The Luckiest Man in Vermont

Gov. Phil Scott issued his budget address today (YouTube video here). It was an astoundingly pain-free occasion, considering that we’re in the throes of a pandemic that’s been holding our economy hostage for almost a year now. In fact, rather than proposing painful cuts, Scott offered a generous scattering of funds for a wide variety of programs that, he said, will put Vermont on a sounder footing going forward.

How? Simple. The tsunami of federal Covid relief money. Scott’s budget includes $210 million in one-time money from the feds. As we heard from state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr last week, federal money has prevented an economic collapse and even contributed to a boom in some sectors.

Throughout his political career, Phil Scott has benefited from little-known and/or underfunded Democratic opposition in races for state senate, lieutenant governor and governor. In his six races for statewide office, the closest result was the 2010 contest for lieutenant governor — seven percentage points over Steve Howard. He gets credit for being an appealing political figure, but he sure hasn’t had to fight very hard.

And now, once again, he’s the luckiest man in Vermont. You’d think a shattering pandemic would lead to massive cutbacks, but no. Scott could once again boast of a budget that wouldn’t increase taxes or “existing fees.” And according to Kavet and Carr, the state economy will continue to be buoyed by federal infusions for the next two fiscal years. Which will make it a lot easier to craft a pain-free state budget again next year and, if he runs for a fourth term, he may well be unbeatable once again.

But while there were no painful proposals in his speech, there were hints of trouble. He did mention the necessity of addressing “the growing and unsustainable burden” of public-sector pension plans, and thanked Democratic State Treasurer Beth Pearce for getting out in front on the issue. So rather than standing alone on cutting pension benefits for state workers and teachers, he enjoys the company of one of the Democratic Party’s most popular officeholders. But that’s gonna be a hell of a battle, unless the Dems are ready to sell out their most powerful interest group.

Scott proposed a one-time $20 million appropriation for the troubled Vermont State Colleges system. But that’s barely enough to keep the doors open, and it’s a far cry from the ongoing investment called for by the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont. Its report predicts painful cuts in the VSC system even if the state commits to higher annual funding — which the governor clearly doesn’t want to do.

Many of Scott’s proposals will benefit the business sector, unsurprisingly. For instance, $10M in grants for small businesses that don’t qualify for federal bailouts, $10M to boost outdoor recreation, $5 million for maintenance on state recreational trails, several different spends for downtown and community development, and a record investment in road and highway paving.

Scott also proposed a recruitment effort for people of color. Although, as recent news has indicated, much of our problem is about retention, not recruitment.

Broadband would get a share of the one-time money, but Scott cautioned that substantial progress on that front would require additional federal funds. He suggested that broadband should get the same treatment today by the US government that rural electrification got in the 1930s. There were also proposed one-time investments on electric vehicle infrastructure, housing development and weatherization.

Speaking of broadband, the video feed of Scott’s speech was awfully glitchy and the audio was significantly muffled. And in the middle, for about a minute, the feed switched from Scott at his lectern to Sen. Ruth Hardy watching the speech on her computer. Fortunately for her, she wasn’t doing anything embarrassing, just taking notes.

So that’s it. One note of caution: The budget address is an incomplete accounting of the actual proposal, accentuating the positive and omitting the negative. It’s customary for the governor’s office to hold an embargoed pre-speech briefing for the press, where reporters get a fuller sense of hte plan and top officials are grilled on the unappealing aspects. Officials also provide full “budget books” with all the numbers and all the proposals. That gives reporters a better picture of the full budget, rather than the lightly sanitized version that the governor delivers. As far as I can tell, the briefing didn’t happen this year. I inquired about it yesterday and didn’t receive a reply.

Update. There was a budget briefing. Apparently I was not invited.

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