January 28, 2022
With nearly $26 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants sitting idle, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein suggested to House and Senate committees this funding be moved into the Capital Investment Program (CIP). The Vermont Chamber urged the committees to keep the money in the Bridge Grant program and fix the formula and application process to allow businesses to easily access this funding. While the Vermont Chamber is supportive of the CIP, it focuses on a different set of businesses that have largely recovered. Allocating money separately for that program is preferential to taking money away from the Business Grant program. For many businesses in the lodging, restaurant, and wedding industries, the pandemic is not over, and they still have unmet need.
The Senate Economic Development, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee returned to the issue of increasing Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits with S.221, a proposal to create a temporary supplemental benefit of $25 per week, paid for with federal ARPA funds. The temporary benefit would remain in place until 2024, at which time the Committee hoped the UI computer system could be modernized, and a permanent $25 supplemental weekly benefit could take effect. The Vermont Department of Labor testified that this is unrealistic, and IT modernization is likely to take up to five years once funding is provided and a contract selection process is completed. The Committee is hesitant to pass a bill implementing a supplemental benefit that may not be continued as promised but is also under pressure from the U.S. Department of Labor to either repeal the legislation passed last year authorizing the supplemental benefit or find a fix. The Vermont Chamber believes tax relief for Vermonters will be more effective in accomplishing the Committee’s goals than increasing unemployment benefits for this comparatively small pool of people.
With all eyes on the workforce shortage, several Committees and caucuses are looking at the needs of underutilized workers. 
  • The House Education Committee heard from the Student Pathways Division about the Career and Technical Education (CTE) system. The Vermont Chamber supports existing efforts to weave in CTE education in the younger grades, through more robust career advising and CTE recruitment. 
  • The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation brought the needs of the populations they work with in seeking stable employment to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Transportation is one of the main challenges, but some employers have worked with employees and local partners to find creative solutions. This conversation is just beginning and needs to be continued in the transportation committees. 
  • The Department of Corrections spoke to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee about their successes in training incarcerated individuals for jobs in the community. Job skills training programs could be more effective when coupled with social and emotional skills training, as employers are ready and willing to hire and collaborate with this population to make the transition into the workforce a long-term success.
The Senate Economic Development Committee is crafting an Omnibus Economic Development bill to fund and create programs with ARPA dollars to spur economic recovery. The Agency of Commerce has asked for a $6 million appropriation to fund the popular new and remote worker incentive program with only $1 million of that being base funding. Additionally, they have asked for $8.4 million of one-time funding to create a targeted effort at recruiting new Vermonters for specific operations. Some of these funds would also be granted to regional organizations to formalize the referral network and help people find jobs, housing, and community.
Expediting the development of housing stock continues to drive discussion as both the House and Senate wade through the bills amending Act 250, housing regulation, and the designation programs. The Senate Natural Resources Committee took testimony from planners and public and private housing developers, including Vermont Chamber members. The practical feedback provided from these experts on State and local level regulations brought attention to the added time and expense and the duplicative and unclear permitting processes which can add to projects in smart growth areas. With this feedback it is unlikely that either S.234 or S.200 will advance in their current forms as both create additional responsibilities for poorly resourced municipalities and uncertainty for developers. The housing crisis was discussed in a powerful conversation during the session with BIPOC businesses and Vermont professionals of color at the Vermont Chamber’s Annual Economic Conference.
The House Ways and Means Committee continued to review H.510, a $100 monthly refundable child tax credit proposed for each child under six years of age in a family, modeled after the now-expired Federal Child Tax Credit. According to the legislative fiscal analyst, "It is a reasonable conclusion that you could expect a lot of families in Vermont to use that child tax credit for child care like they have at the federal level." This expenditure would be funded out of the State budget at a cost of $58 million per year. The Department of Taxes provided a comparison of this bill to the $50 million tax cut proposed by the Governor, which includes a suite of tax changes and proposals directed at tax relief for working families and retirees. The department raised concerns about smaller percentage of Vermonters reached with H.510, 11%, compared to the Governor’s proposals, 24%. Both proposals are meant in part to help recruit more people to live and work in Vermont, a priority of the Vermont Chamber.
The Senate Economic Development, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee is considering bills to raise the minimum wage and establish a paid family leave program.
  • S.52 would incrementally raise the minimum wage each year, to reach $15 per hour by 2025, and then increase each year by five percent or by the percentage increase of the consumer price index, whichever is smaller. Since the tipped minimum wage is 50% of the minimum wage, this bill will incrementally raise the tipped minimum wage, which is currently $6.28 per hour. Many businesses report that to attract workers they are already paying $15 per hour.
  • S.65 proposes to create a Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program, which would provide eligible employees with paid parental and family leave, and the option to obtain medical leave coverage for their own illness. This would cover employees who need to take time off to care for a family member sick with COVID but would not cover time off for quarantine. The Committee discussed ways to reimburse employers who experienced staff absences due to quarantine, and the Vermont Chamber supports the exploration of this problem. The Vermont Chamber also supports an opt-in model for businesses and employees.
ARPA sent trillions of dollars loaded with opportunity to states and municipalities across the country. One provision expanded premium subsidies for individuals purchasing their own health insurance on Vermont Health Connect (VHC). Last year, the Vermont Chamber successfully lobbied to separate the small group market from the individual market, resulting in nearly $17 million of savings for businesses that purchase health insurance for their employees on VHC. The markets will be merged again if the federal government doesn’t continue the premium subsidy expansion, resulting in a large increase of employer premiums. This is not ideal as the one-year savings was helpful to businesses recovering from the pandemic-induced economic downturn. The Vermont Chamber is supporting a proposal to move the trigger date for this action to September 1. The Vermont Chamber will also stress that allowing those expansion costs, totaling $76 million, to be added to the current cost shift onto the small group market is unacceptable.
  • Older Vermonters Caucus – The Vermont Chamber addressed the Older Vermonters Caucus, advocating for greater mature worker participation in the labor force, and presenting actions to be taken in response to the decline in employment by this demographic. Recruitment and retention of workers aged 55+ is crucial to addressing our demographic crisis and the resilience of the Vermont economy.
  • Social Equity Caucus – Al Wakefield, a former businessman in the Rutland area, is leading a push to encourage towns in Vermont to adopt the Declaration of Inclusion. Building equitable and inclusive communities and telling our story beyond our borders is the best way to attract diversity and encourage new people to live and work in Vermont.
  • Tourism Caucus – The Vermont Chamber provided an update to the Tourism Caucus regarding workforce in the tourism and hospitality industry. The Caucus was joined by industry representatives and the Vermont Department of Labor, and discussed challenges, opportunities, and the changing landscape for the industry’s workforce. Workforce recruitment and retention, a priority of the Vermont Chamber, will be critical as the industry works to emerge from the pandemic.
  • Discrimination - H.320, a bill prohibiting settlements of discrimination claims from including no-rehire clauses, was voted favorably out of the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee, after being amended to clarify that it would not impact settlements negotiated on or before June 30, 2022. H.329, a bill amending discrimination laws, will receive further consideration before a vote, after the Committee heard testimony from the Vermont Chamber and other representatives of the business community.
  • Medical Monitoring - The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously in favor of S.113, a proposal to establish a cause of action for the remedy of medical monitoring for a person who is exposed to a proven toxic substance. The Vermont Chamber testified, advocating for proximate cause and making the legal test consistent with federal court decisions. The Committee amended the bill to adopt these changes.
  • Rental Registry - The Senate Finance Committee voted favorably on S.210, a bill to create a rental registry that is inclusive of some short-term rentals and rental housing. Short-term rentals that are rented less than 90 days are exempt from the registry, diluting the effectiveness of the registry. During subsequent discussion in the Senate Appropriations Committee, several committee members expressed concern that the Administration may not look favorably upon this bill.
  • Contractor Registry - H.157, a proposal to require residential building contractors to register with the State, passed the Senate but may not garner the Governor’s signature. The registry would apply to residential contractor agreements valued at over $3,500.
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