Article published Feb 11, 2009
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER – More than 100 Vermonters protesting Gov. James Douglas’ proposed budget cuts were met with heightened security at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
Mandatory bag checks at entrances, a bomb-sniffing dog on the first floor and an increased presence of security guards changed the atmosphere at the Statehouse as a coalition of organizations continued pressing lawmakers to reject Douglas’ cuts.
Chanting “Save our state,” the protestors rallied in front of the Statehouse before entering the building – after being searched by security guards – and delivering a box of postcards to Douglas’ ceremonial office on the second floor.
“These are the times that we need the state the most,” said Barbara Postman, the coordinator of Voices for Vermont’s Children. “We want the state to step in, not step back.”
Facing a shortfall of more than $200 million in next year’s state budget, Douglas has proposed cutting state programs, staff and spending in a move that everyone admits will affect the services the state offers to residents.
The wild card in the debate is the federal stimulus package, approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and now heading to a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate’s version and a U.S. House bill, which could flush Vermont with upwards of $1 billion over the next two years.
Since announcing the proposed budget cuts last month, several organizations and non-profit groups have rallied under the banner of “Save Our State” to lobby lawmakers to oppose these budget reductions. Many of the groups insist that new revenue needs to be raised, including increasing taxes on the state’s top earners.
Signs at Tuesday’s Statehouse rally included, “This is our State” and “Don’t cut, Obama’s coming.”
Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, told the crowd that the state needs to rally together in tough times, not cut needed services for the poor, elderly and disabled.
He said lawmakers should wait and see how much federal money might come to Vermont from President Obama’s administration and find new sources of revenue to fill in the gaps.
“Yes, our children come first — they will have decent housing, food, and educational opportunities,” Curtis said. “Yes, our seniors deserve affordable medication and support in their golden years. And, yes, we’ll have a safety net for those in need so that nobody slips through the cracks.”
“That is the Vermont that I know,” he added. “And, it’s the Vermont that we all deserve.”
Sergeant-at-Arms Francis Brooks, a former Montpelier lawmaker, is in charge of security at the Statehouse. He said Tuesday that there was no specific threat, but that he felt the heightened security was necessary because of the size of the protest group.
“A lot of people were coming, including some we don’t know,” Brooks said.
While the crowd was large Tuesday, there were no signs of violence. Security officials told members of the media not to photograph their faces as camera crews recorded the protestors move inside the building.
The security scene at the Statehouse was similar to occasions when Douglas would address the Vermont Legislature, such as his budget address last month. But it was vastly different than the same-sex marriage protest at the Statehouse last week, which attracted a crowd roughly twice as large.
Some lawmakers thought the extra security was excessive for a building known as the “people’s house.”
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said the extra security for the protestors was “unfortunate.”
Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, said Statehouse officials shouldn’t treat these protestors any differently than they did in the past.
“They shouldn’t be punished for their passion,” said Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Visitors to the Statehouse shouldn’t be treated differently just because they are new faces.”
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.