Governor Scott calls for revitalization of Vt. economy in inaugural speech

By Sarah Mearhoff/VTDigger

Beginning his fourth two-year term as Vermont’s top government official, Republican Gov. Phil Scott reiterated well-known calls for a statewide economic recovery amid unprecedented opportunities in his inaugural address Thursday.

But from Scott’s seat, this two-year legislature looks very different from the past two years and presents the head of state with new challenges.

For two years, the Vermont state government had a historic amount of federal pandemic assistance on hand to help address longstanding challenges. Now those funds have dried up.

And after the November election, Scott will have to contend with a historic Democratic majority in the legislature — one that, if united, could routinely override Scott’s vetoes should he attempt to block priority Democrat legislation. The supermajority is powerful new control over Scott, who has issued a record number of gubernatorial vetoes in his six years in office.

Scott was inducted into his fourth two-year term Thursday in a crowded Chamber of Houses, at the first large-scale event of its kind under the gold dome since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. He was greeted with thunderous applause as he paced down the aisle of the House of Representatives to the chamber podium, beamed and shook hands with senior officials in attendance.

After taking the oath of office, Scott kicked off his fourth term with an inaugural address in which he envisioned a Vermont with affordable housing, accessible childcare, small “mom and pop” businesses, and “blazing fast” broadband.

For many Vermonters, those aren’t a reality right now — but Scott said Thursday they are “within reach.”

“Before the pandemic, we strengthened our foundations by adopting responsible budgets and focusing on long-standing challenges like labor and housing,” Scott said. “This work — and the course we have embarked on — has placed us in an incredible position to make the most of this unique opportunity afforded by historic federal aid and record government surpluses.”

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The inaugural speech usually provides the governor with an opportunity to outline broad priorities, while more detailed proposals are expected in the annual budget speech, which Scott is expected to deliver on January 20.

On Thursday, Scott went on to promise to address some of Vermont’s toughest challenges — some of which have arisen amid the pandemic and resulting nationwide economic fallout, but others well before Covid-19.

Vermont continues to face an affordability crisis, recently exacerbated by rising inflation, an oil crisis, a runaway housing market and rising healthcare costs. Vermont’s workforce is shrinking as the state’s population ages into retirement and young people move to live elsewhere. And climate change remains an existential threat.

Scott offered some lasting solutions: continued investment in workforce development — particularly in trades, and expanding home weathering efforts and electric vehicle infrastructure.

With the cost of living rising, Scott reiterated his promise to avoid any new taxes or fees. “I want to be clear: this is not the time to increase the burden on anyone,” he said.

“And we certainly can’t ask low- and middle-income families to foot the bill for their more affluent neighbors,” Scott continued. “We need to find ways to achieve our common goals without adding taxes and fees because that just increases the cost of living.”

Scott also promoted his government’s recently released statewide family and sick leave program. Administered by Connecticut-based insurance company The Hartford, the program reimburses up to 60% of a person’s wages for at least six weeks while they care for a newborn or newly adopted child, or care for or care for a sick family member own state of health. It will be implemented initially with state officials and will later open to any Vermont worker who wishes to enroll.

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Who pays?

Crucially for Scott, paying for the program would not require a tax increase. Paid furlough programs have been a sticky subject between Scott and Democratic lawmakers in the past, with Scott twice vetoing the Democratic lawmakers’ plans in recent years.

After Scott’s release of the plan, some longtime proponents urged the state to get bigger — a tension Scott acknowledged Thursday. Others, like Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, tried to dampen expectations early on.

“Well, I know some of you don’t think that goes far enough and that Vermonters can afford another tax,” Scott said Thursday. “But by doing this without a payroll tax on workers, we’re not forcing those who don’t need it and can’t afford it to pay for someone who can.”

Paid family and medical leave is just one piece in Scott’s human resource development puzzle. Vermont’s labor shortage didn’t come overnight, but “there’s been an increase in the number of people leaving the workforce on steroids over the last two years,” he said.

To solve the problem, Scott said he plans to introduce further investments in internship, apprenticeship and training programs and technical schools in his upcoming budget. “But,” he said, “we can’t just train our way out of it.”

“It’s not that easy to just get the unemployed back into work because right now there are about three open positions for every unemployed Vermonter,” he continued. “Everything I’ve talked about today — from making Vermont more affordable, building more housing, creating the best education system in the country, and ensuring safe, clean, and healthy communities — all of these things are necessary to keep more people and to attract.”

On climate change, Scott celebrated the nearly quarter billion dollars lawmakers have spent over the past two years cutting emissions, weathering homes, building electric vehicle charging stations and strengthening infrastructure to deal with increasingly severe weather events.

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But there’s more work to be done, he said, including a strong focus on expanding electric vehicle infrastructure. Even in a state with the highest number of charging stations per capita, traveling across the state, he sees that some communities do not have equal access to charging stations. And for many Vermonters, electric vehicles are still too expensive.

“The transition needs to be easier, more convenient and more affordable,” Scott said. “We’ve made great strides, but we need to make sure we’re investing in the fastest chargers available. And with all the new EVs and electric heating and cooling systems coming online, we have a lot of work to do to ensure our power grid is ready for it.”

While Scott reiterated that he believes “EVs are the way to go,” he told Democrats in the room that mitigating climate change “is an area where we have common goals, but may not agree on how to get there.” reach”. Scott dealt a crushing blow to Democrats last year when he vetoed legislation to create a clean heat standard, and the House of Representatives couldn’t override the veto with a single vote.

The Democratic leadership’s response to Scott’s speech was brief. In a one-paragraph written statement, House Speakers Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and Baruth said they “share Gov. Scott’s desire to work together and support a more vibrant and resilient future for all 14 counties.” They declined to hold a press conference after Scott’s speech ended.

“The Legislature and Executive will continue to work together to improve access to affordable housing, support our working families, address the challenges facing our workforce and find effective solutions to climate change,” added Krowinski and Baruth. “Together we will reign with purpose, meet the challenges ahead, and build a stronger future for all Vermonters.”

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