Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program

The Vermont State Auditor’s recent report entitled “Structural Weaknesses and Questionable Gains by Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program” not only raises questions about the design and efficacy of the executive and legislative effort to attract telecommuting employees to Vermont but suggests the execution was slapdash.

The $500,000 legislative commitment was designed to encourage currently employed remote workers in other states to consider moving to Vermont in exchange for reimbursement of their moving costs and any additional investment in technology or connectivity that would enable them to work from home – not to exceed $10,000 per applicant.

The Auditor’s report rightly calls into question the program’s lack of a demonstrable benchmark for return-on-investment, as well a lack of any clear definition of what’s reimbursable. Items eventually funded included, security deposits, an underground broadband cable and conduit installation, and personal storage.

Many Vermonters just making ends meet, rightfully asked why their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to pay them to stay here and deal with the economic and networking challenges they face daily instead of paying newcomers to move here – or for moving here, as the report indicates – who then simply were given help with their moving expenses.

The goal of the Remote Worker Grant Program was understandable – to match job openings in urban areas where prospective employees can’t afford to live with candidates who could telecommute from small towns with a less punishing cost of living but no job openings.

The highly publicized program raises questions, however, about whether our politicians have any understanding of what would motivate a potential employee to move to Vermont. It’s not petty cash, broadband, or a season pass to Stowe.

Ironically, the motto of the Vermont Business Roundtable, which, full disclosure, I chaired many years ago, sums up a pretty coherent strategy: “Making Vermont the best place in America to do business, be educated, and live life,” although I might reverse the sequence.

Having spent decades in the business community and discussed economic development strategy with several governors, I’m amazed that we still keep dragging out the rusty cash grant and tax incentive tools from the “economic development toolbox” and relying on them again even after their stated goals have proven so difficult to assess: VEGI, TIF, NBRC and others.

As parents, do we “incent” our children by offering bribes or modeling good behavior? I remember when I was ten my grandmother promised to buy me a model train set if I lost 30 pounds. I cried myself to sleep knowing I could never meet her terms.

States with much greater resources than Vermont regularly resort to outright bribery to attract new businesses, not always successfully. Their huge investments in monetary and tax incentives are necessarily deducted from programs that might improve the quality of life for the taxpayers funding the bribes and ultimately amount to an unwinnable race to the bottom. Louisiana’s “cancer alley” may be the endgame of simply paying companies to relocate. Vermonters don’t want just any development. It needs to be consistent with our community scale, resources, and environment.

If we want people to move to Vermont, we need only to make it a compelling place to live by making long-term investments in our key socio-economic-environmental assets. Yes, we have beautiful landscapes, myriad recreational opportunities, vibrant cultural and technical communities, but we also have an affordable housing crisis, growing water and soil pollution, unaffordable healthcare, hunger, inadequate public transportation and childcare, shriveling town centers, and a teetering dairy economy.

There are indeed many for whom employment is a key to emerging from poverty, if not surviving, but so is education, health care, childcare, and housing. There are also the more secure whose priorities go beyond compensation to include quality of life, opportunities to expand their horizons, learn, have a home, join or start a business, perhaps raise a family, live free of air, water, and soil-borne toxins, recreate, and be part of an inclusive and welcoming community. Employment is indeed a key element in the kind of lifestyle young people seek but not the only one.

And it’s not just young people; many older folks are staying in or returning to work in the private and non-profit sectors, not always because they have to, but often because they want to. Work is intrinsic to one’s sense of self-worth and community. Mandatory retirement was designed to open opportunities for young people. But if they’re in scarce supply, then it makes sense to retain or hire the wise, experienced worker instead. Vermont can be a great place to continue a career, rejoin the workforce, or retire, and older folks have the same needs for health care, educational opportunities, and housing that the young do.

Let’s retire the noncompetitive incentives – the cash payouts and tax expenses (foregone taxes) – and reinvest them in durable long-term assets: affordable health care, childcare, housing, public transportation, paid family leave, and reducing pollution at its source – all the things that will make Vermont the best place in America to live, be educated, and do business.

I remember being told when I began in business to focus on the fundamentals and forget the rest. We must do this in Vermont. If we invest in our intrinsic challenges and work to improve them, the rest will follow in time. We may even have to reexamine our tax structure as we did without result when I co- chaired the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission in 2010.

Yes, it will take decades to address our challenges, but taking the long view by addressing them now remains our best investment in the future of Vermont.

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