A New Normal: The 2022 Legislative Session in Review

A New Normal: The 2022 Legislative Session in Review

This commentary is by Betsy Bishop, President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, and Megan Sullivan, Vice President of Government Affairs

Each year, the end of the legislative session coincides with warmer weather, signaling peak tourism season just around the corner. For many Vermont businesses, however, this will be the third summer in a row that they are overwhelmed with uncertainty instead of anticipation. While elected officials resumed in-person operations at the State House, the Vermont business community is still working to determine their “new normal.”

The foundation of the Vermont Chamber advocacy this session was the stark reality that Vermont has an estimated 26,000 job openings and an unemployment rate of 2.7%. With 25,500 fewer people participating in the workforce than pre-pandemic, employers are going to unprecedented lengths to retain employees and recruit new workers.

While businesses continued to battle the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, including a constrained labor force, increased payroll expenses, reduced hours, 8.3% inflation, and endless supply chain problems, progress was made on many policy fronts due to the support from legislators who listened to our members and our dedicated five-person Vermont Chamber advocacy team.

The Vermont Chamber succeeded on most of our 2022 legislative session agenda items, including retaining Vermont workers, helping businesses emerge from the pandemic, increasing workforce housing supply, and recruiting new workers to Vermont:

Workforce Recruitment:

  • Over $3.5 million was secured for workforce recruitment initiatives , including $3 million for relocation incentives, and $500,000 to the State Refugee Office for grants to support increased in-migration and retention of New Americans.

Workforce Retention:

  • $1.5 million was allocated for a two-year pilot program for a regional workforce expansion system, $250,000 for a Special Oversight Committee on Workforce Expansion and Development and $2.5 million in forgivable loans for college graduates who commit to work in Vermont for two years after graduation.
  • Included in the final omnibus housing bill was $15 million for the Missing Middle Homeownership Development program to increase the supply of housing for middle-income workers. There are also funds for an expansion of the priority housing project program and funding to increase the supply of rental units through grants to property owners.

Workforce Training:

  • $15 million was secured for a Career and Technical Education Construction and Rehabilitation Learning Program and Revolving Loan Fund through Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to rehab decrepit buildings and creative housing units.
  • Additional funding includes $3 million secured for the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, $1.5 million to the Department of Labor for a Vermont Work-Based Learning and Training Program, $387,000 to Vermont Technical College for a skilled meat cutter training/apprenticeship facility, $250,000 for the Vermont Professionals of Color Network to provide business coaching and training.
  • The Department of Corrections was granted $420,000 to address vocational enhancement needs and $300,000 to establish a community reentry pilot program.

Business Recovery:

  • $38 million was also secured for business recovery programs, including $19 million for Vermont Economic Development Authority forgivable loans, $40 million for Community Recovery and Revitalization Grant Program, and $9 million for Creative Economy Grants.
  • Several provisions in a liquor law modernization bill will be beneficial for the hospitality industry, including moving ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs) into the wholesale/retail space, permitting first-class licensees to sell RTDs, staggered vs. annual license renewals, and clarification for licensees to participate in the rare and unusual product raffles.
  • $17.7 million of continued savings were secured for health care premiums for small businesses using the Vermont Health Connect.
  • The manufacturing tax exemption expansion would exempt machinery and equipment used in integrated production operations and all ancillary processes between raw materials and finished goods, as well as some secondary packaging processes.

While there were many wins for the business community this session, the Legislature failed to deliver on key workforce recruitment efforts by not passing an allocation for relocation marketing or a full tax exemption on military retirement income. Even so, House and Senate leaders will head into the campaign season with a strong record of supporting the Vermont Chamber agenda and the Vermont business community. From our annual Vermont Economic Conference to our State to Main policy podcast series, to supporting the Vermont Declaration of Inclusion initiative, the Vermont Chamber once again set the tone for making Vermont a better, more vibrant place to live, work, and play.

Betsy Bishop, of East Montpelier, is the President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life.

 

Megan Sullivan, of Jericho, is the Vice President of Government Affairs at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life.

Economic and Workforce Development Bill Passes Despite Veto Concerns

Economic and Workforce Development Bill Passes Despite Veto Concerns

The House and Senate passed a $99.5 million economic and workforce development bill, sending it to the Governor’s desk. For the over 100-page omnibus bill, the Conference Committee put in long hours and late nights to reach a compromise, including a $19 million VEDA forgivable loan program with a cap of $350,000 or six months of operating expenses, and an eligibility criteria based on at least a 22.5% reduction of adjusted net operating income during 2020 and 2021 combined. The bill includes $9 million in creative economy grants and a total of $10 million for the Community Recovery and Revitalization Grant Program, which  expands eligibility for nonprofits and municipalities doing infrastructure improvements and community development activities. However, the bill only includes a little over $3 million for relocation incentives and nothing for recruitment marketing, which was a priority for the Governor.

The minimum wage hike was deleted from the bill, but the unemployment insurance supplemental benefit provision remained and became even more onerous and expensive for the Department of Labor to administer. Beginning July 1, 2022, the maximum weekly benefit would increase by $60, then sunset in three years or when $8 million is drawn down from the UI Trust Fund. At that point, the benefit would increase by $25 until an additional $92 million is drawn down from the UI Trust Fund. The bill optimistically contains plans for the Department to meet this goal ahead of schedule, which the Department repeatedly testified is not feasible.

The Vermont Chamber worked closely with the committees of jurisdiction and the administration to ensure businesses will receive the support they need to recover. While many of our priorities were addressed, the bill contains absolutely no plan to recruit workers to Vermont, a glaring omission amid the severe labor shortage. Due to this exclusion, the Governor’s veto threat lingers as legislators adjourn.

Act 250 Bill Passes House With Poison Pill

Act 250 Bill Passes House With Poison Pill

S.234, a proposal to change Act 250 to allow for more housing, was amended by the House with a significant change in governance which the Governor opposes, jeopardizing it’s passage. While many of the permitting provisions in S.234 promote smart growth development, they do not go far enough to create the transformational impact on Vermont’s housing crisis that is needed right now.

Unfortunately, the House chose to add language from the Act 250 governance bill, H.492, rather than let S.234 bill stand on its own merits as a largely housing permitting bill. The proposed change to the Act 250 governance structure would establish an environmental board in which appeals to Act 250 decisions would be decided by the newly established board rather than the environmental court.

The proposed new governance structure has caused significant concern in communities and with leaders across Vermont. Mayors, town managers, developers, housing advocates, and community leaders voiced their concerns of the impact this change could have to make critical housing development harder in written testimony. By creating multiple paths for appeals to follow, one for ARN and one for Act 250, costs and complexity associated with development will increase.

With the addition of the governance language, barriers to development may increase rather than be alleviated through this legislation. The Senate has not reviewed the concerns raised by these letters in any committee and it is hard to see how adequate time can be given to working through this additional language as the session comes to close. The Governor is all but certain to veto the bill if that language is included in the final bill.

Vermont Chamber Pushes Legislature to Ease Restrictions for Business Recovery Grants

Vermont Chamber Pushes Legislature to Ease Restrictions for Business Recovery Grants

The Vermont Chamber testified in the Senate Economic Development Committee urging changes to the $30 million Bridge Grant program to make the application process easier so businesses can access these funds. With only $3.6 million allocated in 2021, the Committee appears willing to make changes to accomplish this goal. The Vermont Chamber aims to protect this funding from being reallocated toward other programs and supports providing the Agency of Commerce greater discretion to determine need beyond just a net loss year over year. Priority should be given to applicants in the restaurant and lodging sectors, which have been impacted most. The Vermont Chamber also urged the Committee to make this change in the first month of the legislative session to expedite the grant relief to businesses who are now faced with further impacts due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Read the Vermont Chamber’s full testimony here.

Business Grant Program may be Re-Tooled to Better Meet Need

Business Grant Program may be Re-Tooled to Better Meet Need

Preliminary discussions in committees on the $30 million Bridge Grant program highlighted the low participation rate with only $3.6 million allocated. The early consensus is that program amendments are needed with the Department of Economic Development asking for greater discretion to determine need beyond just a net loss year over year. The remaining need continues to focus on the hospitality, performing arts and agriculture industries. With nearly $25 million remaining in this program and the Governor’s previous interest in reserving another $25 million for business grants, this will be a priority for the Vermont Chamber. We will work toward an amendment that makes this program less restrictive and easier to access in a timely manner.

Vermont Chamber Focusing on Workforce Talent and Growth

Vermont Chamber Focusing on Workforce Talent and Growth

By Betsy Bishop, Vermont Chamber of Commerce

The last two years changed our communities and how we do business. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Vermont businesses rallied, innovated, and pivoted. Still, not every business was able to stay open. And now, as we work to recover from the health crisis and economic downturn, a severe labor shortage spans across every industry.

There is a long road ahead, with business operations and consumer expectations permanently changed. The health of our state’s economy and workforce depends on the evolution of our businesses and continued support from government leaders. In 2022, the Vermont Chamber will focus on the most pressing issue that our businesses are facing: growing and retaining Vermont’s workforce to address our labor shortage.

In every policy discussion, we plan to evaluate the impact on Vermont’s economic and workforce growth. We will continue advocating for continued or increased support for: 

  • Funding training programs and RETAIN 

Training programs like the Vermont Training Program and Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act give Vermonters the ability to upskill and enter high-need industries like manufacturing, information technology, and health care. Vermont is also participating in the U.S. Department of Labor’s RETAIN program to help workers with injuries and illnesses stay at or return to work.  

  • Supporting career and technical education 

We support the Vermont Futures Project recommendation to strengthen the Career Technical Education system so that more high school students can pursue post-graduation career opportunities, including through alternative funding and governance models and integrated academic offerings focused on expanding the workforce supply.

  • Funding relocation grants and programs

The Vermont Chamber has long supported funding relocation grants, and this program is even more important now as the labor shortage puts pressure on an inadequate amount of workers. The Vermont Futures Project identified that Vermont needed 10,000 more workers in the labor force before the pandemic. That number has more than doubled. The Vermont Department of Financial Regulation recently released a report quantifying the effectiveness of the incentive programs, which shows that for every dollar spent by the state on this program in 2019, there was $66.26 in economic activity generated. The Stay-to-Stay program has also proven to be an important component of the recruitment and retention effort as the report further illustrates how these programs are a key component of the state’s strategy to attract and retain new workers.

  • Removing tax on military retirement pay 

In 2022, we will continue pushing for a military retirement pay tax exemption. Better incentivizing military retirees to move to Vermont would increase the diversity of our communities while also strengthening our workforce. 

  • Increasing funding for refugee resettlement  

For years, the Vermont Chamber has supported additional funding for refugee resettlement in Vermont. Welcoming refugees to our state is part of the Vermonter spirit, helps our economy, and grows our workforce when we need it most. 

  • Encouraging second chance hiring 

Employers have worked to reduce barriers to workforce participation, specifically in second chance hiring for Vermonters entering the workforce after struggling with addiction or leaving the corrections system. We need all Vermonters to participate in the workforce, and employers need support to understand the needs of these workers and support them as they return to the workforce.  

  • Supporting child care investments 

A report by the U.S. Chamber showed that, of states examined, losses averaged $1 billion annually in economic activity due to breakdowns in child care. Even before the pandemic, three out of five of Vermont’s youngest children didn’t have access to child care they needed. We will continue supporting investments in child care to make it easier for parents to work and to attract new families to Vermont. Available and affordable child care is not just a business issue – it impacts all Vermonters, and the Chamber will work with partners across sectors to find a sustainable solution.  

  • Supporting new housing

Aging housing stock, tight supply, and rising prices near employment centers have forced people to make difficult choices about where to live and work. We need to increase the overall amount of housing units in Vermont while also focusing on creating housing options for low- and middle-income Vermonters to grow and retain our workforce. 

  • Fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion

The Vermont Chamber is also focused on making Vermont an equitable and inclusive state, where all feel welcome. Doing so is necessary for our state and the only way to attract new residents and workers. 

And Vermont businesses are doing their part. Between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2021, wages increased by 13 percent, employers got creative to support their staff and keep them healthy and connected, and businesses adapted to improve employee safety with PPE and altered work environments.  

This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. Our political leaders helped businesses across the state persevere, but the challenges continue. Political attention to Vermont business issues and aid for them must also continue. 

We will advocate and use our strengths to position Vermont businesses for success. In 2022, supporting our state’s economy and growing our workforce is paramount. 

Betsy Bishop is the President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life. She lives in East Montpelier.

Announcing our 2022 Economic Conference

Announcing our 2022 Vermont Economic Conference

Over the last two years, Vermont’s business community innovated to adapt to new requirements and expectations. Businesses are still being impacted by pandemic-related restrictions, economic factors, and concerns – and now face a labor shortage that spans across every industry.

Attend our 2022 Economic Conference to learn about the national and state economic trends facing Vermont businesses for 2022 while also hearing how Vermont can become an economic leader by welcoming all, supporting and growing our diverse communities, and leaning into our state’s strengths.

The 2022 Vermont Economic Conference will be held virtually over Zoom at no cost. Register today!

Vermont Businesses Double Down on Digital Presence This Holiday Season

Vermont Businesses Double Down on Digital Presence This Holiday Season

By Amy Spear, Vermont Chamber of Commerce

Every holiday season, restaurateurs, retailers, and other small businesses encourage customers to shop local, with the shopping season formally kicking off with Small Business Saturday. As COVID challenges continue to plague businesses in all areas of operation from employee recruitment to competition for sales against giant online marketers, Vermont’s small business community is getting creative and taking advantage of the digital marketplace.

As the Vice President of Tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, I’ve witnessed our members doubling down on digital engagement to compete this holiday season for job recruitment, customer retention and engagement, and creative purchasing opportunities. Vermont makers and merchants have embraced an innovative spirit to meet their challenges head on.

Whether it’s maintaining and building relationships with customers or helping shoppers to experience the wonder of Vermont in person, developing a robust online presence is not only convenient and entertaining, but also essential. As Vermont businesses are geared up to launch marketing campaigns with traditional paid ads supporting their local newspapers, radio, and television stations, they have also turned to social media tools to entice customers to buy products or visit their retail locations.

For example, digital innovations boosted Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ ability to build and maintain relationships with its customers. Lawson’s Finest is known for producing high-quality craft brews, like their Sip of Sunshine IPA and unique maple brews. But as they continue to build their brand and reach, they’re using Facebook Live to regularly host conversations with their customers and answer their questions. And they’re promoting their “Tuesday Tunes” and “Open Mic” nights via Facebook Events.

Additionally, at the pandemic onset, they pivoted to online sales through their website and developed a curbside pick-up service to support their retail business which made some customers more comfortable not to have to go into a retail outlet. Lawson’s Finest even used their digital communications channels to launch a brand-new brew – Little Sip IPA – during the pandemic. By using creative promotional giveaways and scavenger hunts they were able to connect directly with fans to encourage them to try their new beers.

As with many specialty food businesses, Lake Champlain Chocolates maintained operations throughout the pandemic, providing consistent employment for their long-time staff as well as continued support of the broader community by using locally sourced ingredients like Vermont honey and maple syrup in their handcrafted products. Lake Champlain Chocolates has been hosting virtual chocolate tastings via Zoom, something that has caught on with corporate groups. They added new digital features to their website to provide a better virtual shopping experience for their customers and are promoting “order online pick up in-store” purchases through local Google pay-per-click campaigns, OTT (over-the-top) advertising through streaming video, paid social media, and local digital advertising like Front Porch Forum.

Deploying marketing tactics over social media to attract new employees has also gained momentum, especially with holiday sales ramping up. There are many holiday season employment opportunities, and Vermont’s employers are turning to LinkedIn, Facebook Jobs, and Indeed to connect with job seekers.

Vermont’s businesses fuel our economy by offering quality goods and services while at the same time providing good-paying jobs. These employers also provide financial benefits that in turn help to create sustainable and engaging communities. Our hope is that this holiday season, and beyond, Vermonters and tourists alike go out of their way to support our local businesses as they are an integral part of our greater community.

While supporting Vermont’s retailers, restaurateurs, and other businesses during the pandemic has been incredibly important, it’s even more vital to support the surviving small businesses now. There are plenty of ways our small businesses offer virtual engagement and shopping, so go find them online. This holiday season, you can support Vermont businesses in person – or right from your home.

Amy Spear

 

Amy Spear, of Killington, is the Vice President of Tourism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life.

Chamber Directors Complete 8 Hours of DEI Training

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Vermont Chamber Directors Complete 8 Hours of DEI Training at Annual Education Conference
VACCE logo

The Vermont Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (VACCE) held their annual conference this year with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training. Twenty-nine chamber directors from across the state attended the education conference and completed more than eight hours of training.

The virtual conference was held on Friday, November 12, and Friday, November 19. Presenters at the virtual conference included Kuma Roberts, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Arrowhead Consulting based in Tulsa, OK; Mark Hunter, Founder & CEO at Pinnacle Coaching in Chittenden County; and Curtiss Reed, President of the CRJ Consulting Group, L3C and Executive Director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro.

Roberts led the first day of training with a session entitled, “Leading with Equity.” Roberts has 10 years of organizational development experience specializing in the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion, cultural competence, implicit bias, strategies for becoming an equity-centered organization, inclusive workplace language, and other elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a graduate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organizational Management, she has spoken to hundreds of businesses, non-profits, and chambers of commerce on the best practices for developing a strategic plan related to DEI.

Day two involved Mark Hunter and Curtiss Reed. Hunter presented on “The Social and Business ROI of a DEI Initiative.” Hunter is an executive and leadership coach holding the credential of Master Certified Coach, a published author (The Brink: How Great Leadership Is Invented), and a leadership consultant and trainer. As the President and Founder of Pinnacle Coaching, his career has spanned over 26 years working globally with top-tier business and organizational executives and prominent thought leaders. His specialties include leadership training and development, mastery of dynamic communication, effective relationship and team building, crisis leadership, culture reinvention and implementation, market disruption, DEI initiative implementation, radical innovation, thought leadership, and working with fear and the unknown as assets in unpredictable environments.

Reed concluded the retreat with “Bigotry is Bad for Business,” a message about Vermont’s consumer base becoming multiracial, multiethnic, and multilingual and therefore Vermont’s economic growth and prosperity being dependent on the business community’s ability to capture the attention of these multicultural consumers and provide them with goods and experiences that exceed their expectations. Reed is the driving force behind four statewide initiatives: The Vermont African American Heritage Trail, The Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Initiative, I Am A Vermonter, and The Think Tank for Vermont Leaders of Color. After 18 consecutive years working and living overseas in Arabic-, Portuguese-, and French-speaking countries, Reed returned to Vermont in 2001. Reed’s consulting experience spans four decades in both international and domestic markets. Recipient of multiple honors and awards, in 2015 the School for International Training Graduate Institute awarded Reed a Doctorate of Humane Letters Honoris Causa for his life’s work to make Vermont a desirable destination for all.

“This was a very timely training for all of us and very powerful,” said Matt Harrington, the executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber and organizer of this year’s conference. “Every speaker brought a new perspective to the discussion and really made our leadership group think. We have a lot of work to do as community leaders and business leaders. This conference was a step in the right direction. The VACCE organization and chamber directors will continue to focus efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion both in our local communities and across the state.”

As a gift for attending the virtual retreat every chamber director was given a copy of Robin DiAngelo’s book, “Nice Racism.”

Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber and president of the VACCE board, said, “As community leaders, it’s important for chamber directors to engage in ongoing professional development on DEI. I’m proud that as leaders we recognize the importance of raising our voice for diversity in our communities, equity among our businesses, and inclusion of all Vermonters.”

For more information about VACCE visit: https://chamberup.org/

Vermont Chamber Expands Government Affairs Division with Two New Hires

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Vermont Chamber Expands Government Affairs Division with Two New Hires

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce has hired Megan Sullivan as our Vice President of Government Affairs and Amelia Seman as our Government Affairs Specialist. The two new staff members will join the Vermont Chamber in December to grow our government affairs division at an important time. Across the state, businesses have been challenged by the pandemic, and Vermont Chamber advocacy has been crucial to the survival of Vermont’s diverse business community.

Megan Sullivan

Megan Sullivan will lead the Vermont Chamber’s five-person advocacy team which is also supported by a robust intern program that provides meaningful paid work to college students from the University of Vermont and Norwich University.

Megan comes to the Vermont Chamber from her position as Executive Director of the Vermont Economic Progress Council. She previously worked for U.S. Congressman Peter Welch and the Vermont Procurement Technical Assistance Center. Megan serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center for Women and Enterprise and recently completed a Fellowship with the Council for Development Finance Agencies for women leading in development finance. Born in Vermont, Megan is a graduate of the University of Vermont and lives in Jericho with her husband and two children.

Megan Sullivan said, “I’m excited to take on this new challenge and lead the policy team for the state’s largest business group. This is a tremendous opportunity to join an organization that provides a voice for all businesses in its advocacy.”

Amelia Seman

Amelia Seman will advocate for policy that grows Vermont’s economy and provide support to the Vermont Chamber’s advocacy team. Amelia previously worked in Senator Patrick Leahy’s Washington, D.C., office as a legislative correspondent and as a legal assistant for DRM. She has also worked in the Vermont Tax Department and the Vermont Department of Labor. She grew up in Vermont, graduated from St. Michael’s College, and is eager to move back to Vermont with her future wife.

Amelia Seman said, “I’m looking forward to returning to Vermont to work with the statewide Chamber supporting economic development and advocating for policies that help all Vermonters thrive.”

Vermont Chamber President Betsy Bishop said, “We have been growing our government affairs division over the last few years to ensure a broad representation of businesses. Our goal is to be a strong voice for all Vermont businesses, and Megan and Amelia will help us achieve this. They both have proven expertise in policy and strong relationships to advance the needs of businesses. They will continue the Vermont Chamber approach of collaborating to find solutions that strengthen Vermont while supporting businesses and their communities.”

The Vermont Chamber is increasing resources in policy advocacy as businesses continue to navigate the challenging economic environment. During the pandemic, the Vermont Chamber opened its programming and resources to all businesses without regard to membership, mirroring the organization’s commitment to belonging and inclusion. Simultaneously, federal actions have heightened significance to Vermont employers and this expansion will allow a greater focus on these issues.