When public policy becomes personal

Let’s look at the two guys likely to headline the Republican ticket, such as it is, in Vermont this year: gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne, and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott. Both are men of moderate reputation and widely seen as “nice guys.” Both have shown a disinclination to take hard-and-fast political stances.

But for each of them, there’s one exception to the general tone of moderation. Milne and Scott have each spoken loudly and strongly on one issue respectively. For each, it’s an issue that has left the realm of abstract policy and directly impacted their own fortunes. In the case of our Lieutenant Governor, it’s public campaign financing; for Milne, it’s the approval process for new developments, most especially Act 250.

It’s funny how a personal stake can turn a moderate into a firebrand. But it does call into question their ability to govern dispassionately. One of the most important things I want to know about candidates is this: Can they make decisions based on the public good, even if they’re going against their own personal interest? Can they set their interests aside?

Both top Republicans are in danger of failing that test.

As for Scott, after years of building a politiical career on being inoffensive and avoiding the tough call, he has become a late-blooming opponent of public campaign financing. When he was a state Senator, Scott wasn’t particularly against the idea, and he had his chances. And during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor, he’d never spoken out about it.

Until now, when a publicly-financed candidate threatens to give him a real race. Now he’s decided that public financing is an unfair burden on taxpayers, forcing them to effectively support a candidate they may personally oppose. Which ignores the whole social-good function of publicly financing ANYTHING — roads, welfare, education, police, military. Every one of us pays taxes to support something that we personally would not choose to spend money on. Public financing is a drop in that particular bucket.

As for Milne, he’s hot and bothered over the development approval process because of his big personal stake in Quechee Highlands, a proposed housing/retail project slated for a large parcel near Exit 1 of I-89. (This story was broken earlier this week by my colleague BP at Green Mountain Daily.) How hot and bothered? In an essay published last August in the Valley News, his opening salvo was:

All who care about Vermont’s future, fairness in government and how communities settle disputes should pay heed to what is happening a few miles from the Connecticut River at Quechee Highlands.

Wow. That’s putting it pretty strongly. “Vermont’s future” depends on Milne getting his way on this project. Lacking in perspective much?

He goes on to slam the regional planning commission for denying an Act 250 permit for the project. In the process, he reveals substantial ignorance about the mission and workings of those commissions. Most notably, he wrote that the commissions’ purpose “should be to help promote development that creates a foundation for economic health.”

Er, Scott. Hate to break it to you, but those Act 250 bodies are meant to balance development with conservation, not to promote development. And your little project, I have to say, would be built in an area with precious little road infrastructure. The corridor between Exit 1 and Woodstock is already a mess, and the vicinity of Exit 1 is especially bad. The original proposal was for an entirely retail project, which would have been a traffic nightmare. Milne and co. later revised it to mixed-use, residential plus “less than 37 percent retail.” Which is still quite a lot of retail in a 168-acre development. (The retail is clearly aimed at cashing in on the proximity to I-89. The site is less desirable for housing because of freeway noise.)

At the time, one of the pillars of Milne’s argument was that while the regional board had said “no,” the town of Hartford was in favor of the project. And he asserted that the town’s view should have greater weight.

Since then, Hartford has changed its tune. In May, the Hartford Selectboard amended its master plan to bring it into compliance with the regional commission’s plan. Before the Selectboard’s vote, Milne warned that QH would be “dead” if the changes were adopted. He’s already pursuing appeal of the regional commission’s ruling; he’s now threatening to take Hartford to court as well:

“I’m going to try to figure out if I’m going to do anything, and if I do, it’s probably going to involve more lawyers, and it’s just going to continue to brand Vermont as a bad place to do business,” said Milne.

Sheesh. Rejection of Milne’s project will “brand Vermont as a bad place to do business”? Mr. Milne seems to have an awfully… shall we say, expansive… view of himself and the importance of his project.

And it wasn’t long after the Selectboard action that Milne began publicly mulling a run for Governor, having previously given no hint of ever desiring a political career.

Now, I don’t think Scott Milne wants to be Governor so he can save Quechee Highlands. But it’s clear from his own statements that he has very strong pro-development views. And if he were to become Governor, he’d clearly push for substantial changes in the Act 250 process that would shift its focus from conservation to, in his own words, “help promote development.”

That’s a pretty radical take on Act 250, is it not? It’s looking like Milne is not that much of a moderate, at least on this very crucial issue. It calls into question his ability to dispassionately consider issues in which he has a personal interest. It also calls into question the entire foundation of his campaign, which portrays him as a centrist who can build bridges and work with the Democrats.


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