MONTPELIER — A nonprofit grassroots group that rallied thousands of Vermonters to support health care reform legislation with its “health care is a human right” campaign is laying the groundwork for another political push with a different focus: state budget and tax policies.
The Vermont Workers’ Center and its red-shirted activists were omnipresent during the health care battle this legislative session, flooding Statehouse conference rooms and hallways in their push for a single-payer health care system.
Now the Workers’ Center hopes to bring the same level of visibility and advocacy to the intense wrangling over the state budget — and the question of whether to raise taxes to fill an expected budget gap — that it did for the health care debate, said James Haslam, the director of the Workers’ Center.
“That’s the way we think change happens,” Haslam said. “It takes people getting organized and coming together and making their voices heard.”
This summer, activists are identifying people who want to get involved in the campaign and listening as Vermonters identify their concerns about housing, health care, transportation, heating fuel and other topics that intersect with the budget, Haslam said.
“We’re in an early organizing and information-gathering stage,” Haslam said.
The group is also meeting with other organizations that have a stake in the budget debate, and Haslam plans to coordinate with them.
The intent is to have the “People’s Budget” campaign organized by the legislative session next year, as lawmakers begin work on budget and tax bills while facing an expected $80 million revenue shortfall.
The Legislature this year closed a $176 million budget shortfall — when compared to expected growth — with a combination of budget cuts, tax increases on hospitals, use of budget surpluses and a transfer of education money to the general fund.
Though the Workers’ Center was on the winning side of the health care battle this year, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much influence its “Health Care is a Human Right” campaign had on the passage of the bill.
There’s no doubt, however, that it was the most visible campaign in support of the health care reform bill Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law last month.
As it engages in the budget and tax debate, however, the Workers’ Center will face different political alliances.
Shumlin was the Workers’ Center’s most powerful ally on health care reform, for instance, but Shumlin has opposed raising sales, income and other broad-based taxes to offset budget cuts that many advocates and some lawmakers argue are eroding services for elderly and disabled Vermonters.
Shumlin has repeatedly voiced the fear that wealthy Vermonters will flee for the borders if the state raises their income taxes.
Paul Cillo, president of the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier think tank, pointed out that several studies show that doesn’t happen and only limited anecdotal evidence of cases where people left states in response to tax policies.
“The bottom line in all this — the idea of tax flight as a policy problem — is that there’s really nothing to support it except anecdotes,” Cillo said.
Still, Shumlin has shown no signs of changing his position.
Haslam said that means Vermonters need to speak up to change what’s “politically possible.”
“Our philosophy on how change happens is that essentially if enough people make their voices heard, if enough people get organized and get together and demonstrate, that it then it becomes a whole different political landscape,” he said.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat, tried to pass an amendment to the tax bill this year that would raise $17 million by increasing the tax rate on the top two income brackets.
Though it failed, Pollina saw signs at the end of the session that lawmakers might be more willing to raise income taxes, and combined with the grassroots effort the Workers’ Center is planning, he believes it could happen — though it won’t be easy.
“It’s kind of a citizens movement for economic reform, which is not an easy task, believe me,” he said.
The next session will also be an election year, which could “complicate” efforts to raise taxes, Pollina said.
But there are other ways to achieve “economic justice,” through things like natural resources taxes and making sure state money is used to hire local workers, Pollina said.
The group will still push its views on health care reform as it proceeds on its years-long course, said Haslam, but economic reform is “definitely going to be an increasing part of our work.”
(The Times Argus and Rutland Herald's online editions are subscription only, hence no weblink is available)
The Times Argus and the Rutland Herald also dedicated their June 11 editoral to this issue:
The grass-roots movement that pushed successfully for health care reform this year hopes to broaden its efforts on behalf of broader forms of economic justice.
[…] The Vermont Workers’ Center was responsible for a well-organized and persistent campaign it labeled Health Care Is a Human Right, which was a constant presence in Montpelier as the Legislature moved toward adoption of a single-payer health care system. Not only was the campaign successful in organizational terms, the assertion that health care is a human right created a firm ideological foundation that strengthened the campaign as a whole.
Now the Vermont Workers’ Center hopes to expand its agenda to include state budget and tax issues, focusing on ways to bring greater economic justice to Vermonters.
The galloping inequality that has overtaken the nation in recent decades is an issue so large that many people don’t see it. It affects policy in many ways, particularly since policymakers feel constrained not to inconvenience the very wealthy because of their increased clout.
It will take more than tinkering with a tax rate here and there to redress the nation’s inequality, though more equitable taxation is important. It will also take a persistent, broad-based public education campaign taking place over many years to raise public awareness about the need for a fairer economy. The Vermont Workers’ Center has shown a willingness to take on that job. On particular budget or tax issues, it may or may not get its way. But shining a spotlight on the issue of economic justice will do us all a service.