Editorial: Relocation programs an affront

Published: 05-08-2023 10:03 AM

Given all of Vermont's charms and all of its challenges, state government's continued determination to lavish taxpayer dollars on the attempt to lure new workers to the state is beyond puzzling. These incentives are probably at best a marginal factor in any individual worker's decision to settle in the Green Mountain State; at worst, they risk deeply offending those who needed no incentive to decide they wanted to live and work in Vermont.

Negotiators from the Vermont House and Senate are now working to reconcile their different versions of the state budget before the Legislature adjourns for the year. The budget bill passed by the Senate contains $1 million to continue the state's Worker Relocation Incentive Program, while the House's version omits it. We urge the negotiators to toss it overboard and hope that they will have done so by the time you read this.

As VtDigger has reported, the state has spent nearly $5 million on the program since its inception in 2018. It now provides grants of up to $7,500 to people who move to the state full-time to take a job with a Vermont company or who relocate while continuing to work remotely for an out-of-state company. The program website touts the state's "world-class outdoor recreation" and its "safe environment to raise a family" in urging potential transplants to "get out of the city and bring your job with you or explore a new career at an innovative Vermont business."

Not explained is why a modest financial incentive is necessary to sway a potential recruit. To our knowledge no one has ever effectively rebutted the criticism leveled by state Auditor Douglas Hoffer in 2019: that no evidence existed that recipients of the grants would not have moved to Vermont without them.

Beyond that, if any justification for the program existed before the pandemic, it has long since disappeared. The state experienced an influx of new residents during that troubled time and stands to attract many more as the physical and political climate renders the environment elsewhere ever more inhospitable. Sen. Jane Kitchel, who chairs that body's Appropriations Committee, frames the issue correctly: "I think that we're in a whole new world, and that the challenge for us is going to be managing growth. I think Vermont is going to be a very attractive place for people to move (to) and live."

Indeed, many people who already live in Vermont are suffering from the acute housing shortage that afflicts the state; and employers report that many candidates turn down job offers because they are unable to find affordable housing. State incentives spurring increased competition for a very limited supply of houses and apartments seems to us manifestly unfair and unwise.

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Not content to squander money in that fashion, the state, in cooperation with the University of Vermont, is also rolling out a pilot program of $5,000 student loan repayment incentives for about 400 students graduating from Vermont colleges and universities this spring who accept full-time jobs in Vermont that require a bachelor's degree, as long as they agree to stick with it for a couple of years.

In the abstract, loan forgiveness for graduates who fill jobs in critical occupations such as health care, education or child care makes sense as long as it is structured fairly. But an open-ended incentive such as this does not meet that critical standard. To cite but one obvious objection, it leaves out Vermont residents who went to college out of state to test the bigger world and who would like to return home. And the requirement that the job must require a bachelor's degree does not address the state economy's crying need for carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other positions in the construction trades. Moreover, previous college graduates who needed no more incentive to stay beyond what the state has to offer in the way of natural beauty and civic virtues are bound to be vexed.

Not all incentives are created equal or are of equal utility. For instance, the Woodstock Economic Development Commission's recent efforts to spur the creation of workforce housing by giving landlords financial incentives to convert short-term rental properties into long-term leases or build accessory dwelling units strikes us as narrowly targeted and sharply focused, with a measurable outcome. In short, everything the state programs are not.