Gov. Scott gets earful on county tour; observes rail project, discusses civility
VERGENNES — Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday said he’d support a tax-free holiday for Middlebury as part of a broader strategy to help local businesses weather the impacts of a major rail bridges replacement project that will disrupt the community’s downtown for parts of the next three years.
Scott weighed in on a variety of state and local issues during his day-long visit to Addison County on Sept. 11, which included visits to the Bristol Fire Department, downtown Middlebury, the Addison County Transit Resources headquarters, Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, the Bixby Library in Vergennes, and Vergennes Union High School, where he addressed students on the subject of civility during a question-and-answer period that ironically included a few tense exchanges.
MIDD RAIL PROJECT
The governor — who’s seeking a second consecutive two-year term this November — spent the majority of his Tuesday morning in downtown Middlebury, surveying construction sites and listening to local residents and officials about a $72 million project that will replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a concrete tunnel. Workers are currently half way done with a drainage system that will process runoff from the rail bed, which hugs the Otter Creek.
“It’s certainly a significant project … in a small area,” Scott said. “Seeing it from a visual standpoint gave me a sense of the magnitude of this.”
Scott said he was impressed with the work done to date, and with ideas that a citizens’ group called “Neighbors Together” has developed to mitigate some impacts of the construction disruption. The group co-organized a downtown block party last month and is using grant money to provide financial incentives for people to shop at local stores. Boosters are also using social media to broadcast the fact that downtown Middlebury remains open for business.
“I was very encouraged by their creativity, their enthusiasm and their professionalism,” Scott said of the citizens group. “Some of those (recommendations) we’ll be working on with them, because they are good ideas.”
Middlebury officials have remained upbeat, but have acknowledged there are no state or federal resources to indemnify merchants for losses they’ll sustain during construction. They’ve been asking state officials to consider measures other than direct financial payments, including a tax-free holiday in the town of Middlebury.
The town selectboard in June unanimously agreed to seek legislative support for as many as four tax holidays of four days each (Thursday through Sunday) spread out during 10 weeks of the most intense construction on the tunnel in 2020.
Scott supports the idea, though noted such holidays have historically not fared well in the Legislature.
“I thought the sales tax holiday approach was intriguing,” Scott said. “Would that bring people downtown, if it was defined in a certain area? Maybe. I’m a fan of sales tax holidays. I’ve been on the losing end of those over my last 10 years.”
Vermont implemented statewide sales tax holidays on Aug. 22, 2009, and March 6, 2010. Supporters hailed the tax reprieves as a valuable economic development tool that increased receipts at many businesses throughout the state. But lawmakers have been reluctant to green light tax holidays since 2010 in the wake of declining revenues.
Such holidays have made a big impression on consumers, according to Scott.
“The amount of people that show up for a tax-free holiday on a given day, for 6-percent savings, is amazing to me,” he said. “You can offer 20 percent on any given day, and nobody shows up. But you offer 6 percent out of the state coffers, and people are somehow incentivized to (shop).”
He also believes the state could help Middlebury realize its long-stated goal of offering free Wi-Fi access throughout its downtown.
“If we’re creative enough, maybe there’s some funding available,” Scott said.
Addison County dairy farmers continue to struggle through historically low milk prices. As reported in Monday’s issue of the Independent, the county has lost three of its remaining 110 dairies since January. Seven Addison County dairy farms called it quits in 2017.
Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Foods & Markets Alyson Eastman, a former independent House member from Orwell, accompanied Scott during his Addison County visit and joined him for the Independent interview.
Vermont recently reconvened its milk commission, which has issued some recommendations that officials hope will resonate in the nation’s capital. The commission has called for a “new and improved” margin protection program and taking action against companies who label their dairy substitutes “milk.”
Like Vermont Ag Secretary Anson Tebbetts, Eastman believes the long run of dairy doldrums is a national — rather than state — crisis. She said the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is now lobbying in Washington on behalf of Vermont farmers.
“And NASDA, with this (Trump) administration, does carry some weight,” Eastman said. “Pricing (changes) need to happen at the federal level.”
GOVERNOR SCOTT GAVE a talk in the VUHS auditorium Tuesday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Scott credited U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for advocating for farmers as a member for the Senate Appropriations Committee. And Vermont continues to watch for potential changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement that could have an impact on agriculture.
“We’ll know more in the not-too-distant future about what we can do,” Scott said. “Agriculture is a huge industry for us.”
Eastman and Scott don’t believe Vermont could effectively implement the same kind of milk production quota that the Canadian province of Quebec is using to stabilize prices.
“The issue is the amount of supply we have here; a lot of our milk supply goes outside the state of Vermont,” Eastman said. “It would not work similar to what Canada has.”
She credited Vermont dairy farmers with “implementing some amazing practices on their farms, making investments to improve water quality at the same time they’re in their fourth year of low milk prices.”
Eastman noted said the state Agency of Agriculture will hold a dairy summit early next year to get more feedback and ideas from farmers on dairy policies to pursue at the state and federal levels.
At this point, farmers are looking for a hand up, as opposed to a handout, according to Eastman.
“In our conversations with farmers, it’s important for us to communicate that what they’re asking for is an honest price and no more subsidies,” Eastman said. “They appreciate the subsidies in getting through the hard times, but the pricing fix is really what farmers are calling for.”
LAKE CHAMPLAIN CLEANUP
Scott said he’s on board with the federally mandated cleanup of the state’s waterways, but hasn’t embraced the notion of funding the state’s share with a new tax or fee package. He wants to see if the state can bankroll its cleanup share using some untapped flexibility within Vermont’s current tax structure, but on Tuesday couldn’t offer any specifics on his idea.
“This would be the time to implement something of that nature,” Scott said. “I would like to make sure we exhaust all measures in that regard. I think raising a tax or fee is a last resort. But I am committed to water quality and we will clean up our lakes and streams, and we will do so soon. The good news is we have a plan in place and have the dollars available and are moving forward in the short term.”
Scott said he chose the topic of civility for his VUHS talk in part because of the partisan bickering he’s seen in the political arena.
“I’ve always tried to treat others with respect and civility, and I think we need more of that,” he said. “We can accomplish a lot when we don’t look at what divides us, but rather what unites us. And I think we need leadership to do that.”
That kind of civility, he noted, was on display earlier this month during national mourning for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican, a U.S. Navy pilot held captive for five and a half years during the Vietnam War, was known for being an independent legislator who spoke his mind.
“It was great seeing all the dignitaries on both sides of the aisle come together to memorialize John McCain and (point out) our need for better role models in this country can only be accomplished by doing it ourselves and practicing what we preach,” Scott said.
Closer to home, Scott took a lot of shots for signing gun safety legislation last spring.
“I experienced a lot through the gun debate, in terms of some of the viciousness we see in social media in particular,” he said.
He sharply condemned the death threats received by his main opponent this November, Democrat Christine Hallquist, who is a transgender woman.
Scott’s resume includes a history of support for issues important to citizens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
“I voted for marriage equality when I was in the state Senate,” Scott said. “It wasn’t a popular position then, as a Republican, but times have changes. I rode my 1941 Indian (motorcycle) in the Pride Parade in Burlington on Saturday. It was a lot of fun and a great event.
“From my standpoint, we need more people and more diversity in this state,” Scott added. “We’ve had a population decline and aging demographics. We need more people of all walks of life.”
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School Principal Stephanie Taylor walks down a school hallway with Gov. Phil Scott during the governor’s visit Tuesday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Scott had a few spirited exchanges with students and VUHS English teacher Michael Thomas. Some students said they felt Scott and his administration hasn’t been listening to their concerns about such issues as education and social policies. Thomas was candid in laying blame on the governor for what he argued are some major flaws in the new Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI) insurance plan for teachers.
“The new (plan) in place is not any better,” Thomas said. “The impact on teachers in this room and around the state is that many people are not able to access the health insurance we’ve actually paid for, not access money we’ve put into savings accounts ourselves. While all this is happening, people are racking up bills on credit cards, getting calls from collection agencies. They are having to pay interest they’re never going to be reimbursed for.
“What are you doing to address that issue, and do you feel any sense of responsibility for the bureaucratic nightmare we’re dealing with any time we try to access our health care?” Thomas asked. “A lot of us in this room hold you personally accountable for this.”
Thomas’ comments received a loud cheer from most of those present for Scott’s talk in the VUHS auditorium.
Scott disputed Thomas’ claims. He contended the federal “Obamacare” law had changed the health insurance landscape, to the extent that VEHI couldn’t effectively administer the insurance plans it was offering.
“It was so complicated; there were six different plans,” said Scott, who had advocated for a single plan for teachers.
Scott said the Legislature last year ultimately elected to go with a single VEHI plan that was endorsed by the Vermont National Education Association.
“I don’t think it’s fair for you to blame me for something that was caused by Obamacare,” Scott said.
While the governor wouldn’t lay out his specific requests for fiscal year 2019 state spending, he hinted he’ll reiterate his support for a revamped public education system serving Vermonters from pre-school to beyond high school.
“I think we need to focus as much as possible on workforce development,” he said. “I believe a cradle-to-career education system is something I want to continue to work on.”
Scott was particularly impressed with an Addison County business he toured last week: UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes. He cited it as an example of many Vermont-based businesses that are having a tough time recruiting young folks to good paying jobs, primarily in engineering.
“They’re growing,” Scott said of UTC. “They told me they could use 125 more people, across the board. Their average salaried wage, they told me, is $100,000 a year. That’s good news, and they don’t see any end in site. They can continue to grow. Technology is changing, and they’re on the cutting edge.”
He also prioritized water quality, support for farmers, and “continuing to do well with the resources we have — not spending more than we have coming in.”
Scott emerged a little bloodied but unbowed from his freshman term in office. He took a lot of heat from Vermont sports enthusiasts and Second Amendment boosters for signing into law a series of gun safety measures.
The governor also faced sharp criticism from Democrats, as well as some members of his own party, for his state budget vetoes.
It’s all part of a job that Scott believes requires that decisions be made on principle rather than political expediency.
“I’m trying to do what’s right, rather than what’s the most favorable for the next election,” Scott said. “It’s something we need more of, actually. I find many who run for office either do it to satisfy their ego and gain more power, or to be a public servant. I think we need more public servants — like John McCain, who was willing to put country before himself.”
Scott said he’s running to continue what he said was an “incredible” amount of progress made by state government during the past biennium — in spite of separate parties being in control of the executive and legislative branches. That progress, he said, included elimination of the state tax on Social Security, “preventing $71 million worth of property tax increases,” “reducing income taxes by $30 million,” making tax credit investments in the state’s downtowns, and bonding for more affordable housing development.
“We have workforce demands, and (employees) need affordable housing,” Scott said. “That’s what we need to focus on.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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