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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Tax Hike On Wealthy Shot Down In Vermont House

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld
Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City) awaits the roll call vote on his amendment to raise $10 million in new revenues to offset federal reductions in Food Stamps.

A debate over income inequality flared up in the Vermont House when lawmakers considered an amendment to increase food aid to needy Vermonters.

And while the amendment went down by a decisive margin, it exposed the lingering desire by some in Montpelier to redistribute the state’s wealth.

Each year, the Vermont House debates its annual tax bill. And each year, Rep. Paul Poirier offers an amendment.

"I don't begrudge people who make a lot of money. I only ask that we have a system whereby we ask people who are doing very well to pay a little bit more for a specific program to make sure that their neighbors can have decent food." - Rep. Paul Poirier

The Barre City Independent’s goal is to raise revenues for programs that support poor Vermonters. And he tends to turn to tax hikes on the rich to supply the money. On Thursday, Poirier sought to raise $10 million by raising income taxes on households making in excess of $225,000 annually. He wanted the money used to offset federal reductions in the food stamps program.

“I don’t begrudge people who make a lot of money,” Poirier said during a floor debate. “I only ask that we have a system whereby we ask people who are doing very well to pay a little bit more for a specific program to make sure that their neighbors can have decent food.”

Poirier said the financial impact on high earners would be as little as $14 per year. And even on households that might pay more, Poirier said he thinks they’ll still get by.

“For people at $353,000, they would pay an additional $889 on their joint return,” said Poirier. “Is that too much to ask to help your neighbor? I say no.”

Rep. Anne Donahue, R- Northfield, said Vermont already asks its wealthiest residents to shoulder a disproportionately high share of government expenses. Donahue said the top 13 percent of tax filers pay 65 percent of revenues. The bottom 60 percent, meanwhile, accounts for only 9 percent of the pie.

“I think that helps demonstrate the degree to which our tax code is progressive,” Donahue said.

Poirier’s amendment – it raised income tax rates by about 1 percent on the top two tax brackets – would have increased the annual tax bills of households making more than $1 million by about $7,000.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, the leader of the Progressive caucus, said the share of taxes paid by the rich isn’t keeping pace with the growth in their overall wealth. He said that more than 100,000 Vermonters benefit from food stamps.

“If this were a representative body Mr. Speaker, 25 of us right now would be collecting food stamps,” Pearson said. “You think we’d have a different kind of discussion if that were the case? Twenty-five people in this room.”

Montpelier Rep. Mary Hooper, a Democrat, said that even in more affluent districts like hers, young children are experiencing the effects of decreased assistance.

“In Montpelier I hear about kids on Fridays putting rolls in their pockets, because they’re not going to have food over the weekend,” Hooper said.

Pearson urged liberal Democrats to vote in favor of the measure, even if it meant bucking a House leadership team that opposes the amendment.

“If you’re concerned about income inequality, if you care about our growing poverty level, if you in your heart believe this is the right direction, here is your chance to be counted,” Pearson said.

The emotional appeals felt short. The amendment won only 28 votes in the 150-member body. House Speaker Shap Smith said after the vote that state lawmakers can’t attempt to fill the holes that open up when Congress decides to cut the federal budget.

“Because if we start down that path, I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop,” Smith said. “And I don’t think we can afford to take care of every single cut that comes down from the feds.”

The House later gave overwhelming approval to an underlying tax bill that raises $1.2 million in new revenues by increased taxes on electronic cigarettes and snuff.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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