On December 7, 2016

Phil Scott’s challenge

By Rob Roper
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Vermonters will find out in January when the new Republican governor officially takes office along with a Legislature that has, if anything, moved a little to the left.
During the campaign, governor-elect Scott, often accused by his critics of being non-committal and unspecific, was actually quite stalwart and crystal clear on a number of key issues: he will veto a carbon tax, wants a moratorium on large-scale wind energy development, believes Vermont’s gun laws are fine the way they are, and will not support a budget that spends at a rate greater than the previous year’s level of economic growth. Compared to the direction the majority in the Legislature has doggedly pursued for the past decade, this is the opposite.
Scott, winning by a whopping nine points over Democrat Sue Minter in a near-record turnout election, can claim a mandate for his positions. Democrats, who picked up a couple of seats in the Senate, the lieutenant governorship, and with a new Progressive/Democrat Senate president pro tem, may see things differently. So the big question is, who’s going to blink?
On the carbon tax, Scott has the upper hand. The campaign illustrated just how unpopular the concept is with Vermonters. Minter tried to distance herself from the tax, but refused to totally renounce the idea as Scott did (no doubt hoping to avoid offending major donors to her campaign and her party). This straddle maneuver failed miserably, and Scott punished Minter relentlessly on the issue for months. Voters responded.
Sending a similar message, of the three incumbent Democrats who lost seats (as of this writing the Buxton/Ainsworth recount is still up in the air) two were sponsors of carbon tax legislation in the last session, Representatives Steve Berry of Manchester and Patsy French of Randolph. French had held her seat since 2003 and, until sponsoring the carbon tax, was considered bulletproof.
Since Republicans retained enough seats to sustain a Scott veto on their own, plus several Democratic candidates vociferously denounced the carbon tax in the run-up to Nov. 8, and no politician in his/her right mind would possibly want to cast an official vote in favor of such a toxic policy, the carbon tax should be dead on arrival. However, VPIRG, the advocacy organization most aggressively pushing the carbon tax, still has quite a bit of influence in Montpelier, and deep-pocketed donors to the majority party have a powerful financial interest in seeing the tax implemented.
Maintaining Vermont’s gun laws is another area where Scott will likely prevail without much of a fight. Though it’s hard to determine to what degree Second Amendment voters tipped the scales in Scott’s favor, it’s safe to say gun rights remains a third rail of Vermont politics. The anti-gun organization GunSense Vermont seems to be fading as a force and one has to wonder if legislators will have any appetite to make their issues a priority again in the near future.
Industrial wind development will be a bigger fight. Scott campaigned both as a candidate for governor and lieutenant governor advocating for a moratorium on industrial wind development. He also wants to give local communities greater say over how and where these projects are placed. This is, of course, a popular position with municipalities and homeowners that don’t want 500-foot wind turbines shoved down their throats.
However, Democrats are ideologically devoted to meeting their goal of getting 90 percent of Vermont’s energy from renewable sources by 2050, and wind turbines are a big part of that plan. David Blittersdorf of All Earth Renewables estimates that 200 miles of ridgelines will have to be developed with turbines as part of the plan to reach that goal. It doesn’t hurt that Blittersdorf donated over $100,000 to Democrats during the last election cycle, adding a powerful political motive to battle Scott. Count on them to make a stand on this one.
Finally, there is the issue of the budget. This too will be a tough fight. Every year for the past half decade Montpelier has dealt with a budget gap of its own making by raising taxes and fees on Vermonters. Every year they have pushed forward with new programs and new spending despite the fact that we can’t afford the government we have in place. The legislative majority shows no signs of changing its ways, nor in their own races did the voters send them a message to do so.
So in roughly a month, the unstoppable Democratic Legislature will hit the immovable Republican governor. Voters gave Phil Scott a mandate to scale back Montpelier’s influence in their lives and to put the state back on more fiscally responsible, “affordable” path. However, if Vermonters really want these things to become reality, their support of the new governor must remain active and engaged. He’ll need lots of help from outside the State House in the days to come because he won’t get much help from inside.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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