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PO Box 490, St. Albans Bay, VT  05481

Phone: 802.876.6200



Legislative Update January 31, 2020

02/07/2020 5:17 PM | Denis Bourbeau (Administrator)

DRM | Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC

Incentives Matter

Gov. Phil Scott’s economic development officials made the rounds to numerous Statehouse committees this week in an early effort to sell the administration’s weighty set of more than20 different economic development initiatives. While most committees listened politely – and some even indicated support for the proposals – one committee may be laying the groundwork to challenge the fundamental premise of state support for economic development incentives.
The governor’s proposals include a wide range of funding that most legislators will embrace, including housing renovation, downtown historic preservation, arts and festival funding, tourism and clean grid modernization. The governor has also proposed an expansion of the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive Program, a program that some Democrats, including Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, have long challenged. They have argued that businesses will invest in Vermont regardless of incentives.
To buttress that argument, House Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel, D-Calais, held testimony this week from two George Mason University Mercatus Center Research Fellows who argued that economic development subsidies are bad public policy and should be phased out entirely. That committee has long been skeptical of the so-called “but for” test that underlies VEGI grants. In response to the testimony, Ancel said, “It has always seemed to me that spending money on training is money well spent. Spending money on job retention, location, those kinds of things -– you might as well just burn it.”
In reality, Vermont spends very little on economic incentives, and state development experts are convinced that the state’s few programs are essential to attracting and retaining businesses. The professors acknowledged that Vermont spends only .04 percent of its gross state product on incentives, a fraction of what many other states spend and among the lowest in the country. They also said that Vermont ranks well in transparency and holds companies accountable for grant commitments.
The reaction to the professors’ testimony was more muted in the Senate Finance Committee, where members cited the importance of Tax Increment Financing Districts to downtown development. Most committee members represent communities that have experienced dramatic growth from TIF districts.
Finance Committee members acknowledged the obvious reality that individual states can ill afford to unilaterally abandon any effort to provide economic development incentives to spur business growth. The answer to unilateral disarmament, said the professors, is interstate compacts between states, to which Committee Chair Ann Cummings, D-Washington, responded, “I don’t see New York agreeing to this any time soon.”
Scott has put the weight of his Administration behind efforts to counter Vermont’s stagnant job growth. Democratic lawmakers will likely be arguing among themselves for the next several months about how to respond.

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