By Anne Galloway, Mark Johnson and Elizabeth Hewitt
To read the governor’s full address click here.
MONTPELIER — In his second address to the state since taking office a year ago, Republican Gov. Phil Scott offered few sweeping initiatives and homed in on his message of no new fees and taxes.
Speaking to the entire Vermont Legislature, members of the Supreme Court, and a full gallery in the House chamber of the State House last Thursday afternoon, Scott urged lawmakers to rein in spending on education, restructure the state’s economy, and find ways to boost business.
Affordability was the mantra of the address, mentioned 13 times in the 35-minute State of the State speech, among familiar austerity themes Scott has advanced to date.
The governor talked about his early career in construction where he “learned that when you find yourself in a hole and have a problem, the first thing you do is stop digging.”
“Well, I’m proud to report that last year we stopped digging,” Scott said.
Scott took credit for improving the state’s fiscal health last year by closing a budget gap of $60 million and limiting spending growth to 1 percent. “This means — for the first time in recent history — that state government actually helped people keep more of what they earned,” Scott said.
The governor promised to block attempts by the Legislature to increase fees or taxes — including a 7 percent projected increase in property tax rates for K-through-12 public schools.
The governor said lawmakers must “face facts” about the state’s shrinking student population. Despite losing 30,000 students over the past 20 years, costs haven’t slowed and Vermonters currently spend $1.6 billion a year on 76,000 students.
Scott urged the Legislature to “transform” public schools by shifting funding to workforce training, technical education, child care and higher education — “without raising the price tag on Vermonters” while he also stressed that property taxes must be held in check. “Vermonters can’t afford it, the state cannot sustain it, and I will not accept it,” he said.
The governor delivers his budget address to the Legislature on Jan. 23.
Scott then told lawmakers that the state must find money for new business initiatives for startups, workforce education and job creation.
Two new ideas he suggested: offering free college tuition to members of the Vermont National Guard and eliminating the income tax on military pensions.
Other themes: Scott called for civility in what has been described as the most divisive time in America’s political history; he made cursory references to moderating health care costs, funding a cleanup of Lake Champlain, and addressing the opiate crisis.
Afterward, critics called Scott’s speech flat, light on details and riddled with inconsistencies.
Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said that on a myriad of issues, from water quality to economic development, “we hear administration commissioners and secretaries say they need more resources and more needs to be done. And then we hear that their leader is saying we can’t produce more resources to do it.”
Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, reused Scott’s “stop digging” argument: “When they’re stuck in a hole, let’s throw them a rope,” he said of Vermonters facing financial trouble. “Let’s help them find a way out of that hole, not just sort of tell them to stop digging and stay in the hole until we come up with an idea.”
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, applauded the speech saying Scott had “set the tone” for the upcoming budget speech. A member of the Education Committee, Benning noticed that Scott didn’t roll out a specific suggestion on how to hold the line on education spending. “There’s not any clear understanding how to do that, but we know it must be done,” he said.