Times Argus: "Workers’ Center takes on ‘People’s Budget’"

Workers’ Center takes on ‘People’s Budget’

By Thatcher Moats

VERMONT PRESS BUREAU - Published: June 10, 2011

MONTPELIER — A nonprofit grassroots group that rallied thousands of Vermonters to support health care reform legislation with its “health care is a human right” campaign is laying the groundwork for another political push with a different focus: state budget and tax policies.

The Vermont Workers’ Center and its red-shirted activists were omnipresent during the health care battle this legislative session, flooding Statehouse conference rooms and hallways in their push for a single-payer health care system.

Now the Workers’ Center hopes to bring the same level of visibility and advocacy to the intense wrangling over the state budget — and the question of whether to raise taxes to fill an expected budget gap — that it did for the health care debate, said James Haslam, the director of the Workers’ Center.

“That’s the way we think change happens,” Haslam said. “It takes people getting organized and coming together and making their voices heard.”

This summer, activists are identifying people who want to get involved in the campaign and listening as Vermonters identify their concerns about housing, health care, transportation, heating fuel and other topics that intersect with the budget, Haslam said.

“We’re in an early organizing and information-gathering stage,” Haslam said.

The group is also meeting with other organizations that have a stake in the budget debate, and Haslam plans to coordinate with them.

The intent is to have the “People’s Budget” campaign organized by the legislative session next year, as lawmakers begin work on budget and tax bills while facing an expected $80 million revenue shortfall.

The Legislature this year closed a $176 million budget shortfall — when compared to expected growth — with a combination of budget cuts, tax increases on hospitals, use of budget surpluses and a transfer of education money to the general fund.

Though the Workers’ Center was on the winning side of the health care battle this year, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much influence its “Health Care is a Human Right” campaign had on the passage of the bill.

There’s no doubt, however, that it was the most visible campaign in support of the health care reform bill Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law last month.

As it engages in the budget and tax debate, however, the Workers’ Center will face different political alliances.

Shumlin was the Workers’ Center’s most powerful ally on health care reform, for instance, but Shumlin has opposed raising sales, income and other broad-based taxes to offset budget cuts that many advocates and some lawmakers argue are eroding services for elderly and disabled Vermonters.

Shumlin has repeatedly voiced the fear that wealthy Vermonters will flee for the borders if the state raises their income taxes.

Paul Cillo, president of the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier think tank, pointed out that several studies show that doesn’t happen and only limited anecdotal evidence of cases where people left states in response to tax policies.

“The bottom line in all this — the idea of tax flight as a policy problem — is that there’s really nothing to support it except anecdotes,” Cillo said.

Still, Shumlin has shown no signs of changing his position.

Haslam said that means Vermonters need to speak up to change what’s “politically possible.”

“Our philosophy on how change happens is that essentially if enough people make their voices heard, if enough people get organized and get together and demonstrate, that it then it becomes a whole different political landscape,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat, tried to pass an amendment to the tax bill this year that would raise $17 million by increasing the tax rate on the top two income brackets.

Though it failed, Pollina saw signs at the end of the session that lawmakers might be more willing to raise income taxes, and combined with the grassroots effort the Workers’ Center is planning, he believes it could happen — though it won’t be easy.

“It’s kind of a citizens movement for economic reform, which is not an easy task, believe me,” he said.

The next session will also be an election year, which could “complicate” efforts to raise taxes, Pollina said.

But there are other ways to achieve “economic justice,” through things like natural resources taxes and making sure state money is used to hire local workers, Pollina said.

The group will still push its views on healthcare reform as it proceeds on its years-long course, said Haslam, but economic reform is “definitely going to be an increasing part of our work.”