By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Gathering in Gov. Jim Douglas’ figurative back yard on Monday, several dozen residents from around Addison Country congregated at Court Square across from the Middlebury Inn to protest the Middlebury Republican’s proposed budget cuts to human service agencies, which protestors argued unfairly hurt low-income Vermonters.
“Cutting Health Care is a Tax,” one sign read. “Don’t Balance the Budget on Our Backs,” another announced. “What Obama Giveth, Douglas Taketh Away,” read a third.
Stationed around the periphery of the traffic island, protestors brandished these signs, and others, at passing motorists, earning their fair share of honks and waves during the noontime hour. Part of a statewide “Save Our State” vigil, this Middlebury protest was one of 12 gatherings to take place on Monday around Vermont.
Protestors argued that Douglas should raise new revenue from wealthier Vermonters before raising health care premiums and cutting the budgets of state human service organizations.
“Gov. Douglas should not balance the budget on the backs of the poor,” said Ellen Oxfeld, one of the protest’s organizers.
She was among a faction of protestors in Middlebury and around the state advocating for single-payer universal health care — a move she said would save the state money — but the primary call at Monday’s rally was for revenue hikes.
Oxfeld ticked off two places where she thought these hikes could be applied: taxing the first 40 percent of capital gains, which currently go untaxed, and increasing income taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000.
It’s an approach that fellow event organizer Matthew Ennis of Lincoln said would follow in the footsteps of former governor Dick Snelling.
When Snelling was in office, he navigated the state through two recessions — one in 1983 and another in 1991 — and both times he used a mix of budgetary tools to get the state through the crisis, including a temporary income tax hike for those in the highest income brackets.
Oxfeld, a Middlebury College professor, said she and her husband wouldn’t mind stepping up and paying more in taxes to keep social programs intact — and she wasn’t alone in expressing that sentiment on Monday.
Bridport residents George and Margaret Klohck, who classified themselves as by no means wealthy, said they could afford to give more to help out their neighbors in a tough economic time.
“I wish somebody would ask us to do that,” Margaret Klohck said. “You have to give people the opportunity to cut.”
She said she’s worried about Douglas’s approach to the budget cut that is “all about cutting and burning and slashing.”
“It’s going to be devastating,” she added.
Johanna Nichols, a Cornwall resident and the minister of the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, said she was on hand at Monday’s demonstration because she cares about Vermonters “who need support from all of us.” Nichols said she trusts legislators to come up with creative solutions to the budget shortfall, but worried that Douglas is unreceptive to an alternative approach.
“The governor talks about not raising taxes,” Nichols said, but she argued that raising premiums or cutting programs for low-income Vermonters “are taxes.”
To those who might bristle at the suggestion of higher taxes to raise new revenues, Nichols had a few short words of advice.
“Share the wealth, share the burden,” she said.
Nearby, Naomi Smith, the executive director of WomenSafe, kept other sign-holders company. Cutting budgets in a time of economic trouble, she said, is “counterproductive.” She said WomenSafe has already cut $12,000 from this year’s budget, and expects to cut more.
“We run on a really shoestring budget,” she said. “We’ve already had to cut back on services. There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”
That, she added, is a shame in a time when Smith thought Vermonters would need more services than ever.
“I think we have a responsibility to take care of those who are more vulnerable,” she said. “We need resources to make that happen.”
Beth Diamond waved her own sign on a street corner. Diamond, the southwest regional resource specialist for Vermont’s 2-1-1 program, said that calls to the information service have been up substantially this winter — evidence of an increasing demand for social services. (Vermont 2-1-1 is a clearinghouse for information about health and human services, and connects callers to government programs, community-based organization, and support groups.)
Calls to 2-1-1 have traditionally been down in December, Diamond said. This year, the number of calls in December shot up to 2,900 — roughly 1,600 more calls than were received in the same period in 2007.
That number statewide climbed higher still in January, Diamond said, when more than 3,200 calls came in to 2-1-1.
“We’re having 200-call days,” she said. “It used to be a big deal when we had 100-call days.”
Diamond said that some of this increased volume could be due to increased awareness about the 2-1-1 service, which is now four years old, but she said that the types of calls 2-1-1 now receives suggests that there’s more to this sudden popularity than simply the program’s visibility.
“We’re getting a lot of new callers,” she said. “They’re seeking out help for the first time and they don’t know where to turn.”
Jen Ruddy, stationed on a corner overlooking the Town Hall Theater, said she knew firsthand about Vermonters who are turning to state programs for the first time. She said she was at Monday’s demonstration for all of her friends and family who have lost jobs in the last few months.
“It’s really hit close to home,” Ruddy said. “I’ve just had too many friends and family laid off.”
Those friends and family are turning to programs like Catamount Health and the Vermont Health Access Program for health insurance now, she said, rather than trying to pay what she called the “outrageous Cobra costs.”
“This will affect all of us,” Ruddy said, eyeing the passing cars. “I think a lot of people thought at first that this a problem for poor people. It’s really not anymore. It’s a problem for all of us.”
Nearby, the Curran family took that all-for-one mentality to heart. Elizabeth Curran, who works at the county’s Open Door Clinic, said that in her work at the clinic she tries to help uninsured Vermonters find health insurance — and she’s worried that budget cuts will make that more difficult.
So she talked to her family about the vigil, and on Monday, Elizabeth was joined by her husband and six children in downtown Middlebury.
The Middlebury rally came a few hours before similar protests took place at candlelight vigils in at least 12 other Vermont towns. Ennis said that high traffic through downtown Middlebury at lunchtime prompted the earlier time.
The goal Monday afternoon, Oxfeld and Ennis said, was simply to raise awareness about the governor’s budget cuts — and to prevent the state from losing ground in health care reform.
“We just don’t want steps backward now,” Ennis said.