Opinion
February 19, 2015

Passage of H.184 “The Fee Bill”

By Paul Dame

It can be hard to start a business in Vermont — and on Friday the 13th it just got a little harder.
Back in October campaign promises were made and many said that they wanted to help boost Vermont’s economy and help local business. It’s hard to say from the perspective of this freshman legislator what happened over the last four months, but despite what was said, last week it became very clear what was meant: A Democratic Majority (even if slightly smaller) means business as usual.

Last Friday the first major bill to come out of the House was what is known as “The Fee Bill.” Every three years one third of the executive branch reviews the fees they charge to cover the cost of various services that state government administers. This year a package of fee adjustments came to the House floor with a price tag for local businesses totaling $2.7 million. The most aggregations of which was a 135 percent increase on small restaurants with under 25 seats. Other larger restaurants, bakeries, seafood distributors — even food vendors that operate three days or less at the local fair were also being asked to chip in with increases in the 55-90 percent range.

Thursday a procedural vote to move the bill forward passed overwhelmingly with all but two Democrats supporting the double to triple digit increases. Also included were increases on the cost to inspect X-ray equipment, a new fee for realtors and increases on fishing permits, among others.
Seeing the burden this put on the back of the smallest businesses, but still realizing that we need to cover the rising costs of performing health inspections I offered an alternative. I suggested that we cap increases at 3-5 percent in most cases, and round up. My proposal would have still given state government over $500,000 in new revenue to do the same thing it did last year, but would have given business owners a much more modest increase to deal with.

But a half a million dollar increase was not enough for Montpelier. It was a pretty bizarre experience, as a freshman legislator, to have a number of Democrats come up to me and tell me they agreed that these sharp increases were going to hurt small businesses — and then vote for the increases anyway! It makes me wonder if they do the same thing to their constituents; tell them one thing, and vote the opposite.

Some claimed that if we didn’t pass the bill as it was, then it would create a “hole” in the budget. This is the problem with Montpelier.  The possibility that the “hole” could be closed by a mixture of increased revenues AND cuts in state spending seemed beyond capable in this first budget-related bill.  Somehow it is perceived as impossible for the state government to get by on less, and yet some how we expect the small businesses in Vermont to do the exact same thing.  By nearly doubling their fees in some cases we say, “We can’t tell you how to do it, but just figure out how you’re going to cut your other costs in order to pay our fees.” I think that in these tough times we need to show the business community that we are willing to at least share that burden. It’s time that we stop putting the pressure on business, and start putting the same pressure on state government.

Maybe we need to change our policy on how often we do inspections, especially for food establishments which have perfect records for the last 5-10 years. With lower gas prices today maybe we need to look at reducing the mileage reimbursement rate that we give to health inspectors by a few cents. Many of our local stores have 5-8 different kinds of licenses — how can we combine those to cut the state’s expenses on inspecting the same establishment?  These, and other questions would have been more closely examined by capping fee increases at a modest 3-5 percent and telling the state, instead of our businesses to “figure it out.” But with agencies getting their double digit increase, what incentive do they have to cut costs and provide services more efficiently?

There are too many legislators who just go with the flow, and Vermont’s businesses (and their customers who are the ones who ultimately pay) need our legislators to stand up and be willing to propose alternatives, to be creative and think outside the box — after all that’s what our businesses have to do just to survive in Vermont.

The fee bill was the legislature’s chance to show Vermont that we are going to do things differently, and we are taking a fresh approach based on the message we heard in November. But instead, with the election in our rear view mirror, the majority has said it’s back to business as usual. Spend first, raise revenue second, and form a study committee to ask the tough questions at some future undetermined time, which the legislature may ignore anyway. So unless the Democratic controlled Senate intervenes, it will be up to Vermont’s small diners where locals gather for their morning cup of coffee and conversation, the farmer’s market stands where we buy fresh local produce for our families and in-home bakeries that help us celebrate life’s special occasions — along with every other business that is there to feed or lodge Vermonters — to figure out where they are going to have to cut, because the state won’t.

Check out the full list of fees here:
http://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2016/WorkGroups/House%20Ways%20and%20Means/Bills/H.184/H.184~Dan%20Dickerson~H.184%20Fee%20Bill%20Spreadsheet%202-12-15~2-13-2015.pdf

Paul Dame, is a state Representative from Essex Jct.

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