House and Senate lawmakers reconcile differences over labor and economic development agenda

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, explained the bill’s provisions to the Senate, saying it’s one of the Senate’s priorities this session. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

House and Senate lawmakers are now reconciling their differences over an expansive economic development and labor force agenda – but members of both chambers appear poised to hold firm to the cuts to the budget proposals Governor Phil Scott has announced. identified as high priorities.

Senators on Wednesday passed S.11, a bill that has become a vehicle for a range of programs aimed at getting more Vermonters into the workforce and spurring economic development across the state.

“It’s a big bill,” Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, said when explaining its provisions to the Senate. “It’s one of our priorities this session.”

The Senate bill allocates $84 million for workforce development and economic development programs, down $6 million from the bill passed by the House last week. Both houses designated $27 million for workforce development programs, but the Senate bill includes $57 million for economic development programs, compared to $63 million passed by the House .

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Scott reiterated his pitch to lawmakers to restore funding for his economic development proposals, calling it “a line in the sand.”

Vermont’s dwindling workforce is having a “devastating effect” on communities, the governor said. “If we are to reverse these trends that have plagued us for decades, we simply cannot let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through our fingers.”

Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Vermont Agency for Commerce and Community Development, said the governor’s budget proposal includes $100 million in economic development funds.

“And as we go through the last days of the session, we ask the budget committees to restore the majority of this request,” she said.

It is now up to a six-member conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill — and decide how much of Scott’s economic development program to fund.

“We haven’t reached that point yet,” Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry, chairman of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, said Thursday. “It is too early now to say what we could agree on.”

The Senate bill passed Wednesday represents significant changes from the House version, including a series of cuts and additions that upset the overall $6 million reduction.

The upper house restored funding for a pilot program eliminated by the House that would station Vermont Department of Labor employees across the state to get people into the workforce.

The Senate also increased scholarship funding for trades students, adding $500,000 to the $3 million the House had appropriated.

But he cut funding — from the House’s $15 million to $10 million — for a new program for students in career and technical education programs. This program would create a revolving loan fund to pay for projects where students refurbish municipal buildings, school facilities and housing that are not up to code.

The Senate also cut funding for several programs intended to encourage more people to enter the health professions.

The Chamber has allocated $3 million in grants to nursing schools. The Senate reduced that amount to $1 million.

The Chamber has earmarked $2.4 million for a program to raise the hourly wages of preceptors, who are nurses who mentor nursing students, by $5. The Senate reduced that figure to $1.4 million.

The Senate also cut grants to health sector employers to create nursing tracks or apprenticeship programs. The Chamber has allocated $3 million; the Senate $2 million.

The Senate increases included additional funding — from $2 million to $3 million from the House — to forgive student loans for medical professionals. Professionals should be in a field where there is a shortage, such as nursing or paramedics. They could get one year of student loan forgiveness for every year they work in Vermont.

The Senate also earmarked an additional $500,000 for a student loan forgiveness program for nursing professors, $1.5 million to forgive loans for mental health professionals, and $1.25 million for grants to pay for additional mental health and addictions staff in service agencies.

Last week, the House eliminated several proposals favored by the Senate. Among them was a program that pays people to move to Vermont, as well as money to market Vermont to people who might want to move here.

Joan Goldstein, the state’s economic development commissioner, pushed back against those cuts in committee testimony last week.

“We all know we have a labor shortage,” she said. “What’s the plan? How do we bring in new people? Employers need new people right now.

The House Commerce Committee moved the $10.2 million for the program that pays people to move to Vermont to another priority project for the administration, the capital investment program. Scott had requested $50 million to fund the program, which provides grants to businesses and nonprofits for projects that would encourage investment and create jobs in every region of Vermont.

The Senate has not appropriated any money for the grants.

The House also amended the Covid relief fund that companies have requested to help them keep employees on the payroll when they have to stay home due to Covid-19.

The Senate version of the fund would help businesses until 2022. The House version would help them from July 1 of this year until June 30, 2023.

The House removed $25 a week of additional unemployment benefits that the Senate had proposed.

He also eliminated a minimum wage increase the Senate had proposed, from the current $12.55 an hour to $13.75 by Jan. 1 and $15 from 2024.

Without the increase, under current law, the minimum wage would increase with the consumer price index or 5%, whichever is greater, each year.

“On all but a few issues we are already close and on others there is clear common ground,” wrote Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, housing and general affairs, in an e-mail. at VTDigger on Thursday.

“I look forward to hearing from the House on their reasoning for opposing raising the minimum wage to 15 (dollars an hour) … and not honoring the commitment we made last year d ‘help those who have been laid off through no fault of their own with a small increase in unemployment benefits,’ he said.

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Michael A. Bynum