Representative Heidi E. Scheuermann
As Vermont Legislators get ready to return to Montpelier tomorrow after the weeklong Town Meeting Day break, it is appropriate to evaluate what the General Assembly has done so far, what is being considered, and what might be on tap for the rest of the session.
When Governor Phil Scott took office, he made clear that his Administration had three priorities: 1) Strengthening the economy; 2) Making Vermont more affordable; and 3) Protecting the most vulnerable.
So, how have these three priorities been reflected in legislative action thus far?
MAKING VERMONT MORE AFFORDABLE
RESPONSIBLE STATE SPENDING
Fiscal Year 2018 Budget
First off, the House Appropriations Committee has been charged with reviewing the Governor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 Budget, and making changes they feel necessary. And, thus far, the Governor’s demand that the FY 2018 Budget be level-funded and not be based on any additional taxes and or fees has been heeded.
To be clear, there remains much work to do, but the efforts thus far are commendable in my view.
Governor Scott was clear throughout the 2016 campaign that he would bring fiscal restraint back to Montpelier; that he would oppose any new or increased taxes and fees on Vermonters; and, that under his leadership, the state would start to bring its fiscal house into order.
And, while the demand by the Governor of a level-funded budget was received with skepticism in some circles, I am glad that it clearly caught the attention of the Democratic legislative leadership.
My hope, of course, is that the Appropriations Committee continues its good work and finds the additional savings needed to ensure the reality of a responsible budget this year.
STRENGTHENING OUR ECONOMY
ENCOURAGING ECONOMIC GROWTH
As the Appropriations Committee heeds the call for responsible state spending, other pieces of legislation being considered are sure to put a chill on greater investment and growth for many of our state’s small businesses.
The Big Four
Mandated Paid Family Leave
Minimum Wage Increase to $15.00/Hour
$2.00 Occupancy Fee/Room/Night
Rooms/Meals/Alcohol Tax Increase
The House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs (the committee on which I serve) is working its way through three of the Big Four above, in addition to others.
Under this program, employees would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave over the course of 12 months to care for a family member, or for medical or maternity/paternity leave.
And, both H. 181 and H. 217 would institute a $2.00 occupancy fee on each lodging room per lodging night to fund a Workforce and Supportive Housing Fund. To be clear, this proposal would mean every bed and breakfast, every small inn, and every lodge/motel would be charged an extra $2.00 per room per night on top of the 9% (in some cases 10%) rooms tax.
Finally, the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife has passed a proposal to add an additional 1% to the rooms and meals tax and to the tax on alcohol, the revenue from which would help pay for the clean water efforts.
Make no mistake, all of the goals of the above proposals are admirable – to ensure the ability of Vermonters to take some time to care for their family or themselves; to ensure wages for Vermonter workers continue to grow; to address our state’s housing shortage; and to do all we can to clean up our waterways.
But, adding more and more mandates and fees onto our state’s small businesses is not the way to solve these challenges. For far too long we have been doing just that, to no avail.
Instead, we must create an atmosphere in this state in which investors are encouraged to invest, and businesses encouraged to grow. In turn, wages and benefits will increase organically and our state coffers will fill more easily thereby allowing for greater capacity to do the things we want to do.
You can bet that each one of the proposals outlined above would be exceptionally challenging to our small businesses – especially those in the hospitality industry. And, cumulatively, they would be a disaster.
Anybody who is at all familiar with the hospitality industry and tourism knows very well the challenges that industry already faces. It is a global marketplace now in which we compete, and that competition is fierce. The profit margins are small, and in some cases due to weather or other complications, non-existent. We cannot make it more difficult for these small Vermont businesses to achieve success.
At this time, I am unsure of what kind of support all of these proposals have from the Democratic leadership, but it seems as though both the paid family leave proposal and the minimum wage increase may have the legs needed to progress this year.
While the good news is that Governor Scott has made very clear his opposition to both of them, if you share his concerns – and mine – I urge you to contact your local legislators.
PROTECTING OUR MOST VULNERABLE
There are a number of issues being worked on that would improve the delivery of, and outcomes from, services for our most vulnerable, including improvements to our mental health services and further developments in our opiate epidemic response.
But, much of the focus on the part of the Governor’s Administration and the Legislature is on the potential impact changes at the federal level will have on the funding of our many programs that are designed to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters.
And, given some of the proposals coming from Washington thus far, this focus will continue as the FY 2018 budget development continues, and we prepare for the out-years.