The fight we should be having

In case you missed it, the governor and the Legislature are in a showdown over the budget. Or unions. Or both, depending on whom you ask. But no matter how you see it, it’s the wrong fight.

Instead, the Legislature should be taking significant steps to make life more affordable for Vermonters. Fighting about $26 million in teachers’ health insurance savings, which will probably show up without the governor’s involvement, is not one of those significant steps.

Governor Scott says Vermont has an affordability problem. But it’s not state taxes that are causing the squeeze for low and moderate income Vermonters. It’s stagnant wages and rising costs for essentials.

What could Vermont do to make life more affordable? How about significant investment in making child care and college more affordable? How about raising the minimum wage? How about ensuring there’s enough affordable housing to go around?

These ideas and more were part of Public Assets’ A Framework for Progress report last summer. They’re also included in the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ aptly named The People’s Budget, which is a blueprint for how to make smart investments at the national level. The People’s Budget provided a clear plan to reallocate resources for a better health care system, family economic security, jobs, infrastructure, and education. It shows that the resources are there; we just need to decide that making these investments is a priority.

The governor has threatened to veto the appropriations bill over a statewide contract for teachers’ health care, which the Legislature adamantly opposes. Both sides say they won’t allow a government shutdown, but seem no closer to a deal than they were before the Legislature adjourned two weeks ago. While protecting local control is important, this game of chicken is distracting everyone from the larger issues facing the state.

Neither the House nor the Senate did anything drastic with the budget this year. Each cut a little here, added a little there, and ultimately agreed on a budget that relied on one-time funding and changed very little about what the state does for Vermonters. The governor made clear from the beginning that he would not sign a budget that raised taxes or fees, so the Legislature chose to work within that constraint. And the ongoing veto fight is unlikely to change the budget plan significantly. It’s just the hostage in an unrelated power struggle.

In 2012, the Legislature codified Vermont’s idea of a “People’s Budget,” which clearly defined the purpose of the state budget: to “address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity,” and “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security, and a healthy environment (32 VSA § 306a).”

Does this budget move the state forward on those goals? It funds many critical services, though many of them have been eroded over the years. And the Legislature took some small positive steps that improve economic security for some Vermonters: implementing the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan, raising the asset cap for receiving Reach Up funds, investing modestly in affordable housing, and increasing the child care subsidy.

But these small steps ultimately won’t make the big difference that Vermonters finding life unaffordable need. In this national climate, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath hoping the federal government acts to help average citizens. Instead, the state should be doing all it can to address the needs of Vermonters. That will take bold leadership. Instead of “to veto or not to veto?” the fight we should be having in Montpelier is over how to make investments in a better future for Vermonters.

Posted by Stephanie Yu on June 2, 2017 at 12:52 pm

4 Responses to “The fight we should be having”

  1. Thanks for bringing the dispute on the teachers’ Health Care negotiations back to the Real Problems.
    Jane Osgatharp

  2. The idea that teachers making too much money is our biggest problem is madness. Instead let’s raise taxes on the rich and use the money to protect open space, and provide affordable housing. Protecting open space is one of the best ways to stop climate change. See http://www.vhcb.org.

  3. Kathy Callaghan says:

    Unfortunately, this reminds me of the Trump Administration – much ado about something unnecessary and nothing really being accomplished.