Monday February 18, 2013

Rob Roper

Yogi Berra once said of a favorite restaurant, "Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded." Today, something like the opposite might be said of Vermont. If our state is really the best place in the world to live, work, and raise a family, how come fewer people are choosing to live here, work here and raise families here? And, why is this particularly true of our best and brightest young people? According to the U. S. Census, in 2011-2012, while the rest of the country was growing, Vermont suffered a net loss of 581 citizens, or a 0. 09 percent decline in our overall population. The only other state to lose population was Rhode Island, which shrank by 0. 03 percent. Over the past dozen years (since the passage of Act 60) our K-12 population has plummeted from 106,000 to roughly 85,000, which reflects the fact that it’s really the young parents of these kids who are bugging out for a better future somewhere else, and taking their offspring with them. So, what it is that’s driving young, well-educated people away? The best skiing and boarding in the East? The great mountain biking? The vibrant local food scene? The finest micro-breweries in the country? The low crime rate? Probably not. Granted, there are some folks who grew up down on the farm and are anxious to see Paris and nothing in the world could keep them here through another Vermont winter. But, you have to think that for every one of these, there is at least another who’s spent her whole life breathing that stuff that spews out of New York City grates and is eager to experience a lung-full of clean, mountain air. We’re losing the former, but we’re not gaining the latter. There has to be a reason.

Is it the job market? Not really. Though it could be better, the biggest complaint we hear from the Vermont business community is that there are not enough highly skilled workers willing to fill the jobs they’re offering. Is it our students? No. Our schools continually rank in the top five nationally.

Even the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) placed Vermont’s education performance at number two in the nation. Our students are not the dummies.

It’s our politicians.

The fact of the matter is that Vermont’s progressive tax, regulatory, healthcare, land use, and energy policies are driving up the cost of living, and driving our young, educated workforce out of the state. Who wants to work or start a business or put down roots in a state that punishes success and whose guiding governing principle is to redistribute what you earn to someone else? Jeff Wennberg, writing for Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom, recently pointed to data from National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) that shows, "between 2005 and 2007, the most recent period available, Vermont suffered an estimated net loss of 704 people between the ages of 22 and 39.

Among those with a high school degree and some college the loss was 44 individuals. But within this same age group Vermont suffered a net loss of 1,044 people with associate’s degrees or above. Over the same period Vermont imported a net 498 twenty-two to thirty-nine year olds with less than a high school diploma." Governor Shumlin’s notion that we can fix this problem by investing more in public education, especially preschool programs, is like proposing to fix a leaky bucket by adding more water. We may improve the quality of our graduates. We may even take over the number one spot in the ALEC ranking from Massachusetts. (A debate for another column.) But, we’ll only be paying top dollar to shore up Texas’, North Carolina’s and other pro-growth-oriented states’ future work forces. That’s where our highly qualified graduates will continue to go.

Governor Shumlin’s other proposal, what he calls the Vermont Strong Scholars Program, to pay graduates to stay in Vermont by covering the cost of their final year of school is a pretty hollow as well. The 2013-2014 tuition at Johnson State College is, for example, $9,312. Paid back over five years, that’s $1,862 per year. Now, compare that to what a graduate would bank in a lifetime of working in a state that has zero income tax, a health insurance market that doesn’t cost-shift ruthlessly onto the young through community rating and guaranteed issue, no renewable energy mandates driving up their electric bills. It’s not a contest. In fact, if Vermont passes the proposed sugar sweetened beverage tax, $140 of that $1,862 (nearly 8%!) would be needed just to cover the tax on a couple of 20 oz. sodas a day.

If you really want young people to stay, work, and raise families in Vermont, here are some better ideas. Let them keep more of what they earn over their lifetimes. Don’t try to micromanage their behavior and choices through the tax code. They are bright enough to make decisions for themselves. Allow the marketplace to create affordable, middle class housing, and reform the property tax system to make that affordable housing actually affordable. In short, leave them at liberty to pursue happiness. With that formula, you might even get some of the older folks to stick around as well.

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.