Advocates from the Vermont Workers’ Center are calling for increased public participation in the state budgeting process. The grassroots group based in Burlington sent a new proposal late last week to the Shumlin administration, reiterating key demands they had made in September.
The complaints come after two unprecedented public budget hearings last month, scheduled before the governor’s budget proposal will be released in January. At these hearings, Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon and administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding tried to explain state budgeting in plain English, and took public comment on state spending priorities.
Last Friday, the Put People First Campaign, a coalition of human rights groups coordinated by Burlington’s Vermont Workers’ Center, requested:
1) An accessible and understandable budget proposal, along with easily understandable budget documents;
2) Formalized ongoing public participation in state budgeting, via an independent committee who will establish the details of that participation;
3) A clear connection between the governor’s proposal and the goals identified by the public via civic participation;
4) An assessment that measures unmet needs in all Vermont communities.
In a detailed September 2012 report, the group proposed an independent Needs Assessment Board, that would collect data on the level of social services needs in Vermont communities.
“Rather than adjusting the budget to match a revenue estimate, the budget would start with an assessment of people’s fundamental needs and then seek to fund the services required to meet those needs,” the proposal states. “The focus is on people rather than money.”
Darya Marchenkova, communications coordinator for the Vermont Workers’ Center, said that they made their pitch to the administration after two recent budget hearings. While the events were well-attended, Marchenkova said, “We don’t feel that those budget hearings went far enough.”
“We’re basically calling for a reversal of how the budget is done,” Marchenkova said. “What we’re looking really for is something that brings people to the table, but also for a clear channel, to say how what we voice [at public forums] will be implemented. We’re really calling for a process, toward real, meaningful participation.”
The Vermont Workers’ Center regularly holds press conferences and Statehouse lobbying efforts. In 2010, the center pressed for health care reforms that ultimately led to passage of the single-payer health care framework.
Marchenkova wouldn’t say whether the workers center group would lobby in the Statehouse next year to turn its budget proposals into legislation.
Reardon hasn’t issued a formal response to the proposal yet.
“I work for the governor,” Reardon said. “My job is to essentially present for his approval a budget that is within the existing revenues. The governor travels throughout the state and listens to people, but ultimately, they do elect the governor, and it’s the governor who presents his or her budget to the Legislature.”
Reardon said that a needs assessment wasn’t “totally unrealistic,” but he said he wasn’t sure exactly how such an assessment should be carried out.
Under new legislation, state government must also present a current service budget to the Legislature in January that shows how much the state spent last year on social services, which includes health care, and housing assistance, among other items.
Reardon cautioned against paying disproportionate attention to state spending.
“There’s not just the equation of the spending side, but also the equation of the revenue side,” said Reardon. “We are a relatively high taxing state, relative to the country, so the budget has to be affordable to the taxpayers of Vermont, too. I don’t think we can lose sight of that in this discussion.”