By Governor Peter Shumlin
This week, the Vermont Department of Labor released revised calendar year 2014 data. Unlike the monthly reports that can fluctuate for various reasons, this data gives a more accurate view of the year as a whole. The results were promising: Vermont’s average unemployment rate was 4.1 percent for 2014, 3/10 of 1 percent lower than the previous year, and the revised employment numbers were actually stronger than initially reported, showing an increase of 3,400 jobs in the year.
While we can and should use this data as a marker of our continued economic recovery, it does not tell the whole story.
In Vermont, like America as a whole, income growth has not recovered as quickly as job growth. While Vermonters are working harder than ever before and the economy as a whole is headed in the right direction, we need to do more to boost incomes for Vermonters who still struggle to make ends meet. Our challenge is to make that economy work for every single Vermonter.
We’ve already started implementing some policies to do that.
I was proud to sign into law a minimum wage increase, which went into effect this year, to raise the minimum wage in Vermont to $10.50. That is already having an effect for middle class Vermonters, and it has spurred some employers to move even more aggressively to increase wages. In January, nearly 160 minimum-wage employees at Central Vermont Medical Center saw their hourly wage jump from $8.73 to $10.91, after the hospital decided to review its wage levels in response to the state’s move. For a full-time worker, that’s an extra $4,500 per year, very real dollars in those Vermonters’ pockets.
This week I also visited Hirschmann Windows in West Rutland, a company that has taken advantage of a state program that provides funding to help train new and existing employees. Statewide, thousands of Vermonters participate in this program each year, gaining new skills that also help them boost their income. In 2014, the median wage increase for Vermonters enrolled in this program rose by an impressive 11.2 percent. At Hirschmann Windows, I met with one employee who went through this program and now has seen her hourly wage double. We need more Vermonters enrolled in programs like this so they can get on-the-job training that will help them advance their careers and boost their incomes.
Those are two examples of policies and programs that are helping to boost wages and make Vermont’s economy work for all Vermonters. But we need to do more to attack rising costs and make Vermont more affordable for all of us. That is why I am so focused this legislative session on advancing legislation to address the two biggest cost-of-living drivers in Vermont: health care costs and property taxes.
On health care, the House Health Care Committee has advanced a bill that will help slow the unsustainable growth in health care premiums by finally addressing the Medicaid cost shift, which each year costs middle-class Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars in increased premium costs. The cost shift—and politicians saying we should fix it—has been around for years. But this year, we are finally taking action. The cost shift is complicated and our fix doesn’t fit into a TV sound bite, but if we have the courage to pass legislation to address it, we will have taken a giant step toward helping to reduce the cost of private health care while shoring up our primary care system for all Vermonters.
On property taxes, the House Education Committee has made an important start by passing a bill that includes many of the ideas that I put forward in January to reduce school spending. That is a first step to the biggest reform effort our education system has seen in a generation. If we succeed, we’ll not only control costs and help save Vermonters money on their property tax bills, but we will also increase the quality of education our children receive.
So while we should recognize our progress on jobs and unemployment since the depths of the economic recession, let’s keep our economic recovery on track by fighting for policies that will help boost income and lower cost, so that the Vermont economy works for every single Vermonter.