Editorial: Gov. Scott Changes, solutions will come from the bottom up
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott stood before the gathered assembly at the Statehouse inauguration this past Thursday and gave a heartfelt and impassioned speech that spoke to the changing tide he will bring to state government. It’s a tide that will bubble from the bottom up, he said, asking those in the front-line trenches to step forward with their solutions, and asking Vermonters at every level to buckle down, buck up and put their best foot forward.
“I worked for more than 30 years in construction. And what I learned was the best feedback always came from those who were in the trenches,” Scott told those assembled in the Statehouse ceremony. “State Government should be no different. I believe that our frontline employees, who directly engage with Vermonters every day, have valuable knowledge about what’s working, and what needs improvement. That’s why I am calling for every process, every procedure, every system, every government mandate to be looked at through a new lens… theirs… My Administration will not approach our challenges from the top down, but from the bottom up.”
Scott said he could imagine a system in which “we give state employees the tools to identify and resolve problems.” To do that Scott said he would create a Government Modernization and Efficiency Team, which will “lead this charge toward a more effective and productive state government.”
And so it went with Scott’s inauguration speech: high platitudes with grand expectations, but few specifics. He said he would restructure education, suggesting more would be spent on early education and post-high school, but also said the state is spending plenty on education as it is, and would not add more to the pot.
He said the state would meet its commitment to clean up Lake Champlain, as outlined in Act 64, but said he would allocated no new money to cover the expected $65 million annually it will cost.
He said he would continue the fight against opiate addiction, calling it a continued priority for the state, but he pledged not to raise taxes above the cost the state’s own growth rate.
As inauguration speeches go, it was high on inspiration and low on details, which is about par for the course. It is typical for governors to talk about their grand vision in this speech, while providing more details about how to achieve their goals in the budget address later in the month — something Scott said he would do.
We can, however, parse a few things from his speech of note:
• Scott singled-out the state’s persistent flight of younger workers as a problem that must be addressed. He noted that from 2000-2010, the number of 25-45 year-olds in Vermont decreased by 30,000. Compounding those losses, the number of working Vermonters dropped by 16,000 since 2010, a downward trend that continues in spite of many new jobs created in that same time period and a state unemployment level that is at rock bottom.
Scott pledged to focus on reversing that trend, suggesting that if he is successful it will be a way to fund state services. “That is our working class,” Scott said of the diminished workforce, “the folks who buy homes, have children in school, pay taxes and drive our economy. Those losses shrink our tax base and deter businesses from opening here, making Vermont less and less affordable for those who remain. It’s a complex problem and it will not be solved overnight, but we literally cannot afford to ignore this issue anymore. We must have a laser-focus on attracting and retaining working age people… If we do, we can rebuild our workforce. We can provide our businesses with the talented workers they need to thrive. And we can grow revenue organically, rather than raising taxes and fees, giving us the resource to deliver better services, better outcomes and invest in a better future.”
Easier said that done, however.
Gov. James Douglas highlighted the same concern and tried hard to stem the outflow with little success, and Gov. Shumlin spent six years trying to make Vermont more affordable by reducing the increase in health care costs, reducing the number of Vermonters who were uninsured, helping families afford child care, providing early education to families and reducing the cost of higher-education through dual enrollment and other innovative programs. Shumlin made progress on each of those fronts, but it didn’t stop the outflow of young workers to other states.
Scott’s emphasis will be helping businesses find qualified workers, while also providing affordable, quality housing. To address those issues, Scott said his team would “invest in programs designed to train Vermonters with the skills needed for the jobs we currently have. And we will set specific housing targets and find ways to expand availability of good homes for working families and young professionals.”
Scott drew criticism for not mentioning climate change or the siting of alternative energy projects (wind and solar), as well as his lack of specific ideas to address the state’s challenges, but then again Scott’s message was reflective of his campaign. He didn’t provide many specifics there either. It is a shortcoming, however, that will soon be overcome: either Scott and his administration will provide the leadership on those issues, or the Legislature will fill the void. We’ll find out more with Scott’s budget address in two weeks, and as the session gets underway.
Angelo S. Lynn