Tag Archives: Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association

Small business should beware of joining the corporate army

A while back, I proposed that Vermont’s small retailers ought to open their own interest group. I suggested the Vermont Association of Independent Retailers, or VAIR for short.

The idea came to me while reading about their putative Montpelier representation, the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, helmed by the very effective Jim Harrison. One of his favorite techniques is to bring some mom-and-pop types to the Statehouse whenever there’s legislation that might touch on retail interests, such as the proposed sugary-beverage tax.

Truth is, Harrison gives a lot of lip service to the little guy, but his real clients are in Big Retail — the WalMarts, Hannafords, and Dollar Generals of the world. And quite often, the interests of Big Retail are at odds with what’s best for small business. Guys like Harrison draw a stark divide between the private sector and government; in fact, the real divide is frequently found between big retail and small. I would ask this of real independent retailers: which is the biggest threat to your existience? A change in state regulations, or the big boxes and dollar stores springing up all over the place?

This is also true in the broader business world. And in that field, there’s a thousand-pound lobbying gorilla called the National Federation of Independent Businesses, or NFIB. Which has a Vermont branch, helmed by veteran corporate lobbyist Shawn Shouldice. (Who also, I can’t help but note, does PR for Bruce Lisman.)

The NFIB sounds like a joint effort of all the mom-and-pops. It bills itself as “the voice of small business.”

Well, it’s not.

Continue reading

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A modest proposal for Mom and Pop

A Republican lawmaker said something dumb this week.

I know, I know. Stop the presses, right?

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, who owns a retail business, said between 10 and 12 “mom and pop stores” are closing every year because of state mandates.

Mmmm. And you know this how, exactly? Did the 10 to 12 mom and pops check the “Burdensome State Regulations” box on their mandatory “Reasons for Closure of Small Business” forms?

Now, I have no trouble believing that a dozen “mom and pop stores” are closing every year in Vermont. There’s a natural attrition among small businesses. But aside from that, our hardy moms and pops are under siege — not from state regulations, but from big chain retail. I’ll be you dollars to Maple Glazed Koffee Kup Donuts that the single biggest threat to mom-and-pop retail is the rapid proliferation of Dollar General stores that offer a full range of groceries as well as aisles and aisles of cheap plastic crap.

Which brings me to my modest proposal. Continue reading

The microfruits of capitalism

The decrying of “burdensome regulation” is often heard in our land. It discourages entrepreneurship; it’s leaving us behind in the global economy; it raises prices on everything we buy.

All true, to some extent.

But regulations don’t just happen. They are responses to excesses in the marketplace. They are necessarily imperfect responses; bureaucracy is not a precision instrument. Dodd-Frank, whatever its flaws, would not exist if the Wizards of Wall Street had a smidgen of foresight or conscience, if they’d been able to resist the temptation to make a quick billion off toxic derivatives and Collateralized Debt Obligations.

And now we have a new exhibit in our Gallery of Free Market Excess. It’s completely unnecessary, it’s hazardous to the environment, and even industry leaders acknowledge they don’t need it.

Mmmm, fish food!

Mmmm, fish food!

I’m talking about nonbiodegradable microbeads, “barely visible plastic scrubbing grains used in personal care products.” There’s a bill before the state legislature to outlaw them. John Herrick at VTDigger:

Environmentalists and water quality advocates want them outlawed because the non-biodegradable plastic waste is washed down the drain and slips through nearly all of the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

… No studies measure quantities of microbeads in Vermont’s waterways. But scientists who study Lake Champlain say the beads can be spotted along the shores.

Marine animals consume the microbeads, which can cause internal blockages. Scientists also say that toxic pollutants “attach themselves to the plastic beads like a sticker,” and then head up the food chain.

Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put teeny-tiny nonbiodegradable plastic bits into consumer products? Why do Vermont lawmakers have to spend their time debating a bill to ban them?

Well, now you know where regulations come from.

What’s worse, the microbeads are completely superfluous, according to Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, a Vermont company that uses natural alternatives.

“Microbeads are nonessential. Substances exist that are mineral or biodegradable, perform the same function, and have no meaningful impact on the economics of the products in which they are used,” he told the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Mike Thompson, who put his soul in escrow to take a job representing the Personal Care Products Council, says “the industry is committed to phasing out microbeads on a timely basis.”

Of course, his definition of “timely basis” may not be yours. The Vermont bill would ban microbeads on January 1, 2017. That’s too fast for Thompson; he wants December 31, 2017, to match a law already on the books in Illinois. And Jim Harrison, the ever-vigilant head of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, “prefers a bill that gives retailers time to sell existing inventories.” What, two years isn’t enough?

How many bazillions of microbeads would be flushed into our rivers and lakes during the year 2017? Can’t the industry manage to make the change in two years, instead of three?

Government regulation is, at times, wasteful, inefficient, and counterproductive. The only thing worse than regulation, thanks to the madly-spinning engines of commerce, is no regulation.

Sweet deals, or no deals?

The 2015 legislative session looks to be big and contentious, including the likely rollout of Governor Shumlin’s single-payer health care plan and a serious debate over public-school organization and financing. We can also expect a new battle over campaign finance reform, VPIRG’s #1 issue for the year.

And there will be a new fight over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, a measure that has failed twice in recent years. But a new year, a new push, and a new guy taking leadership: Anthony Iarrapino is leaving the Conservation Law Foundation to head the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont, the coalition that spearheaded the sugar-tax fight in 2013. Iarrapino told VTDigger, in the words of Bullwinkle T. Moose, This time for sure.

“We’re going to have the resources this time around to really mobilize and educate the public and policy makers on the wisdom of Vermont once again leading the nation in an important policy area,” he said.

The Alliance claims to have $200,000 to bankroll its campaign and counter the efforts of Big Food and the ever-vigilant Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association. It also seeks to piggy-back on health care reform, by offering a short-term revenue boost from the tax and the longer-term cost reductions from lower rates of sugar-induced illnesses.

It’ll be interesting to see how Governor Shumlin plays this. (Yes, I’m assuming his re-election. Aren’t you?) He can surely use every bit of money he can find for single-payer; but he’s opposed this tax in the past, and his campaign is getting heavy support from the likes of Coca-Cola.

But I would be Shocked, Shocked, if there were any quid pro quo involved.

Jim Harrison of the Retail Association is dusting off his talking points, including the hardy perennial “a tax would hurt retailers near New Hampshire.” Yeah, well, it might hurt big supermarkets within shouting distance of the border, since a 2-cent-per-ounce tax adds up if you’re buying a 30-pack of Mr. Pibb. I doubt it’ll impact our cherished Mom and Pop enterprises; hard to see too many folks driving across the border if they’re just stopping in for a quick Gatorade fix.

But Harrison’s biggest laugh line was this:

Nothing has changed since previous efforts to pass the tax, adding that it’s still regressive and “goes down the path of government trying to decide what’s best for consumers through tax policy,” Harrison said.

Bwahahahaha. Stop it, Jim, you’re making me shoot coffee out my nose.

You kiddin’ me? Government uses tax policy ALL THE TIME to “decide what’s best for consumers.” Take the mortgage interest rate deduction or the charitable contributions deduction. Take any stinkin’ tax deduction, break, subsidy, or exception. Take the capital gains tax rate, which decides it’s better to be a rich investor than a working stiff.

And if you just want to talk about sweeteners, well, that’s the mother lode of government using tax policy to “decide what’s best for consumers.” Agribusinesses that produce sugar and corn benefit from extremely generous subsidies, price supports, and free “insurance.” The result is lost tax revenue for the public till, a farm system that’s heavily skewed toward the biggest producers and commodity crops that go into junk food of all kinds, and — pay attention, Jim — higher cost for consumers because of artificially high sugar, corn, and soy prices.

So please don’t insult our intelligence with that “government shouldn’t decide what’s best for consumers” nonsense. That ship sailed a very long time ago.

Anyway, it should be an interesting battle. I expect legislative leaders to trot out the old reliable “too many other issues on our plate” line, in an effort to put off consideration of the sugar tax. It’ll be up to the likes of Iarrapino to make it a fight they can’t postpone. As we saw with the GMO labeling bill this year, it’s possible to build momentum behind an issue that lawmakers might prefer to duck, but it takes a concerted effort.

And it’ll require a softening of Shumlin’s hard-line stance. Not an easy thing to accomplish.