Vermont Interfaith Action — a grassroots coalition of several dozen Green Mountain religious congregations — thought it was proposing a simple first step to help people squeezed by income inequality: Why not ask state leaders to tally up a budget that, for debate's sake, reveals the real cost of all needed public services, rather than just start annual negotiations with an already pared-down plan?
But when spiritual leaders met this fall with Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration, they found officials were more reticent than receptive.
"They were somewhat surprised this is what we're asking for," says the Rev. Debbie Ingram, the group's executive director. "They do prepare the numbers internally, but the problem is they are not made public."
And so the coalition's "Building Vermont's Moral Economy" campaign — a joint effort with the Public Assets Institute, a nonprofit nonpartisan Montpelier-based think tank — scheduled a rally for Wednesday to promote its position — only to change its plans at the last minute when the Shumlin administration said it would comply with the clergy's request after all.
"There is great news," Ingram has emailed supporters in a message "celebrating what VIA's organizing efforts have achieved."
Administration Secretary Justin Johnson confirmed this week that his office would provide the requested numbers upon presenting its annual state budget proposal next month.
"They won't be released ahead," Johnson said, "but will be part of the documents given to the Legislature."
The news caps a multi-month "Moral Economy" campaign tour that has sought to explain how stagnant wages and cuts in state services are challenging more and more residents.
"We believe income inequality is the biggest problem Vermont faces today," Paul Cillo, founder of the Public Assets Institute, said during a 10-community summer and fall road show that included stops in Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Middlebury, Montpelier, Rutland and White River Junction.
The percentage of children living below the poverty level, for example, hit 15.3 percent this past year — a rate topped only in 2010 during the depths of the last recession.
"We've been making a case," Ingram says, "for acknowledging that all Vermont's economic indicators — like the numbers of people on food stamps, the number of children living in poverty, the number of homeless persons, wages, and the real median household income — are headed in the wrong direction."
To change that, Vermont Interfaith Action has been urging state leaders to report how much it would cost to pay for all needed services — not necessarily so that total figure would be approved, but as a means to show the full extent of the demand and to spark discussion on what could and should be done.
"As a manageable first step, VIA and Public Assets are asking for Governor Shumlin to publicly publish a 'current services budget' — a projection of the real cost of providing all of the public services the state has said, through laws and policies, it is committed to provide," Ingram wrote supporters in a recent email.
"This would accomplish three things," the coalition's executive director continued. "1. Provide information for an open and honest conversation about the real conditions of the state budget. 2. Enable a state budget process that could then be designed to start with people, and not just manage to the available money. 3. Comply for the first time with 2012 session law that requires the governor to publish the current services budget."
But when more than a half-dozen clergy members outlined their idea to Shumlin and his administration this fall, the response was less than enthusiastic — spurring the coalition to plan a public rally in Montpelier this Wednesday.
"We must demonstrate that people of faith care deeply about the immorality of our current economy, and that we strongly desire the transparency a current services budget will provide," Ingram wrote in the event's invitation. "We can do that best with a large number of people in attendance."
Those plans changed when Johnson emailed campaign organizers and agreed to provide the requested information. The administration secretary, who started his job this past January, said he didn't immediately say yes because, working on his first budget proposal, he wanted to consult with colleagues before committing to anything.
"The big thing for me was could we do this?" Johnson said. "I just wanted to make sure we could actually deliver. We're still putting those numbers together, but what I've asked for is in keeping of the spirit and letter of the requirement."
As a result, the previously scheduled call to action will morph Wednesday — from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Montpelier's Unitarian Church on 130 Main St. — into a program marking the campaign's present accomplishments and future aspirations.
The governor isn't scheduled to unveil a budget proposal for the coming fiscal year until January, but projections suggest that state spending could outpace revenue by as much as $70 million. That has left many worried about what might be cut — especially after the Shumlin administration directed agency and department heads to level-fund their plans.
Spiritual leaders hope their request for more public information will lead to more informed decisions.
"It is kind of policy wonk sort of thing," Ingram says, "but we really believe it will be the first step in having an open and honest discussion of how we spend our money in Vermont."