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Budget Cuts

12/11/01 12:00AM

This is a true story, straight from the late-night kitchen table of a family member.

With several school-age children, this family had a year of needs growing faster than income. One of the children had progressed in her music studies beyond the instruction the school could provide. The parents combed through the budget but were unable to find the resources to add private music lessons. There was nothing frivolous to cut from their spending.

At first it looked at first like the only thing to do was to tell the child the lessons were beyond the budget.

But the father came up with another solution. "I could take a second job on Saturdays at Sam's garage," he said. "That will pay for the lessons and we can look at our budget again in the spring when I think our income will go up."

Okay, so my story's not unique. That's the point. This is just what we do in our families.

And I think this is what we expect of our state government. Before we say no to areas of spending that we value, we need to consider the alternatives. In the budget problems we see right now, I don't think we can find the solution in cutting waste. Does anybody really think this governor and this legislature have been giving us wasteful budgets?

Yet our lawmakers cut the budget twice this year and some are now calling for a third cut. If they're not cutting waste, then they're cutting things we are still going to need.

I'm surprised when I hear legislators say we have to live within our income, as if that were some unarguable mantra for cutting budgets. Surely they know that they set both sides of the budget: the income as well as the spending. When the income is high, they can be quick to adjust it and lower taxes. When it's low, do they get to roll over and play dead?

Recently, I attended a public hearing called by state senators to hear people's views on budget cuts or tax increases. The state budget took on human faces as citizens rose to ask that the Senators avoid cutting portions of the budget that directly touch people in their communities - citizens with disabilities, students needing to finish their college educations, schools trying to serve children, and people struggling to pay for health care.

A show of hands indicated substantial support for raising taxes to fund these needs rather than to cut budgets. There was ample support for raising the income tax or cigarette tax, though little for sales tax increases. No one should be surprised.

Vermonters keep telling their leaders we want humane, thoughtful government.

In 1993, Governor Dean asked William Sorrell, who was then Administration Secretary, to hold hearings throughout Vermont to ask people how they would cut the state government. But Sorrell found no mandate to roll back state services. All over the state, people turned out in defense of the environment, schools, and low income people.

Even the state income tax cut that took effect last year had surprisingly light public support. People said in a 1998 poll that they would rather spend the money or save it for future needs than have it back.

Our lawmakers need to listen to the wisdom and humanity of Vermonters. We manage our homes and businesses with the knowledge that some times will be easier than others. We know that we should save money when our income is higher and hold steady when we have setbacks. We know that budget cutting is just one option. Raising income is another and wise use of credit is a third. And we know that as economic cycles ebb and flow, there will be times to use all of these options.

We know that money is the servant of our values, not the master. We appreciate and re-elect the leaders who show us that they understand that too.

-- Peg Devlyn is co-owner of Marketing Partners, Inc. in Burlington, Vermont.
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