Legislative Update: economic development a priority

We are in the final weeks of the Legislative session. I fear if we need to extend the session it will be the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee’s doing, as the 150-page Senate bill (S.138) that we received in our committee a few weeks ago has just left our committee with many changes and additions.
Economic development was one of the governor’s priorities at the beginning of the year. The House leadership also punctuated its importance. So when the Senate developed a sound piece of legislation, but had it stripped of much of its content by other Senate committees, our House committee was handed a watered-down version of the original bill. We went to work.
As we are grappling with a significant budget shortfall, many deleted items from the Senate economic development bill had to do with tax credits and other money issues. We’ve put some of these ideas back in the bill. Sometimes you need to spend money to make money. Examples include adding dollars to the state’s marketing effort, specifically to create a branding campaign to hold Vermont out as an excellent place to do business. We’ve labeled this effort “innovative by nature.”
We’ve added tax credits for job training, research and development programs, and for first-time home buyers. The House bill also has a college loan forgiveness program for Vermont residents that graduate from any Vermont institution of higher learning and go on to accept a job in one of the many targeted industries with in our state. Part of this “Vermont Strong” scholars’ program is the further development of intern programs with partnering businesses.
In addition there is authorization for a study that focuses on training opportunities for young adults. Keeping Vermont’s hardworking and brightest young people in Vermont is a challenge and a priority.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee also has included, in this now 166-page bill, two sections to boost the efforts of people who have disabilities and are part of Vermont’s workforce. The “Able Savings” plan allows disabled workers on Medicaid to have larger savings accounts than the law currently permits and we’ve also adjusted the income parameters for disabled workers. Neither of these enhancements will have an adverse effect on Medicaid funding, but both will give disabled workers more flexibility in dealing with life’s financial issues.
Some of the other pieces to the economic development bill include making it easier for out-of-state workers to come into Vermont and help in times of state “declared” disasters, and liberalizing the rules on fortified wines. Among several studies authorized in the bill is one to examine how our technical high schools (Hannaford Career Center, etc.) can work to integrate their programs with available Vermont jobs, and an investigation into “block chain” technology which is fast making an appearance in our lives. We also have a provision to kill the “cloud tax” as it is unenforceable and sends the wrong message to the tech industry.
This Commerce Committee’s bill will travel to Appropriations and Ways and Means. We hope it arrives on the house floor intact.
One last economic development note: The House passed a mandatory sick pay bill last week. While well intended, it is unfriendly to small Vermont businesses. Businesses, and all entities for that matter, must offer paid sick days to full- and part-time employees after a waiting period. There is no age restriction, no exception for business startups or businesses of a certain size, plus part-time employees must be included in the eligibility requirements. These factors will put many small business people in a pickle. There are only three other states that have similar legislation and those states have more exceptions to their rules.
What I find interesting about the bill is that while proponents claim there are 60,000 Vermont employees without sick leave, there have been few incidents of complaints about the lack of sick days. Vermont employers take care of their people. It is my understanding this bill is going nowhere in the Senate this year. The Senate will take it up next session when, I hope, the concerns I expressed will be addressed.

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