VBSR’s 2022 Legislative Priorities

Vermont is in a difficult moment in its history and businesses, families, and communities are feeling the effects. In VBSR’s most recent membership survey, availability of affordable housing (62%), Cost of health care (57%), Access to affordable and high-quality childcare (34%) and Paid Family Leave (28%) were identified as the primary barriers to success for VBSR businesses. All of these will be key focuses for VBSR this coming year, as their impacts are highly intersectional and reverberate through our communities, create significant workforce shortages, and stifle economic growth.

Thankfully, Vermont has new tools at our disposal. Our state is receiving historic levels of funding to address these near-term challenges while also tackling the long-term impacts of climate change on our local economies. The importance of businesses weighing in on where, how, and when these dollars will be spent cannot be overstated.

Why? Because socially responsible businesses are resilient. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic for example, VBSR members pivoted operations and used local supply chains to produce PPE and hand sanitizer—buying local at its best. Others either bolstered employee benefits, such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting, childcare, and paid leave to both attract and retain employees. Some went so far as to launch community benefit programs such as Shift Mealsand Neighbors Helping Neighbors –the former inspiring Vermont’s Everyone Eats Program.

That’s a key word there—inspire.

Socially responsible businesses have proven to be adaptive and resilient in the face of change and it’s critical that we bring that innovative, entrepreneurial, and community-driven sprit to the halls of the statehouse to inspire policymakers to put people, planet, and prosperity at the heart of their decision-making and to advance solutions that build on the strengths of our brave little state while addressing longstanding inequities. If you’re interested in engaging in VBSR’s advocacy efforts, please don’t hesitate to contact VBSR’s Public Policy Manager, Jordan Giaconia at JordanG@vbsr.org. 

And on that note, we’re excited to announce our policy priorities for the 2022 legislative session.

Climate Change

solar panelsThe growing climate crisis is forcing businesses into a period of unprecedented and rapid transformation. Whether it’s increased storm intensity, flooding, longer summers, or shorter winters—the reality of climate change poses an existential threat to our enterprises, not in the distant future, but today.

This year, VBSR members identified supply chain disruptions (48%), employee health (44%), cost of climate change mitigation/adaptation (41%), and the cost/scarcity of resources (41%) as the top climate risks impacting their businesses. These impacts will only continue to grow, as will their costs, the longer we wait to take bold climate action. While many businesses have already implemented their own climate mitigation and adaption measures—much to the benefit of our environment, communities, and bottom lines— broader systemic changes and largescale investments are needed if Vermont is going to meet our emissions reductions requirements and in doing so harness the full potential of decarbonizing our economy and create thousands of family sustaining jobs.

Thanks to the diligent work of diverse stakeholders and community representatives from around the state, we now have a roadmap to help us address the growing climate crisis while creatin a greener, more equitable Vermont. Earlier this month, Vermont’s Climate Council adopted the state’s first-ever statutorily required Climate Action Plan. This Plan represents a year’s worth of intensive work by Council members, subcommittee leaders and thousands of Vermonters across the state and includes key policies VBSR and our partners will be working hard to fund and advance in the coming session including:

  • A host of transportation investments to help people access clean and affordable transportation options.
  • A significantly scaled up weatherization program that focuses on the needs of lower income and historically marginalized Vermonters – access weatherization services to cut their heating bills and have healthier and more comfortable homes while also cutting their climate pollution.
  • A clean heat standard, similar to a renewable energy standard for the heating sector.
  • A recommendation to adopt an environmental justice policy; and
  • Adoption of a suite of smart growth policy priorities to support more climate-resilient communities

This plan is a fantastic step forward, but there’s still much more work to be done to bring it implement it. To meet the moment, it is imperative that we invest unprecedented state and federal dollars in cost-effective and equitable climate solutions in the near term and advance lasting, systemic changes for the long term as well—such as pursuing a 100% Renewable Electricity Standard and pursuing regional cap and invest programs like the Transportation & Climate Initiative Program. Only then will we meet Vermont’s emissions reduction requirements ensure the future of our enterprises and shared economy.

Housing

house and snowVermont’s housing crisis is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues we’ve heard about from not only VBSR members, but from our friends and partner groups as well. Housing stock is extremely low meanwhile costs are skyrocketing—with many Vermonters spending at least a third or more of their income on housing.

Businesses are unable to bring on new talent because they have nowhere to live. Others are losing employees who are seeking opportunities out of state not for professional gain but simply because they either can’t afford their current living spaces or cannot find new ones. To put it bluntly, Vermont cannot tackle our workforce issues, we cannot create a more equitable economy, without addressing housing.

Tackling this issue will require both short term and long term solutions. In the short term, VBSR will be advocating for significant state and federal investment to increase Vermont’s overall housing stock and bolster access to housing for low-to-moderate income Vermonters. This means utilizing current State and local ARPA funds as well as securing new federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and hopefully the Build Back Better bill to convert and construct new housing for working Vermonters. We will also be working alongside partners to fully fund the Vermont Housing and conservation Board, create new supports for communities to create and fund local housing trust funds, improve existing homes via weatherization, and advance rental registry and inspection programs to ensure every Vermonter is housed.

Healthcare 

health care VBSR has spent 30 years advocating for health care reform and that work will continue in 2022. Problems with the equity and funding of our health care system persist and must be addressed. We will work with partners to in Vermont’s business community to help create a level-playing field in which all can access affordable, reliable healthcare with the ultimate goal of severing the link between insurance and employment. This will allow VBSR businesses to do what they do best – expand operations, create jobs, and increase the wages of hard-working Vermonters.This session that means finding ways to reduce unnecessary waste in our health care system, investing in primary and preventative care, and establishing a Universal Primary Care system.

It also means ensuring reproductive rights for all Vermonters. After all, abortion is healthcare. For over 40 years Vermonters have supported and valued reproductive freedom for our citizens, but with attacks on abortion rights unfolding in Washington, it is more important than ever that Vermont amend its constitution to permanently enshrine personal reproductive liberty.

Additionally, we will continue to work alongside our partners in the Vermont FaMLi Coaltion to advance universal paid family leave. Our most recent membership survey indicated that roughly 50% of these businesses provide paid family and medical leave to their employees. The remaining half do not provide such benefits not because of a lack of will but because of a lack of resources—it’s time we level the playing field.

Universal Paid Family and Medical Leave helps employers by providing predictable employment conditions and is a critical tool for recruiting and retaining high-quality workers of all ages. In states that have passed Paid Family Medical Leave, studies show a decrease in both employee turnover rates and average per worker payroll expenses. We know Paid Family and Medical Leave business-friendly solution, one that Vermonters overwhelmingly support and is a critical piece of infrastructure that is needed to support the financial security of our workers, our families, and our small businesses.

Throughout the “We Believe in Paid Leave” campaign, we countless stories of workers and families living on the brink of financial ruin and making painful decisions that place financial obligations ahead of health and safety. It became clear through these stories that no worker or family member chooses when they get sick or injured and that for many Vermonters, equitable paid parental leave is unavailable.

In short, if we’re going to improve Vermont’s healthcare system, we also need to make sure Vermonters can access that care without sacrificing their livelihoods.

Child Care

father with childrenIn 2021, Vermont legislature passed a historic bill, H. 171, which took a marked step a toward achieving an equitable, affordable, and high-quality early childhood care and education system. While this is a huge victory, many early childhood education programs are still having trouble attracting and retaining educators meanwhile families continue to cite lack of child care as a key barrier to returning to work. Parents are struggling to afford child care and early childhood educators remain woefully underpaid and undervalued.

What does this mean for the Vermont business community? In the workplace, parents are struggling to balance childcare and work—resulting in absenteeism, tardiness and distractions at work. More broadly, childcare access and affordability challenges force many parents to leave the workforce altogether costing them their salary, potential wage growth, and retirement savings, not to mention taking away from household buying power. Over time, a parent who leaves the workforce loses up to four times their annual salary per year and too often that burden falls on working mothers.

Employers need talented, focused, and reliable employees – the lack of access to affordable and high-quality childcare is a major hindrance to maintaining that workforce and is consistently identified as one of the top 4 obstacles to the success of VBSR businesses. This not only creates an additional burden on our businesses during an already challenging time, but it also exacerbates historical gender inequities within our state as women are disproportionately impacted when it comes to caregiving.

In 2022, our focus will largely be on responding to Vermont’s urgent child care workforce crisis and making sure that families are able to secure and afford the child care they need. This includes helping to lay the groundwork for the implementation of H. 171 by funding and offering insights to the financing study outlined in the bill; establishing a program to provide business supports for child care providers to ensure the longevity and growth of their programs; and creating more predictable and attractive employment conditions for early childhood educators by providing robust, livable benefits.

Broadband

fibre optic cableEnsuring universal access to broadband at speeds that meet the needs of the state’s business community is essential to economic growth and sustainability. VBSR believes that building a network to every address in Vermont is possible and desirable, but it will require bold and decisive action by the state. This includes the investment of public funds to reach the last mile, coordination between CUDs and incumbent service providers, and the adoption of technology that anticipates the needs of Vermonters several years from now.

There are many parallels between broadband deployment and the expansion of electricity into rural America. National and state policymakers knew that power and lights were key in expanding the economy and improving quality of life. But the private sector was unwilling to make the investment to expand services to rural parts of the country, as it was a costly endeavor with little anticipated returns. The passage of the 1935 Rural Electrification Act recognized that this technology was actually a public and economic necessity.

Today, the lack of universal high-speed broadband in Vermont is holding back our economy and walling Vermont off from the rest of the world. Highspeed broadband is a critical component of several of our other top policy concerns:

  • Achieving universal health care will not be possible without the proper infrastructure to connect patients, doctors and hospitals. Telemedicine can also help address many inequities with respect to access to care.
  • Access to digital tools and online education is essential to the successful development of our future workforce especially while many of our children are attending school remotely.
  • The advent of remote work can decrease vehicle miles traveled and help Vermont tackle the climate crisis and reach our emissions reduction goals.
  • The type of sectors that thrive because of Vermont’s unique features are especially dependent on a robust telecom infrastructure (e.g., education, creative economy, professional and intellectual services, tech sector, food and farm);
  • Providing reliable, highspeed internet access would attract new constituencies of remote workers to Vermont—growing our economy, expanding our tax base, and diversifying our state.

Want to get involved? 

It is unique that VBSR advocates on a such a wide range of social equity and economic development issues, however, as socially responsible business leaders, we recognize that these issues have wide and lasting impacts on our business members, their employees, and the communities that we strive to support.

While VBSR maintains a full-time lobbyist in the Vermont Statehouse, we are also committed to creating opportunities for member businesses to gain firsthand experience in the policymaking process and help shape the public narrative around some of our most pressing societal challenges. Our team is here to elevate the voices of Vermont’s forward-thinking businesses through collective action, media campaigns, op-eds, community forums, trainings, lobby days and much more.

To learn more about our 2022 legislative priorites and how you can get involved, contact VBSR’s Public Policy Manager, Jordan Giaconia at Jordang@vbsr.org today!