A number of items continue to progress in the Vermont Legislature as we head toward Town Meeting Day Break.

The first of these is the #1 priority of the Democratic leaders in Montpelier: the increase in the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour.

This legislation passed the Senate last week on a 20-10 vote, and will now be sent to the House where I believe it will be referred to the committee on which I sit.  The bill proposes to increase the minimum wage to $15.00/hour over the course of the next six years.  While the implementation is now over six years, rather than four, this is still a very problematic proposal for our local small businesses.

 

As background, in 2014, the Vermont Legislature passed (with my support) a law that increased the minimum wage over the course of four years.  Specifically, it went from $8.73 per hour (at the time almost $1 above the federal minimum) to $9.60 in 2016, $10.00 per hour in 2017, and in January of this year, it increased to $10.50 per hour in 2018.

 

In addition, this legislation ensured the minimum wage would be indexed to inflation beginning in 2019.

 

The idea behind this proposal, and what became law, was to ensure the entry-level wages for working Vermonters kept up with inflation, without adding mandates on our employers that suppress growth and investment.

 

Rather than holding true to this ideal, however, we are now considering another almost 50% legislated increase.

 

To be clear, I certainly understand the challenges our working Vermonters face in terms of earnings, and want to do all I can to ensure our economy grows so that more, and better paying jobs in the private sector are created.  In my view, however, this is not the way to grow an economy.

 

Specifically, I have concerns about both our tourism and hospitality industry and our state's small retailers.

 

While this is not a topic many of our friends and neighbors who are small business owners like to talk about in public forums, I can assure you that they have significant concerns about the impact this proposal will have on the future of their businesses, and their employees.  In some cases, there will be a reduction in force, reduced hours and reduced benefits.  In others, there will undoubtedly be automation brought in.  And, in several cases, doors will close.  

 

Keep in mind, in the tourism industry we are competing in an ever-increasingly global market.  We cannot lose sight of the importance of staying economically competitive in that market.  Artificially increasing wages is a good way to lose the competitive edge.

 

On the retail front, our small retailers are already struggling to stay competitive with online retailers.  And, on this side of the Connecticut River, our border with New Hampshire, it is even more difficult.  Not only are products and services less expensive there because of the lack of any sales tax, but imagine what will happen if we almost double the minimum wage of New Hampshire.

 

On a more somber note, like all of you, I was heartbroken as I watched the tragedy unfold last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida.  As survivors ran out of the school in terror, it was another tragic reminder that we have a great deal of work to do in terms of ensuring the safety of our citizens.  Anger and frustration has, understandably, erupted anew now, and many are calling for action on several fronts.

 

And, while many thought Vermont immune from such tragedies, the near attack averted at Vermont’s own Fair Haven Union High School just following the events of Parkland, brought it close to home.

 

In my view, there is no one answer to solving this incredible challenge.  But, that should not be a reason to do nothing.  Rather, it is an opportunity – and an obligation – to come together to find ways to prevent future tragedies and protect our children and citizens.

 

In terms of public policy and governing, I believe everything must be on the table.  I believe that if we come together, we can both make important changes to our gun laws while protecting our rights under the Second Amendment, and make significant improvements in our mental health and treatment efforts.  I know this will be a difficult conversation, but it can be done, and it must be done.  We simply need to leave our political and ideological swords at the door and be open to finding solutions.

 

As importantly, though, we need to take a cue from Laraway Youth and Family Services Director, Greg Stefanski, who recently commented so eloquently that in order to get at the root cause of the challenge, we have to find a way to ensure individuals feel a sense of place; feel a part of something caring.  Whether it’s in our schools, at work, in politics, or in play, we need to be sure individuals are treated kindly and well, are engaged and respected, and truly feel like they are part of something.