“There they go again.”
The Gipper (President Ronald Reagan) said it of Democrats in the 1980s for what he claimed was twisting the truth in congressional battles. The same phrase could be used in Vermont these days as opponents of Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration produce a continous chorus of negativity about the state’s economy.
In a recent column, David Sunderland, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, states unequivocally: “Despite the claims from Gov. Peter Shumlin and his political allies, the data supports what Vermonters know to be the truth — Vermont’s economy is stagnant, there is virtually no net job growth and low and middle income families are struggling under the burden of rising costs.” He’s joined by similar partisan comments from outfits like the Campaign for Vermont, and a chorus of individuals who prefer to see the glass half-empty and take every opportunity to suggest lowering taxes and less government is the only way to ensure a growing economy and strong state revenues.
And give them any chance to take a survey and twist it to show the worst, and it will be done in a heartbeat. A survey bythe Thumbtack/Kaufmann Foundation, for instance, recently gave Vermont a failing grade for not being “business friendly,” a source pounced on by naysayers, despite the fact that every Vermont governor since Gov. Dick Snelling’s second term has made a concerted effort to change that perception and create a business friendly environment — including Republican Gov. James Douglas from 2002 to 2010. (That survey was also seriously flawed as it represents two-year-old data and comes from a very small pool of businesses—there was no update in 2013 and 2014 because the firm couldn’t get the minimum of 30 businesses to give them information—as if any 30 businesses in the state could provide accurate data on the state’s economy.)
Fortunately, there’s more to talk about than doom and gloom.
Here is, as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story:
• In the past biennium, the state has: initiated a one-stop shop portal within the secretary of state’s office that will reduce the paperwork of creating a business from 10 days down to 30 minutes; boosted VEDA’s Entrepreneurial Lending Fund by $500,000; created a Great Jobs site in the state to simplify job searches through Vermont Department of Labor’s JOBLINK, which currently has more than 370 members listing jobs; launched statewide financial networking workshops; continued to make progress with Vermont’s EB-5 projects, including work with Mount Snow ski resort, ANC Bio in Newport, Burke Mountain Ski Resort and expansion at the Stowe airport, to name a few.
• On the job creation front, the unemployment rate in the state was 6 percent when Gov. Shumlin took office and is now 3.3 percent, second lowest in the nation. (Critics cite the U-6 rate, which are those underemployed or who have given up looking for work, but that is the same throughout the nation, and has always been higher than the unemployment rate.) Furthermore, since 2011 about 11,000 net new jobs have been created in the state, which works to counter those jobs that have been lost in the constant churn of the economy. Vermont is also among the top four states in the nation for wage growth in the technology sector.
• While job losses dominate the news, including the focus on what IBM might do in Essex Junction, here are a few businesses that are expanding: Darn Tough socks in Northfield, which projects a doubling of its production in the next few years; Vermont Castings in Bethel; Keurig Green Mountain in Williston; Mack Molding in Arlington; Vermont Hard Cider in Middlebury; Vermont Precision Tools, Swanton; Dealer.com in Burlington; Myland in St. Albans; an $80 million Spruce Peak Adventure project in Stowe that will create jobs, as well as a $21 million, 80,000-square-foot club house at the Hermitage Club in Wilmington, that will also create numerous new jobs.
In the food sector, Vermont has added 199 businesses and 2,162 jobs since 2009, and the overall number of farms in the state has reversed a decades old trend to post an increase of 5 percent in the past five years. In the same time period, the overall value of agricultural products has grown 15 percent.
On the energy front, Vermont’s incentives have been working. Solar Foundation rates the state first for solar job creation (1,000 jobs created in 2013 alone), and more solar job creation per capita than any other state in the nation.
• In tourism, Vermont again posted a strong year in skier visits, ranking it best in the East and third best in the nation, just behind California and Colorado, but ahead of Utah for the second consecutive year and far ahead of New Hampshire or Maine. That leads to strong economies in the state’s 18 ski resort markets.
• As for accolades, while Vermont may never rank in the top 10 most business-friendly states (because those rankings deduct points for corporate taxes; regulations that provide for clean air, water, safety and good building practices; high minimum wages and other practices that promote healthy living and strong communities), Vermont is consistently lauded for its quality of life. CNBC recently named Vermont as the second best place in the country for quality of life (next to Hawaii); ranked third for working mothers, per WalletHub, and the CDC ranked Vermont kids as the healthiest in the nation. Vermont was also ranked first in the nation by Opportunity Nation’s “the Opportunity Index” for the third year in a row, and has the second highest in-migration rate of people with college degrees.
And that’s not all.
Vermont’s Legislature took important steps to provide Vermont’s youth with needed skills by leading the nation in its early childhood education programs with a $37 million federal grant; invested $800,000 to double state support for dual enrollment to lessen the cost of a college education for qualifying students; and expanded access to universal pre-kindergarten education to all three- and four-year-olds, as well as many other education-based reforms aimed at preparing young Vermonters for tomorrow’s more advanced economy.
The Legislature also invested the highest amount in the state’s history toward rebuilding its transportation infrastructure, as well as investing in a cleaner energy future for the state, including $8 million to increase energy efficiency in state buildings, a move that will generate annually savings of 5 to 10 percent for decades to come.
The fact is the state does a lot to grow jobs, attract new industry, prevent job flight, and, in short, create a strong economy. It has for the past 30 years or more on an active basis. It’s a tough job with stiff competition from the other 49 states, and throughout the globe. We win some and we lose some.
Opponents can survey the scene as the glass being half empty and bemoan the downside while ignoring the upside, or take a different tack and champion what is working well, while working on those aspects that could be done better. But the next time you read or hear a litany of complaints about Vermont’s economy, ask yourself this: What are they proposing that’s positive and constructive, and what about “the rest of the story.”
Angelo S. Lynn