Gov. Scott begins era with lofty agenda
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County lawmakers on Thursday applauded the environmental, education and economic development agenda that Gov. Phil Scott unveiled during his inaugural address, but several voiced disappointment the state’s new chief executive didn’t provide more details on how he hopes to achieve his ambitious goals.
Scott, during a speech that lasted around a half hour and was interrupted around 20 times by applause, pledged to strengthen the economy, make Vermont more affordable, and protect its most vulnerable citizens.
It’s a vision he said will require the state to focus on four major policy areas:
• A continued fight against the opiate epidemic, “with the urgency we would any other health crisis.”
• A “revitalized approach” to economic development.
• Transformation of the state’s education system.
• A commitment to sustainable state budgets.
The governor said he will seek feedback from the state’s front-line workers on problems and potential solutions to achieve the ultimate, populist objective of “putting Vermonters first.”
“My administration will not approach our challenges from the top down … but from the bottom up,” he said. “I will establish a culture that ensures our focus is always on you: helping you keep more of what you earn, creating better opportunities for your children, and building a future where you can retire with financial security.”
Scott described in detail some of Vermont’s biggest challenges, including an ongoing exodus of the state’s youngest workers to better job prospects in other parts of the country.
“From 2000 to 2010 the number of 25- to 45-year-olds in Vermont decreased by 30,000,” he said. “That’s enough people to fill this chamber 60 times over. That is our working class … 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” he added. “It’s a complex problem and it will not be solved overnight. But we literally cannot afford to ignore this issue anymore.”
To that end, he called for a “laser-focus” on attracting and retaining working age people in an effort to rebuild Vermont’s workforce through better education services, training, more affordable housing, more aggressive economic development — and without raising taxes or fees.
Specifically, he called for lawmakers and public education leaders to “rethink our entire education spectrum,” placing a greater emphasis on pre-K and post-high school opportunities.
“If we are innovative, and are willing to change … we can have the best education system in the country — and perhaps one of the best in the world — with what we already spend,” Scott said. “If you don’t share this goal — if you don’t believe we can achieve this — you are holding us back, at a time when we must all press forward.
“We can revitalize the entire system, so we no longer have to accept rising taxes and compromises in the quality of our children’s education,” he added.
Scott noted the state’s past strategy of luring giant businesses — like IBM — to Vermont. He urged officials to pursue a different tack: Wooing and nurturing small to moderate-size businesses that could grow into major employers and economic engines.
“Going forward, we will mirror our strong support of larger employers with our efforts for small business,” he said. “Fostering job creation and recruiting entrepreneurs will create a more resilient economy.”
Like his predecessor Gov. Peter Shumlin, Scott said it will be essential for the state to help citizens struggling with addiction. He promised to establish a Director of Drug Abuse Prevention, an Opioid Coordination Council and added he’ll convene a State Convention on Drug Abuse Prevention.
“With compassion, perseverance and the strength of all Vermonters, we will continue to lead the nation in addressing this challenge, reducing stigma and shedding light onto the darkness of addiction,” he said. “With enhanced treatment, better prevention and stricter enforcement, we can continue our efforts to turn the tide.”
“We must also meet our moral obligations, which includes providing access to health care … protecting our environment and waterways … and ensuring all our citizens have safe, clean drinking water.
Also on Scott’s agenda: Making health care more affordable.
“There’s no question, the change in Washington creates a level of uncertainty, but we have a strong team in place to respond,” Scott said of potential dramatic changes to the federal Affordable Care Act. “Here at home, our goal is to make healthcare more affordable and accessible for every Vermonter and every business.”
He acknowledged the clean water goals for Vermont set forth in Act 64, and federal authorities will closely monitor the state’s efforts to reach those goals.
“I am confident we can work together, within our existing resources, hand-in-hand with the agricultural community and municipalities,” he said of water cleanup efforts. “We will uphold our obligations, but we will not fill this gap by raising taxes and fees. Vermonters do not have the capacity to pay more.”
The governor did not offer any specifics on how he proposes to achieve his goals — and do so without raising taxes and fees at a time when state officials are forecasting a $50 million to $70 million revenue shortfall for fiscal year 2018. He promised to include some of those details in the budget proposal he will unveil to lawmakers later this month.
“My administration will establish more sustainable budgeting policies, which address fundamental cost drivers across state government,” he said. “We will modernize and rethink government to find efficiencies, and budget more strategically. And we will make necessary investments to grow our workforce and our economy.”
Local lawmakers said Scott had outlined some laudable goals that have been shared by several of his recent predecessors. But some were concerned that Scott had not shared details on the frugal path he wants to follow in reaching his objectives.
“That’s the big plan — we are going to be ‘bold,’” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison. “We’re going to change the demographics, change the working climate, change jobs and clean up Lake Champlain. I didn’t hear anything concrete.”
Ayer and Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, were particularly perplexed by Scott’s lack of specifics on Lake Champlain cleanup.
Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, pointed to a recent, non-partisan estimate of around $70 million annually to achieve the federally mandated lake cleanup goals.
“It was great to hear him say he is for clean water, but we’re all for clean water, and we need a (financial) plan,” Bray said. “It’s going to take a big commitment, financially and personnel-wise, to implement the (cleanup) plan.”
As someone who lives on the shores of Lake Champlain, Ayer has been keenly interested in efforts to clean it.
“I heard pretty clearly that (Scott) is not going to raise any money to clean up Lake Champlain,” Ayer said. “I find that a huge disappointment. It’s very clear we’re not going to be able to do it within the structures we have in place, from my point of view.”
Bray said he was surprised the governor didn’t mention “energy” during his speech.
“The job sector that has been growing the most during the past few years is energy,” Bray said. “A lot of them are good-paying jobs.”
Ayer disputed Scott’s claim that Vermont is not yet an “education destination.” She said many former Vermonters are moving back, in part, due to the quality of schools in the Green Mountain State.
“This is the same stuff we have been hearing since Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin,” Ayer said. “(Douglas and Shumlin) had a few ideas. But I didn’t hear one single idea (from Scott), to be honest. He’s only had two months since he was elected, and maybe he needs a little more time.”
Bray said he hopes Scott can “rise to the occasion, and that things will work out. I think he’s got a good heart and mind, and I genuinely think he wants to see us do better. He’s the governor, and I want to see him succeed. But it’s a really different job than he’s done so far in the Legislature. I’m not taking anything away from his work, but for someone who was in the building for 16 years, there’s very little in the way of policies, programs and bills that he brought forward.”
“There is not much with his signature on it,” Ayer added.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, gave her take on Scott’s speech.
“I think the governor said some positive things; I think we could have used some specifics,” she said. “I think he called out the importance of Vermont’s environment to our quality of life and invigorating the economy, which I totally agree with.”
Like Ayer and Bray, Sheldon was concerned Scott didn’t propose a payment scheme for the lake cleanup.
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, is particularly interested in the state’s tax policies. He said “it will be a challenge” to preserve programs for the most vulnerable citizens, take on initiatives like the lake cleanup, and still present a budget that is in line with the growth of the state economy.
“I’m really delighted he was so optimistic about what could be done, and his repeated emphasis on trying to work with everyone,” Baser said. “It’s a good attitude to go into this with.”
Last biennium Baser introduced a bill seeking to boost the state’s stock of workforce housing — an issue he will again champion this year. So he was pleased to hear Scott acknowledge the need for more affordable abodes.
“It’s a great economic development tool, as well as just a healthy thing,” Baser said.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairs the House Education Committee. So he was very attentive to Scott’s call for revitalizing the state’s public education system and placing more emphasis on pre-K and higher ed.
“I think we have some common ground,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe believes there are some savings opportunities, especially within the realm of special education services.
“Some of the way we fund education and some of the roadblocks to best practices that might be in the statute, we need to look at those,” Sharpe said. “I think there is room for improvement there, and we may be willing partners with the administration in that regard.”
Like Scott, Sharpe also believes strongly in improving the state’s vocational and technical education programs. Sharpe, a former automotive technology instructor, said the state voc-tech system could provide easier pathways to higher degrees for students seeking careers in that field.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, gave Scott high marks for his address.
“Improving the economy, strengthening our education system and working to improve our water quality are good (priorities),” said Smith, who also appreciated the governor’s goal to realize his agenda with existing state dollars.
Smith is confident the Legislature will play a big role in helping Scott fill in the logistics and financial details of his plans.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. She, too, is anxious to hear how Scott proposes to pay for a lengthy menu of 2017-2018 goals shared by previous administrations and Legislatures.
“If I closed my eyes during the speech today, it could have been Peter Shumlin’s address from six years ago,” Lanpher said, citing in particular economic development and affordability priorities. “I’m very pleased that so much of his agenda aligns with so much with what committees have been working on the past six years.”
But Lanpher noted legislators have already been implementing some of the principles Scott promoted during his address. For example, she said the Appropriations Committee has worked hard to craft sustainable state budgets — a particularly tough feat given the amount of one-time money the feds gave to Vermont during the recent recession.
That said, lawmakers are beginning the fiscal year 2018 budget process with a $70 million revenue hole, Lanpher noted. This adds to the skepticism over Scott’s suggestion that Lake Champlain cleanup can occur without new revenue, according to Lanpher.
“I’m at a little bit of a loss, but I look forward to his budget address,” she said. “I will stay open minded as to how he can stay within the current financial world, when that current world is $70 million off.”
Lanpher gave a reminder that Scott’s agenda and budget ideas could soon be changed by external forces.
“It’s the unknown that’s giving everyone anxiety,” Lanpher said. “There’s the federal (funding) chaos we know might be coming our way, and we don’t know what that’s going to mean.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.