Thank you to everyone who joined Common Good Vermont at the State House to celebrate our Nonprofit Sector! Over 60 nonprofit leaders and supporters united for briefings from fellow activists and lobbyists, meetings with legislators, and discussions on legislation impacting nonprofit organizations.
If you weren’t able to join us, here are some highlights from the day:
Watch video clips from this year’s Legislative Day
- Advocacy Matters: Vermont Legislative Update
- Impact of Federal Policy and Budget on Vermont
- Senate Finance Committee Testimony on Charitable Tax Credit Proposal (H.911)
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D, Grand Isle) spoke about the ongoing financial challenges faced by Vermont in light of changes in federal funding and Vermont demographic factors. “We are putting more in reserves to deal with potential shortfalls. When just under 40% of our budget comes from the federal government there is just no way for us to come up with all the potential shortfalls. So we can’t solve every single problem but we are trying to put enough resources aside so that we can maintain the core of what is critical to Vermont and to provide us time and a glide path…” There are a number of places that are not federal dollar related but federal regulation related…where we have married ourselves to federal law as of January 19, 2017.”
Watch: Advocacy Matters: Vermont Legislative Update: Leading advocates working within this year’s legislature spoke on the issues of labor, equity, and environmental matters.
David Mickenberg, Senior Strategist at the Necrason Group described the struggle between labor and employers on a wide variety of issues including family leave, proposed minimum wage increases, and transportation network companies (such as Lyft). As an advocate for both labor and nonprofit organizations, David is sensitive to the impact that increases in the minimum wage will have on small nonprofits.
Christine Kemp-Longmore co-chair of Constitutional Council for Accountability with Law Enforcement Officials described the organizing behind S. 281 Systemic Racism Mitigation Commission and the work that led to the recent report, Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System. Christine emphasized the group effort necessary to move social justice issues forward and advised advocates to “take the time to bring someone else along with you” as organize for change.
Robert Dostis, Vice President Stakeholder Relations, Green Mountain Power arrived at his current work via the Vermont House and as Chairman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He was motivated to run for political office through his experience as Executive Director for Hunger Free Vermont (in its earlier incarnation as Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger). Robert describes the importance of the one-on-one trust-building relationship with legislators, who rely largely on the public for input on the issues they are considering. “You know you’ve succeeded when you get a call from legislators who need information”. He sees his current position at GMP to “educate and inform” and to provide “good information” to legislators. He spoke at length about what constitutes good quality information and the power of stories to underscore facts and figures. “Remember, you are only as good as your word.”
Amy Shollenberger of Action Circles spends a lot of time tracking the budget and helping clients make their case for budget allocations. This process can take several years and starts with a clear statement of their goal. Amy emphasized the importance of relationships as the primary way to get work done in the Legislature. As a follow up to a discussion about the value social media as an organizing tool, Amy raised a caution to those who are tempted to “trash” legislators in the online arena. “You can’t be two people. You are the same person on Facebook and in real life, especially in a small state like Vermont.”
Legislative Briefing: Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe highlighted several issues facing the Legislature this Spring, including net neutrality, gun legislation, and prescription drug imports from Canada. As always, the State Budget is the central matter for legislative action. Senator Ashe took issue with the Governor’s proposals to programs that support people with developmental disabilities and more severe disabilities. “It seems for several hundreds thousands of dollars there would be other constituencies who could absorb these cuts”. This year 6100 people will lose their health care subsidies. The Governor’s proposed Budget also eliminates funds to recruit new medical professionals to Vermont–in spite of the critical shortage. “We have to work in the Senate to meet people’s needs and support the quality of life we have come to expect here.” Ashe does not support the Governor’s position against any increases in new taxes or fees. He believes that this is neither practical nor just. “There are a number of instances when you scratch your head and ask ‘Are we so beholden to a slogan that we make bad decisions?””
Moderated by Scott Johnson, Executive Director of the Lamoille Family Center, this panel looked at the consequences of federal actions on Vermont’s budget and communities.
Erica Campbell, Outreach and Policy Staff for Senator Bernie Sanders, reported that Senator Sanders is deeply concerned with rising income inequality.
Paul Cillo, President of Public Assets Institute, analyzes the state budget from the point of view of the average Vermonter. Cillo reported that Vermont has one of the fastest rates of income inequality growth in the country, resulting in slowed economic growth, reduced upward mobility and increased poverty. New federal tax changes will increase the federal deficit exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. Thirty-five percent of Vermont’s budget comes from federal dollars. While there is no emergency “right now”, we will need to make important decisions about what services we will preserve.
Lori Fisher, Executive Director of the Lake Champlain Committee contends that “This federal administration is actively hostile to the environment.” The EPA budget will be cut by 26% in this year’s budget, which includes a reduction of nearly 2600 employees (17% of the staff). The FY19 Budget is expected to include more cuts and sets the standard “for what we believe in as a country”, a new normal that does not coincide with Vermont’s environmental protection policies. Fisher is concerned that this “new normal” will decimate the regulatory power of the EPA in Vermont. “Unfortunately this federal administration is making the things we care about into partisan issues…We need strong stories about why clean air and clean water matter.” With 67 important regulations on the chopping block (clean streams, energy efficiency) she called on Vermont citizens to be active in the fight to protect current environmental policies.
Like the environmental sector, Jesse Bridges, Executive Director of United Way of Northwest Vermont sees the federal budget as a threat to key programs and basic needs–such as the fight to protect CHIP and funding for community health centers. Bridges is troubled by the federal proposal to cover the increased deficit through cuts to the Older Americans Act. On the charitable giving front, national United Ways project a 5% reduction of giving through the federal tax law. The number of households itemizing taxes is expected to decrease (from 30% to 10% in Vermont). Jesse expects the marginal difference in giving to make a meaningful impact on Vermont nonprofits of all sizes.
Jason Gibbs, Chief of Staff for Governor Phil Scott reported that Vermont is one of the most reliant U.S. states on federal funding. “On balance we have been able to weather the transition by preparing a state budget that takes every opportunity to insulate the state from impacts to the greatest extent possible, and we prioritize the modernization and efficiency of our systems and services so…we get more value from every dollar we put in”. However, the Governor’s administration views Vermont demographics to be more of a threat than federal decisions– “the crux of every challenge and the cornerstone of every solution.” The state’s “dependency ratio” is a key metric for the Administration. According to Jason, Vermont is 3 ½ years from there being one worker for every person that receives benefits. “If we don’t figure out how to change these demographics we won’t be able to afford what we have today.” Directing his comments to the nonprofit leaders, Gibbs emphasized that he approaches every policy question from the environment to education through the context of the labor force and ways to increase revenue opportunities.
Vermont nonprofit leaders testified on recently passed tax policy (H.911) before the Vermont Senate Finance Committee. Witnesses included Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Common Good Vermont; John Killacky, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts; John Sayles, Vermont Food Bank; Jesse Bridges, United Way of Northwest Vermont; Doreen Kraft, Burlington City Arts; Andy Robinson, Nonprofit Consultant; Rick Blount, Burlington YMCA; Kate McGowan, Center for New Leadership at Marlboro College.
See recent editorials on this topic:
- Doreen Kraft: Lift the Caps on Charitable Gift Tax Credit 3/8/18
- John Killacky: Incentivizing Charitable Giving 3/16/18
In the afternoon, Action Circles hosted trainings on how a bill becomes law and Vermont’s budget process followed by closing remarks from Lt. Governor David Zuckerman.
Vermont faces a number of changes including changing demographics, reduced tax base, and an unknown impact of federal cuts and policies. Nonprofit leaders throughout our state have an important role to play in staying up-to-date and advocating for their missions this legislative session. Now that the day is over, don’t forget to monitor the issue you’re advocating for and stay engaged with your legislators!