Solving our budget struggles

Friday February 15, 2013

This session of the Vermont Legislature has for me a distinctly different flavor than others that I have been part of. Maybe it is just because we are still in the early days and issues haven't had a chance to settle into focused solution yet. Maybe it is because we are once again jamming all our work into a compact session to adjourn by date certain, which we do primarily for economic reasons. It costs about a quarter of a million dollars for every week we are in session. While many readers think this is a good thing -- we have less time to make trouble for citizens -- please remember that what we do in these hallowed halls is driven by actions, wants and needs of citizens. Not all citizens have the same wants and needs at the same time -- that would be way too easy, but that is where citizens become community. And that is where the tension between rights and elbows enters.

This year's budget presented by the governor on Jan. 24 is full of issues that have no easy solutions. Would that budgets were just a matter of math and balancing the bottom line. But every one of the numbers in that document has every day meaning for one and all Vermonters. Do we squeeze here to make investments there? Whom do we squeeze, tax payers or citizens who benefit? Where do we come down on the line between fairness and the need to sustain a vibrant economy, good health and a robust education for everyone?

Yet here in our very Vermont public document, our annual effort to put money behind our beliefs, is a conundrum -- to rob Peter to pay Peter. I cannot argue with efforts to enhance early childhood supports as a growing body of research -- as well as common sense -- tells us that early intervention benefits not just the individual child, but we as a community as well. By most all accounts enabling more families to afford child care for young children is a good things on so many levels. Yet we legislators, and by extension all Vermonters, are asked to support paying for this investment in our future by curtailing yet another well regarded program that lifts families out of poverty, the earned income tax credit.

We are asked in this budget to recognize the unsustainable public cost to support the growing number of people qualifying for public assistance, in Vermont called Reach Up, by shortening the time frames in which this benefit is available. Some will cheer this effort, some will rue the weakening of our safety net. The budget does recognize the need for programs to ease the "fiscal cliff" families face when they do get a job, but one which all too frequently pays too little to allow for the essential life ingredients to hold a job, such as child care and transportation.

This isn't just another year of making budget by moving the chess pieces around to find bottom line balance, as we have done since the start of this recession. I believe I am now seeing the struggle in our state budget to make the investments that will shape our future, a struggle that has no choice but to accommodate not only the sluggish revenue growth in Vermont but the uncertainty of federal action, the prospect and reality of ever more draconian cuts in federal supports for all kinds of programs important to life in Vermont.

And why have we been put in this conundrum in the first place. Why has the collective we allowed our national politics to paint every poor person as a bad actor, a feeder at the public trough? Why has the collective we allowed an economic system to emerge that results in an ever growing number of families who simply can't make it despite their best efforts -- where even two or thee jobs in the family won't lift them above poverty levels? If we continue on this path we will become a nation of a few living behind gated walls and the rest of us a swirling mass of cold, hungry people making all kinds of trouble for those behind the gates. Whose vision of America is that?

Ann Manwaring represents the towns of Halifax, Whitingham and Wilmington in the Vermont House or Representatives and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.


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