The Shumlin administration wants to start sending funds to southeastern Vermont — beginning in the current fiscal year — to help residents prepare for the closure of Vermont Yankee.
There’s a narrowing window of time to draw up a request. The House Appropriations Committee has already begun vetting the administration’s budget adjustment for fiscal year 2014, and Martha Heath, D-Westford, chair, said the committee plans to finalize the bill by Dec. 17.
Lawrence Miller, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said the administration is working on a last-minute addition.
Entergy, the company that operates Vermont Yankee, plans to close the plant at the end of 2014, eliminating most of the 620 jobs — roughly 40 percent of which are held by Vermont residents.
At a legislative forum held in Windham County in October, residents asked the state for $2.2 million to cushion the economic blow.
The administration’s deliberations come amid ongoing discussions with Entergy over the decommissioning process.
Miller gave lawmakers only a general preview of the administration’s spending proposal on Tuesday, and he didn’t cite specific dollar figures.
“There’s a number of different elements,” Miller said. “We are looking at a series of support issues, not just in workforce development but also in entrepreneurship support and continuing education.”
The administration is also looking at beefing up the capacity of the regional planning corporation and expanding the small business development center by funding a full-time staff person instead of a part-time one, according to the commissioner.
Miller said he’ll submit “specific requests” to the Legislature soon, but added that they “would not necessarily be proportional to the fiscal year 2015 request.”
For FY 2015, the administration plans to propose giving a number of performance grants to organizations that promote economic development in the region, according to Miller. But it’s important to start sending funds earlier, he said, to allow the region to begin making plans.
“It’s important to begin scaling that capacity in the last quarter of the fiscal year, in the spring and summer,” he said. “… Then you will see more implementation go into effect the closer we come to the to the plant closing.”
At the same time, state officials also need to make sure their efforts don’t undermine the decommissioning process, Miller cautioned. “One of the things that’s absolutely critical to them [Entergy] and I think to all of us is that they retain the skilled employees they need up until the closing.”
According to Miller, Department of Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan is jointly applying for a national emergency grant from the federal Department of Labor, along with her counterparts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (whose residents also work at Vermont Yankee). If secured, the nearly $1 million would support laid-off employees from all three states.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the state should be supplying its own funds to mitigate this particular private company’s departure.
“I’m curious about why we feel the obligation to invest money in this region when IBM laid off, over the last few years, several thousand employees,” Heath told Miller. “I don’t remember any investments made in the region due to that happening. I’m sure we can cite many other instances where plants have closed and 300 people have lost their job.”
Miller said there are a number of reasons why it makes sense for the state to step in, and by sending money now, it can obviate future expenses.
“We think development spending will avoid a number of state costs,” he said. “We want to avoid a balloon of Agency of Human Services costs. We want to avoid a deterioration of property values that would reduce property tax receipts to the Education Fund.”
Rep. Bob Helm, R-Fair Haven, is skeptical that the state could do much to alleviate the economic blowback. Citing the average salary for Vermont Yankee employees, Helm asked Miller, “What can you do to compare to a $100,000 salary? What can you create? I don’t get it.”
CORRECTION: Though House Appropriations Committee plans to finalize the Budget Adjustment Act by Dec. 17, a vote won’t be taken until after the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 7.