Putting the people’s budget into practice

Vincent Villano, of the National Economic Social Rights Initiative, speaks about participatory budgeting in front of state legislators and advocates at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Vincent Villano, of the National Economic Social Rights Initiative, speaks about participatory budgeting in front of state legislators and advocates at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier on Tuesday. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Vermonters should become more involved in the state’s budgeting process and take a stronger role in asking lawmakers to focus on human needs rather than simply divvying up the spending pie, advocates said Tuesday.

The Public Assets Institute and the Vermont Workers’ Center joined forces for a People’s Budget workshop in Montpelier to call for spending decisions that are based on human rights and “participatory budgeting.”

Lawmakers approved language in 2012 that says “the state budget should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.” And through a series of lectures and briefings in September, the Public Assets Institute and Vermont Workers’ Center want to educate the public about their rights to participate in shaping the budget.

The new language requires the Department of Management and Finances, which assists the governor in drafting his budget proposal and manages it through the fiscal year, to take input from the public. To that end, the state has scheduled two public forums this fall, said Jim Reardon, commissioner of the Department of Management and Finances.

Tuesday at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier, more than 20 lawmakers and advocates listened as representatives of the Vermont Workers’ Center, the Public Assets Institute and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), spoke on how to make budgeting decisions local.

The groups showed a video co-produced by the Vermont Workers’ Center and NESRI. Vincent Villano from NESPRI also offered a presentation on the Participatory Budgeting Project, in which 10 city councilors in New York City let community members decide how to use a small percentage of the budget through neighborhood assemblies.

“Here in Vermont there is a wonderful tradition of town meetings,” Villano said. “Now how do we take on that tradition and scale it to a state level process?”

The Public Assets Institute has taken a more holistic approach to participatory government in Vermont.

If budget issues were anchored in the community and if people could weigh in on what should be included, bills such as Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit last year would never have been forwarded, said Jack Hoffman, senior political analyst at the institute. The EITC proposal created heated debate during the 2013 legislative session and was never passed.

The proposal, which was offered as a way to pay for childhood education, had never been aired in a public forum. “That’s the kind of thing where the public should be involved,” Hoffman said.

A change in attitude is needed to alter the way administrations look at budgets — and additional legislation might be needed to make that happen, Hoffman said. In the long term, the Public Assets Institute envisions regional councils where direct democracy can take place. The administration might not be able to fund all the needs of the people, but if the proposals come from the people there’s less chance for groups to be overlooked, said Hoffman.

“This isn’t about having everyone in Vermont having a say on every penny spent in Vermont,” Hoffman said. “But there are some issues where people could be more involved.”

There is a philosophical difference between the Department of Management and Finances and the Vermont Workers’ Center and the Public Assets Institute, Reardon said.

“They’re proposing that whatever the need we should meet it,” he said. “I don’t think they are grounded in fiscal and economic reality.”

State representatives who attended the informational meeting Tuesday were receptive to the idea of creating a more needs-based budget and the participatory practices, but they also saw challenges in getting people involved.

People don’t know that they can influence representatives, said Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, P/D-Topsham. “On voter’s night on a local level people are asking me ‘What are you going to do?’ and many times I will say, ‘I’m here to find out what you want me to do when I’m in Montpelier.’”

Comments

  1. Complex budgets take time to develop, and even at the local school district level this can be six months plus exercise. How would this process fit in with a timely budget setting schedule?

  2. Craig Powers :

    “They’re proposing that whatever the need we should meet it,” he said. “I don’t think they are grounded in fiscal and economic reality.”

    Thank you Commissioner Reardon for stating this clearly and correctly.

    • Renée Carpenter :

      Well, I have to agree that it’s not based in the CURRENT “fiscal & economic reality” which is exactly the point. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights–onto which the U.S. is a signatory–clearly identifies the role of governments to provide for the basic needs of ALL of its citizens. Here in Vermont we COULD do that by implementing a fair and just tax policy. That’s what a People’s Budget COULD allow for.

      Let’s not get too far side-tracked talking about the process–although I deeply appreciate having the conversation about a process of participatory democracy in all decision-making.

      Let us all consider how every single individual in Vermont can have their BASIC needs met. (period) Then, let us begin to make the necessary policy changes to implement this reality.

      Thanks to vtdigger.org for the story.

      • Phyllis North :

        Renee – Sounds like you are proposing more taxes, but we are already highly taxed in Vermont. We have to compete with other states for people and business, so higher taxes are not the answer. And I must admit I sometimes feel foolish working for my living when I see some people, including trustfunders, living off the generous entitlement programs we already have in Vermont.

        • Renée Carpenter :

          Actually, all I was proposing to do is to TALK about how we can meet the basic needs of all Vermont residents.

          I work for a living, too, and sometimes, during winter months, barely make ends meet. Others can’t find jobs, or have their time committed to the care of loved ones… or have a medical emergency and no back-ups.

          The structure of our economic system skews our resources to the few “at the top” or the more privileged who know how to use the system to their benefit. The language we use makes us think “entitlements” are only social programs, until we look at the entire system of who gets and who takes: From subsidies for bigger businesses and corporations to tax deductions for mortgages and other so-called necessary expenses to tax exemptions for some but not for “us.”

          If we are afraid to even have a discussion, then there is no possibility… how hopeless is that!? Do you find it acceptable that some people–many children and elders–are hungry, cold, live in substandard shelter, or have none? Do you think the rise in poverty, despair, suicides, and earlier death rates for impoverished elders in recent decades are all coincidental? That they happen for no reason?

          Is it possible for us to think critically and creatively about the real social and economic issues as they effect you and me and our neighbors, to look at the vision for a positive future for all of us, and then start figuring out how Vermont can take care of its own? All of us, fairly, is what I mean. I think so.

          • Craig Powers :

            Renee:

            Here is a question. Do you have a mortgage?

            You suggest that the mortgage exemption is something that is not fair and should be taken away so things are “fairer”. Why would you suggest that if you have a mortgage? I do not understand your thinking about fairness.

            Thanks

  3. Janet MacLeod :

    One of the representatives who was there immediately made this meeting about taxation of the 1%. Nothing in the discussion had been about raising revenues. It was about addressing needs.
    To suggest that people are not grounded in fiscal and economic reality (Commissioner Reardon) is saying that one is backing the status quo rather than being willing to restart the process in a way that includes the people it is suppose to serve.

  4. rosemarie jackowski :

    Many of those who control the budget and work in the ‘system’ have no idea about what poverty is really like.

    Please read this:
    http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/03/poverty-in-a-small-town/

  5. Renée Carpenter :

    To Craig Powers:

    I wrote: The language we use makes us think “entitlements” are only social programs, until we look at the entire system of who gets and who takes: From subsidies for bigger businesses and corporations to tax deductions for mortgages and other so-called necessary expenses to tax exemptions for some but not for “us.”

    I didn’t intend to suggest that everything in that list was “unfair” and thus should be taken away. In response to Phyllis North’s comment about “…some people, including trustfunders, living off the generous entitlement programs,” I was trying to get us to think about how the structure of our tax system offers subsidies to many in our society yet are not considered to be so-called “entitlements.”

    Certain tax deductions, like those for home mortgages (1st homes), are very effective in supporting stabilizing social behaviors, yet we don’t stigmatize them by calling them “entitlements. I didn’t mean to make any specific suggestions, other than that we consider how economic policy creates a system that affects us all; and that there are likely some changes we could make that would be fair and just and create the best social outcomes for most of us, and especially the most vulnerable in our communities.

  6. Walter Carpenter :

    “From subsidies for bigger businesses and corporations to tax deductions for mortgages and other so-called necessary expenses to tax exemptions for some but not for “us.”

    Are the tax loopholes and subsidies which we give corporate America so that some corporations like GE pay little or no taxes, maybe even get tax refunds, considered “entitlements.” ? Or is it only programs like foodstamps which help people survive?

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