The Vermont Workers’ Center has proposed a People’s Budget that would fundamentally change the way Vermont approaches budgeting and begins to address the problems of income disparity, poverty and the decline of Vermont’s middle class — all but forgotten this legislative session.
Vermont’s budget process now starts with a revenue estimate, and that determines how much is available to spend. The stated purpose of the annual budget is essentially to keep state government running.
The People’s Budget, by contrast, starts with a declaration of what the budget — indeed what state government — is about:
“The state budget seeks to meet the fundamental needs of all Vermonters in a way that advances human dignity and equity among Vermonters. Spending and revenue policies will strive to ensure every person’s right to health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security, and a healthy environment. These are recognized as universal public goods that the state, in conjunction with the federal government, shall seek to guarantee for all Vermonters. Spending and revenue policies will seek to eliminate poverty and disadvantage and achieve equity among all Vermonters; foster a sustainable economy that protects the environment; and be developed as part of a publicly transparent and accountable process with direct participation from Vermont residents.”
The message of the Occupy Wall Street Movement resonated in Vermont — because we’re experiencing the same divide between the wealthy and everyone else that we see nationally. Middle-income Vermonters have seen no real growth in their income for the past 20 years, and 15,000 more Vermonters slipped into poverty in the last decade. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1 percent in Vermont more than tripled between 1981 and 2005.
These changes are in large part the result of fiscal, regulatory and economic policies at both the state and federal levels.
New policies can get us moving in the right direction again. Indeed, a year before Occupy made headlines, candidate Peter Shumlin talked about the average Vermonters who had been “kicked in the teeth” by the economy. He promised to rebuild the middle class.
So far, though, few in Montpelier are making the link between the state budget and meeting that goal — or the fundamental needs of Vermont’s 99 percent.
The administration has started work on a strategic plan that begins to address some of the goals written into the People’s Budget. It’s a good first step. But the state also needs to develop indicators that will tell how close we are to ensuring everyone in our state health care, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment. Then we need adequate resources to achieve those public goods and measure and monitor our progress toward them.
When the Vermont House passed the fiscal 2013 appropriations bill, it included no mention of the People’s Budget or any of the goals proposed by the Vermont Workers’ Center. There is still an opportunity for the Senate to amend the bill and commit Montpelier to developing a new budgeting process that puts the needs of Vermonters first.
Editor's Note: Paul Cillo is the executive director of Public Assets Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes sound budget and tax policies to benefit all Vermonters. Additional information is available at www.publicassets.org