by Rob Roper
Vermonters won’t know the full impact of Tropical Storm Irene until after the fall foliage season and the winter ski season. While the challenges of rebuilding roads, bridges and houses are clearly visible our state’s economy has also taken a blow that needs both immediate and long-term attention.
Vermont Republican Party Chairwoman, Pat McDonald discussed the situation Vermont is in, “We were in a holding pattern before
Irene [in terms of our economy], and now we’ve got some really serious problems to deal with, obviously.” McDonald sees this as a wake-up call for the legislature and the governor to change their priorities and to focus on policies that will promote economic growth.
In the months before Irene hit, Vermont’s unemployment rate was already creeping up, notching tenth of a percentage point increases in both June and July. This trend will likely not be helped by storm damage closing some businesses (either temporarily or permanently) and chasing tourists away from businesses that remain open.
“At the end of last year, before Governor Shumlin took office, Vermont was among the nation’s leaders in terms of our recovery,” said McDonald. “Unfortunately, the new administration took its focus off jobs. Governor Shumlin’s push for single-payer [health care], without telling Vermonters what will be covered, how it will be paid for and what impact it will have on small businesses, has created uncertainty in our economy.” That manufactured uncertainty, coupled with a natural disaster, is a toxic mix that needs to be diffused quickly.
On its own, without the storm, the business climate in Vermont has been as challenging to job creation. Consistently, magazines like Forbes and Kiplinger’s have ranked Vermont at the bottom of good places to do business. Many local businesses are choosing not to create jobs in Vermont either by expanding elsewhere, moving entirely, or doing nothing until the uncertainty created by Montpelier is resolved. CEOs of companies like G.W. Plastics, FabTech, and Wiedmann have spoken out directly about the negative impacts of the new administration’s tax, healthcare and energy policies.
In an August 26 press release, McDonald referenced the story of Susan Wachob and her husband, who are the owners of Hearthside Quilts in Hinesburg. After 14 years of doing business in Vermont the couple decided to move their business to Virginia due to the high taxation levels in Vermont. Wachob was quoted as saying that by moving to Virginia, her business would save three quarters of the money they are paying in taxes to Vermont.
“We have to leave,” said Wachcob. Her message to Montpelier, “What planet are you living on? It’s not the same one I’m living on. We’re empty. We’re done.” (Fox44 July29, 2011)
“We really have really not had a long term economic development plan in a while,” said McDonald, “and that is something we absolutely need that we can all buy into. [A plan] that talks about how you get a pro-growth agenda…” Among the things that McDonald would like to see addressed are policies that work to create a business-friendly environment, proven health care reforms that deliver quality service at lower costs, and ensuring that Vermont maintains a balanced energy portfolio with the lowest electric rates in New England.
“These are policies that Vermonters will support and Vermont’s economy will respond to. A vibrant economy leads to prosperity and stability for individuals and businesses alike. We need to change uncertainty into opportunity,” said McDonald. “It is doable. It’s going to take us a while to recover, but if we do it in a really thoughtful way we can be stronger than ever.”
The worry is that the impact of Tropical Storm Irene will become an excuse for economic failure rather than an impetus for real reform.