State Sen. Peter Galbraith, of Townshend, was first on the agenda. He gave an overview of some of the issues the Legislature is working on in Montpelier this session.
“We have a tough job to do,” Galbraith said. “We’re trying to not raise broad-based taxes. But property taxes are going up again this year.”
Galbraith said he disagreed with Gov. Peter Shumlin that property taxes were not broad-based taxes, and that the current methods of funding education were unsustainable.
“We need to think about how we deal with the funding of education. It cannot be solely based on property taxes.” He added that legislators realize the problem, and there are some attempts to find solutions, including eliminating certain deductions from income taxes, with the money going into the education fund.
Galbraith also brought up the plan to move Vermont to a universal, publicly-funded health care system. Current law calls for that change to take place in 2017. Galbraith supports the move, saying a new system “will change how it’s paid, not how much we pay.”
“If we’re funding a single payer system with a 13% payroll tax, over and above what we pay now,” asked moderator Larry Feldsteihn, “where is that money going to come from?”
“You could do it on the income tax, on the payroll tax, or on the sales tax,” responded Galbraith.
He noted it would take a sales tax of 19% to fund health care programs, and that probably wasn’t realistic. He also urged voters to get involved in the process. “These are difficult questions, ones I hope you’ll be engaged in.”
Wiliam “Buzzy” Buswell chided Galbraith for the Legislature using education fund revenues to fund general government expenditures. “That’s a disgrace to use educational funds for other things. That is BS, education is education.” He added that the Legislature has never addressed what defined a quality education in Vermont.
“I think we cannot continue to finance education as heavily on the property tax as we do,” said Galbraith. “It is something we have to address.”
Galbraith also discussed efforts to raise Vermont’s minimum wage for workers, which currently is $8.73 per hour. “What we’re going to end up looking at is a New England-wide minimum wage at $10.10 per hour. That’s what the president is looking at.”
Galbraith claimed there were significant studies that showed that raising the minimum wage would save money in the long run. He cited a study of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in which a higher minimum wage in New Jersey created job growth and lower government subsidies.
“It’s about saving the taxpayers money. “When you have low-wage workers, many of them get a subsidy from the taxpayers in the form of fuel subsidies, earned income tax credits, and other programs. The higher minimum wage is one program nationanally that is supported by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.
“The inflationary impact of a $12 minimum wage would be less than 1%. Also, low-wage workers tend to spend their money locally, so it could be a significant economic stimulus.”
Dave Cherchio told Galbraith he didn’t believe the studies cited. “There is no credible data to support that the increase in the minimum wage will save money.”
Cherchio also accused Galbraith and Rep. John Moran of trying too hard to redistribute income. “You two remind me of the old socialist saying, “Somewhere, sometime, someplace, something isn’t being taxed.”
Selectboard chair Randy Terk was concerned about the overall tax burden in the state. “Vermont has overall a very high tax burden. If it remains that way people who can afford to will leave the state. We already see that with our kids, we don’t have the jobs to keep them here. It’s a real problem. We certainly have a great quality of life here but why stay in Vermont if I can live somewhere else with a good quality of life and lower taxes?”
“We can certainly try to hold the line on some,” said Galbraith. “But property taxes continue to escalate. In this area that’s very important.”
He added “The states with the lowest taxes often rank at the very bottom in quality of life. We will never compete with states on a low tax basis, it will be on quality of life.”
Christine Fayette asked Galbraith his thoughts about top-down school district consolidation, currently under discussion in the Legislature.
“I will approach that with extreme caution.” Galbraith replied. “You’re not going to see me voting for consolidation.”
Connie Wisse told Galbraith the state needed to define what a quality education is before spending money. “I have lived and taught in three different states. The state always said it would pay ‘boom, boom, boom’ for a quality education. I have never heard that in Vermont. I think they must start there, then decide how much will be taxed.”
“You highlight the dilemma between local control and state mandate,” replied Galbraith.
“I beleive we need to rethink whether or not we fund education on the property tax like we currently do,” Galbraith concluded. “I think it’s about time we listened to the people and transfer some of the burden off of the property tax.”
Laura Sibilia complimented Galbraith on his support of economic development programs, adding “We may disagree with you on a number of policies, but on economic development you have been very helpful.”
Moran had a chance to talk with voters. Like Galbraith, he reiterated his support for raising the minimum wage, changes to education funding, support for economic development, and unversal health care. He supported efforts to include paid sick leave as part of the minimum wage increase.
On the minimum wage debate, he said “The reason it has become an issue in Vermont is because the federal government has proven itself ineffectual in addressing this question. States have led the way in addressing this issue. We’re trying to make a fair distribution of the wealth created in this state.
“It’s responsible capitalism, not socialism,” said Moran. “My vision is a business- and worker-friendly state.”
Terk took issue with Moran. “Why is it believed that businesses in Vermont have the extra money to pay for a higher minimum wage? It’s like you are saying ‘We dare you to make a living in Vermont.’ For some reason senators and representatives believe there is untapped money available to business owners. But I don’t think the answer is to take from the rich and give to the poor.”
“I am a responsible capitalist,” reiterated Moran. “I’ve heard the “S” word thrown around here. I am not a socialist.
“No one can live on $8.73 an hour. The system cannot continue the way it is. The people who are most vulnerable work in the service industry. They are exteremely valuable to this valley’s economy. It’s only fair.”
“I’d like to have a living wage,” said Phil Bowen. “I loaded lifts for years, cleaned toilets, did whatever to support my family.” He berated businesses that paid mimimun wage, saying their owners lived in castles. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself if you can’t pay your staff. Pay somebody something to live on.”