It seemed remarkably civilized after Donald Trump’s attempt to run roughshod over debate protocol (and the foundations of our Republic), but the second major media faceoff between Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was a lively affair that managed to provide some light in addition to heat.
As in the first debate, Zuckerman put on a clinic on how to confront Scott, while the governor often seemed overly defensive, even a bit surly. And as in round 1, it’s unlikely to make any difference in the election outcome.
I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in Scott to bristle in the face of close questioning. He frequently interrupted Zuckerman and misrepresented the Lite-Gov’s record. Has he gotten soft after months of nearly universal praise? Or is he starting to harbor a sense of entitlement after three years in office?
Whatever, it was a rare slip of the mask for Mr. Nice Guy.
Y’know, if Vermont was half as progressive as its Bernie-fueled image, Zuckerman would have a decent chance at becoming the next governor. Unfortunately for him, the electorate leans more center-left than left. Sanders’ coattails are much shorter than you’d think. And Vermont voters like to think of themselves as balanced, and our political system as exceptionally civil. That’s why we quickly embrace people like Scott and Jim Douglas who put a pleasant face on traditional Republicanism. (And it’s why Scott Milne is eagerly grasping for the same electable image.)
If Vermont’s “progressive” electorate was serious about progressive policies, they’d reject a guy who is nearing the all-time record for vetoes. In three years, Scott has racked up 19 — and counting; during the debate he hinted at a veto on the cannabis tax-and-regulate bill.
The record holder is Howard Dean with 20. And it took Dean eight years to rack up 20 vetoes; it’s taken Scott less than three years to equal Dean’s total. Also, most of Dean’s vetoes were on relatively small-bore legislation — a bill to legalize the sale of sparklers, a change in members of the Fire Service Training Council, a measure aimed at quicker removal of abandoned motor vehicles.
Scott, on the other hand, aims his fire at the biggest targets. He has vetoed three separate budget bills, which is unprecedented in Vermont history. He has vetoed many of the Legislature’s top priorities; this year’s vetoes included minimum wage, paid family leave and the Global Warming Solutions Act. And might yet include cannabis. His veto record is quantum orders beyond Dean’s or Douglas’. Or any other governor in state history.
In short, Phil Scott is a huge obstacle to the Democratic/Progressive agenda. Yet the voters seem intent on giving him a third term, even as they return lopsided Dem/Prog majorities to the House and Senate. If you think voters decide based on the issues, think again.
But enough about that. On to the debate.
Zuckerman came out of the box talking up his temporary tax on the wealthiest Vermonters — the ones who benefited greatly from the Trump tax cuts. The money would be invested in ways designed to spur the economy, including broadband, housing and green infrastructure.
Scott pooh-poohed the idea, citing (without evidence, because there is none) the prospect of rich folks fleeing Vermont. Zuckerman pointed out that Vermont and New Hampshire have identical rates of outmigration, which means those decisions have little to do with tax burdens. Scott them claimed that “New Hampshire is doing quite well,” citing its twice-as-much-as-Vermont population. Zuckerman correctly pointed out that NH’s population and prosperity are clustered in the Southeast, the areas closest to Boston, while the rest of NH is struggling just as hard as Vermont. It’s geography, not taxes.
Scott then claimed that Zuckerman’s tax would hit Vermonters who make $159,000 or more, and strangely referred to those people as “middle class.”
Reminder that the state’s median household income is a little over $60,000. Just sayin’.
Having declared the cupboard bare, Scott had nothing to offer beyond bromides to “live within our means.” And since, after three-plus years in office, his highly-touted plans to streamline state government have produced little in the way of savings, Scott feels his hands are tied. He came right out and said that progress on broadband and other crucial issues would proceed at a snail’s pace unless we get a massive infusion of federal dollars.
Gotta say, if Phil Scott isn’t voting for Joe Biden, he damn well should be. His chances of floating his third term on a wave of federal funds are almost nil if Donald Trump stays in the White House.
To put it another way, Scott’s “vision” on broadband and rural development is mighty bleak. We can’t do it because we can’t afford it because our economy is weak, and the vicious cycle continues. Whereas there’s abundant evidence that major one-time public-sector investments will more than pay for themselves if done correctly.
Zuckerman slammed Scott for proposing cutbacks in state spending in the depths of the pandemic. In the spring, Scott ordered his cabinet to prepare budgets for the first quarter of FY2021 reflecting a two percent cut in spending — an annual rate of eight percent.
“There was no proposal,” Scott, said, pulled out a favorite trick. He’s technically correct, but it’s an old Scott dodge to float an idea without formally proposing anything. That way, if the idea runs aground, he can say his hands are clean. He’s done this for years with his “Cradle to Career” education idea, which would require shifting massive amounts of money away from K-12 education to pay for new investments in pre-K and secondary ed. He’s never put forward a proposal because to do so, he’d have to specify how many hundreds of millions he’d take out of the Education Fund. It’d be poitical suicide.
Anyway. Scott pulled a nasty little surprise when the subject of racial justice came up. After Zuckerman proposed justice reforms, Scott pivoted to S.54, the tax-and-regulate cannabis bill. In recent weeks, some relatively progressive orgs have made a late push to kill the bill over how it treats small growers and people of color who might become cannabis entrepreneurs.
Scott seized on that opposition and indicated it might sway his decision on whether to veto the bill. Until now, Scott’s concerns about full legalization had everything to do with law enforcement and nothing to do with racial justice or entrepreneurship. He appears to be seizing on those concerns as a pretext for vetoing S.54.
On climate change, Scott again posited the unconstitutionality of the GWSA. As I noted with Scott Milne, if he thinks the law is that badly flawed, he ought to be taking it to court instead of just complaining about it. He then tried to turn the tables, asking Zuckerman why so little has been done while he was the presiding officer in a lopsidedly Dem/Prog Senate.
As if the biggest obstacle to climate progress wasn’t Scott himself. The House and Senate have spent endless months since 2016 trying to fashion meaningful climate legislation that might be acceptable to the governor. And Zuckerman may preside over the Senate but — as Scott well knows because he held that job for six years — the LG has little to no influence in the chamber.
Overall, the debate reinforced my view of Scott as a leader who’s tapped out policy-wise, lacking in vision beyond the most incremental of ideas — even as he grimly outlines the huge challenges we face.
The Phil Scott aura is likely to carry him to re-election. It might be different if people actually listened to his words and examined his record. Because if you like a governor who leads by obstruction and offers minimal ideas to face maximal problems, then Phil Scott is the guy for you.
One final note. I hate to say it, but Anne Galloway was barely there as the moderator. She was low energy, she often got lost and offered very little guidance. Frankly, it seemed like she didn’t want to be there. Meanwhile, Digger has the deeply experienced former broadcaster Mark Johnson moldering on the bench. Galloway needs to commit herself to the job, or get out of the way.