Local lawmakers agree with Scott’s ‘affordability’ agenda but want details on costs

MONTPELIER — Addison County lawmakers are largely on the same page with Gov. Phil’s Scott’s stated goals of making Vermont cleaner, more affordable and more populated during the next two years and beyond.
But they want more details from Scott on how he plans to achieve his ambitious objectives — without raising taxes on Vermonters.
“As a budget person, I believe the proof is in the budget proposal we’ll see in a couple of weeks,” newly elected Sen. Ruth Hardy said. “I’d like to see the details and how he plans to finance these things and collaborate with us.”
Scott on Thursday laid out his priorities for the 2019-2020 biennium to a General Assembly dominated by Democrats who, with help from Progressives and independents, now have a veto-proof majority. The Republican governor has used his veto powers on the two past state budget proposals, and now, more than ever, needs to work cooperatively with the legislative branch. (Click here to read his full speech.)
“I really appreciate the idea of finding common ground,” said newly elected Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro. “It’s nice to hear from our governor a real interest in collaboration, understanding where we disagree on policy but forging on together.”
Scott urged Vermonters to eschew divisiveness and embrace a spirit of cooperation and diplomacy.
“I truly believe that in Vermont, we can set a standard that others across the nation can aspire to, and elected officials can look to, as a better way — the right way — to go about the work of the people,” he said. “And when the work gets difficult, when tensions build — which they will — when divisions seem too deep to overcome, when we need to be reminded that there’s still good in the world — look no further than the people of Vermont.”
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, applauded Scott’s conciliatory tone:
“I was glad to hear his call for working together and finding compromise. This has been sorely missing for the previous two years, and we will welcome the administration’s increased involvement in our work.”
In a speech occasionally interrupted by polite applause, Scott pitched:
•  A concerted effort to reduce health insurance costs.
•  Implementation of a “voluntary” paid family leave program.
Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, will be the lead sponsor on a paid family leave bill in the House. She doesn’t believe a “voluntary” plan will work.
“He said we need more taxpayers and people to move here and stay, and one of the ways we can do that is to have a robust family leave program,” she said. “He mentioned a ‘voluntary’ program. They tried that in New Hampshire and it failed. Can you imagine if we had voluntary car insurance? It doesn’t work, and it’s already been proven not to work.
“If everybody is ‘in,’ (on paid family leave), it costs a lot less,” she added.
•  Additional investment in early education as part of a “cradle-to-career” system Scott hopes to implement in the years to come.
•  “Modernizing” Act 250, the state’s almost 50-year-old land use planning law, while also cleaning up the state’s waterways and finding the money to do so.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, are chairs of the Senate and House Natural Resources Committees, respectively.
“I’m glad he’s committed to finding a (funding) source (for water cleanup); I’ll be surprised if he can find that much money free and clear in existing revenue,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon during the summer and fall chaired a legislative committee that is recommending ways to update Act 250. She wants to hear Scott’s specific ideas on that tall task.
“Where’s the plan?” she asked, “I would love to work with him, but I didn’t hear a lot of concrete ideas.”
Bray said he’s pleased the governor chose to shine a light on environmental issues.
“He mentioned quite a few things around health, environment, economic development and clean water, things that to me are genuine opportunities for the state to do better,” Bray said.
“Sometimes environmental issues aren’t really front and center, and I think it’s a very positive thing that (Scott) put those things front and center,” Bray said, adding, “and he was acknowledging that we need to fund them.”
FORMER VERMONT GOV. Jim Douglas and his wife, Dorothy, rub elbows with politicians and political junkies in the Statehouse after Gov. Phil Scott’s Inaugural Address this past Thursday.
Independent photo/John Flowers
•  Increasing broadband connectivity.
•  Creating more affordable housing, which he said will be pivotal in attracting more families and workers to a Green Mountain State that is seeing its young people leave at an alarming rate.
Scheu liked Scott’s message about increasing the state’s population, but she believes the governor missed an opportunity to make an added pitch for diversity.
“When he talked about recruiting and getting families and young people here, there was nothing about ‘people who don’t look like us,’” Scheu said. “I would like to have heard a commitment to people of color, immigrants, inclusion and diversity. We need to think beyond ourselves. We need to commit to that, and I’d like to hear the governor commit to that.”
Hardy agreed.
“We need to make sure our state is welcoming to diverse people,” she said. “We’re a very white state; we are sometimes an insular state. We want to make sure we’re a state that’s welcoming people of color and new Americans, and making them a part of what makes Vermont a wonderful state to live in.”
Scott said the declining population of young Vermonters is affecting the state’s economy.
“Our stagnant population is threatening every service we deliver, every program we administer and every investment we hope to make,” Scott said. “Let’s grow the economy to support jobs and organic growth, expand our tax base and ease the burden on hard-working Vermonters, because if we want people to both move here and stay, we must make it more affordable.”
Scott acknowledged he had yet to assign costs to his priorities; he said those details will come in a few weeks as part of his budget address. But it’s clear he hopes to tap into existing state revenues to bankroll most of his agenda, rather than increasing taxes or fees.
“On the campaign trail, a Burlington business owner told me, ‘We don’t need more taxes — we need more taxpayers,’” Scott said.  “The solution is really that simple, but the path to a better outcome requires our best ideas, our best work and the courage to make real change.
“Vermonters elected me, and many of you, to ensure we don’t ask them to shoulder any more of the tax burden,” he added. “They’re doing their part. It’s time for us to do ours.”
Scott shared some disconcerting numbers on the state’s workforce numbers school enrollment trends.
Since 2009, the state’s labor force has declined by about 15,000, according to the governor. Since their peak employment, Addison and Orange counties have seen a reduction of nearly 5 percent, while Bennington, Lamoille and Windham have seen their labor force shrink by 10 percent, he said.
Collins (formerly UTC) Aerospace in Vergennes is currently “struggling” to fill 25 engineering vacancies, according to the governor.
Addison, Rutland and Windsor counties have lost a quarter of their students in 14 years, Scott said.
“These declines are eroding quality and opportunity for our children,” he added. “And this is happening on our watch.”
Conlon, a member of the House Education Committee, hopes the governor will participate in legislative efforts to reverse the state’s youth exodus.
“The governor did an excellent job of illuminating the decline in the number of working Vermonters and enrollment in our schools,” Conlon said. “He said ‘the solution is that simple’ but did not really tell of us what the solution is. This is, of course, a nationwide trend for rural America, without any easy solutions.”
Newly elected Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, is looking forward to learning the ropes and becoming a good contributor to the legislative process.
Only a few weeks ago, he was coordinating meal preparation at his Vergennes restaurant, 3 Squares Cafe. Thursday saw him surveying the opulence of the House chambers, suddenly his home away from home for the next four months.
“The whole thing has been a little overwhelming, surreal and awe inspiring,” Birong said of the pomp and circumstance of the first week of the session.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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