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Editorial: Phil Scott: Ready or not?

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Posted on July 1, 2016 |
By Angelo Lynn



The challenge Republican Phil Scott has long foreseen in his race for the governorship is how to rise to star power without taking controversial positions that raise red flags to the moderate majorities in the state. He has done that well. By taking moderate stands on most controversial issues, he’s become known as the go-along to get-along candidate; a Mr. Nice Guy.

Nothing wrong with that when you’re number two (as lieutenant governor) or as one of the Republican minority in the Legislature.

As governor, however, Mr. Scott will have to stake out stronger positions to show how he is different from the other candidates, and provide the public with an idea of how he might lead the state in terms of personal style — and in what direction.

As a political leader of the Republican Party, Scott has created a strong identity as a level-headed, political moderate who is most comfortable in the small-business world of good management practices. His mantra could be summarized as: invest cautiously, spend wisely and be frugal.

His campaign proposals follow in that vein. At the top of his economic agenda is his pledge “to establish economic growth and affordability as the top priorities.” A Phil Scott administration will, his platform states:

• Stay laser-focused on the economic and fiscal fundamentals.

• Set clear standards and limits that help Vermonters get ahead, instead of causing them to fall further behind.

• Not support, or carry out, experiments at taxpayers’ expense.

To carry out his pledge of frugality, he says that he will “challenge my administration to rethink state government and find ways to make agencies, departments programs and services more efficient and more productive.”

Touting his fiscal discipline, he makes a big deal out of his pledge to keep a cap on state spending. “I will not allow the state budget to grow more than wages or the economy did in the previous year…. This is my central, guiding budgetary principle, so I want to be clear: A Phil Scott administration will never propose — and I will never sign — an annual state budget that grows more than the economy or inflation-adjusted wages did in the prior year.” If that is 1 percent growth, then there will be 1 percent spending. Period. Cuts will just have to be made; frugality will be imposed.

In terms of growing the economy, he claims an economic certainty: “I believe the very best and most responsible way to balance the state budget is to generate tax revenue organically, by expanding the economy and increasing the size of our workforce.”

No one, of course, disagrees. Every governor sets out to grow the economy and add jobs.

But it’s not so simple.

The current administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin claims creating an additional 17,000 jobs during his tenure in the renewable energy sector alone, but that took a concerted effort to create new boundaries for an emerging industry; to establish incentives to jump-start new business growth. It was an experiment and an effort that could have been launched years prior under the previous administration, but it was not. It took new thinking and a bit of a gamble — in terms of state tax incentives, grants and regulatory priorities to help create that sector.

Similarly, the Shumlin administration was instrumental in navigating the negotiations between a declining IBM operation based in Essex Junction and the thriving business now operating there under Global Foundries, which earlier this year announced it was investing $78 million in the plant. Keeping the state’s high-tech industries growing and prospering in the state is more than just being a governor with a frugal economic plan; it’s being a savvy investor in the new economy, an articulate advocate of the state’s best assets and selling points, and an economic seer in being able to forecast changes in the global economy that will benefit the state and a new generation of Vermonters. Being conservative and operating within the status quo, when the global economy is changing rapidly, may be a roadmap that misses the opportunities of tomorrow.

To his credit, Scott does recognize the need to invest in education — both early (pre-K) and in post-secondary education with more emphasis placed on technical training and the trades. And by emphasizing solid fundamentals of business management, voters know what they are likely to get; and we like Scott’s proposal to move state government to a two-year budget cycle.

But specifics in Scott’s proposals are few, and his background in his construction business and years in the Legislature don’t provide much insight into how he would be able to navigate the changing mores of a global economy that tosses out the carcasses of old economic models with alarming frequency. And placing any hope of advancing the state’s economic fortunes in his proposals to make government more efficient through innovation and better management practices will work as well as worn-out retreads on a racecar, and leave the state stranded on the roadside with four flats.

To compete in the changing economy, Vermont needs bold and imaginative ideas — and those challenges will be forced upon the new governor whether they are ready or not.

— Angelo S. Lynn

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