Gov. Scott pushes family leave proposal in Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO — Gov. Phil Scott took his legislative fight for a more modest two-state family leave project to the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce's annual governor's luncheon Wednesday.

Scott said the Vermont House version, which has already been passed, comes with a pricetag of $80 million, which is too much for Vermont businesses to absorb. Scott said the state should "walk before it runs" when it comes to offering family leave benefits.

Scott said he and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu have come up with a joint plan to offer voluntary family leave, and with the two states joining forces, the expense wouldn't be as great. The Vermont Senate is taking a closer look at the House-passed family leave bill, and Scott said he hoped the Senate would agree with him and give his proposal "a fair shot."

The House bill calls for a payroll tax that would raise $80 million to pay for the plan, which the governor said was too high a price. He compared the proposed family leave plan to the state's experience with Vermont Health Connect, which he said turned out to be an insurance disaster because of problems with the computer program. "Let an insurance company do this," he said.

Vermont needs a bigger pool, and the joint Vermont-New Hampshire program "would be a great first step," according to Scott.

No Windham County legislators attended the luncheon, which was held at the American Legion. It was Scott's third governor's luncheon in Brattleboro.

In his 35-minute talk to the business community, Scott also emphasized that the state needs more workers, and he said the state's workforce has shrunk by 15,000 people since 2009. The decline in the number of workers has a cost for all Vermonters, since the state's bond rating was downgraded as a result, resulting in Vermont paying more to borrow money. "That is 15,000 fewer potential taxpayers," he said.

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Only Chittenden County bucked the trend of fewer workers, Scott said, and while the state's unemployment rate is the lowest it's been since 1976, that's more of a function of the smaller workforce. "We don't have the people," he said. "We need more taxpayers, not taxes."

He said that Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine share the aging demographic, and currently have more deaths than births. New Hampshire is different, he said, because it added 6,700 new people to its population.

The governor said Vermont's innovative "remote worker" program to offer up to $10,000 to workers relocating to the state has been a great success. He said the program has received widespread attention, and while it offered up to $10,000 per worker, most people ended up with a $3,000 to $5,000 financial boost from Vermont to move to the state.

Scott said in all the state has received 3,000 inquiries about the program, and between 25 to 50 people were helped by the program. He said he expects that the program will pay for itself in two years. "We have to think outside the box," he said.

During a question and answer period, Scott told Brattleboro activist Curtiss Reed Jr. of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity that he is getting closer to hiring the state's first "chief diversity officer."

Scott, when calling on Reed, said he was "bracing" himself for his question about the state's diversity efforts. Scott thanked Reed for meeting with his staff recently and said they came away "impressed." The governor said while Vermont prides itself on its openness, he said it is clear the state still has a ways to go. "We have to be honest," he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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