MONTPELIER — Hundreds rallied at the State House Saturday to oppose cuts to the state budget and $10.8 million in labor savings sought by both the Shumlin administration and lawmakers in an event organized by the Vermont State Employees Association.
The state employees’ union was joined by other unions and groups, including the Vermont-NEA, AFSCME and the Vermont Workers Center, to protest the budget plan sought by Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers.
The House has passed a budget that uses $33 million in new tax revenue, $53 million in cuts and $25 million in one-time funds to close a $113 million budget gap. The VSEA and others, however, want to see more tax revenue raised and fewer cuts.
The House-approved budget includes $10.8 million in labor savings that Shumlin, a Democrat, proposed. He has asked the VSEA to renegotiate its contract to help achieve the savings. Failing to do so will result in hundreds of layoffs, according to the administration.
About $2 million in labor savings has been identified by the administration, but $8.8 million remains of its target. It wants to delay by six months a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase due to state employees in the 2016 fiscal year, and delay by one year step-increases that average out to an additional 1.7 percent pay increase next year. Those steps would require union approval.
The union has so far refused to renegotiate, proposing ways to raise additional revenue instead. The 500 or so people gathered at the State House Saturday heard from Ed Olsen, a snow plow driver for the Agency of Transportation, about why the union is not willing to renegotiate.
“I pay taxes to this great state of Vermont, just like all the other hardworking, middle-class people. As a matter of fact, we, the middle-class Vermonters, pay more than 10 percent of our wages to this beautiful State House behind me, unlike the wealthy citizens who pay back 8 percent of their wages to our economy,” Olsen said. “That ain’t right. It pisses me off. That’s the biggest reason why I came here today.”
Olsen said the state’s wealthiest residents “aren’t being asked to give up anything.”
“I’m tired of being asked to give back more and more of my wages and benefits to help rescue Vermont’s economy,” he said. “I need every bit of the cash I earn. Vermont has a budget deficit and they always want to balance the budget on the backs of hardworking, middle-class citizens of Vermont.”
Several speakers compared Shumlin to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought concessions from union workers to help save money in that state, including Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre.
“Vermont is not Wisconsin. Peter Shumlin is not Scott Walker. But it’s getting pretty damn hard to tell the difference,” he said.
Kooperkamp equated the effort to obtain savings from state workers to the seventh commandment — thou shalt not steal.
“It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and we’re here to say that,” Kooperkamp said.
The Shumlin administration is expected to meet again early next week to continue negotiations.