By Guy Page
When the Legislature passed a new payroll tax to raise $100 million for child care and pre-K education, Gov. Phil Scott and business organizations warned it would harm already struggling businesses.
Last week, the warning became reality. The Enosburg-based [Franklin] County Courier’s 142-year history of providing local news in the three-dimensional, line-your-birdcage-with-it newsprint format ended. The Courier will publish online only (www.countycourier.net).
While emphasizing that cost increases in many areas led to his decision, Publisher Greg Lamoureux holds the new .44% payroll tax partly responsible.
The tax, a product of H.217 passed this year, requires all employers to withhold .44% (44% of one percent), with the employer paying three-quarters and the employee paying one-quarter. The taxes are paid in the same way that quarterly business income taxes are paid.
Lamoureux, best known to Vermonters outside of Franklin County for his persistent questions at Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 era press conferences, said the payroll tax was not the only reason he took the momentous decision to go online only.
“We made the decision that the current business model was not working. Drastic increases in expenses across the board, including new payroll taxes in Vermont this year, made the current model unsustainable,” Lamoureux told VDC this week.
“We’ll be publishing news online at countycourier.net with posts beginning this week as our website has needed upgrading,” Lamoureux said.
Under Lamoureux’s leadership, the Courier frequently broke major news stories ahead of its daily newspaper competition, the St. Albans Messenger. For example – the photos and news story about Sheriff John Grismore kicking/restraining with his foot a handcuffed suspect first came to the public’s attention in the County Courier. Since then, every other news outlet has just been playing catch-up on a story that has led to the Legislature convening a controversial impeachment panel – also covered by the Courier.
Even though Lamoureux and former Republican legislator Felisha Leffler were once a couple, most Courier readers find it difficult to determine a political bias in the paper’s news coverage. The paper’s court reporting from the St. Albans courthouse is among the best local cops ‘n courts coverage in Vermont. Sports Editor Ben Kaufmann – son of longtime Messenger sports editor Josh Kaufmann – delivers large helpings of local sports photos and stories, much to the enjoyment of young athletes and their families.
But newspapers are a business, and in Vermont, running a community newspaper gets tougher every year. There’s not a single Vermont-based newspaper printing press. All Vermont newspapers are printed in Quebec, New York State, or elsewhere in New England.
More important, Main Street businesses that contribute most of the vital advertising revenue are still struggling to recover from Covid-era lockdowns, worker shortages, and the consumer migration to Amazon. Faced with choosing to meet payroll or buy advertising, they understandably choose the former.
Vermont’s new payroll tax took effect July 1. Gov. Scott’s veto of H217 was overturned by the Legislature. Its supporters say the revenue is essential to resolve Vermont’s critical childcare shortage, which is limiting business growth and causing great personal financial difficulty for workers with young children.
Its critics say the tax just adds to Vermont’s already heavy tax, regulatory, and business environment burden. According to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, “many will pass the cost to consumers, further contributing to the soaring cost of living in Vermont which already hinders the ability of employers to recruit and retain workers. While a 0.44% tax may appear minor in print, its contributions to the cumulative impact of cost pressures and the cyclical nature of the Vermont economy will have repercussions.”
The Courier will continue to do what it does best – report on local government, publish obituaries, print sports photos and game results, and cover local courts ‘n cops without fear or favor. But you won’t find a copy at the local store or in your mailbox. As with so much else, you’ll need to go online.