Battles to come
The budget process announced by the Shumlin administration last week is the opposite of the new process pushed by liberal groups to build a budget around the people’s needs rather than around the money in state ledger books.
Top officials in the Shumlin administration have directed the managers of state agencies and departments to produce budgets for next year that are level-funded. That means that upward pressure on the budget created by negotiated contracts and other rising costs would force many new budget cuts. Finance Commissioner James Reardon suggested that department heads consider eliminating whole programs in response to budget pressures rather than trimming all programs across the board in an arbitrary fashion.
Meanwhile, state officials will be holding hearings in the coming weeks designed to allow policymakers to hear from the public about the creation of what is called a “people’s budget.” It is part of a new process called for in legislation intended to allow greater public participation in the budget-making process and closer consideration of actual public needs in budget choices.
Beginning the budget process with an order to level-fund all budgets would seem totally contrary to the idea of building the budget based on need. Requiring department heads to scour their budgets to make new cuts begins with the needs of politicians rather than the needs of the people.
Then again, the push to build a needs-based people’s budget is itself a political strategy. It is designed to open up the process to the voices, often ignored, of people to whom the crumbs of state largess tend to fall last. These would include people hoping for greater state support for child care, mental health care, environmental protection or energy-efficiency.
All budget-making is a process of making choices — deciding which people’s needs should have precedence. State officials must decide whether to spend money on tourism promotion or drug treatment, economic development or energy subsidies. Everyone has a claim to make.
A process that begins with consideration of the people’s needs allows single mothers seeking child-care assistance a forum to voice their claim, placing them theoretically on an equal footing with the industrialist seeking a tax break. It is valid and useful to give a voice to the powerless, but Gov. Peter Shumlin has shown he intends to maintain a limit on the needs he believes it is possible for the state to address. In addition to a level-funded budget, he plans to raise no new broad-based taxes. If there is to be a people’s budget, those will be its parameters.
In a broad sense, the people as a whole need, among other things, a balanced budget. State policymakers shoulder that burden even as they cope with demands for increased spending from a diverse array of interest groups. But the demand for a people’s budget also requires policymakers to listen to the travails of real people as spending on child care and other essential services is slashed.
Shumlin hobbles the discussion of the people’s needs by declaring at the outset that there will be no increase in broad-based taxes. What if a crisis exists in child care, joblessness, drug abuse? What if it is a crisis demanding a major expansion of spending? How does a discussion of that sort of crisis occur if state officials have declared at the outset that there is no more money to be had — there is only money to be shifted around?
These are the questions that always occur in budget discussions, and there is no budget-making gimmick — people’s budget or otherwise — that will guarantee anyone a larger share of the pie. The people’s budget process at least gives a foothold to groups that are otherwise neglected. Shumlin’s announcement of a level-funded budget and of no new taxes merely shows them what they are up against.
They got a taste of what they are up against last year when Shumlin sprung unwelcome surprises on the Legislature at the outset of the session — proposing cuts in the earned income tax credit and new restrictions on welfare. If these ideas had been weighed in the context of a people’s budget, they would not have gotten far. As it was, the Legislature rejected them. At a time of widening economic inequality, for Shumlin to ask low-income Vermonters to bear a greater share of the burden seemed to be a cruel blow.
There will be much discussion of budget priorities in the coming months, and the groups pushing the people’s budget have positioned themselves so they might head off January surprises like those that surfaced last year. But Shumlin is not ready to start shoveling revenue toward liberal causes and raising taxes heedlessly. The same political battles are in store for the coming year. In fact, that is what politics is for.