Legislative leaders outline priorities for state economy

Balint, Krowinski tell state Chamber that billions in federal stimulus funding will help create a state economy that reinvests in businesses and people

Weathering a global pandemic might be a new experience for business owners. Yet the challenges facing communities are not necessarily new, as highlighted by the legislative priorities shared by Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski with members of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Workforce development, child care, and broadband expansion were three priorities listed by Balint and Krowinski during the March 8 conversation, part of the Chamber's virtual policy series.

“My goal from day one has been to build a recovery plan that leaves no Vermonter behind,” Krowinski said. “The challenges that we had been working on before the pandemic were only made worse because of it - access to affordable child care, broadband infrastructure, affordable housing - are all key things that we need to have thriving communities and businesses.”

Chamber President Betsy Bishop welcomed Balint and Krowinski, noting that the female legislative leaders were attending the event on International Women's Day.

Bishop also queried Balint and Krowinski about what relief funding small business owners could expect from the second round of federal pandemic funding, on the cusp of a final vote expected this week from the House of Representatives and a signature from President Joe Biden.

Business owners have asked for additional grants as well as expressed concerns about potential increases in what businesses must pay to support unemployment insurance, Bishop said, noting that such advocacy was about ensuring that as many of Vermont's businesses as possible will survive the pandemic.

“Part of the goal here is not just to help people but also to help the places where they work, or else those people will need help for even longer,” Bishop said.

The possibility for more investment

The large amount of federal relief funding that will become available to the state is impressive, Bishop said, pointing out that last year the state received $1.25 billion - a lot of aid for a state with an annual budget of $6 billion.

Depending on how the state uses the next round of money recently approved by Congress, it could result in extensive investment to help lessen long-term challenges. Sen. Patrick Leahy has estimated that the Senate version of the new stimulus bill will bring another $1.3 billion to Vermont.

Balint told the audience that Congress' approval of the $1.9 trillion relief package would be only the first step, and that the state will need to wait for the feds to develop rules on how the money can be used.

The Brattleboro Democrat said that the Legislature and state employees have already started discussing how to quickly distribute federal funds once they arrive.

Lawmakers might keep the budget open and finalize items in the late summer or fall, Balint said.

She said that, so far, Vermont has received good news about the next round of money, which should include funding for broadband and for aid to the tourism and hospitality sectors slammed by the pandemic.

“It's also going to give us the opportunity to free up some general funds and give us more options in the budgets,” Balint said.

Prior to the Legislature's Town Meeting break, state lawmakers passed a nearly $80 million COVID-19 relief bill that included $10 million for small businesses which had not received any federal assistance, Krowinski said.

Intertwined challenges

As the conversation unfurled, it appeared that many seemingly distinct challenges were commingled, as were their potential solutions.

For example, as Krowinski pointed out, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. Many women work in frontline jobs, such as restaurants, which were some of the businesses hit hardest by the pandemic. The lack of child care also forced many women to leave the workforce to stay home with their children, she added.

In this example, solutions to two problems - workforce training and affordable child care - dovetail into a larger initiative that can help women return to work.

According to Bishop, prior to the pandemic, Vermont had a shortfall of approximately 10,000 workers. Though the current workforce data was still coming in, she doubted that the numbers would look any better than they did pre-pandemic.

Bishop added a note of concern.

“Nobody disagrees with the need. It's a huge price tag,” she said. “So where do we get the money from?”

Balint answered that funding for some initiatives - for example for broadband - can come through the federal relief funds. Funding other projects will be more complex.

In her opening comments, Balint noted that Vermont ranks sixth highest in the nation when it comes startups passing a four-month milestone. The state ranks seventh for the number of people working for small businesses, she said.

She called this statistic “really impressive” and said that it gives her “hope for the future.”

But, Balint said, “we also know that we need to really target the growth of midsize businesses here in Vermont, because they can provide the good, stable jobs that serve as a long-term base for the economy.”

She added that the state also has a workforce crisis, including that a disproportionate number of employees are older than age 50, with not enough workers filling jobs left open by retirees.

And Vermont is also trying, like the rest of the nation, “to wrestle with these really hard issues around racial justice and inequity,” Balint said, pointing out that people of color will become the majority of the United States workforce by 2032.

“So we know we have to make the state more welcoming, more supportive of a diverse workforce or we're not going to have the workers that we need to grow our businesses,” she said.

Balint and Krowinski said that part of supporting the workforce includes paving clear roads toward training programs or college for graduating high school students.

“We cannot grow from small startups into midsize businesses without a well trained, well educated workforce,” said Balint, who serves on the Senate Committee on Appropriations and Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs.

Krowinski, a Burlington Democrat, added that the financially troubled Vermont State Colleges have also served as economic drivers for their local communities.

Balant, a longtime advocate for housing that is safe and affordable for people of multiple income ranges - housing that is lacking in Vermont - described slow progress on that front.

“We've got a bill that's looking to do more density housing in downtowns and village settlements,” she said. “So it's going to be multi-pronged, but it's not going to be enough. I'm not going to tell you it's enough. It's not.”

She continued, “But I'm going to continue to be dying on the sword of more housing until I'm not in the Legislature anymore, because I think without that, we're not going to attract the employers or employees that we need.”

It's unclear how the pandemic will reshape Vermont's downtowns, Balint said. Some retail businesses might never return to Main Street. Lawmakers are looking at the possibility of repurposing abandoned commercial properties.

Krowinski cited the example of Burlington High School, which recently moved into the former Macy's store in the city's downtown.

Creating more municipal water and sewage systems in Vermont's smaller villages will be necessary if these smaller towns expect to increase housing and other development, Balint said. The federal relief package does seem to include funding for these types of infrastructure projects, she noted.

One housing question hanging out for Chamber members is whether the state supports private developers.

According to Bishop, members feel the state provides extensive financial and technical support for nonprofit organizations or land trusts to create housing - benefits that bypass private developers.

So far, nothing directly, Balint said, but relief funds have gone to private landlords to offset lost rental revenues.

Despite the challenges acknowledged during the conversation, Balint and Krowinski also discussed the opportunities interwoven through the pandemic struggles.

“I think it's so critical, especially during this time and COVID, that we are all sharing the same goals and policy positions because we have limited time and resources,” Krowinski said.

“We have to address the despair that so many businesses are feeling,” Balint added, ”but also tap into that innate optimism and possibility that we have - we are - a dynamic state. We are a creative state.”

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