BRATTLEBORO—The president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce made her annual visit to town, where she gave a fairly upbeat assessment of the year ahead in the state Legislature, as well as the state’s economy.
Speaking to members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 29, Betsy Bishop said she thought that this year’s legislative session was not nearly as contentious as the press made it out to be.
“Yes, there were some high-profile fights, but overall, the Democratic majority in the Legislature and the Republican administration got along and did some really good things for Vermont,” she said.
And she said she was not concerned about the diminished power of the Republican Party in the Legislature, as the Democrats and their allies in the Progressive Party now have the votes to override any veto by Gov. Phil Scott.
“I see an opportunity to work together,” she said. “We are going to focus our attention [in 2019] on what can get done.”
With initial estimates of the fiscal year 2020 state budget at $5.5 billion, Bishop said she expects Scott to again present “a fairly level-funded” budget, but hopes he will show flexibility on several issues that the Vermont Chamber says are policy goals for the coming legislative session.
Workers needed to maintain growth
Workforce development is still a major issue, Bishop said. With the state’s current unemployment rate at 2.8 percent, she said, few people are unable to find a job.
At the same time, Vermont needs to add 10,000 new workers every year for the next two decades just to maintain current levels of economic growth.
For all the talk by those addressing workforce development about focusing on attracting and retaining the millennial generation in Vermont, Bishop said that “we don’t have the luxury to just focus on them.”
She said attention needs to be paid to keeping workers in their 60s employed flexibly. Older workers don’t necessarily want to work full-time, she said, and they should be given the option to work part-time if they choose.
Tourism and hospitality regulation
Bishop said Vermont does a good job attracting people to visit the state but doesn’t do as well convincing those visitors to stay.
Given all the funding needs for Vermont’s social service programs, she said, increasing funding for marketing “is not an easy sell.”
But she said such an investment is needed, especially a campaign to convey the message that Vermont is a great place to live, work, raise a family, or build a business.
One tourism issue that will likely be debated in the upcoming legislative session is regulation of the AirBnB market.
Bishop said that approximately 6,000 Vermonters rent out spare rooms in their dwellings to visitors, and existing hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts say it is cutting into their business.
Bishop said the Vermont Chamber wants to make sure that AirBnB operators are subject to the same health and safety regulations that hotels and bed-and-breakfasts abide by and that they are sending their fair share of rooms and meals taxes to the state.
Can Act 250 be less cumbersome?
As Act 250, Vermont’s land use law, approaches its 50th birthday, Bishop said the focus still needs to be on making the process less cumbersome for permit-seekers.
She said she doesn’t like the false choice of the environment versus economic growth, which has dominated arguments about Act 250 over the years.
“We need both in Vermont,” she said.
Improving telecommunications services also remains a priority. Bishop said it would cost as much as $300 million for Vermont to fulfill the unfulfilled promise of high-speed internet and cell service everywhere in the state.
“There’s very little debate over the goal,” she said. “Money is the issue.”