Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

Of course, “a line in the sand” is the easiest thing to erase.

Last Friday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Gov. Phil Scott asserted that Vermont faces a $70-80 million budget shortfall.

Err, well, not quite.

What he actually said was, Vermont “maybe” faces what “could” be a gap of $70-80 million between revenue and spending. And those weren’t the only qualifiers. In fact, if you read a transcript of his remarks, you might wonder what he actually meant to say. (Part of Scott’s charm, and his political appeal, is that if you listen to him long enough you’re almost certain to hear something you can agree with.)

As far as I can recall, this is the first time Scott has made this claim, which seems to be a gauntlet thrown at the legislature’s feet. It’s familiar and politically attractive ground for the Republican governor, who has to deal with a restless base (and a conservative challenger) in the 2020 primary. Being tough on the budget is Scott’s best tactic for shoring up the base — and for drawing a distinction between himself and those evil, big-spending Democrats and their endless appetite for raising taxes.

That’s a joke, by the way. The Dems may be fiscally looser than the Repubs, but they are about as far as you can get from Tax-And-Spend Libertines as you can get. Just ask any of the four money committee chairs.

But let’s get back to the governor’s remarks. (NOTE: All transcripts are mine, and are as accurate as I could get. I left out the stammers and false starts, which were quite numerous. The gov wasn’t on his A-Game.) Start with this… um… not-a-sentence.

We’re seeing a lot of pressures, maybe even creating a $70-80 million gap between what we’re taking in and, if all remains the same, that we would feel.

I listened to this passage several times, and that’s what I heard. Let’s leave aside the disconnect between the beginning and the ending, and focus on the “maybe even creating” part. He’s not claiming an actual $70-80M gap; he’s saying that budgetary pressures could, at worst, create such a gap.

Host Bob Kinzel asked if the situation could really be that dire, given the fact that state revenues have been humming along quite a bit above expectations. After a brief meander through the Garden of Underfunded Pensions, Scott said this:

So we’re going to be faced, regardless, even with more money coming in, but we could see a $70-80 million gap between the the revenues coming in and the budget we have this year, which is the fiscal year [20]20, and what we need for [20]21. So that budget gap will be, we anticipate, could be $70-80M.

Again, “could see,” “we anticipate,” “could be.” And what he’s talking about here is the administration’s projection of the budget and revenue picture for FY21, which runs from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.

I tried to contact the administration for clarification on how the budget gap was projected, but have gotten no reply in almost a full day. I do know from Scott’s remarks that it includes an administration touchstone, the “growth rate calculation.” That’s a formula for keeping growth in state spending below the rate of economic growth, which is a political goal of the governor, nothing more, nothing less.

The governor’s answer to this alleged fiscal crunch: “Thinking outside the box.” You might want to take a few deep breaths before you try to navigate this sentence.

We have to find ways to close this gap, I think, through efficiency, entrepreneurial ideas, and doing all this, thinking outside the box about, you know, really challenging our secretaries and commissioners to think outside the box in ways that we can accomplish this, live within our means without adversely affecting services that are desperately needed.

Phil Scott has been talking for four years, including his first campaign, about efficiency and thinking outside the box, reinventing the bureaucracy. Well, he’s been inside the box — in charge of the box — for almost three years now. He has held high positions in state government for almost two decades. He should maybe stop talking like an outsider.

In his campaign and his first months in office, he frequently spoke of “lean management” as a way to help government do more with less. It’s an actual management strategy, and his administration spent a lot of time and money training people in its tenets. He hasn’t mentioned the term in quite a while, nor has he tried to quantify actual savings achieved.

You could be forgiven for having an intense feeling of déja vu all over again just like last time. We’ve been around this track before. Every year at about this time we get dire predictions of budget shortfalls. Quite often it’s in this same range, mid-to-high tens of millions.

I’m not claiming that we don’t face challenges. The two biggest are: Vermont’s underfunded public sector pension plans, rightly cited by Scott; and what the hell we’re going to do when the economy starts contracting, which it has to do sooner or later. There are sound reasons for fiscal prudence. What the governor did on Friday was more in the realm of political posturing.


6 thoughts on “Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

  1. chuck gregory

    Well, he could start by imposing an equitable tax scheme, basing the household income’s rate on its relationship to the maximum household income reported in the state. E.g., if that income is 10% of the highest income, the tax rate is 10% of that highest income’s rate. With a top tax rate of 35%, every household in Vermont making $1,000,000 or less would experience a tax reduction of 65 to 100%.

    Now, that’s thinking outside the box!

  2. Richard Ley

    With all of this fiscal failure going on the best we can expect from Governor Phil Scott is more gun-control..

    We have wasted enough time on gun control in this state that should have been spent on saving the taxpayers money and less taxation.

    Phil is grasping at straws trying to push his re-election.

    Let’s not forget that Phil Scott is a traitor to real vermonters.

    I wonder who is contributing money to fill Scott’s War chest?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Re: Scott’s war chest… in 2018 he hardly bothered to raise money. The Republican Governors Association has spent more on his behalf than he’s spent on himself. As did RGA in 2016; they bankrolled a huge anti-Sue Minter TV campaign after the primary.

      When he does raise money, his biggest supporters tend to be Vermont businesspeople, with little outside money going to the Scott campaign itself. He gets a lot of money from his former colleagues in construction/contracting.

  3. Ron phillips

    It’s time to downsize Vermont’s government employment the have so many on the payroll that it’s eating us alive . We need work fare not more welfare the state act 250 is a giant club used to beat down business and keep the populous just scraping by in most of the state so our politicians can keep promising that they want to help and give out more entitalments ,this is a strategy of basically buying votes from the down trodden they they created in the first place .ill tell ya it’s a great strategy when people are desperate and have no options they will crash at straws and support what ever will put food on their table even if it means surrendering pride and self worth .most of these people are not happy with their life’s and live in a constant negative mindset with not much hope of ever getting off the rolls of entitalment because in most of the state the socialist agenda and act 250 have had such a nrgative draw down on business and income that even the jobs that exist are not livable wage jobs . Go to any school in the state and look at the free and reduced lunch counts ,oh wait u can’t because it’s covered under a clause that says that information is protected . No the scheme is to make this a universal lunch program where no matter what u can’t pay for ur own lunch because it’s going to be free for all. This is just another way to chip away at peoples independence and allow the state to control us . When the control how warm u can keep ur house through a carbon tax how u eatthru their free meals how much money u have left over each week thru their never ending taxes they slowly take away ur freedoms and do this by way of making it look like it’s everybody else that’s doing this to u and they are their to help . Understand this is their thought train in Montpelier and this is howthey get the votes to stay in power now they want ur guns and this is tier final straw to get and maintain their ur eyes people before it’s to late

      1. Richard Ley

        If punctuation of a sentence equals Trust of someone I guess we wouldn’t be trusting anybody would we?

        It’s ridiculous to chastise someone for putting their thoughts forward even though it doesn’t meet with you are strict standards.

        Is this an attempt to stop people from commenting

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