Surrounded by machine parts and agricultural equipment at a promotional event for state Senate candidates, incumbent Governor Phil Scott sat down with The Campus to discuss his platform for re-election on a rainy October evening. The smell of Porky’s BBQ & Smokehouse’s well-loved brisket and mac n’ cheese wafted in from outside as Scott spoke to his desire to do what he can to “forward Vermont.”
While most other states across the country are gearing up for gubernatorial midterms, Vermont is one of only two states where the term for governor lasts for just two years. Next week, on Election Day, Nov. 6, the state will vote to elect either the Republican Scott or — in what would be a major upset — his challenger, the Democrat and political newcomer Christine Hallquist.
Republican governors historically tend to be popular in liberal Northeastern states, and Scott is no exception. Last year, a Morning Consult poll showed Scott’s approval rating at 60 percent, ranking him as the seventh most popular governor in the country. But, according to another survey released in July of 2018, Scott suffered a net drop of 38 points in approval — driven mostly by Republicans. Conservative disapproval stemmed largely from Scott’s shifting position towards stricter gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. and the foiled shooting plot in Fair Haven, Vermont.
Scott currently retains a relatively solid 45 percent approval rating, according to a VPR – Vermont PBS Poll. Combined with the natural advantage of incumbency, this base of support may be enough to indicate a likely victory. The national election tracking website FiveThirtyEight gives him a 95 percent chance of winning as Election Day draws near.
Poised for gubernatorial reelection, Scott, a racecar driver turned long-term politician, sits at the wheel of what could be a rocky second term in office. With a state legislature heavily dominated by Democrats, Republican nominees falling behind in many other states and much work to do in Vermont, Scott is up against significant challenges.
Scott would have a lot left to accomplish in a brief second term to realize even his 2016 campaign promise: “grow the economy, make it more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable.”
So, what does it mean for this moderate Republican to uphold these principles?
ADDRESSING THE “AFFORDABILITY CRISIS”
“From my perspective, everything we do is about the economy and changing the demographics of our state,” Scott said. “That’s where our challenge is: We’re an aging state, the second oldest in the country and I believe that we’ll be number one if we don’t change our ways.”
The struggle to retain young people and fill job opportunities is a concern many Vermonters share. With a low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Scott’s focus is on workforce challenges and addressing what he terms Vermont’s “affordability crisis.”
He emphasized figuring out what it takes to keep college-age students — like those at Middlebury College — in state, in order to “to take advantage of our great quality of life but also the opportunities that are here.”
The students that Scott has spoken with, he said, described being drawn out of state by career opportunities, less expensive housing and general affordability.
“The good news,” Scott said, “is that we have … about 10,000 graduating every year so we have opportunity and we have jobs available and open — but we have to connect the two.”
In his first term as governor, the legislature passed Scott’s $35 million housing bond proposal, which was the largest investment Vermont has made toward affordable housing for the state’s workforce. The sale of these “sustainability bonds” by the Vermont Housing Finance agency aimed to create more available and affordable homes for working families, according to a February 2018 press release. Given time, Scott believes, this sale will help to positively impact the state’s economy.
Unlike his opponent Hallquist, Scott does not believe in increasing the minimum wage. Scott has maintained throughout both of his campaigns, and his time in office, that the way to make Vermont more affordable is through keeping taxes and fees where they are.
“I would say you should travel from Brattleboro to Springfield to Bradford, to St. Johnsbury up in the Northeast Kingdom because that’s all along the Connecticut River,” Scott said, tracing an imaginary map of the state. “Right across from the Connecticut River is another state called New Hampshire that has a minimum wage of $7.25, that has no sales tax, that has no income tax, and no corporate tax.”
Raising the minimum wage, Scott believes, would be placing Vermont companies along the border at the risk of not being able to compete with out-of-state business.
“I want people to make more money. I believe in supply and demand and capitalism,” he said. “If they want to change the minimum wage so that we are on an even keel, and even playing field with everyone else, do it nationally.”
TAXES AND FEES
Following his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, Scott made a pledge to not increase taxes or fees, including property tax rates. In his first term he worked to eliminate the social security income tax for low and middle-class households and avoided increasing fees for residential property owners. His logic: live within the state’s means. He believes the 2018 budget surplus of $55 million made it “counterintuitive to raise taxes.”
“I waited until after [the 2016 campaign], built the budget and then determined that we could live within our means,” he said. Scott held the line on taxes and fees with just one exception, as the threat of a government shutdown this past summer forced his hand. He vetoed two proposed budgets that included increases in certain tax rates before eventually allowing the Fiscal Year 2019 budget to be adopted into law without his signature. Though Scott backed much of the package’s other initiatives, some of which were his own proposals, he could not sign on to the increase in non-residential property tax-rates.
“I’m letting this bill become law without my signature because, ultimately,” Scott wrote in a letter addressed to the legislature. “I cannot support the Legislature’s decision to increase the statewide non-residential tax rate by 4.5-cents in a year we have a large, and growing, surplus.
“I wasn’t going to shut down the government in order to prove my point,” Scott said about his decision not to continue the budget standoff. “Sometimes people take advantage of your good naturedness, but at the same time we accomplished a lot over the last two years — we didn’t raise a single tax or fee for the general fund.”
While he has yet to make the same pledge so far, Scott said his administration will continue to build this year’s budget with the hope that a sufficient surplus will allow him to keep taxes and fees steady.
“To make Vermont more affordable we have to have economic activity. We’re focusing in those areas that obtain that,” he said.
TAX AND REGULATE MARIJUANA
Adults at least 21 years of age are legally allowed to possess and grow marijuana in Vermont, thanks to a new law that went into effect in July of this year. The law, which received Scott’s approval in January, permits individual use and possession with restrictions but does not allow for the purchase or sale of marijuana.
The institution of a tax and regulated marijuana market is another area where Scott and Hallquist disagree. Though ultimately Scott did not disagree with the possible value in implementing a commercial marijuana market, he does not believe Vermont is ready.
“I signed the legalization of marijuana. So it’s not as though I’m philosophically opposed,” he said. “I just think we need to do this right and we have an opportunity and an obligation to do it right.”
Doing it right, he said, means first designing better ways to test impairment on highways and doing the work of more education and prevention in schools.
“Public safety from my standpoint is the highest obligation of any government,” he said. “So let’s do that, let’s work together on that and then bring the tax and regulation system in.”
Following in former Gov. Peter Shumlin’s footsteps, Scott aims to expand and improve health care options in the state through an all-payer model. Unlike the universal healthcare route supported by Hallquist, the all-payer system is designed to equalize prices so patients pay the same fee at a given hospital. With this model, he said, “we’re looking to pay providers for the care of the patient holistically instead of the fee for service program.”
He remains skeptical about the idea of a state single-payer approach, arguing that Vermont is not ready for such a system at the present moment. It took Shumlin five years after taking office to come up with a proposal for a single-payer model that, in the end, Scott recalled, was “not going to work for Vermont.”
“I said I’m open minded. Just prove to me it can work, show me the plan, tell me who’s going to pay for it, how much is it going to cost, basic things of that nature,” Scott said.
Ultimately, though he professed keeping an open-mind, Scott posited that the single-payer method is too expensive and would put Vermont at risk in comparison to other states. “We’re not an island,” he said. He plans to continue to expand and improve the all-payer pilot program if re-elected, focusing investments on prevention, quality of care and long-term benefits for Vermonters.
Addressing the opioid epidemic falls under Scott’s third principle of “protecting the vulnerable,” and represents one of his priority initiatives. In a state where obituaries of those who lost their lives to addiction go viral nationwide, addressing this epidemic must be a priority for any governorship.
“We’re taking action on a number of different fronts,” Scott confirmed, underlining his Opioid Coordination Council (OCC) and initiatives to continue expanding and improving prevention, treatment facilities, transitional housing, recovery and enforcement. He highlighted the opening of another treatment facility in St. Albans, as well as the reduction of the treatment waiting list in Chittenden County from 700 to zero.
Scott offered praise for the Hub and Spoke model, which is the state’s current framework for providing opioid addiction treatment with 9 large regional “hub” facilities and 75 “spoke” care settings focused on more long-term recovery. He described Vermont as “a leader in the country in regards to treatment and recovery,” acknowledging the work left to be done.
For a governor who places utmost importance on protecting public safety, the issue of Vermont’s overpopulated prisons has presented some strife for the Scott administration.
“We put forward a prison,corrections plan last year to the legislature and it wasn’t well received,” said Scott, referencing his proposal to increase Vermont’s prison capacity. His plan entailed employing CoreCivic, a private prison company, to construct and lease a prison in Franklin County. Critics faulted Scott’s proposal to work with a private prison corporation. The facility, which would be run by state employees, would create space for inmates who have been forced to out-of-state prisons.
Former Democratic Governor Howard Dean began the practice of exporting inmates, Scott said. Responding to criticism, Scott said his proposal was no more than a “mechanism for building the facility in a manner that we could afford.”
“I left [the proposal] open when we developed it — we put it out there — but you know this is politics 101, D.C. type politics,” Scott said. “I said from the beginning this is just a concept, a plan. If you want to build it with state resources, draw your own facility up, engage us!”
He underlined the fact, however, that his administration has reduced prison populations by about 50 people and pledged to go back to work on his plan if re-elected.
Bottom line, Scott said: “I would like to see us have an opportunity to have all of our offenders within state borders.”
MERCHANTS’ ROW RAIL BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION
On a local note, Scott is sympathetic to the concerns held by Middlebury residents in the face of the economic hardship posed by the rail bridge infrastructure project. While he offered words of support, he clarified that financial aid for the town was more complicated.
“There is a limited amount of money. A lot of our dollars are leveraged with federal funds and they don’t allow for us to use their dollars to supplement,” Scott said. What’s more, he said, when resources are used to supplement losses in one community, “it takes infrastructure projects away from other communities.”
“We haven’t followed through with everything we needed to follow through with initially,” Scott said, underscoring the brevity of his first term. “So I’m going to continue to be the person I am and do what I can to forward VT in a much different way.”
Scott’s open-mindedness, willingness to, as he describes, “work across the aisle” and “treat others with respect and civility” even when they disagree may set him apart favorably from many candidates nationwide in the era of party politics.
Now, more than ever, an inclination to work outside of party lines and compromise can be hard to come by. However, Scott’s oft-repeated claims to bipartisanship hinge first on the ability of others – namely his opponents – to generate legislation and then prove to him that such proposals could work.
“Show me the plan, tell me who’s going to pay for it, how much is it going to cost, basic things of that nature,” he said. Given the state of his party support, if re-elected, it might require more than just a passive, though welcoming attitude — but some active creativity on the part of this moderate Republican to see his platform goals accomplished.