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Legislators face off over increase in minimum wage, paid leave, and other economic issues

BRATTLEBORO—How can the state foster a better business climate, help create more jobs, and ultimately create a better economy for Windham County?

Members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce posed these and other questions to seven of our county’s legislative delegation during a regular Chamber breakfast speakers series held at the Brattleboro Retreat on March 17.

Most audience questions centered on economic development, and two bills in the Legislature — one that would mandate paid leave and another that would raise the minimum wage.

Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane, explained a misconception about the paid leave bill, H.208 — that it somehow requires employers to provide 56 hours of paid sick time each year.

Not so, Marek said. The bill requires paid time off no matter the purpose, be it sick time, vacation time, or personal time (even to just go hunting). He estimated that 75 percent of Vermont employers already comply — and said that the food service industry was the sector least in compliance.

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, agreed. He’s worked in the food service industry, and owns his own catering company, and said the food service industry has an “archaic” tradition of workers reporting for work even when sick.

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, said that most jobs not offering 56 hours of paid time off pay such low wages that affected workers simply can’t afford to take time off.

Marek added he was certain the bill wouldn’t make it through the House this legislative session.

Raising the minimum wage

Marek said that in his opinion a higher minimum wage likely will be phased in “over a few years” to $10 or $10.50 an hour.

The state minimum wage is $8.73 per hour for most employees in Vermont, with exceptions for tipped employees, some student workers, and other exempt occupations.

Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, said he would prefer the state expend that effort on attracting employers that pay livable wages. He said he viewed the wage issue as an attempt by politicians “to earn political brownie points,” and that it was unfortunate that prices would simply keep pace with wages — a wash for low-paid employees.

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said she supported raising the minimum wage but felt that the state couldn’t make all the desired changes at once.

She suggested the state should prioritize the war on drugs first, then in providing its citizens with a solid education, then in fostering job creation, and finally in raising the minimum wage.

Toleno said that although the state “still does not want to go too far too fast” in raising the minimum wage, research he’s read demonstrates the positive outcomes of raising the lowest wage.

He said communities that raise their minimum wage also see an improvement in their economy.

Funding infrastructure

One audience member asked how the state planned to pay for infrastructure such as highways and transmission lines now that more people drive fuel-efficient cars and use more solar power, which reduces revenues from the state’s fuel tax.

Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said that the state is looking for ways to fund and maintain its highways.

The federal transportation trust fund probably will go bankrupt in a few years, she said, so the state is actively seeking solutions. She noted the state raised the gas tax last year to help make up for lost revenue.

She said another possible solution is to tax people based on the miles they travel.

Hebert serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. This committee has worked on a net metering bill that contains increasing the number of allowed net metering projects. The bill also requires Green Mountain Power to study how to continue to fund infrastructure such as transmission lines as the use of solar power increases.

Economic development and a post-VY economy

Audience members quizzed legislators on what Montpelier was doing to support economic development in Windham County — especially in light of this year’s pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

Hebert said that Montpelier was essentially counting on its agreement with VY’s owner, Entergy, which includes economic development money for Windham County.

That agreement is contingent on the Public Service Board granting the plant a Certificate of Public Good.

Hebert added that the Legislature needed more business-minded people making the decisions.

“It’s really sad what’s happening to our town,” said Patricia O’Donnell, Vernon Selectboard chair and former legislator.

She told the audience and lawmakers that Entergy funneled millions of dollars to the state through the generation tax. Now the state had to help Vernon.

She asked who in Montpelier is looking to help Windham County?

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the appropriations bill contains economic development money for Windham County separate from Entergy’s agreement with the state.

Montpelier’s responsibility is to create a supportive business climate — not to create jobs, White added.

There isn’t any one big thing the Legislature can do to improve the economy, White said, explaining that such improvement stems from “a number of little actions.”

White pointed to an example — last year the legislature passed an anti-patent-trolling bill aimed at protecting patent holders from bogus claims of infringement. That bill means little to the average person, White said, but it means a great deal to many — including her nephew’s friends in the music industry — who now see Vermont as an attractive place to move to and work in, specifically because of that measure.

Business owners complained to the panel that Vermont is an expensive place to do business. What are you doing, they asked, to create jobs and be more business-friendly?

Toleno said that work is ongoing and involves “really complex system change.”

He said he supports the work of organizations such as Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) and CEDS, a federally recognized economic development strategy.

It is such efforts as these, he said, that would create a structure for change.

As well, Windham County has “an innovation problem,” Toleno said, adding that the county needs to find a way to create innovation that the state can then support.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #246 (Wednesday, March 19, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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