Also at the meeting were a trio of local legislators, state Reps. John Moran and Ann Manwaring and Sen. Bob Hartwell. They chimed in on issues that will be important to them in the upcoming session. Those included property taxes and education spending, workforce training, and large-scale wind energy projects.
Tourism promotion is an important issue to many local businesses, and chamber president Betsy Bishop said the state chamber was working to increase state tourism marketing dollars.
“We knew money was tight last year,” said Bishop. “So we came up with an innovative funding formula that only took revenues from increased rooms and meals taxes. Ann introduced a bill for it and it passed the House, but it went nowhere in the Senate.” Bishop said they hoped to bring the bill back this year.
Health care reform is another issue the chamber will be paying close attention to, and will work to minimize the impact on businesses in the state.
“Businesses will have to make a choice,” said Bishop. “Those with 50 or fewer employees will have to drop their current plans and buy insurance through an exchange.”
Bishop added that businesses will have to decide whether or not to continue to buy a group policy, or let employees purchase their own insurance directly. The state of Vermont is encouraging individuals to buy their own health insurance, as great individual participation in the exchange will increase the amount of federal grant money the state will be eligible for.
Bishop said the legislation creating the exchange is not complete, and that the chamber had not taken a position on which path was best for Vermont businesses. She did add that businesses with high wage earners might be better off staying with a group plan, while businesses with lower wage earners would fare better letting their employees purchase their own plans. There will be subsidies available for individuals and families who fall below certain income levels.
Legislative assistant Jess Gingras said she had spent much of the 2012 legislative session working with the ways and means committees to limit tax impacts on Vermont businesses. Two bills on her radar screen were changes to how the state accounts for independent contractors who perform services for businesses, and a cloud services tax for work Internet-based computer services.
“We don’t want new taxes,” Gingras said. “We don’t want the cost of business to go up.”
After the discussion on taxes, Manwaring chided the state chamber staff for ignoring education funding issues and the impact on businesses. Manwaring is a member of a local group that is looking at the outcomes of education spending in Vermont.
“Your list does not include education funding,” Manwaring said. “Why do business associations not take this issue up?”
“It’s not a priority because no one in the Legislature discusses the issue,” replied Bishop. “The problem is most people don’t feel the increase because of income sensitivity.” Bishop noted that Gov. Peter Shumlin is seeking a 5-cent increase in the statewide property tax in his 2013-2014 state budget. That increase will impact businesses and second-home owners.
“We’ve got to start looking at it differently,” said Manwaring. “As a state, we’re spending $1.3 billion on education each year and not getting good results. It’s not okay to land in the middle of the pack.”
Manwaring summed up that the working group she is on is trying to develop data about education spending and its outcomes. “We need to raise the heat. There’s a lot of stuff happening. It’s not about winners and losers anymore.”
Manwaring also noted that another problem the state faces is the availability of qualified, educated employees. Bishop agreed, saying that workforce training was “a big part of what we try to do, getting people retrained and retooled.”
Hartwell said education finances would be one of his priorities once the Senate begins its session. He said he has been studying a property tax cap that has been enacted in New York, and that may be something he proposes in Vermont to help contain education expenses. He added that property taxes and education spending “could be a big issue this year.”
Hartwell said another issue that may come to the forefront of the upcoming session could be large-scale renewable energy projects, including wind generating projects. He noted that state law allows for quick approval of projects and has taken away much local input into those projects. He also raised some concerns about the environmental and financial viability of wind-power projects.
“I’m concerned that wind projects are not contributing economically to the communities they’re being built in.” He also added he didn’t think most wind projects would be built if government subsidies were not available to help finance them.
Workforce and career development are also issues Moran plans to focus on. He noted that he had recently spent some time at the Windham Regional Career Center, and was impressed with many of the course offerings there. What disappointed him was the small number of students taking advantage of many o f the offerings, saying some classes had only three students.
“The viability of the career center is questionable,” Moran said. “The system is set up to disincentivize schools to send students to the career center.” He said that a school would lose state funding for a student who chooses to attend the career center. “We should start with what’s important,” said Moran. “Not with what silo the money might fall into. We can work together to solve this. There should be a partnership between businesses and the career center.”
The 2013 legislative session is set to begin on January 9. For more information visit www.leg.state.vt.us.