Rob Roper: Young professionals leaving Vermont

Editor's note: This commentary is by Robert Roper, the president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

This past spring the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce surveyed 500 young professionals, primarily Burlington area residents between the ages of 22 and 34, and learned that over 40% intend to leave Vermont. Now we can put some faces on those statistics. Taylor Dobbs, 29, a prominent reporter who worked for VPR and most recently Seven Days, has decamped with his wife, an educator, for North Carolina. Ben Jickling, 25, a two-term independent representative from Brookfield, is leaving to take a job with a medical software company in Wisconsin. Both were life-long Vermonters.

North Carolina and Wisconsin have something in common beyond new, young residents from the Green Mountain State. Over the past decade, both dramatically rejected their historical progressive economic policy paths and fully embraced lower taxes and limited, smaller government.

A little history….

In 2010, Republicans took control of North Carolina’s legislature for the first time in 140 years. Two years later, they established supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and elected a Republican governor, Pat McCrory. These Republicans then enacted a dramatic package of tax and regulatory reform in 2013, including (but not limited to) lowering and flattening the income tax from 7.75% to 5.75%, fully exempting Social Security from the state income tax, fully repealing the estate tax, capping the gasoline tax, and reducing the corporate income tax from 6.9% to 3% over three years.

In 2010 Wisconsin, Republicans also took both chambers of their legislature from the Democrats and elected Gov. Scott Walker. They too set out on a bold course of economic reforms, most notably making Wisconsin a “Right to Work” state (North Carolina has been a Right to Work state since 1947), but also instituting roughly $8.5 billion in tax cuts, including $3.56 billion in property tax cuts, as well as shrinking and restructuring state government.

The results speak for themselves. A recent study of North Carolina measuring six areas of economic growth (growth in real GDP, employment, real GDP per capita, real personal income per capita, employment per capita, and worker productivity) showed that between 2014-17, the period after the NCGOP tax cuts and economic reforms kicked in, North Carolina’s economy outperformed the nation and the Southeast in all six categories.

In Wisconsin, after Walker left office due to an election loss in 2018, the state was taking in record revenues, running a budget surplus of over $660 million, unemployment was at record lows, and more people were working in Wisconsin than ever before.

Important to note: This is what the states Vermont’s young people are leaving us for have to offer.

It’s also important to note what these states do not have. Neither Wisconsin nor North Carolina has a universal, publicly funded preschool program. Neither has a paid family leave law (though both state’s legislatures have recently debated the policy). Both states have a minimum wage of not $15 an hour, but the federally allowed minimum of $7.25. Neither state is bribing young people to move there with $10,000 checks.

Yes, it’s ironic that Ben Jickling voted to stick Vermont with a $15 minimum wage just before bolting for a better, more lucrative career opportunity in a state with a minimum wage of less than half that. And who would have guessed after reading Talyor Dobbs’ work for the past six or seven years that he’d blow off our progressive utopia for a state with over 140 official Confederate monuments. But, even for these most politically conscious citizens, career and affordable housing are apparently what’s really important.

Anyone’s decision to leave one state for another must be deeply personal and the reasons for doing so multiple and varied, so I won’t presume motives beyond what Jickling and Dobbs revealed publicly. But here’s what we do know about these two examples: Vermont’s high minimum wage, universal pre-k program, green energy policies, etc. did not keep these young people here, and the complete and utter lack of these policies in their newly adopted states was not a deterrent to their moving in. So, if these are the ideas our lawmakers are working on to keep young people here and attract more, perhaps they should seriously rethink that strategy.

Few people in Vermont were in a better position to know what our politicians are doing and not doing to stop our demographic slide than these two young men. They took that knowledge, gauged their future, and left for states that are doing things very differently.  It turns out a good job in Jickling’s case and affordable housing/cost of living in Dobbs’ case are more attractive than any bouquet of government programs and handouts.  

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