Sen. Alison Clarkson’s Legislative update, Feb. 23, 2020

Dear Editor,

During the Legislative Session, we often get caught up in all the challenges we face as a state and all the problems we are trying to solve. We often forget to remind ourselves of how lucky we all are to live in such a special part of the world. We often forget that we agree more often than we disagree and that we share more values in common than we think. As we look to our Town Meetings and celebrate our local communities, treasuring this icon of direct democracy – I am inspired to share an article in U.S. News and World Report, which recently named Vermont as the 5th Best State in America to live in.

In weighing eight measures: health care, education, economy, infrastructure, opportunity, fiscal stability, crime and corrections, and natural environment– Vermont averaged out to be the fifth best state. The top four were Washington, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Utah. The first two measures – health care and education – were given most weight, then states’ economies and infrastructures and on down the list. These weights were based on a survey identifying what mattered most to people.

As the federal government increasingly relies on states for core policy and spending functions, it is interesting to see which states are considered to be doing the best. The data informing this work is a mix of private nonprofit and governmental sources. And, you can read the entire article with links to the data at www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings.

This report is of particular interest as Vermont weighs its future, its aging demographic, and how we attract new, younger workers to our state. If we are the fifth best state to live in, surely we should be able to recruit more people to live, work, play, and raise a family. To this end, the Senate Economic Development Committee, on which I serve as vice-chair, is looking at several measures to attract young people to, or back to, Vermont.

One of the chief barriers rural states face in attracting young people is student debt. Big city jobs offer higher pay and thus bigger incomes by which to reduce debt. In addition, people with student debt put off buying homes. On average, younger Vermonters have $31,432 in student loan debt – which is higher than the national average, which is $28,565.

As a result, we are proposing to address these barriers by creating four opportunities to reduce student debt. The first is to establish a Student Debt Repayment Benefit, which employers could offer employees. This would give employers a tax credit for the benefit –$5,000 a year – which would be tax-free income for the employee. Second, at the end of 2019, the federal government allowed 529 plans to be used to pay down student debt. Our bill would sync up Vermont’s 529 plans with the feds to enable Vermonters to take advantage of this. Third, we encourage young people to buy homes by offering $20,000 in down payment assistance – forgivable over five years – if they buy in one of Vermont’s Opportunity Zones – downtowns in need of reinvestment. This idea builds on the very successful “First Time Home Owner Down Payment Assistance Program” offered by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. And, fourth, we expand the payment eligibility in our Remote Worker Program to include Student Debt payment.

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at the Statehouse Tuesday-Friday at 802-828-2228 or at home Saturday-Monday at 802-457-4627. To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and the bills that have been proposed and passed, visit www.legislature.vermont.gov.

Sincerely,

Sen. Alison Clarkson

Windsor County

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