Scott Milne: Up Close and Personal Q&A

by Nat Frothingham

Scott Milne. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Scott Milne. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Why Didn’t Milne Concede?

Nat Frothingham: You took some time between the election and your announcement at the Statehouse just a few days ago. How did that decision get made? Were people pressuring you or did you just come up with the decision on your own not to concede?

Scott Milne: I think at the end of the day it was my own decision, but, based on listening to a lot of people and thinking about it and sorting through the priorities. I believe I would be a better governor for Vermont than Peter Shumlin.  … There is risk associated with going forward because, according to Jim (former governor Jim Douglas) I came out of the election with good will and I wouldn’t just want to whittle it away on this. What I decided is, not just for me, but I would rather be doing what I think is in the best interests of the people and become politically unpopular than just worry about winning an election. I think the discussion is good for Vermont.

Frothingham: Do you think this has reawakened the discussion? My own impression was that there was at least some skepticism if not some outright hostility from certain members of the press at the Cedar Creek Room. Did you pick up on that?  (Cedar Creek Room refers to Milne’s press conference announcing he would not concede on Monday, Dec. 8, in the Statehouse.)

Milne: Yeah, the press has been dismissive originally, and maybe in some segments growing to be cynical about my campaign. That’s fine. A free press is healthy. I will say, though, if you look at what has happened since Nov. 4, these are opinions, if you look at the behavior of Gov. Shumlin, we now suddenly have a governor who is going to tell us what the health care system is going to cost and what taxes are going to get raised to pay for it before the election.

Whereas before, I would argue, he was arrogant enough to think that he could pull it off for the third time of promising people he was going to tell us after the election. That is one of the reasons that I got into this. Come clean and tell us how much it is going to cost. Cynically on my part, and this is just a question of mine, but for my presence here, would we have just seen him bluff his way through it, as I would argue he has with a bunch of things that have been botched over the last four years, or was he concerned about folks like me raising some real questions about it between now and January and making it look even worse. I pledged as part of my election there would be no tax increase next year.

His increase is 2 cents except for people who are on income sensitivity, and one of the things the press hasn’t picked up on, on Shumlin’s tax projection for what the school tax is going to be next year, for 65 percent of Vermonters that own their homestead that are on income sensitivity, their taxes are going up 8 percent next year. 

For the past four years we have been sticking it big time to the second homeowners and business owners, and also, we are having three times the pace of the rate of inflation tax increases going on to the primary homeowner who are income sensitized.

Can Milne Win?

Frothingham: Can you imagine any scenario or line of events that would lead to your election?

Milne: Very clearly I see a narrow path to victory here. I would argue it has gotten a lot wider within the past month with the further revelations about the health care system, recent revelations about making companies pay taxes to the health care plan, arguably even though they are not going to benefit from it. The Gruber stuff is not healthy for the governor who came in promising the most transparent administration in history.

Frothingham: I am not certain I know what the Gruber stuff is.

Milne: He is the national health care expert who made that closed door contract. They waited until five days after this fiscal year to award it.

What I believe is that you have this administration who has been running around sticking their fingers in every new hole in the dike and holding their breath hoping they can get by without the whole dam bursting. And how many holes are going to appear between now and Jan. 9?

On Reckless Mismanagement:

Frothingham: Did you use the expression “reckless mismanagement of our finances?”

Milne: Well, I think Peter Shumlin says, “we want to be bold,” but my description of what he calls bold is reckless. I think we have seen four years of reckless mismanagement of the people’s money.

Frothingham: Can you be specific about that?

Milne: Sure. A hundred million dollars flushed down the toilet on this health care system with no tangible benefits. We’ve got this Optum exchange that appears to be working, although, is it working? Or is this the Shumlin administration putting another finger in another hole in the dike telling us it is working until the next election before they realize the whole thing is a disaster. In Colchester the other day, this lady with a little kid comes up to me and says, “Scott Milne, my husband is over there and spent six hours over the last two days talking to Vermont Health Connect trying to get something set up.” And he calls back a half hour later and the person he talked to is at lunch and the other lady can’t do anything. I have people walking up to me all the time saying that. I would say we spent 100 million on reckless mismanagement.

Spending half a biennium on Death with Dignity while we’ve got big problems with the underlying economy, while we’ve got a train wreck coming with school reform, education, property taxes … Then we spend another half of a biennium talking about GMO labeling and whistleblower protection, again, not doing any of the hard work.

We spent 400 million of taxpayer money on guaranteed cell phone broadband coverage by Dec. 31 of this year, but you can’t drive from here to Waterbury on 89 without having your cell phone call drop out. It (Telecommunications Plan) is (run by) a crony appointment that wasn’t well vetted and wasn’t well thought out.

What Is Milne’s Plan?

Frothingham: It is easy to sit with a shotgun and take aim at the failures of a governor or an administration. Running a government is different than sitting on the sidelines taking aim at the mistakes. I’ve not gotten a clear idea of what you would do on some of these central issues. What would you do to kick this economy back into motion? What would you do on the vexing problem of health care? What would you do on property tax? Over two years the school tax increase went to 24 percent in Montpelier. It has an impact downtown. A lot of the money is claimed by the taxing authorities. It is not disposable any more. These are big, big problems that the state is facing. An older population, a population that isn’t growing, a stagnant economy, enrollment is down, school personnel is up … these are heavy institutional problems that we face as a state? What is your blueprint here?

On Health Care:

Milne: Sure. On health care I’ve been pretty clear. Marching toward single payer is dead if I am fortunate enough to be running for re-election in 2020. Other states should be on the leading edge and I would argue that a state the size of Vermont, we have some of the best health care of any state in the country before we got into this reckless experiment, we need to use 2015 to see if the Optum exchange is the best exchange for us to be complying with under the Affordable Care Act or if we should go to the Federal Exchange or something else. We would do a cost analysis. Is it worth changing? What is the cost of changing? The health care discussion is pretty simple for me. Single payer is over. Green Mountain Care board seems like it’s doing a good job. Let’s see how that does.

On Education:

Frothingham: It escapes my understanding the kinds of increases we are seeing locally and the impact on property taxes. It has shaken me to attention on the issue. We’ve got fewer kids in schools, more personnel, higher taxes. What adds up here?

Milne: I have a seven-page plan, which is the best plan I’ve seen in Vermont government specifically for schools and the economy in Vermont I’ve seen in 20 years. We would break the state down into 15 educational districts centered around the technical centers. One around Barre, one around Lamoille, one around Springfield, etc. Each one would have their own regional tax rate, so there would no longer be a statewide tax rate. We have pretty good data to support that Vermont spends over $17,500 a student. The national average is $12,000 a student. The number one predictor nationally, and in Vermont, of educational outcomes is not how much we spend per student, but the socioeconomic health of the family. So, you could make an argument that the best thing we could do for education is improve the economy.

There are poor towns and rich towns in each one of these districts, so it gets beyond that fundamental inequity that is addressed by Act 60. Each one of these administrative districts spends about $17,500 a student right now. If you spend the national average of $12,000 a student, you get the same educational outcome than as if you spend $17,500, as long as they come from a socioeconomically healthy family. You are taking it from the state, which is too big, to the regional. And the genius, I believe, in the plan … is, you incentivize each one of these districts so that as spending comes down from the $17,500, that money can be applied toward free college education. The way we put together the plan is you are eligible for one free year of college education for every two years you have in the Vermont public schools. What we are saying is, you can keep spending $17,500 a year in the district if you want to, but if you reduce that, it can go toward free college education.

Frothingham: I think one of the most highly organized pressure groups in the state is the educational establishment. These people are extremely well organized and they vote. They are a block. The notion of driving from 17 to 12 is romantic. But who am I to make a statement like that?

Milne: If we could do it and it is predictable, I believe Vermont could become known as the Education State. I think if you could get two of these 15 districts to do it, you are going to see businesses move to those two districts. I would.

On Getting Elected:

Frothingham: Do you see a credible journey between now and Jan. 8 that causes the Joint Assembly to elect you as governor, or do you think it doesn’t really matter? That it is a matter of principle?

Milne: I believe I have a chance of getting elected. I think I am a long shot, but my chances are getting better every week. I also think, complementary to that, is the conversation and the dialogue showing further shortcomings of the Shumlin administration and growing public awareness of the dire situation that Vermont is in. 

Part of the road that has led us here is we are a trusting people who just believe what people tell ya. Up until Nov. 4, Peter Shumlin was telling us, “we’re going in the right direction, let’s keep going.” Early on he was saying we’ve got the lowest unemployment rate in the country. We’ve got the highest jobs per capita. Then the unemployment rate changes at the end of his campaign in October. He said we’ve got the best bond rating … then a week after the election the bond rating gets downgraded. All of a sudden Scott Milne sounds a little more credible. Another month of income taxes failing to make projections. Scott Milne becomes a little more credible. The pre-K program being promised us by 2010. He promised more union jobs for teachers. He promised single-payer health care. Single payer’s not done. We found out Pre-K is totally botched and mismanaged for the last four years. So, he hasn’t even delivered on his 2010 promises.

Carla Occaso: Can I ask how Pre-K has been botched?

Milne: They (the Agency of Education) are required by law on July 15 to come out and project what the changes are going to be on the statewide property tax rate for towns so they can get ready for town meetings, so they came out and said 2 cents. The pre-K bill, Rebecca Holcombe (secretary of the Agency of Education) came out and said, “we haven’t got the rules ready, we are not going to be ready to mandate this so it is optional in 2015.” It is bureaucratic mismanagement.

Has Vermont Been Too Radical?

Frothingham: You made that statement that we don’t have to be the most radical state in the union every day. What is that about?

Milne: Well, we’ve got an underlying economy that clearly needs to be fixed. Marching forward with this single-payer health care plan I think has been radical. Spending half a session talking about Death with Dignity a few years ago. Nobody has been affected by that in Vermont yet, but it was worth spending half a session talking about what some national special interest told Peter Shumlin was important. That’s radical. The GMO labeling bill. It is paradoxical that Peter Shumlin expects more transparency from Montsanto or Unilever than he does from his own administration. The bill itself was ok, but the way we implemented that … Connecticut and Maine had the same bill but with a trigger in it that said it is not going to go into effect until 10 states adopt it so we’re not going to be sued on our own. I believe Sorrell’s got $8 million set aside to defend that lawsuit. Not properly looking at how we’re going to structure education to be sustainable. Not smart. I would call state spending growing by three times the rate of the economy four years in a row radical. It is a ticking time bomb until you’re out of business, right?

Frothingham: I wouldn’t even want to comment on going out of business, but I can assure you, it is very difficult doing business at the moment.

Milne: I’ve got what is perceived to be one of the more successful businesses in the state, I think, and I have talked to a lot of people and the definition of success in business in Vermont is you are still in business.

Frothingham: How did you come down on civil unions? Do you think Howard Dean made a mistake signing that bill? It was kind of radical at the time.

Milne: I think there’s two times in Vermont’s history that I can think of where radical progressive was very good. Act 250 and civil unions. I think they were both radical, progressive and appropriate.

Why Shouldn’t the Guy With the Most Votes Win?

Frothingham:  The press and the governor and the Democratic majority, the cognoscenti, if you will, have managed to get it out there in spades that it’s the guy with the most votes who wins. They have worked hard to get that notion across to the press and the public. You get the most votes. You win. And that is what we do in Vermont. We don’t fight each other. We just stick the guy in who got the most votes in. That is what we do in the Green Mountain State. … That’s not the case historically.

Milne: It is a once-in-150-year event. If you go back into the 19th century, Fairbanks (Erastus Fairbanks, Vermont’s 21st governor) was the last guy to lose. He was the incumbent, he was the top vote getter but he was voted out by the Legislature. He brought in Prohibition. It was pretty unpopular. There is precedent and the precedent is the Legislature has voted people out. The constitution doesn’t say anything at all about “the Legislature should give deference to the top vote-getter.”

I won nine out of 14 counties. I won 60 percent of the precincts in Vermont. Elections matter. If I got 50 percent or Peter Shumlin got 50 percent the election would be over. Neither one of us did. That matters. Now it goes to the Legislature and their direction from the constitution is what is best for Vermont. That is how this election matters.

Is He Really Ready?

Frothingham: Are you really ready to take over on the eighth?

Milne: Yes. Absolutely.

Editor’s Note: The Bridge requested an interview with Gov. Peter Shumlin after Scott Milne announced he was not conceding. A Shumlin spokesman advised The Bridge to first contact his scheduler to request an interview. Then his spokesman got back to The Bridge and asked us what we wanted to “chat” about. We said we wanted to do a follow up on Scott Milne’s announcement that he was not going to concede. We were informed Shumlin had issued a response and this is it:

“I am honored to have received the most votes in this election and would not want to serve as governor if I did not. I continue to believe that the Legislature will honor the long democratic tradition of electing the candidate who received the most votes. Since the election over a month ago, I have continued to work hard to put together a legislative agenda and budget to address the challenges facing our state. With the legislative session only weeks away, that is where my focus will remain.”

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