14 February 2012 People's Budget Testimony before the House Appropriations Committee

Hello. My name is David Kreindler. I am a volunteer with the Vermont Workers’ Center representing the People’s Budget campaign. Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today.

I am here to talk about a people’s budget, a State budget that puts people first. But before I begin, I want to thank you for the work that you already do to put people first. The many members of the Vermont Workers’ Center know, from speaking with our legislators in our home districts, that it is the desire and intention of most of you to create public policy that serves our needs — to put people first.

We recognize that the appropriations process is difficult, painstaking and thankless. You know that, whatever the decisions that you make here are, Vermonters will believe both that State government is wasting money and that we are not spending enough money. Though probably both views hold some truth and always will, each view depends, at its core, on a certain disconnection between Vermonters and the State budget process.

What we know for sure is that many Vermonters lack adequate healthcare, housing, food, education, work and other fundamental human needs. We know that an increasing number of Vermonters is falling into poverty and that the disparity between rich and poor is too great and is continuing to grow. We also know that the natural environment, upon which all life depends, continues to be destroyed by unsustainable consumption and pollution.

For decades now, we have suffered from tax policy that favors the rich and powerful corporate interests. And budget “deficits” resulting largely from revenue policy have been used as justification for so-called “austerity”, which means that the most vulnerable among us suffer most.

You heard these complaints yesterday evening. Many Vermonters are suffering, and they are becoming engaged in the People’s Budget campaign to demand social and economic justice. We wish to engage with you in fixing a system that is failing to meet the human needs of Vermonters. Our human needs give rise to our economic and social human rights, which government has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill.

I am not here today to argue specifically for “better” spending. As you heard in yesterday’s many testimonials, the problem is probably not that you are not slicing the budget “pie” as well as you can. We believe the problem is that the budget process itself does not allow you to put people — the human needs of people — first. The current budget process allows you only to allocate the money that happens to be available, instead of managing public services to fully satisfy the human needs of Vermonters. Each year — and particularly after crises like tropical storm Irene — your diligence and creativity might allow you to plug budget holes, but the following year you find yourselves in the same situation, often not even knowing whether last year’s decisions helped or hurt.

Despite your best intentions, last year’s budget did hurt Vermonters — as did previous budgets. We need a different approach to budget and revenue policies, one that allows state government to satisfy its human rights obligation to Vermonters.

The People’s Budget campaign is proposing that we change our current haphazard approach to the budget process. We are proposing a rational framework for State budget and revenue policies based on the human rights that arise from people’s needs. This framework incorporates accountability into the budget process, along with the transparency and public participation upon which accountability depends.

We have shared with you the current draft of a document describing the People’s Budget framework. The budget process described in that document represents a set of paradigm shifts from the present budget process.

  • The budget must be crafted to directly address specific fundamental human needs (rather than to address particular interests, conventions or to match arbitrary revenue “expectations”).
  • Budgeting decisions must be explicitly connected to binding accountability measures, including principles, goals and indicators. And an evaluation of the efficacy of an initiative must be part of the budget process.
  • An indicator system (metrics) must be developed, based on principles, that accurately assesses human need and aids in the fulfillment of human rights. And the development of this system must be linked to a participatory process in which budget goals are developed and spending initiatives are proposed, weighted and evaluated.
  • Revenue policy must follow from budget policy — not vice versa. In other words, the budget must be crafted with the intention of making measurable progress toward meeting Vermonters’ needs and thus upholding human rights, and revenue policy must fully fund the resulting budget.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a certain disconnection between Vermonters and the State budget process. The People’s Budget campaign believes that the first step toward addressing this disconnection is to adopt into law a clear and explicit set of principles that would guide the budget process, codifying what it means to put people first and helping you, as elected representatives, to explain what it means when you say that your desire and intention is to put people first.

To those ends, we are offering legislation that would establish budget principles for the State. This legislation would clarify the purpose of our State budget, would establish principles for spending and revenue policy, would make explicit the relationship between budget and tax policy, would introduce a mechanism for accountability, would call for the development and implementation of meaningful public participation in the budget process and would increase transparency by requiring the publication of a People’s Budget report as part of the budget process.

We find our call for people’s budget principles foreshadowed in Article 9 of the Vermont Constitution, which calls for public money to be raised when it is evident to the legislature that that money would be of more service to the community than if it were left in private hands. In effect, the Vermont Constitution presupposes a people’s budget, a budget the purpose of which is to serve the human needs of our community.

Our State budget should be a document that reflects the values of our community. None of us accepts the suffering of an increasing number of Vermonters. If our State budget is to reflect our moral values, then the principles that we apply in crafting our State budget reflect the intelligence that we have brought to bear in the fulfillment of those values.

We are offering you these principles as part of a framework that will make our State budget a people’s budget. We ask that you review and accept this step toward a people’s budget, so that the full House may consider it when the budget reaches the House floor this spring.