Liberal, Irreverent

Monday, April 11, 2011

News from the Vermont Progressive Party

This Week: Rally to Protest RNC Chair Visit

A coalition of labor unions is organizing a march and protest this Wednesday opposite the Vermont GOP Spring Fundraiser headlining Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chair and a major architect of the attack on unions, working people and the middle class in Wisconsin.

At a time when Republicans nationally are working hard to destroy collective bargaining rights across the country, and Democrats in Vermont are leaving the public sector with little more than just those rights, it is imperative that Progressives stand with organized labor both at this event, and in the final weeks of budget and revenue decisions at the Statehouse.

The rally will start at the top of Church Street at 5:15, and then march down to the Hilton on Battery Street.

Legislative Update:  
Regulation and the Rent to Own Industry

The retail rent-to-own industry offers consumers furniture, appliances, televisions, computers and other goods. There are stores throughout Vermont in Barre, Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Derby, Morrisville, Rutland, St. Albans, and St. Johnsbury. The industry claims that they are offering “dreams” and a “new lifestyle” for their customers. No one denies that people need dreams, but looking at the cost of those dreams is another matter.

Most often these customers are people with marginal or no credit history, limited income, and limited education. Consumers need to be able to make informed decisions about the choices they make and ask: “what are the opportunity costs here?”

Credit card users have consumer protections. But is there is adequate consumer protection in the case of this industry? Because the industry operates somewhere between a sale and credit transaction, it has managed to evade basic regulation like the Truth in Lending Act and state usury laws. For instance, no federal or state law, including in Vermont, limits their prices or effective interest rates.

H.188 is designed to address and disclose the extremely high cost of the fees imposed by the rent to own industry. The key effect of current law is to endorse the industry's exemption of itself from Truth in Lending and usury laws. This leaves customers unprotected from a variety of abuses often associated with predatory lending practices. For example, though the majority of rent-to-own transactions involve used merchandise, current law says nothing about how such goods should be priced or payments figured. A result is that the majority of customers who rent used goods pay as though the goods were new.

Also, current rules put no limit on finance charges. The proposed bill seeks to set a cap on the effective annual interest rate, prohibiting the 200+% rates that have been found in rent to own stores in Vermont.

The industry claims that either of these changes would put them out of business in Vermont.

Legislative Update: 
Income and Advocacy

The average household income in Vermont hovers around the $50,000 mark. Since 2002, people at the average level have seen wages decline by almost 2%. Everyone living below the $50,000 line has seen even greater decreases, some as high as 11% decline.

At the top end of the spectrum, by contrast, incomes have been "booming." Since 2002, the average taxpayer earning over $1 million a year has seen income increase by 63%. If you were just in the $300-500,000 range you didn't do so well: your income only grew an average of 48%.

We're not making this stuff up, and these aren't numbers crafted by a left-wing think tank. These are based on Vermont data and came straight from the Legislature's economist Tom Kavet back in January.

Everyone on Main Street knows the economy isn't treating everyone equally. So why is the state budget hurting those of us who aren't "booming?" We expected a budget that slashes human services from Jim Douglas but seeing the same tactics from Peter Shumlin is a surprise. Even Progressives recognize times are tight, but why are we undermining the programs essential to folks who've been struggling? And why can't we ask those that have boomed to help us weather these tough times?

The Progressive caucus has been at the forefront of asking these simple, essential questions. So far we haven't prevailed but we won't quit. We could do with more company in the halls of the statehouse (isn't it time you considered running for office?).

The good news is that our raising these issues have spurred many to join the chorus. One wonders what might happen if we weren't here to offer the simple step of putting forward a bill. Below is a copy of a letter legislators received in support of H. 401 – Rep. Pearson’s bill to increase taxes on the rich. Even if we're not winning, it feels good to offer a vehicle that people can organize around.

Dear Legislature:

We are the members of the Burlington Self Advocacy Club (BSAC). We are a group of people learning how to speak up for ourselves and others. We are contacting you today to speak up for ourselves and for the next generation of people who will need services. We do not want to see anymore budget cuts for people who receive services in the Developmental Disability community, or the Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Recovery communities. We have paid our budget “dues” the past 3 years.

We urge you to pass bill H401 to raise over $17 million to eliminate the proposed cuts to the most vulnerable of Vermont’s citizens and help solve our budget deficit.

Thank you.


Burlington Self Advocacy Club

Legislative Update: 
Childcare Providers

After weeks of divided testimony on whether and how formation of a provider union could improve the quality of childcare in Vermont, House Human Services passed H.97. Reflecting the contention of the issue, the bill passed on a 6-5 vote. The committee chose to follow the handful of other states with similar legislation and limited membership in the union to the owners of home-based childcare services. Proponents of the bill had argued for inclusion of all individuals who work in the childcare field. Because the state has no relationship with those workers (who are each employed by a private provider), the committee chose not to make the membership so expansive.

The issue arises because Vermont spends $39 million on subsidies to low income children for childcare. Like all human services in Vermont, even this amount is too low to do the job well. Providers who serve subsidized children have difficulty making ends meet and paying a livable wage to their employees. As amended by the committee, H.97 would allow the owners of home-based services to form a union to negotiate with the Agency of Human Services over subsidy rates and opportunities for professional training. Because all agreements are subject to appropriation, the legislature would have the final say over any increased appropriation.

H.97 will now move to the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs committee for further review.

Legislative Update: 
Government Transparency

This week the House took up House bill H.73, entitled "An act relating to establishing a government transparency office to enforce the public records act". This bill sparked hours of debate on the floor both Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday the house voted to accept the Government Operations Committee strike-all amendment. The amendment struck all reference to quasi-public agencies - whether non-profits or for-profit contractors. The stricken language made no distinction between non-profit and for-profit, it subjected a contractor to the public records act if it received more than $250,000 annually from the state and performed an essential governmental function. Some folks feel it is only a matter of time before one is sued and a court holds that they are subject to the Public Records Act.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns opposed two sections of the bill as reported in their Weekly Legislative Report; "the extension of the time that taxpayers have to pay for individuals wanting records searched and copied from 30 minutes to two hours and the requirement that towns pay for lawyers for people suing towns over records releases." The latter possibly having "absurd consequences in cases like the one in Manchester where an attorney sued the town to force it to release the property tax adjustment information for income sensitivity included on property tax bills. That complainant has now substantially prevailed at the Bennington Superior Court and the town has decided to appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court."

On Wednesday, Rep. Leriche of Hardwick asked for a roll-call on the question, "Shall the bill be read a third time?" The vote was decided in the affirmative with the yeas being 134 and the Nays, 5. On Thursday, after several hours of debate and roll-call votes on the various amendments, the bill was read a third time and passed by voice vote, with yeas and nays being off the record.

The Progressive split on the issue, surrounding  the charges to inspect records which may make government only open to those who can afford it. Currently, any citizen has the right to inspect public records free of charge. H.73 is a step backward in this regard. As taxpayers, the public is entitled to know what their government is doing. By attaching fees to record inspections we are creating a chilling effect. State departments will have less of an incentive to keep their records organized and easily accessible.

In the Media: Vermont energy bill moves to the Senate

"There are so many jobs that came out of the past several years with that fund, it really jump-started the industry."

Vermont Progressive Party
802-229-0800 ~

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