MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont is one of four states to have banned employee travel to Mississippi and North Carolina, but expense reimbursement data show the Green Mountain State’s bark is worse than its bite.
According to information from the Agency of Administration, Vermont’s travel ban against Mississippi will cost that state’s economy about $559 annually. The hit to North Carolina will cost the state’s economy about $14,265.
Gov. Peter Shumlin banned employee travel after those states passed laws pertaining to religious liberty and transgender bathroom use.
Mississippi’s new law protects individuals, businesses and religious institutions from having to accommodate LGBT activities that violate their religious beliefs. North Carolina’s law says that private businesses, not municipalities, get to decide if men and women may use opposite-sex bathrooms.
Although state economic boycotts sound threatening, two-year totals for Vermont’s ban on travel to Mississippi and North Carolina amount to $1,119.53 and 28,531.36, respectively.
“It’s not really designed to be economically punitive per se,” Justin Johnson, secretary of the Agency of Administration, told Vermont Watchdog.
“I don’t think when you look at the amount of money we spend on official travel to Mississippi that it’s going to make a big difference one way or the other. I think it’s a symbolic statement in large part, (with) the governor wanting to let people know we don’t support the approach they’ve taken.”
Vermont’s ban applies to approximately 8,000 state workers. After Shumlin issued the orders on March 29 and April 5, Johnson sent a memo informing appointing authorities — department heads, commissioners and agency secretaries — not to send employees to the two states. When asked how withholding travel dollars affects other states, Brad Ferland, deputy commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management, said, “It goes to their economy.”
According to data from Vermont’s statewide travel and expense reimbursement system, six state employees traveled to Mississippi in 2014 and 2015, mostly to attend conferences and training sessions. While visiting the Magnolia State, the employees spent money on meals, cab fare, baggage fees, tips and other incidentals. Most individual expenses were less than $25.
In a quote that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered in the wake of Mississippi’s new law, Shumlin said, “If we don’t stand up to bigotry, if we don’t stand up to hatred, it will just continue.”
While Johnson State College and University of Vermont offer bathroom accommodations for transgendered people, a 2015 bill requiring gender-neutral restrooms in new or renovated state buildings never made it out of committee.
On April 5, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. In a statement issued after the signing, Bryant said the act “merely reinforces the rights which currently exist to the exercise of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
While H.B.1523 protects the religious liberty of churches, religious institutions, business owners and individuals, the act does not prevent gays and lesbians from obtaining marriage licenses in Mississippi or LGBT-related services offered by private enterprises.
So far, four states — New York, Washington, Minnesota and Vermont — have banned employees from traveling to Mississippi.
Vermont’s travel ban for North Carolina is similarly inconsequential. In 2014 and 2015, Vermont sent 81 employees to the Tar Heel State. While away on state business, employees expensed items for hotels, conference fees, flights, car rentals, parking and gasoline, in addition to meals and cab fare.
After North Carolina passed H.B.2 preventing local governments from establishing new bathroom policies, Shumlin called the law “an absolute disgrace.” He urged other states to join Vermont in pressuring North Carolina to “recognize common sense, common decency, and common humanity and repeal this law.”
While travel bans may be symbolic, they set a precedent for states to wage economic warfare on other states, which in turn affects tourism. Vermont, which relies heavily on tourism, could be vulnerable if North Carolina and Mississippi retaliate with travel bans against Vermont — a scenario Johnson said never came up in discussions with the governor.
“It didn’t come up as a big issue for us because I don’t think that, at the end of the day, we would see official state travel from any one state to be the big economic driver in Vermont,” Johnson said.
“It would be unfortunate if that happened, and I don’t think there’s any reason for that to happen. I think this is really related to these specific laws, and if they changed them we’d be happy to change our position.”
Asked if he thought a retaliatory travel ban would be an appropriate response to Vermont’s boycott, Johnson said, “I don’t think it would be appropriate.”
However, he added, “I think any state has a right to make a decision about where they will pay to send their people based on other states.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org