On June 26, 2024

Gov. Scott addresses veto overrides, affordability in Rutland

By Curt Peterson

Introduced as “America’s most popular governor,” Phil Scott addressed the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR) Legislative Breakfast Monday, June 24. 

Fresh from a record-making veto override session — both the most vetoes and most overrides — Scott sounded a lot like the fifth-term re-election candidate he is.

“I would be happy if I never had to issue another veto,” he said. “And that could happen if the Legislature would just work with me and meet me in the middle.”

That’s unlikely, because the super-majority Democrats and Progressives “have so much power, they think they can do whatever they want,” Scott said.

Scott lamented the Legislature’s unwillingness to discuss compromise, resulting, he said, in an increased payroll tax, 20% increase in auto registration fees, and a “clean energy bill” that he says will increase taxes and fuel costs.

Asked for the answer to the education situation, Scott said “There isn’t a the answer. It’s complicated.” 

But he continues to call education a “cost to be reduced.” He’s said, “Vermonters can’t afford a 14% increase in the education tax… This is an immediate, emergency situation. In six months, we can expect another ‘December’ budget letter. Then what?”

Scott claims he worked closely with the Legislature to find a solution, starting early in the session. 

Windsor County representative Elizabeth Burrows believes “neither [the governor] nor his administration, nor the Legislature addressed anything about tax relief until well after crossover,” the date House-proposed legislation goes to the Senate for consideration, about two weeks after Town Meeting.

Perhaps, Burrows said, the governor referred to passing Act 84, just a week before Town Meeting Day, allowing school districts to delay budget votes to allow time for cuts. Hartland was one of eight districts that took advantage of the delay, reducing their budget by about $500,000.

The governor and many legislators publicly blamed school boards, demanding “cut your budgets!” — the governor even urged voters to turn down their districts’ budgets. 

The situation became deeply divisive. Voters were confused and frustrated. 

The revised Hartland budget passed by 9 votes out of 600 on May 28. Petitioners felt the small margin required a revote. In revote, the budget failed by 14 of 1,100 votes. Cutting an educator position further reduced the budget $100,000 – enough to win another revote, by 2 to 1.

Budget manipulation did almost nothing to reduce the education tax increase. Vermont school budgets include inflexible infrastructure costs, salary and healthcare cost, which saw double digit increases negotiated by the state – and several Legislature-imposed unfunded mandates.

The governor’s alternative plan for education spending this fiscal year, presented just before override session, would bring the increase down to the 4-5% range.

Burrows describes Scott’s proposal as “fiscally irresponsible” — mostly predicated on borrowing money from the future, which also faces the same challenges, but also eliminated universal lunch (proven to enhance student performance) and doing away with income sensitivity credits. One-time spend-downs would deplete both the education fund surplus, and an expected, but undocumented, budget surplus. His plan failed to include measures to avoid repeating the problem in the future.

The ”Scott proposal” would cause Vermont to lose our triple-A bond rating — affecting interest rates if the state borrowed funds.

“I did not vote in favor of the override [neutralizing Scott’s proposal] because I thought [14% increase] was acceptable,” Burrows told the Mountain Times. “I voted in favor of it because I felt that it provided ways to avoid finding ourselves right back in the same ugly spot next year.”

The State Board of Education vetted candidates for the position of Secretary of Education, sending names of three finalists to the governor.  He did not respond for six months then ignored the three candidates and appointed Zoie Saunders as secretary. The senate voted 19-9 to reject her appointment, but the governor re-appointed her as “interim secretary.” 

Two senators, Dick McCormack and Tanya Vyhovsky, “allege that Scott ‘purposefully circumvented’ the senate’s constitutional authority to confirm and deny gubernatorial cabinet appointments when he re-appointed [Saunders] as interim education secretary after the senate voted against her.” The matter is now in front of the courts.

Scott told the CEDRR crowd Monday morning that Saunders is in the process of visiting all of Vermont’s school boards to assess the situation with education funding in the state, and will submit a report of her findings when her survey is complete.

“Zoie is the right person for the job,” he said. “Unfortunately, her appointment has become a political issue.”

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