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Vt. Clergy Seek Moral Economy, Higher Wages From State



Friday, November 28, 2014
Montpelier — The Rev. Debbie Ingram says the state’s progressive religious activists have been quiet for too long, focusing their energies on running soup kitchens and food pantries for those in need — a reaction to the conditions the poor see every day.

Now, she says, it’s time to turn up the volume, turn up the heat on lawmakers and push for a moral economy, which would tax the wealthy more and improve pay and benefits for the working poor.

“We’ve been getting a little frustrated with never having our values influence the actual systems that put people in those situations where they have to come to us for charity,” said Ingram, the executive director of the Vermont Interfaith Action group.

Vermont Interfaith Action, including clergy members from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Unitarian congregations, gathered for a series of meetings during the summer to draft a series of recommendations into a booklet replete with passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Quran.

Since the November election, the religious leaders have held a new series of meetings with legislators around the state to share their ideas. One goal, they say: Close the gap in which the minimum wage often doesn’t come close to paying the rent.

“Champlain Housing Trust asserts that the statewide housing wage — which is the amount a renter needs to earn in order to afford a two-bedroom, fair market rent — is $19.36 per hour,” the booklet says. “... A minimum wage of about half that amount creates a situation in which housing makes up more than 50 percent of a worker’s earnings, which in turn means that there are insufficient household funds to pay for other family necessities, one of the primary reasons families remain in generational poverty.”

Other proposals include making Vermont’s income tax, already among the most progressive in the country, more so; ensuring Vermonters have good health coverage; and stepping up environmental protections.

But the group’s goals may remain elusive in a year when big Democratic majorities in the Legislature were trimmed somewhat, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin barely won re-election and a budget shortfall was estimated at $100 million.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, and assistant majority leader in the House, and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and minority leader in the Senate, spoke in interviews of the need to balance the goals of groups like Vermont Interfaith Action against the demands being placed on government by businesses and by many taxpayers.

“We’ve got a lot to balance. It’s coming from every direction,” Webb said.

On the other hand, she said, she agreed with most of the goals advocated by the clergy leaders.

“How can you disagree with what they’re talking about?” she said.

Benning said that, living in the Connecticut River Valley, he has a close-up view of economic activity gravitating to neighboring, low-tax New Hampshire.

Trimming the Vermont state budget without hurting lower-income residents may come down to looking for redundancies in government programs, Benning said. As one example, he cited similar work on gender equity issues carried out by the Governor’s Commission on Women and the Human Rights Commission.

The clergy leaders questioned whether Vermont might be too worried about its business climate.

“Also unfounded is the fear that Vermont as a whole will suffer if lawmakers require higher wages and better treatment of our workers,” the group’s booklet argues.

“On the contrary, Vermonters who make a decent wage will have the means to buy goods and services from other Vermonters, thus improving the economic outlook of the entire state and all its businesses.”