Gov. Phil Scott wants you for Vermont. The first-term Republican governor is seeking millennials who like the outdoors and local food, young couples looking for a change of pace or a place to raise a family, and employees who work from home, with a social media invitation: Come live here.
The state’s goal is to expand its “iconic” brand from maple syrup and skiing to include entrepreneurship, education, and healthy living. The campaign, imploringly named Think Vermont, began in October. Its website is peppered with buzzy testimonials, including one from that Vermonter we all know and love, 30th president Calvin Coolidge: “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others.” Indeed, the platform depends on frontier-style confidence, like Richard Rodgers Oklahoma! rewritten for the 21st century: “We know we belong to the brand / And the brand we belong to is grand!”
In an early version of the initative, employees at the Vermont Department of Labor were to serve as relocation agents, providing concierge services to help would-be Vermonters find opportunities in the state. Locals who referred out-of-staters to the Green Mountain State would receive bonuses, like a family ski pass or a year’s supply of cheese. (Really!) The details reflect Scott’s vision: a corporate-style worker attraction plan wrapped up in Vermont cheesecloth.
On Wednesday, Scott signed a more modest version of that plan with a sharper focus: A straight cash incentive for remote workers who choose to move to Vermont. If, say, I worked at a magazine that only rarely required my physical presence in its New York office, I could receive up to $10,000 in moving and business expenses over two years to relocate to White River Junction.
It’s the latest bait dangled by rural states and cities desperate to fill jobs, homes, and schools. Dozens of cities have sponsored giveaways offering student loan paybacks, down payments on houses, free land, or homes for a dollar. South Dakota’s Dakota Roots program tries to get wayward Dakotans to move home. Maine has built affordable housing on its coastal islands to prop up dwindling communities; signs bid farewell to drivers at the New Hampshire border with a message, “Worth a visit; worth a lifetime.” In 2015, one Vermont mayor tried to bring in Syrian refugees; it didn’t go great.
The idea of luring more young Americans into Vermont has been a big talking point for Scott, a Republican who took office last year. A pilot program called Stay-to-Stay aims to help visitors make good on that throw-away vacation weekend line, “Why don’t we just live here?” In January, he used his state-of-the-state speech to discuss ways to reinvigorate the state’s aging workforce. A house committee rejected a more robust package—including those year-in-cheese referral bonuses—earlier this spring, but passed the relocation incentives.
What’s different with Vermont’s strategy is the explicit focus on capturing other states’ remote workers. The amount of money allotted may be just $500,000 over three years, but it’s an unproven tactic. Most states trumpet their own job opportunities, and Vermont is doing that too, to some extent. But unlike similar incentives in say, Nebraska or Ohio, the program is not designed to provide more workers for Vermont employers.
It’s possible the least-populous New England state is on to something. In 2016, 43 percent of American workers spent some time working remotely, according to Gallup. States already burn millions of dollars offering subsidies to corporations to bring jobs, so why not offer a small reward to an individual who brings one?