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

'Economic Bill Of Rights' Seeks $15 Minimum Wage

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VPR/Peter Hirschfeld
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Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, uses graphs to illustrate what he calls a widening wealth gap.

Rep. Chris Pearson is the leader of the Progressive Party caucus in the Vermont House of Representatives. And he sometimes likes to use oversized graphs to illustrate his point.

“I’ll just highlight a couple of charts, and these come from the joint Fiscal Office,” Pearson said at a news conference in the Statehouse Tuesday. “This one is to me staggering.”

The chart shows two lines going in opposite directions. Pearson says they offer a powerful visual representation of the rate at which the wealth gap in this country is widening. And he said it’s why Vermont needs an "economic bill of rights."

In years past, the Progressives, joined by liberal members of the Vermont Democratic Party, have pushed for reforms to the income tax code that would basically raise taxes on the rich. Pearson said he hasn’t abandoned that goal. But he said this year like-minded lawmakers will work to increase the minimum wage, and require employers to provide paid sick leave and paid family leave.

“Could any of us, could any of you, live on $8.73 an hour? … And could you survive on $8.73 an hour if you were getting minimal or zero benefits?” Pearson, who represents a district in Burlington, said Tuesday. "That is the reality if you live at the bottom of the chart.”

The bill would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, a figure Pearson and others say at least begins to approach a livable income.

Many business interests have come out against each measure in the proposal, saying they would chill job creation in the state, and dim economic prospects generally. Pearson, though, says the provisions would help solve a demographic challenge that poses a far more serious threat to the state economy.

“What are we going to do? Young people keep fleeing the state. Well I’ll tell you what we’re going to do – we’re going to create an economic reality that’s attractive to people to come here and raise their family, start a family,” Pearson said.

About a dozen legislators of varying political persuasions appeared at the news conference to back the proposals. Rep. Topper McFaun, from Barre Town, was the only Republican. But McFaun says even conservative Vermonters will come around to the wisdom of a strong minimum wage.

“Once the public in Vermont completely understands who’s paying for the subsidies that the working poor are getting, and that’s the middle class by the way, once those people realize that, I feel that they will be on board with this,” McFaun said.

While paid family leave mandates and a $15 minimum wage aren’t likely to become law anytime soon, the push for paid sick days has legs. A separate piece of legislation containing only the sick days provisions will be the subject of hearings later this week, and could get a vote on the House floor before Town Meeting Day.

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