By Mike Smith
During the last gubernatorial election, and then again just recently during the debate over teachers’ health insurance, Vermont Democrats underestimated the potency of Gov. Phil Scott’s affordability message.
Scott continues to force an economic debate by hammering away at decreasing the rate of state spending and not burdening Vermonters with higher taxes or fees, and constantly urging Legislators to focus on job creation.
In an attempt to counter Scott’s success at defining Vermont’s economic agenda, Democrats aim to pass legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and create a family leave program administered by the state and funded through increased taxes.
Scott has seized on issues that are most important to Vermonters with his affordability message, whereas Democrats are still struggling to craft a message that resonates with Vermonters as powerfully.
A past public opinion poll by the Castleton Polling Institute found that a third of Vermonters said their top concern was the economy, jobs and the cost of living in Vermont. When you add that to those who cited taxes and government spending as their top concern, almost half of Vermonters expressed financial or economic concerns as the issue foremost on their minds.
For middle-aged and older Vermonters — a significant number of voters in this state — a higher minimum wage or a family leave program does not have the same financial benefit as lower taxes, less state spending and a lower cost of living (most notably the cost of housing, as well as property taxes).
A focus on increasing the minimum wage as a major component of an economic plan misses the mark with many working Vermonters too. Although an increase in the minimum wage does have an appeal to some, working-class Vermonters are more interested in obtaining higher-paying — and longer-lasting — jobs. They don’t want to be stuck working a minimum wage job.
In addition, many Vermonters don’t feel economically secure, even years after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Part of this insecurity may be attributable to anemic economic growth during this post-recession period. But also, many Vermonters intuitively know that it’s only a matter of time before this country experiences another economic downturn and that a slowdown will have an adverse impact on this state.
A recent report presented to the governor and key Legislators titled “July 2017 Economic Review and Revenue Forecast Update” confirms the possibility of an economic slowdown. The report warns: “As any economic expansion ages, however, the risks of a downturn become heightened.”
Given the economic angst of Vermonters, any new program funded by higher taxes — such as a family leave program — will encounter resistance, not because there isn’t a need for the program, but rather because of the timing and the cost of it.
So how does this all play out politically?
If Democrats are unable to undercut the potency of Scott’s affordability message and supplant his message with a popular economic message of their own, then the governor is likely to cruise to re-election.
Democrats do have some advantages.
They outnumber Republican voters in this state by as much as 2 to 1 — although nearly as many Vermonters are independents as the number of Democrats and Republicans combined. So independents have a substantial influence over the outcome of elections. To be successful at winning elections, political parties must craft policies that keep their supporters pleased but will also attract independents.
Another advantage for Vermont Democrats is that they control both the House and Senate and therefore can thwart any economic agenda promoted by the governor. But a governor — especially a popular governor — can always use a political pulpit to effectively promote an economic message directly to Vermonters and put political pressure on legislators. This past legislative session Democrats learned this the hard way when Scott put them on the defensive for inaction on his teacher health care plan.
Lastly, Democrats enjoy more support on many social issues than Republicans.
But next year’s statewide election probably will not be a barometer on social issues or national politics. Instead, in a nonpresidential election year, voters often focus on state and local pocketbook issues. This is to Scott’s advantage, especially if Democrats continue to struggle to find an economic message that resonates with a majority of Vermonters.
In the end, if Democrats are going to thwart the power of Scott’s economic message, they are going to have to do it with a robust and popular economic plan of their own and not rely on a few pieces of legislation as a substitute. Then they must communicate the benefits of this plan in a way that a majority of Vermonters understand how it will help them.
Absent such a plan, it’s likely Scott will continue to dictate the economic agenda of this state.
Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.