A coalition of religious congregations is publicizing its "Building Vermont's Moral Economy" campaign through such means as postcards. Photo by Kevin O'Connor/VTDigger
When Gov. Peter Shumlin unveils his state budget proposal during a legislative address Thursday, the Rev. Debbie Ingram won't simply be listening to what's in the plan — she'll also be looking for what isn't.
Ingram is executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action, a coalition of several dozen religious congregations that's working to spark public discussion about income inequality through a "Building Vermont's Moral Economy" campaign.
The joint effort with the Public Assets Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan Montpelier think tank — is aiming to show how stagnant wages and cuts in state services are challenging more and more residents.
As a first step, organizers want state leaders to tally up a budget that, for debate's sake, reveals the real cost of meeting the full demand for public services, rather than just starts annual negotiations with an already pared-down plan.
Spiritual leaders met last fall with Shumlin and Administration Secretary Justin Johnson, who later confirmed that his office would provide such figures upon presenting its budget proposal this week.
"Part of our goal all along is to have a more open and honest discussion about the budget," Ingram says. "We're here to present the point of view of real people who are affected by these numbers."
Organizers of the campaign aren't sure how specific the governor's information will be, but they're already setting up meetings with House and Senate leaders and pertinent committee leaders to share their concerns.
"We won't know exactly what we'll be asking for until we see the numbers," Ingram says.
The group also is reaching out to Common Good Vermont — a clearinghouse for the state's 3,500 nonprofit organizations — to distribute the governor's budget figures to its membership for review.
"We're asking them to look at the numbers that pertain to their particular fields of expertise and help us discern how to move forward," Ingram says. "We definitely want to involve a lot of people."
The campaign began last year with a 10-community summer and fall road show that included stops in Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Middlebury, Montpelier, Rutland and White River Junction.
"I don't think there's broad understanding of the budget or the budget process," says Paul Cillo, founder of the Public Assets Institute. "The governor typically delivers an address and reports whether it's up or down. The budget is a lot more. It's about education, health care, clean water, safe food and highways."
The institute recently released a 28-page "State of Working Vermont 2015" chart book with chapters bearing such titles as "Incomes at the top are growing," "The middle class is losing ground" and "The poor are left behind."
"Poverty is up, homelessness is up, and 1 in 7 Vermonters is eligible for food stamps," Cillo says. "Our elected officials need to acknowledge that Vermont is not working for a lot of its residents."
Campaign organizers hope legislators will take time to review what's formally known as a current services budget — which Ingram says is "a projection of the real cost of providing all of the public services the state has said, through laws and policies, it is committed to provide."
They're not asking or expecting the state to approve that total figure, but instead hoping the numbers shed light on the extent of need and spark discussion on what could and should be done.
"The reason we go through this exercise is not to appropriate money, but to appropriate money for a particular purpose — using the people's money for the people's well-being," Cillo says. "It's easy to say we're going to take care of single mothers. It's another thing to actually do that. Does this budget reflect the policy commitment that's in statute? We're hoping to have a different kind of conversation."