By John Flowers
Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has won a few races during his lifetime, primarily as a stock car driver at the Thunder Road SpeedBowl. But the Berlin Republican is currently focused on winning a different kind of race — for re-election as lieutenant governor against Progressive Dean Corren of Burlington.
Scott, 56, grew up in Barre and graduated from Spaulding High School and the University of Vermont. He was elected to the Vermont Senate in 2000, and went on to represent Washington County for 10 years, some of them as chairman of the Senate Institutions Committee and vice chairman of the Transportation Committee. He ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 2010.
Scott is the co-owner of DuBois Construction in Middlesex.
Like most of the substantially outnumbered Republicans in the Vermont House and Senate, Scott left the Statehouse last spring feeling disappointed about much of what had, and hadn’t, been accomplished during the most recent biennium.
“We didn’t address a lot of issues that I think are important to Vermonters,” he said, citing property tax reform as a prime example. “I travel a lot throughout the state, and whether it’s employers or employees, people are struggling to make ends meet. Employees are working a couple of jobs just to try and fill the gaps and pay their property taxes… It’s a real burden.”
Scott said the Democratic leadership in both chambers only raised property/education tax reform during the waning weeks of the 2014 session. At that point, it was too late to do anything substantive to address the issue, he said.
“It was too little, too late,” he added.
The Legislature has known “for years” that surging property tax increases are again becoming a major problem for Vermonters, yet the issue has yet to take on the sense of urgency it deserves, according to Scott. He believes the state’s current education finance law, Act 68, is no longer adequately protecting middle-class Vermonters. He is not a big fan of simply changing the income sensitivity provisions of Act 68.
“Rearranging the deck chairs doesn’t necessarily solve the problem,” Scott said. “We have to address the spending side in order to do any substantial good. I’m not interested in turning the world upside-down just to say we’ve done something, and keep everything else the same. In the end, [the financing] has to come out of somewhere.”
Scott said the growing property tax burden is making it less affordable for Vermonters — especially the younger generation — to live in their own state. As a result, Vermont’s population has tal remained stagnant and lost 30,000 people in the 25-to-45-year-old age group between 2000 and 2010, according to Scott.
“The crisis we are facing is one of affordability,” Scott said.
He acknowledged not having an alternative education financing plan to rally behind at this point, but said lawmakers could get to work reducing some of the costs of public schools.
“Some of the mandates we have placed on education add to the cost of education,” he said.
As an example, Scott cited the new universal pre-K law. It will require, beginning next year, that every Vermont school district provide 10 hours of quality, pre-kindergarten programming per week. Programs will available to all 3- and 4-year-olds whose families choose to enroll them.
“It is a worthwhile goal, and maybe it will pay off,” Scott said. “But in the short term, it will be a real burden for Vermont taxpayers to bear.”
With declining student enrollment statewide, Scott believes Vermont school districts must look to trim their overhead. He expects school boards to look at their top budget driver — personnel. He also wants school districts to consider consolidating their governance structures and, when possible, school facilities.
“It makes so much sense on paper, but we can’t get communities to do it,” Scott said of consolidation. “And to force the issue would be extremely difficult.”
Scott acknowledged that the state has offered property tax breaks to school districts that opt for a consolidated governance structure (Act 153). The state has also offered substantial construction reimbursement for districts that consolidate schools. But those incentives have largely failed to draw takers.
“We need an incentive program that is so good, you can’t turn it down,” Scott said of the possible tipping point for school consolidation.
Absent the will to cut education and other government services, Scott said the state will have to grow its economy to a great extent.
“We don’t have the will to cut; we don’t have any more taxing capacity,” he said. “So the only thing we can do is grow the economy to bring more revenue in.”
Growing the economy
Scott recalled a meeting he said he had two years ago with Gov. Shumlin and House and Senate leaders to discuss common goals for growing the state’s economy. Those goals, he said, included tax incentives to draw in new businesses, streamlining the permitting process, transportation upgrades and public-private partnerships, all designed to encourage economic development.
“We all went out of the meeting and I thought we had an agreement,” Scott said. “But then politics took over, and there were a number of initiatives that were considered more important.”
Vermont could stimulate business growth, Scott said, by doing such things as exempting computer cloud-related services from taxation.
“Why wouldn’t we want to be something different, in this age of new technology … to be a haven for companies that want to develop here, like the Dealer.com’s, and so forth?” Scott said, adding that taxing such industries sends a negative message to other, similar clean companies that might bring well-paying jobs to the state.
Vermont could also encourage growth by offering research and development tax credits — a program that was eliminated earlier this year, Scott said.
“It doesn’t cost us much,” Scott said of the program.
A temporary income tax amnesty for 20-somethings could also be considered as a way of attracting young professionals, he added.
“Once they are here, settle and start a family, it’s tough for them to leave,” Scott said with a smile, noting the state’s quality of life.
Scott continues to be concerned about the state’s transition to a single-payer health care system and the recent glitches in the Vermont Health Connect website. The lack of details about the new system — including how it is to be funded — have made business leaders and individuals uneasy, he said.
Advocates for single-payer have argued that the new system will take the health care insurance burden off of businesses and free them up to grow. Scott is doubtful about that claim.
“I say, ‘Show me, first,’” Scott said. “If you don’t tell me what that plan looks like, it could be just a base plan by the time it’s all done.”
A “base plan,” by Scott’s definition, might be capped and not cover dental, vision and other services. This would set up the need for Vermonters to purchase supplemental insurance, according to Scott.
“They are saying, ‘We are going to take the burden off of you,’” Scott said. “I say, unless you offer 100 percent (coverage) for everyone across the board and include everyone in this, then you are going to have a basic plan, we are not going to be able to afford it, and businesses are going to be back in the game having to purchase supplemental insurance for their employees.”
Scott also questions whether a sliding scale fee will be instituted to assess health care premiums based on ability to pay. But while Scott admits to having a lot of questions about the single-payer plan, he said he is not ready to dismiss it — at least not yet.
“I am all ears,” Scott said. “If it will help grow businesses and our economy, lay it out for me.”
Rather than pursue single-payer, Scott would like the state to build a coalition with other New England states to introduce more health care plans and competition, which he said would drive down health care costs.
“Why not work together, instead of trying to do it on our own with 620,000 people?” Scott said.
Other issues Scott discussed included:
• The Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline. Scott said he favors Vermont Gas’ three-phase proposal to extend its natural gas pipeline from Colchester to Rutland. The Vermont Public Service Board has already OK’d Phase I, from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. The PSB is now reviewing Phase II, which would involve a pipeline spur from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
“Anything we can do to reduce our costs is essential for Vermont,” Scott said. “The affordability issue is something we are all facing. If it bridges the gap to something else, it’s well worth doing.”
• Marijuana legalization. Scott did not come out against legalization, but said he is concerned about the extent to which pot use can impair driving and the ability of law enforcement to measure that kind of impairment in motorists.
“I was in favor of decriminalization, because I felt (making pot possession a criminal offense) had a detrimental effect on the long-term standing of somebody who may have made a mistake in their past,” Scott said. “I am not a prude by any stretch, but at the same time, I would like to watch Colorado and Washington for a while. We don’t have to be the first at everything. Those states might have a bit of a learning curve.”
• Higher education. Scott is concerned that not enough Vermont high school graduates are able to access higher education in the state college system.
“Vermont state colleges have got to rediscover themselves, figure out how they can be more affordable for Vermont kids,” Scott said. Too much emphasis these days is being placed on four-year college degrees, according to Scott. He is advocating, among other things, for a public-private partnership through which Vermont students could enroll in two-year college programs to qualify them for jobs.
John Flowers is a reporter for the Addison Independent, [email protected]