By Jessica Brumsted and Kate Webb
Although a protracted debate over school employee health coverage dominated the airwaves over the last few weeks, a number of high-value economic development programs quietly passed to the governor’s desk for signature. The typically cranky Vermont Chamber gave the 2017 legislative session an “A” with the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce echoing that sentiment. Here are a few results:
Housing: An economic development bill sets permitting priorities to encourage both affordable and workforce housing. A $35 million housing bond helps facilitate development, providing economic value to communities, employers, and workers. The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment found building 5,000 new housing units per year would reduce housing as a constraint to economic growth.
DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT: The state has an important role to play in creating tools to support downtown development and revitalization, particularly in distressed areas. Tax Incremental Financing or TIF is one of those tools. In a designated TIF district, municipalities keep part of their property tax revenue to pay for infrastructure improvements such as downtown development, rehabilitation, and pedestrian walkways.
For the first time in years, the state will accommodate six new TIF districts and make $2.5 million available in tax credits. Working with the town of Shelburne, Kate and Jessica made concerted efforts to include the northern part of Shelburne’s Route 7 as a potential TIF applicant. The final bill, however, included location criteria that would make this difficult.
Workforce: Every year, 3,000 young Vermonters enter the workforce with limited job skills. In 2016, the Workforce Development Workgroup interviewed employers representing over 20,000 Vermont employees, finding the state has neither the breadth nor depth of talent in place to meet business demands. An economic development bill creates new initiatives to assess and develop a comprehensive strategy for targeted workforce education and training that works for employers and employees.
This includes strengthening communication across state agencies, state colleges, and career and technical centers. The bill also funds career and training planning for apprenticeships during the critical middle school years.
Small business: This year’s budget priorities made investments in expanded support for small business development centers, microbusiness development, marketing, and career and technical education. Additional small investments were made to the successful farm-to-school programs, working lands, and logging industries. Businesses will also see their contribution to workers’ compensation insurance premiums reduced from 1.75% to 1.4%.
Public retirement program: 45% of working Vermonters have no employer-provided pension plan. Nearly half do not have an IRA or other private plan. Action this year creates a portable, voluntary, simple, and affordable way to supplement Social Security in retirement years. Employees will be automatically enrolled but may opt out. Employers are not required to but may contribute as a benefit.
WORKING FAMILIES: Vermont has an aging demographic and declining school enrollment. Support for young families not only makes humane sense, it is also an investment in keeping and attracting this important population sector. This year, working families will find an additional $2.5 million in subsidies available for childcare services, including an easing of the benefits cliff that so often means lost subsidy when given a raise in pay.
Pregnant women will also find it easier to request accommodations, often as simple as a uniform change, an extra bathroom break, or a chair for a cashier. Required here are reasonable accommodations that do not cause undue harm to the employer.
Timely advancement of these priorities may be constrained by the lack of a signed budget by July 1.