Grassroots Network Gets Human Rights Into Budget Law

A recent briefing introduced me to a state budget campaign launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center. It’s quite different from most budget campaigns I’m familiar with.

And I think there are things that advocates –and everyday concerned citizens — can learn from it. So let me tell you a bit about it.

The Workers’ Center is a grassroots network that’s branched out from workplace issues to “the full range of issues of concern to working people.”

Two years ago, they racked up a significant victory — a law that promises to make publicly-funded health care a right for everyone who lives in Vermont.

Now the Center has turned its attention to the broader issue of state spending and revenue policies. And again, they’ve racked up a victory.

In this case, it’s an amendment to the state’s budget law that establishes basic principles for the budget — what it should do and how it should be developed.

The latter has to do with processes for public participation. These are still in the development stage, but apparently moving toward completion.

The what-the-budget-should-do part is potentially more revolutionary — and for two reasons.

First, it adopts a human rights framework. “Spending and revenue policies,” it says, will “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.”

This is far more than the symbolic gesture the DC Council made when it declared the District a human rights city. And it’s much broader than the Illinois anti-poverty strategy I wrote about some time ago.

The Vermont law essentially provides a test for virtually any spending proposal. Does it “advance human dignity and equity”? Does it help meet any of the specified needs — or more generally, “promote economic well-being … and a vibrant economy”?

Also revolutionary is the notion that the costs of meeting the Vermont people’s needs should drive revenue policies.

That, at any rate, is how a director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative — one of the Workers’ Center’s lead partners — characterizes the “reframed” budget purpose.

As we all know, budgeting generally works very differently.

First, there’s a revenue projection and some sort of account of what the government spent and would have to spend to keep operating as it has. Also, in some cases, a spending target, e.g., the federal deficit reduction targets enshrined in the Budget Control Act.

Then the money gets divvied up — first by the chief executive, e.g., the President, the state governor, then by committees in the legislature and finally by the legislature as a whole.

Okay, I know this is over-simple. In most states, for example, the governor can veto particular items in the budget the legislature has passed — or in all but one state, the whole damn thing.

And, of course, Congress can do whatever it chooses with budgets enacted by the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, there’s always a fixed amount of money to spend — even if the evolving budget includes revenue raisers.

Organizations representing different interests and/or communities contend for the biggest share of the budget pie they can get. This often means defending the share of the pie they’ve got — over and over again as the years roll on.

Conflicts among them may be smoothed over. That’s part of what broad-based coalitions are for. But I doubt any interest group has sat out a budget season in deference to another.

The end result is winners and losers, even within what we might call the human needs community.

This is what the Vermont Workers’ Center seeks to replace with its People’s Budget, which would stand the customary budget process on its head.

Costs of meeting people’s basic needs would come first. Revenue raisers would follow, if needed to meet those costs.

I’ve some doubts about how this process will fare when the rubber hits the road.

Will Vermont legislators actually pass tax increases sufficient to fulfill the human rights vision embodied in the budget law?

Or will there be the usual push-and-pull between spending and revenue policies? And the usual competition among interests, including the big one between those who want more spending and those who think their taxes are already too high?

Guess we’ll have to wait and see. And hope that the experiment pans out. Because it could become a model for budget reforms elsewhere.

Even in its infancy, it gives us a fresh way of thinking about how budgets are made — and what we do (and don’t). We all, I think, can benefit from that.

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