Op-Ed: A First Step Toward a People's Budget

Publication Date: June 29, 2012
James Haslam, Vermont Workers' Center
Burlington Free Press

My Turn: A first step toward a people's budget

It is hard to tell a legislator that he or she is failing — particularly a hard-working member of one of the appropriations committees. But let’s face it: when it comes to human needs — food, housing, education, employment, social security and, of course, health care — things have not been getting better for the people of Vermont, and those who have been suffering the most have been slipping behind the fastest.

If you really believe in democracy, then you have to want government not just of and by the people but also — and most importantly — for the people. So when members of the People’s Budget campaign met with legislators to explain our ideas about state budget and revenue policy based on human needs, this was the first thing we asked for — a statement in law that the purpose of the state budget was to meet the human needs of the people of Vermont.

And when the ink finally dried on the “big bill” in the waning hours of the biennium, we got it (or something pretty close, anyway).

We also got law that requires the governor to prepare an estimate of the cost of the services that the state is legally required to provide each year — a “current services budget” — something that is crucial to helping us know whether we are adequately funding government programs but which, oddly, has not been done for many years.

And we got law that, for the first time, requires the governor to develop a process to allow the people of Vermont to participate in the development of the state budget.

What the People’s Budget campaign accomplished in its first year is just a small step on the road to revenue and spending policy that puts people first. Vermont is leading the way, but we have a long way still to go. We have to build human rights principles — particularly those of equity and accountability — into the state’s budget development process, so that we prioritize the needs of those most in need and know whether the money we are spending is making a difference. We have to develop better ways of measuring success in meeting our needs, and we have to connect those measurements to the budget allocations we make.

Most of all, we have to change the backwards relationship between tax policy and spending policy: we have to figure out how much we need to spend to meet the needs of the people of Vermont before we decide how much to tax ourselves. And here, in particular, we must apply the human rights principle of equity: we must tax ourselves according to our ability to pay and stop shifting the responsibility for funding public services from the wealthiest onto the rest of us.

In the coming year, our ongoing, successful Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign and the People’s Budget campaign will converge, as Vermont decides how it will finance our universal health care system, Green Mountain Care. Because Act 48 commits us to treating health care as a public good, financed with public money, we can create a health care system with no premiums, deductibles and copays — a system in which every Vermont resident receives the care they need when they need it. To do so, it is very likely that we will have to re-examine state tax policy completely.

When the Legislature and the administration take up this work, the members of the Vermont Workers’ Center will be there demanding spending and revenue policy that satisfies human rights principles — policy that fulfills the economic and social rights that follow from our fundamental human needs. We hope you will join us in this effort.

James Haslam of Burlington is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which is working to build a grassroots movement to Put People First. Their website is www.workerscenter.org.