As lawmakers gathered for their opening day, they were greeted by hundreds of activists who wanted to make sure their issues aren’t overlooked.
The groups pushed issues ranging from universal health care, to union rights, to more money to clean up Lake Champlain.
The biggest rally took place inside and outside a large Statehouse hearing room where hundreds of people stood shoulder-to-shoulder.
Ed Paquin, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, uses a wheelchair to get around. So he couldn’t get inside the room because it was so crowded. He explained that the event was organized under the slogan "Put People First."
Paquin says the budget process has been turned upside down in recent years as lawmakers faced tight budgets and a political skittishness about raising taxes.
"We definitely in the last few years worked from the assumption that ‘here’s the tax structure that we have and so let’s look at the revenue that raises,’" he says. "And so we don’t think outside … of that as a boundary for budget considerations."
Earlier in the day, a coalition of environmentalists and business-people also issued an urgent plea for lawmakers to spend more money to protect clean water.
Calling themselves the Blue Coalition, the members talked about the fish kills and nutrient pollution that plague Lake Champlain and other waterways.
The group wants new and sustained public investment in water pollution prevention and clean-up. James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, pointed out that a recent report from the Department of Environmental Conservation pegged the cost of Lake Champlain clean up at $156 million a year.
"But that number is hopefully open to spirited debate. And that is the purpose of this coalition is people being willing to have that discussion," he says. "Previously we weren’t even having that discussion. There was a lot of back and forth as to whether there was even a problem to begin with."
The activists said an investment in environmental protection would pay dividends for the tourism industry and for the state’s quality of life. Christopher Kilian, the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, characterizes Lake Champlain’s crisis as a "death spiral" of environmental degradation unless government does more.
"So this from our perspective is a call to action to the governor, to the Legislature, to make real investment in clean water for our future and for the future of our economy," he says.
The goal of all the activists was to bring a face and a voice to the issues that they care about. Anna Gebhardt works in early childhood education, and is seeking the right to organize a union.
"Ultimately, the big picture is that Vermonters are no longer going to fight over crumbs. We’re coming together in solidarity, many different organizations here today to say that all of our issues are important and we’re willing to stand together," she says.
The groups promised to return throughout the session to lobby lawmakers on their issues.