Despite sluggish state economy, Scott says affordability agenda is on track

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Republican Governor Phil Scott ran on improving the state's economy. He's now nearing the one-year mark in office. He says his efforts to keep taxes and fees level and make the state more affordable are paying off.

Gov. Phil Scott/File

"We're seeing -- and I'm feeling -- some optimism in terms of the economy. I go to companies everyday that are talking about possible expansion in the future," Gov. Scott said.

But the state's economy continues to sputter along, despite record highs for stocks. "I'd say we're somewhere between second and third with a five-speed," Gov. Scott said.

University of Vermont Economics Professor Stephanie Seguino says the state is growing slower than the national average. She says the stock market does not reflect the overall health of the economy. "The stock market may be reflecting the profitability of firms, but that's not highly correlated with how well the average person is doing," she said.

Seguino says the state has good assets -- a high number of college graduates, a relatively low poverty rate, and a lower degree of economic inequality than most other states. But she says economic inequality is still a drag. One example -- she says since 95-percent of economic growth has gone to the top one-percent since 2009. That's while wages have been stagnant for middle and low-income Vermonters. "It's largely people in the middle and at the bottom who aren't doing well. People at the top are doing very well," Seguino said.

Meanwhile, she says employers say housing costs are hurting recruitment efforts."We know that a lot of people in Vermont have shelter poverty -- that is they're paying such a high percentage of their income for housing, because housing is too scarce for low-income folks, that they don't have enough money to spend to buy goods and services," she said.

Vermont Chamber of Commerce president Betsy Bishop says a shrinking workforce and the cost of housing are slowing growth."We think that we need about 10,000 more workers in Vermont. But we also need about 5,000 new and retro-fitted homes, because we think that the housing costs are expensive for folks," she said.

The governor says he has taken action to help address the high cost of housing. "I think we need to focus more on the workforce, and that's what we've done with the $35 million housing bond that we put through in a joint effort with the Legislature," Gov. Scott said.

He says the bond will leverage $65 million in private funding, making it the largest single investment in housing in state history.

The governor also says he's focused on growing the workforce. He's made several trips to Canada this year to woo businesses.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature say they want to improve economic conditions for low-income Vermonters. They will look at raising the state's minimum wage when lawmakers return to Montpelier. It is scheduled to increase to $10.50 per hour on Jan. 1.