designed to “address people’s needs” is ridicule. Administration officials and more than a few legislators roll their eyes at the notion of meeting the whims and desires of every Vermonter. That’s clearly not what a people’s budget is about. It’s about addressing the basic human needs that Snelling cited: education, health, shelter, employment, care for the vulnerable, and preservation of the environment. By jumping to the other extreme and talking about meeting some imagined stream of needs and wants, policymakers divert attention from the current reality: We are falling short of meeting Vermonters’ basic needs.
More than 100,000 Vermonters, many of them children, now rely on foods stamps — 3SquaresVT — to have enough to eat.
New census data show that 13.8 percent of families with children live in poverty, and 15.8 percent of families with children under 5 do.
As we learned in the debate last session over cutting Vermont’s earned income tax credit (EITC), more than 45,000 families qualify for the EITC because the adults work in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to support themselves and their children.
We’ve cut taxes and offered other tax breaks to the so-called job creators, but Vermont’s private employers are providing about the same number of jobs they did in 2001.
Median household income fell again in 2012 and, after adjusting for inflation, was lower than a decade earlier.
With a record like that, it’s no wonder that elected officials want to change the subject when someone starts talking about meeting Vermonters’ needs.
A people’s budget isn’t going to be realized immediately. First, we have to rebuild the state’s capacity to measure how well — or poorly — Vermonters are doing. Also, in the course of putting together the state budget, we have to develop a system for asking the people of the state how they’re doing and what they need.
For those who are rolling their eyes again, we do this every year at town meeting. We come together to decide what we need for our communities and what we’re willing to spend to meet those needs. There’s no reason we can’t do that for the entire state.
Jack Hoffman is a policy analyst for Public Assets Institute (www.publicassets.org) in Montpelier.MORE IN Perspective
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