Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Family Economic Security > Budget forums: a chance to speak and listen

Budget forums: a chance to speak and listen

The second annual public budget forums are scheduled to begin this week at various interactive television sites around the state. Forums will be held on October 23 and November 5. Check here for times, locations, and on-line streaming.

The forums mark an important change from the budget process Vermont followed for decades. Typically, administration officials worked quietly out of the public spotlight to put together a budget the governor presented to the Legislature—and the people of the state—in January. It was only after the governor formally unveiled his or her budget that the public got a chance to weigh in.

The forums are the result of legislation passed in 2012 that is supposed to put Vermonters at the center of the budget process. The new law does that in two ways. First, it says that the purpose of the state budget is to “address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.” It also calls for greater public participation early in the budget process—that is, when administration officials are still putting together the governor’s recommendations. After all, if the state budget is now supposed to “promote economic well-being among the people of Vermont” and “address the needs of the people,” shouldn’t the administration take a little time to hear what Vermonters have to say?

The Shumlin administration deserves credit for scheduling the forums. Changes to long-standing habits never come easily, and, let’s face it, participatory democracy is a lot messier than having small groups of people make decisions around tables in quiet offices.

The administration, however, still has more work to do to embrace the spirit of the new budget process and these budget forums. At the forums a year ago, for example, there was no hint that the governor was planning to ask for a cut to the state Earned Income Tax Credit for almost 50,000 working parents who have trouble supporting their families because their employers pay meager wages. Nor was there any discussion of the governor’s proposal to impose new limits on the length of time the state would help low-income families participating in Vermont’s Reach-Up programs. Instead, Governor Shumlin sprang these ideas on an unsuspecting Legislature and public—and gained a reputation as the governor who didn’t like poor people.

This year, even before the first forum has convened, the administration has essentially declared that it won’t consider any proposals that will cost more money. Heads of state agencies and departments have been directed to level-fund their budgets. And Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon has reiterated Shumlin’s no new taxes pledge:  “The governor has been very clear that he’s not going to raise broad-based taxes, so that’s one of the parameters we have to work with in developing the governor’s recommended budget that we’ll present to the Legislature in January,” he told the Rutland Herald.

The spirit of these forums really needs to be more open-minded. The governor may not want to raise broad-based taxes in the coming year, but he’s told us he wants to raise taxes in future to pay for a single-payer health care system for the state. That’s a worthy goal, and one we hope Vermonters can embrace after the details have been worked out. But there might be other things Vermonters want to support collectively as taxpayers that also would make life better for them or their children. They deserve consideration, too. Health and health care are important, but Vermonters also need food, housing, education, dignified work, social security, and a healthy environment.

For average Vermonters, the budget forums provide an opportunity to tell the administration how well it’s doing in meeting those basic needs. For the administration, the forums provide an opportunity to show its listening.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on October 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm

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