BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Bishop told members of the Windham County business community that the 2014 legislative session included some victories and some losses, and she said the chamber would continue working next year on those issues that were not resolved as the session ended.
Bishop spoke to members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday during a breakfast meeting at the Brattleboro Retreat.
Bishop said the state's ongoing push to develop a single-payer health care system continues to challenge business owners.
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce supported the initiative to reform health care three years ago because rising health insurance rates were crippling businesses, but Bishop said so far the signs have not been good.
The Legislature this year approved an increase in the employer assessment, which amounts to a small charge business owners have to pay on the insurance coverage they provide.
Bishop said she was worried about the approximately $3 million that was going to come out of the pockets of business owners under the legislation, but she had more wide ranging concerns abut the whole concept of asking businesses to pay for ever-rising health care costs.
"My big concern with that is that yes, $3 million is a lot of money, but my bigger concern is that three months into the new program and we are already looking for more money," she said. "And we're not looking at the other side of the balance sheet which is, how do we contain costs so we don't need more money."
Bishop said one of the more frustrating parts of working in Montpelier every year is trying to remind legislators that the initiatives they are working on in the present year are being added to those that affected business the previous year, and every year before that.
"Some people will say it's just $3 million, but it's more of the start of something troubling," she said. "We need to look at some of these issues through a business lens. We need to be careful of the continued pressures that we're mounting on businesses. The Legislature looks at issues this year, and we're constantly trying to remind them that, yes, but last year we added this piece and the year before we added this piece, because you all, as business owners, are feeling the accumulative effect."
She said the chamber was able to push some of its agenda forward.
Changes were made to some permitting regulations that Bishop said will encourage development; the state invested in transportation which she said benefits business owners as well as their employees and customers; and there was a student loan forgiveness bill that could encourage more young people to move to Vermont to work and start a business.
But at the same time Bishop had a lot to say about steps the Legislature took that will make it harder for Vermont companies to compete with surrounding states.
She mentioned the minimum wage bill which raises the state minimum wage to $10.50 an hour by 2018, a reduction in a research and development tax credit that she said would send the wrong message to companies that are thinking of moving to Vermont, and a move to raise the non-residential property tax rate higher than the residential tax rate.
This is the second year in a row the Legislature elected to ask more of second home owners and business owners who own property, she said.
"We see that as a disturbing trend that we are starting to shift more of the property tax burden on the non residential," she said. "We think it is an added cost to businesses."
Bishop said the chamber put efforts into finding a way to increase tourism marketing money.
The chamber thought that a portion of the increase in the room and meals tax could be put directly into tourism marketing, but lawmakers disagreed.
Bishop said the idea will be brought up again next year.
She also wants more funding for workforce development. She said it was not up to government to create jobs, but rather to support their growth and allow business owners to succeed.
"We need to think about how we increase access to capital. We need to think about how we invest in our workers. We need to think about how we promote Vermont as a destination," she said. "That's how we grow business in the state. That's what government can do."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.