In Which I Discover the Limits of Phil Scott’s Generosity to Business

Throughout his tenure as Vermont governor, and even more so during the pandemic, Phil Scott has been a friend to the business community. Ever solicitous of their needs, ever willing to step up when a helping hand is required.

But finally, I have identified the boundary of this unending love. It’s at the level of microbusiness — those with five employees or fewer.

This morning, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard testimony about the state’s Microbusiness Development Program and its Covid-19-specific effort called EMBRACE*, which provides advice and grant funding to these smallest of businesses. And one of the things I learned from the testimony was that, in his FY2021 budget, Scott proposed eliminating the program’s funding.

*Economic Micro Business Recovery Assistance for the COVID-19 Epidemic. Must have taken a committee quite a while to come up with that.

The Legislature restored the money. Which turned out to be a very timely thing, because the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many microbusinesses to the brink of disaster. EMBRACE did a lot to keep them alive.

In his FY2022 budget, Scott has proposed to level-fund the program. But in each of the last three years, it has received an extra $100,000 over its base amount. Scott doesn’t want to continue that. And with the pandemic still raging, microbusinesses still need a lot of help.

Meanwhile, Scott’s budget is full of grant programs and tax credits for bigger businesses and favored classes of white-collar workers.

After the jump: Tattoos and Eggplant Parm.

Today’s hearing allowed those involved in MBDP and EMBRACE to make their case for fuller funding, and their presentation was very strong. Particularly Tyler Jokinen, who is a microbusiness counselor based in Rutland. He spends his days advising microbusiness owners on the brink, and people in poverty who have an entrepreneurial vision.

Jokinen cited a tattoo artist who’d been unemployed for a year after overcoming a substance use issue. “I helped him open a tattoo shop for $4,000,” Jokinen said. “Now he’s making an income doing something he loves. This is a path out or poverty for many, many individuals.”

Covid-19 hit these businesses hard. Last year, “I was getting dozens of calls a day from microbusinesses with no income,” said Jokinen. “The need was greater than I expected.”

Many of these businesses either didn’t qualify for federal or state bailout programs, or got minimal grants that weren’t enough to sustain them. Last year, Jokinen said, EMBRACE gave 436 grants to microbusinesses. The average grant was less than $5,000. Compare that to the much-touted remote worker relocation grants, which can amount to $10,000 a person, and are given to people who can afford to relocate to Vermont without state money.

“Microbusiness is an investment in Vermont’s future,” Jokinen told lawmakers. “We need these businesses to be successful. They pay taxes, pay rent, and the owners stay off [social service] programs.”

Throughout his testimony, Jokinen weaved in the story of Tamara Musto. Her catering business cratered after the pandemic hit — and her husband lost his job, which meant they and their two children were dependent on her income. She became one of EMBRACE’s 436 grantees. That money kept her afloat, and Jokinen’s nuts-and-bolts business advice helped her open her own restaurant in Danby. “I cannot state enough the bravery she had in starting a business during the pandemic,” Jokinen said.

Jokinen said Musto makes “the best Italian food I’ve ever had,” and urged anyone passing through the area to make a stop at Mamma Tamara & Famiglia.

Fortunately for MBDP and EMBRACE, committee members seemed to be in support of the program. In fact, a couple of lawmakers asked how the program could be expanded.

It’s too bad the governor doesn’t see it. I think if he shadowed Jokinen through a single workday, he might well change his mind.

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