It’s Amazing What You Can Do With a Billion Dollars

In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.

And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.

The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.

So, hooray for the pandemic!

About one-fourth of the money will fund a massive jumpstart for broadband connectivity. The administration has set a goal of reaching all unserved and underserved locations within three years. It seems doable, and Scott would be making good on a promise made by at least two preceding governors. As a bonus, Scott’s plan favors Communications Union Districts, the community-based internet providers who would serve the areas deemed unprofitable by commercial ISPs. Given his track record, I would have expected him to reserve seats at the table for out-of-state telecoms giants. You know, the ones that have failed to provide universal access.

Another one-quarter will go to housing initiatives. Housing was a crisis before Covid; the pandemic has sent home prices through the roof, and made housing even more unaffordable. My favorite bit of this is an immediate $90 million for low-cost rental units aimed at eliminating the need for housing the unhomed in motels.

Then there’s $200 million for climate change initiatives. If properly invested, this should go a long way toward meeting the short-term goals enacted in the Global Warming Solutions Act. It certainly gets Scott out of the piecemeal rut he’s been in.

Another $170 million will go to improved water-sewer infrastructure, which should be a big help in advancing the 20-year waterways cleanup effort. The climate and water investments won immediate plaudits from environmental advocacy groups that don’t very often side with the governor.

Finally, there’s $143 million for “economic development.” Almost all of that will provide recovery grants and injections into the state’s shaky Capital Fund.

Taken together, it’s a broad, well thought-out plan. If the name “Phil Scott” was removed, you couldn’t tell me if it was devised by a Democrat or a Republican. (Actually, I’d guess Democrat if I had to.)

It’s not exactly the plan I’d put forward. There should be greater provision for mitigating the social impact of coronavirus: Poverty, substance use issues, mental health, food insecurity, and the like. But there’s far more good than bad in the Scott plan.

And it’s all made possible by federal largesse. Don’t forget to thank your Congressional delegation, particularly Senate Appropriations Committee chair Pat Leahy, for their role in generating this flood of money. (One specific: Leahy was instrumental in establishing a minimum disbursement for each state, which ensured that Vermont would get a generous share. That was first inserted in the CARES Act, and was again in place in ARPA.)

For Phil Scott, it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card on just about every issue he’d identified but had no answers for because of his fiscal conservatism. It should provide a massive, multi-year boost for Vermont’s economy. And if used correctly, it will set us up for a more prosperous, equitable, environmentally friendly future.

At this rate, they’ll be building statues of Phil Scott all over the state.

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