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Scott pedals forward in re-election bid

MIDDLEBURY — Many politicians have been expending a lot of shoe leather during these weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 General Election.
But Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has been burning some rubber — and not just at the speedway where he is a well-known race car driver. Scott recently capped an eight-day, 500-mile, 14-county bike tour as a way of promoting a healthy lifestyle and meeting with constituents to gauge their concerns during the lead-up to the election. The 54-year-old Berlin Republican faces a challenge this year from Montpelier Democrat Cassandra Gekas.
Scott and his small entourage rode into Middlebury last week for a breather during a bike leg to Rutland. During that time, the incumbent lieutenant governor sat down with the Addison Independent to discuss issues ranging from wind power to health care and what he would like to accomplish if returned to office for a second term.
The “14-county bike tour” is but one example of Scott rubbing shoulders with Vermonters during the past two years in a manner that has increased his political profile outside of Montpelier. In his first term he also launched a “Vermont Everyday Jobs” tour, during which he would periodically spend a few hours helping out at businesses throughout the state. To a certain extent, he is taking a page out of the political playbook of former Gov. James Douglas, R-Middlebury. Douglas, Scott noted, drew some criticism from some people for appearing at numerous ribbon cutting ceremonies. But those appearances weren’t just about cutting ribbons, he said.
“(Douglas) never just cut the ribbon and left; he cut the ribbon and talked and took the pulse of the community,” he said.
“I’m a hands-on learner,” Scott, co-owner of Middlesex-based Dubois Construction, added of his desire to be out with the public. “Rather than observe, I like to be out in the trenches.”
Scott’s bike ride took him throughout the state, to regions with both common and unique concerns. He identified the economy, jobs, taxes and health care as some of the common concerns that Vermonters want to see addressed during the next biennium. Meanwhile, citizens Scott encountered in Addison and Franklin counties added concerns about a hurting farming industry while some in the Northeast Kingdom remain concerned about the construction of wind farms and their aesthetic impact on the local ridgelines.
On wind farms, Scott said the state should move forward on the seven applications currently in the permitting pipeline but declare a two-year moratorium on new proposals.
“I don’t regret our first phase in advocating for wind,” Scott said. “We knew that becoming (energy) independent was of value to us as a state and as a nation. But at the same time, we have an opportunity to at least assess what we are doing right now.
“The (applications) that are in the pipeline right now I think should go through, but I think a two-year moratorium might make sense, just to make sure that we don’t step too far into this without being able to step back,” he added. “Tourism is our number one industry in this state, so we need to make sure we aren’t going to have a negative effect on that. Having said that, we might find out (wind) could be an attraction and not a detractor from a tourism standpoint. But I think we need to make sure of that before we go too much further.”
While wind farms are issues specific to regions of the state, health care reform will affect everyone, Scott noted. The lieutenant governor believes the state should proceed cautiously with health care reform.
“I have been a bit of a skeptic, in terms of taking on that next phase the governor wants to take on, in terms of (a) single-payer (health care system),” Scott said. “I have some skepticism, in terms of understanding how we would implement something like this in our state and what it is going to cost and what it is going to look like. I just want details. I’m not saying ‘no,’ but I can’t see how it works. I would like to see the details.”
The Vermont Legislature has been laying the groundwork for a single-payer health care system while complying with federal mandates under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Green Mountain Care Board is currently setting up a Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, which by 2014 will be the go-to place for many individuals and small businesses to buy health insurance in the state.
Scott believes the Legislature should focus on complying with the ACA rules and not so much on a single-payer system.
“(The ACA) has passed Congress, it has passed Supreme Court muster, we have to implement it,” Scott said. “It is going to take an awful lot to implement that portion of the federal programs. We need to concentrate on that. I am not saying to put the single-payer portion aside, but we are going to have our hands full just implementing the federal program.”
He also believes the state’s small, regional hospitals need to be preserved as an outcome of any health care reform efforts.
“We cannot afford to let our rural hospitals fall by the wayside,” Scott said. “It is a tough balancing act.”
Maintaining local schools in the face of declining enrollment will also be a tough balancing act, Scott acknowledged. Some rural schools in the state are at a point of not having enough students to remain viable. With that in mind, the state has set up financial incentives for school districts to consolidate their student populations in one building, something Scott promoted as a former chairman of the Senate Institutions Committee.
Current state statutes also encourage school supervisory unions to consolidate their governance structure. The Addison Northwest Supervisory Union has put school governance consolidation before its voters on several occasions, but the measure has failed to garner final approval. The Addison Central Supervisory Union is currently exploring the issue.
Scott believes the state could solve the enrollment problem by growing its economy.
“I think if we can grow our economy with business that we want… we will be able to keep our kids here,” Scott said. A more streamlined permitting process, lower utility rates and more robust education programs should be considered as a means of attracting more businesses.
He said the 2010 federal census reflected a “huge exodus of our youth. It’s dramatic. They are not staying; they are leaving.”
Those leaving, according to Scott, are between 20 and 35 years old.
“We are becoming a retirement community,” he said. “When (the younger people) leave, we aren’t bringing any new kids in. When we don’t have any new kids, it exasperates the school system.”
Along with creating new business opportunities, Scott believes the state should better promote its vocational-technical centers to give students hands-on skills for jobs in a variety of industries.
“Not everyone wants to go to a four-year program,” Scott said. “They want the skills.”
Solving problems can take money, and the Legislature hasn’t had as much at its disposal in recent years due to a queasy economy and federal cutbacks.
“The question mark is, ‘What are the feds going to do?’” Scott said of the state budget forecast. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We rely so heavily on federal funding for our budgets. It looks like there is going to be a reduction; the question is, ‘How much?’”
On the brighter said, Scott noted state revenues appear to be on target, or a little better than forecasted.
If re-elected, Scott will — among his other duties — preside over a state Senate that is likely to again feature a substantial majority of Democrats.
“It was an interesting two years,” Scott said of his first term. He described his first term presiding over the Senate like “Being a new teacher and having some strong personalities in your classroom. But we worked through it. I encourage treating each other with respect, and I think we lost that along the way, but gained it back.”
Looking to his political future, Scott said he has no plans to run for governor.
“I’m not saying ‘Never,” but I haven’t aspired to be governor,” Scott said. “That hasn’t been something I have given a lot of thought to. I enjoy being lieutenant governor.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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