The House Commerce Committee pivoted on Tuesday and took up draft bill 23-0991, which deals with enhancing workforce and economic development opportunities, a topic they had not previously covered in earnest. The bill appears to be a replacement for H.452.
Chairman Marcotte highlighted a section of the bill creating a Serve, Learn & Earn Program. An appropriation of $2.4M in FY2024 was included to support these efforts.
An adult literacy program with a $1.5M appropriation was removed from the budget as it was a workforce policy issue, and the Appropriations Committee preferred it to be in a policy bill.
There were several climate initiatives, included a proposal from Advance Vermont seeking funds to develop programs targeted at climate sectors, including climate business coaching.
There were several efforts to expand health sector training programs, including $1M for mental health nursing. Dozens of other programs were also included:
- $2.5M in additional forgivable loans through VSAC for the UVM Office of Engagement.
- $700K to establish a Restorative Justice BA at Vermont State University.
- $1.6M to establish a program in 3d technology.
- $3.8M for critical occupations (early childhood education, clinical mental health and all levels of nursing).
- $3.0M in Upskill Vermont scholarships.
- $1.0M for VT Trades
- $5.0M for the VT Training Program under the CHIPS Act.
- $350K to VSAC towards credential of value goals.
- $255K for the United Way Working Bridges Program.
- $1.0M for EMS training.
- $1.5M to the existing VT Mental Health Forgivable Loan Program.
- $4.3M for the existing Nursing Forgivable Loan Program.
- $170K for a new position: Healthcare Workforce Coordinator.
- $1.5M for rural business assistance through the RDCs.
- $72K for the Vermont Arts Council (they have received funding since the start of the pandemic).
- $10M to create a Rural Industry Development Grant Program. It is really structured as an equity investment from an RDC that can be the lessor of $1.0M or 20% of project.
Richard Amore (Planning & Outreach Manager, Department of Housing & Community Development) gave a detailed overview of the launch of Better Places program, grants to-date, ease of access, outreach, etc.
Questions were mainly directed at the process and limits of the program. The Committee discussed and proposed a cap on the number of annual grants and even the gross total amount. They arbitrarily decided on a limit of three grants per community at the $40K limit per project.
Marcotte sated that he likes having the data back after initial rollouts. The Committee agreed.
Joan Goldstein (Commissioner, Department of Economic Development) had just received the draft that morning so she has no written comments (and this seems to be the case today with others). She was quite disappointed with the first draft of the Rural Industry Grant Program language. She really wants these funds to be available for site preparation and readiness. Some states actually call these “Readiness Funds” she shared. She cited the lack of inventory of “ready sites” to support the idea of businesses already having sites prepared when they arrive and start looking for development options.
The special fund would initially be funded with a $10M appropriation but would ideally become self-funded over time through RDC’s selling off assets. Proceeds would then revert back to the special fund. There was some back and forth about how to structure this program and whether it was really a grant or a loan.
Representative Graning admitted she did not understand these various mechanisms but wondered if the way this program was described is too restrictive to actually generate opportunities. Goldstein replied that they did not include the Towns here because several other mechanisms exist for them. She added that these “grants” may be used at sites around a community that are appropriate and may not be any part of any existing park.
A conversation arose about out to identify rural areas in need and how projects would be prioritized. Goldstein said they intended to prioritized based on “rural communities who continue to experience insufficient economic and grand list growth.”
Concerns were raised around relocation grants. The intention is that these become pre-approvals, but way the language in statute passed they are pretty much only available to people already here. They want it to be a pre-approval of folks applying before they arrive so the incentive is definable. Marcotte mentioned that the Senate will be considering that (no specific bill mentioned) and it isn’t in this version of their bill.
Fred Kenney (Executive Director, Addison County Economic Development Corporation) and spoke next, at length, about how under CARES Act funds they have already developed a hub and spoke model that mimics the proposed Rural Business Technical Assistance Exchange contemplated in the bill. The existing program also used the navigator model and vendors used small $3-5,000 grants to serve the small businesses to ramp up and expand opportunities.
Looking at the $1.5M, he said the request is based on serving a similar 400 to 500 businesses as they did under the CARES Act funding.
Representative White asked whether this was a duplication of current Regional Development Corporations (RDCs) services. Kenney assured him that these services are complementary and also enabled them to extend a temporary program.
Representative Jerome asked about the RDCs providing through vendors and whether or not they would primarily Vermont service providers. Kenney affirmed this was the case and his entire list is Vermont-based companies.
He also took the opportunity address a myth he hears that many RDCs serve “big business.” For his area, Addison County, he has only one employer over 500 employees, he serves many of the smaller business, some even in agriculture. He wants that myth to be debunked.
Adam Grinold (Executive Director, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation) was also present, and mentioned that the early adopters and RDCs were able to get the message out more effectively. So, to assure fair distribution, they paused the CARES Act funded services so that everyone had a chance to apply.
Marcotte asked what they mean by “rural areas of Vermont”. Kenney said that with the federal funding they served “all of Vermont is rural outside the Burlington Labor Market Area.” Which encompasses most of Chittenden and Franklin Counties.
Representative Williams opposed any match requirements, saying “they often cause more problems than they save” and suggests removing that provision from the bill.
Marcotte asked the witnesses to discuss the Readiness Grant provisions in the bill. Grinold stated they could be used for “speculative development” and some federal programs used to do. This would allow for some speculative risks but with an equity stake that would be limited to less than $1.0M to incentivize limiting risk.
He agreed that assistance is need to acquire appropriate parcels these are a dwindling resource. They need to be flat parcels, located in specific areas, and accessible to services appropriate for industrial development.
The lead time from acquisition of a property to building can be reduced by 18 months or more if the site is already prepped by these grants. He had 200,000 sq./ft. of requests just last year for industrial space that simply does not exist in his region.
Kenney added that his RDC has similar issues of unmet requests but they have access to parcels and would love to see them become a small business incubator facility as well as starting to address larger manufacturer needs.
The Committee took a break and returned later in the afternoon to hear from Julie Tessler (Executive Director, Vermont Care Partners) about the Mental Health Workforce Tuition Assistance and Loan Repayment Program. Her organization had 30,000 client visits last year and the demand was up from pre-Covid, but they have lost a third of staff across the board. This results in these folks having needs who are not met, resulting in mental health crises that land patients in hospital emergency rooms, in patient care, and prisons.
They also have not been able to meet their public school services contracts. The tuition assistance from Act 183 ($1.25M) after Tobacco Settlement funds were great but they are at a tipping point. Some of the previous funding has gone out – about 320 awards – but processing applications has been slower than expected. The employer retention rate is now 94%, but “just barely holding on.”
Kelsey Stavseth (Executive Director, Northeast Kingdom Human Services) spoke about Northwest Counseling & Support Services. She shared two main points: first, the rates of reimbursement are well below what is considered “best practice” for Federally Qualified Health Center employees. Second, all staff should be allowed expand the use of funds to support administrative staff pursuing associates and management degrees.
Marcotte reminded the Committee that they cannot change the appropriation in the bill without it going through other policy committees, in this case House Health Care Committee. They will have to work with other committees, as they did last year, so they don’t get into issues “outside their policy arena.”
The Committee returned on Wednesday to hear from Joan Goldstein (Commissioner, Department of Economic Development) again. Marcotte admitted they missed two sections of the bill when she testified earlier. Specifically, he wanted feedback on $5M that in VT Training Center needed to qualify for the CHIPS Federal funding. Goldstein expected the CHIPS bill would result in as much as $150-200M invested in Vermont, so a very good deal percentage wise. They will offer dual awards to companies applying for CHIPS along with the VT Training Center grants would be awarded but only fulfilled until after the CHIPS awards have also been approved. In this way they are sort of matching grants.
Goldstein shared that she is not aware of why there is language in the bill around studying any necessary funding changes for the Regional Planning Commissions and Regional Development Corporation. They did not ask for it and some discussion may be needed as the formulas have not changed since 2009 or 2010.
The Committee returned later in the day to hear from a number of advocates:
Breck Knauft (Executive Director, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps).
Alison Lamagna (Director of Impact, VT Works for Women) – they work with CTEs and, in some areas, with business partners and set up local mentorship teams.
Thomas Longstreth (Executive Director, ReSOURCE) – shared that the bill is relevant to weatherization and workforce issues they deal with. The focus on addressing the workforce deficit by develop folks here already who are not in the workforce to get them the skills they need to participate.
ReSource has three training classes, one of which is funded by Serve, Earn & Learn. They provide basic work and experience, and also an apprenticeship laborers programs which includes weatherization, construction and HVAC skills. They are especially hoping to expand a program for at-risk youth who are likely to become educational dropouts.
David Mears (Vice President, Audubon Vermont) – worked with landowners who have fields and forest lands that require habitat work. They found youth and young adults who are devoted to this cause but can’t proceed with training placements because of a lack of funding. Starting from scratch didn’t make sense for them so they chose to team with the Vermont Youth Conservation Core as partner for training the next generation of loggers and forestry specialists.
Dylan Giambatista (Co-Chair, Climate Workforce Network Action Team) - Over 200 members including non-profits and individuals. They convened meetings from Earn, Serve & Learn and others to determine what was needed for workforce development to achieve climate goals like electric vehicle adoption, cold climate heat pumps, and Weatherization. Read more…
Tom Cheney (Executive Director, Advance Vermont) – emphasized how important the state’s need for workforce expansion is.
Ellen Kahler (Executive Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund) – a partner agency that is seeking to engage with 12 or so existing businesses to expand workforce to support the Climate Action Plan goals already in statute.
Marcotte suggested they a quick follow up with the Environment & Energy Committee because they are attempting to coordinate within the various policy committees as the crossover deadline approaches in two days. He wants buy-in from across these committees so they can appeal to the Appropriations Committee together.
On Thursday the Committee returned to the draft bill again, hearing from Heather Simons (Executive Director, Vermont Criminal Justice Council). Marcotte prefaced the conversation by saying the Committee is looking for assurances that the provisions in the bill are assistive and will not in any way hinder the training and certifications offered at her organization.
Simons gave an overview of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council (VCJC) and who participates. They have twelve on staff but have another on the way with the hire of a staff attorney. They have twenty-four members, including the NAACP, mental health professions, the Human Rights Commission, and others. She described their membership as “very robust and diverse.”
Last year they began effort to do a complete curriculum review of their program. Governor Scott has $4M recommendation in the budget for that effort which will require an RFP process.
Currently they offer two 16-week trainings for law enforcement certifications annually. They also offer post-academy field training and offer residential settings during the certification courses. They would like to pursue a day academy, possibly in partnership with a college. The Department of Public Safety is pursuing Federal funds for this purpose as well.
Representative Mulvaney-Stanak asked her to comment on the the Act 56 effort for transforming criminal justice and how that is being followed by VCJC. Simmons listed a number of “measurable skills” they offer competency training for to support fair & impartial policing:
- Implicit and explicit bias
- Traffic stop data
- Diversity & inclusion
- Crisis mental health awareness trainings
The VCJC will reviewing these curriculum over a three-year period (if funded by the Governor’s Proposal.” This would begin with a job task analysis for law enforcement analysis, followed by at least two pilot projects. These efforts will look at more than the curriculum “in books.” Each module would require evaluation towards the skills-based outcomes for the positions being addressed and certified upon hiring. Review of analysis will then result in complete review and rewrite all of training content to deliver better results for law enforcement and better outcomes for the Vermont public.
Representative Graning asked about the culture change in the Department of Corrections and if that will overlap as far as training options to help change that culture as well. Simons offered that there is an opportunity to affect that, saying that if they stay on top of training they can affect the culture. She added that “culture eats policy for breakfast” and “if we don’t stay on top of the culture, it won’t matter what the policy is.”
Marcotte asked about the language in the bill that encourages work with the colleges in the state. He wondered if there was a way to standardize some curriculums at the colleges to work with pilot programs being suggested. Simons agreed it was on the table and there may be a hybrid model for colleges and the training center.
After a break, Chris Cochran (Director of Community Planning & Revitalization, ACCD) thanked the committee for supporting the department’s FY2024 budget request, in particular the downtown land value tax study. He offered to give a background on funding of Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), which is mainly via the Property Transfer Tax (PTT). The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) and Geographic Information System (GIS) are also funded through this mechanism.
PTT has statutory funding levels detailed for these groups, however, they always seem to be overruled during the legislative budget process and the monies are directed elsewhere. These groups end up receiving less than allocated by the formula. In 2023 it should have been about $10M but will likely be closer to $5M.
Given this information, Marcotte suggested that the RPC funding mechanisms report in the bill is likely expensive and unnecessary. He worried the request would only drain resources away from the work at ACCD, saying he didn’t known they “will glean anything new from the study.” He suggested they remove it. There were nods all around and legislative counsel removed the language.
Representative Priestley did a quick walk through for the Committee. Essentially the bill would create a one-stop business portal for services across different departments and agencies. A steering committee would be created to evaluate the present system and detail how to best serve our smallest business (less than 20 employees) and serve up a Request for Proposal to build a portal and file it with the Office of Digital Services.
The committee rounded out testimony on Friday with a walk through of draft 6.1 of the bill.
Marcotte immediately picked up on a drafting issue with the new language. A “not withstanding” provision was added to the $500k grant limit on the brownfields fund in error. He explained that current statute has a $200K per parcel cap and really what they want to raise this to $500k in the current draft.
There were some minor technical changes discussed until members of the Joint Fiscal Office arrived with a fiscal note for the Committee on the bill.
Representative White moved to adopt the bill, Representative Chase seconded. Vote was 10-0-1 in favor (Representative Carroll was absent). The bill will be sent to the House Appropriations Committee by rule.