by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Newly inaugurated Republican Governor Phil Scott, 58, of Barre, became the 82nd governor of Vermont on Thursday, Jan. 5. And just five days later, still in the midst of setting up his new administration, Scott met with The Bridge in his ceremonial office in the State House. The building was a hive of activity and excitement — filled with new faces, perhaps envisioning a world of possibility ahead of them.
However, the issues to be faced this session are weighty, complicated and crucial. Chief among them, according to Scott, is to get back to basics. This means making the economy better able to attract and retain people ages 25 to 45 — who are fleeing for their economic lives. With that age group shrinking in recent years, the state suffers from having fewer wage earners to pay for the education of the young and the health care of an ever-increasing aging population. This pressure is financially crushing the middle generation and eroding the financial strength of the populace in general. This phenomenon also creates a greater need to focus directly on improving the education system and the health care systems that support younger and older generations with less money.
But as a prelude to tackling the bigger topics, Scott got right to business by issuing executive orders to overhaul government structure.
On his first day in office, Scott issued an executive to achieve his strategic goals by directing all state agency secretaries and department commissioners to use their powers to look for ways to grow the economy and make Vermont an affordable place to live. His other first orders were to create the Governor’s Government Modernization and Efficiency Team to identify and advise the new departments on ways to eliminate waste, prevent fraud and “development of an outcomes-based budgeting process,” according to his website.
He also on Jan. 5 created a Governor’s Opiate Coordination Council to keep on top of opiate treatment and prevention.
Then, on Jan. 15 he dug in deeper. He issued more executive orders, one to create a unified Department of Liquor and Lottery, by merging the Departments of Liquor Control with the Vermont Lottery Commission. He also created an Agency of Economic Opportunity by merging the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Department of Labor to connect the needs of employers and the workforce, according to his website governor.vermont.gov.
Then, on Jan. 17, he ordered the creation of an Agency of Digital Services in order to unify all aspects of the state’s IT operations to consolidate services and intensify accountability.
Scott told The Bridge his modus operandi is to inspire other lawmakers to deal with the fundamental matters first. “If it doesn’t make the economy better, create jobs or help the most vulnerable, then don’t waste time on it this legislative session,” Scott said.
Scott then said when legislators get bills they should ask simple questions like, ‘does this help our economy? Does this make Vermont more affordable? Does this help the most vulnerable?” And if the answer is ‘no,’ then move on to something that will help.
It may be even harder to get a fiscal grasp on things in 2017 because this year is starting out with lower revenues and a greater deficit than last year.
“It is difficult to determine which problem came first,” Scott said. “We’re losing our work force ages 25 to 45. We’ve lost 30,000 people in that category since the last census. Those are the folks who buy homes, use services, have children and pay taxes.” Meanwhile, even though revenue is decreasing, costs are increasing. Scott said he hears about it on the ground from working people who say they might need to move out of state to afford daily needs. People have trouble paying property taxes, making car payments and paying rent. More concentration on affordable housing could help. But also increasing an emphasis on education is key.
“I think that we should be participating more in higher education because that has also been proven to be more beneficial in higher paying jobs,” Scott said, describing how — some day in the future — the Agency of Education should oversee grades Pre-K through 16 (first four years of college). This, though, for now, is more of a vision that would have to be done in pieces over time. For now, the cost of public education as it is is too high — at a cost of $19,000 per student. Scott said the state needs to reconfigure the overall system to be more cost effective right through college.
This would be an important way to improve the economy and financial opportunity for all, because, Scott says, he is finding that there are jobs in Vermont that go empty for want of trained workers.
But for now, it is going to be a tough couple of years with lower revenues and higher costs striking the citizenry. There is a $70 million deficit, which is going to be tough to fix because people say they are maxed out on taxes. This is going to cause the Scott administration to “create efficiencies,” which usually translates into job layoffs. Scott is hopeful the efficiencies can come through the use of technology.
Nevertheless, Scott wants to continue to provide services to protect the most vulnerable.
“We feel we can close the gap. Wages aren’t increasing. They can’t spend more than they make and neither can we,” he said.
Scott said he wants lawmakers to concentrate on this rather than other issues for now because last session did not turn out a single bill with any jobs attached to it. “We are focussing on the wrong areas,” he said. “We need to change the perception that we are a bad place to do business. We are small enough. Nimble enough. We can change.”