Activists demand that lawmakers adopt “People’s Budget”

Vermont Workers Center activists descended on the Statehouse Tuesday on the opening day of the 2012 legislative session and demanded that lawmakers pass a “people’s budget” that meets the basic needs of Vermonters.

Members of the group packed the Cedar Creek Room during the noon hour and gave speeches and delivered a petition for a People’s Budget signed by more than 3,000 Vermonters. The petition was given to Governor Shumlin’s office, and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate.

Peg Franzen, president of the Vermont Workers’ Center, invoked the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She said the goal of the rally was to bring the voices of the “99%” to the Statehouse and demand a budget aimed to meet needs such as health care, housing, food, education, good jobs and a healthy environment.

“For decades the government of the 1 percent has resulted in reduced revenue and the erosion of access to the services that meet the basic needs of Vermonters,” Franzen said. “We are here to remind our elected representatives of government of the fundamental obligation to respect, protect fulfill the human rights of its people.”

Put People First! is coordinated by the Vermont Workers’ Center which launched the successful campaign Healthcare is a Human Right in 2008. In that campaign, activists aggressively pushed for a single-payer initiative in large rallies and a long-running vigil in the Legislature’s health care committees.

The VWC joined together with other Vermont organizations including the United Professions of Vermont; and Vermont Center of Independent Living; 350 Vermont and Public Assets institute.

According to the Public Assets Institute, a liberal Vermont think tank, the middle class has shrunk as a result of state and national policies. Census data and information gathered from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that while both Vermonters’ personal income and gross state product grew over 60 percent from 1990 to 2010, the median household income rose just 1.5 percent.

“Vermont is no longer a state that’s working for the middle class,” President of the institute Paul Cillo said. “The good news is that it was policy decisions that created this mess and we can reverse it with our elected leaders making different policies.”

Lack of financial support for Vermont’s post-secondary students was another topic of discussion at the rally. Liz Betty-Owens, a 20-year-old sophomore at Johnson State College, said that Vermont’s support for higher education falls near the bottom of national lists and most of the funding for state colleges and universities comes from tuition. According to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and U.S. Census Bureau, college costs have grown at twice the rate of inflation. (http://www.vermontbiz.com/files/HETF_w_attachments_doc.pdf)
“A college degree is now more than ever a requirement to be financially successful in this country,” Betty-Owens said. “Having a society of educated people is a requirement to having a healthy society.”

The petition (http://www.workerscenter.org/peoplesbudget) called for a People’s Budget to make human rights and the needs of communities the top budgetary priority.

Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Lucy Leriche, D-Hardwick, said she was glad to see the group in the Statehouse because public participation makes the Legislature more effective.

“Obviously when I became a legislator I was elected because I wanted to put people first and the very idea that we’re not doing that in this building,” Leriche said. “The perception that maybe we’re not doing that as much as we could be is really an eye-opener for me.”