Protecting Vermont's neediest residents

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A few news items recently grabbed our attention.

First, the weather forecast: While the temperature rose a bit with the snow Thursday, bitter cold and brutal windchill are expected to follow. The temperature isn't expected to climb above zero anywhere in southern Vermont on Saturday; in fact, it's due to fall to minus 21 in Manchester.

That's remarkably cold, even by hearty Vermont standards. And tonight, there will likely be homeless people in our communities trying to sleep outdoors in these inhumane conditions. It's not an exaggeration to say their lives are at risk.

Second, Elizabeth Hewitt of VTDigger.org reports that federal health care cuts — including the truly unconscionable decision by congressional Republican "leadership" to shut off funding to the Children's Health Insurance Plan — could hit the state budget for an additional $36 million this year.

Third comes a report by Public Assets Institute, a progressive-leaning Montpelier think tank, which said that the modest economic gains made in Vermont have not resulted in substantial improvement in the median household income. The report said that the disparity between the wealthiest 5 percent and the poorest 20 percent of Vermonters continues to grow, and noted that Vermont was one of only four states where poverty rose in 2016.

These developments could all be topics for discussion on their own. But they come together in a single place — Montpelier, where the Legislature went back to work Wednesday, facing a slew of budgetary and economic development challenges.

State tax collections are down, federal funding is drying up and there's an

$80 million gap in the education fund that is expected to lead to higher property taxes — as much as 10 cents per $100 of appraised property value, depending where you live. Meanwhile, there's still a health crisis afoot — an opiate epidemic that directly and indirectly affects many aspects of our lives.

This budget mess is unlikely to be solved by finding a few million dollars in savings here and there. It's a significant problem that requires significant effort from all branches of government.

There might be a temptation, given these financial woes, for the Scott administration and the Legislature to find budgetary savings at the expense of programs and services that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable Vermonters. Money is tight, and tax increases are a bad idea in an election year. With no help coming from Washington, it would be easy for lawmakers to shrug their collective shoulders and say, "Sorry, we'll try again next year."

But that's not the solution.

Tough times are when you dig down, double down on your values and find creative solutions and workable compromises.

Our values are that we do not leave people behind.

When coldblooded, comfortable congressmen who have never known a moment of real want decide that poor children aren't worth government subsidies for health care, we step forward and say "yes, they are, and if you lack the common decency to pay for it, we will."

When addiction, mental illness and other circumstances leave people homeless, we do not leave them out in the cold.

We find ways to help families suffering the scourge of addiction to put their lives back together. We find ways to bring immigrants into our state and welcome them.

And we find ways to extend real economic opportunity to all Vermonters, if we can.

The task won't be easy, and it won't be found in the opening positions of the various party leaders that we'll hear over the next few days. Democracy is messy, as it should be, and there are competing schools of thought on how to turn things around.

All we ask is that our elected representatives in Montpelier find the will to do the work, and remember what's truly important when they sit down to business.

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