Is this the worst moment in Gov. Phil Scott’s nearly five years in office? I’d have to say yes. Now, there haven’t been that many bad moments. Maybe the time he vetoed not one but two state budgets and nearly triggered a government shutdown. But that turned out to be a blip on the radar.
This? This could be the first time he suffers real political damage. He’s taking simultaneous hits on three fronts: The continuing Covid surge, his administration’s erratic Covid policy in the schools, and yet another retreat on the emergency housing program. In all three cases, he looks less like a compassionate moderate and more like a stubborn conservative.
I’m not saying he’s vulnerable in 2022. He isn’t yet, but the bloom is coming off the rose.
He’s had to abandon his optimism on the Delta variant and admit he doesn’t know what’s happening. Our seven-day rolling average of new cases is still near record highs, and hospitalizations, deaths, and test positivity rate are all distressingly high. Still, Scott continues to signal no change in policy. The longer he does so, the more embarrassing his inevitable comedown will be. Unless he gets lucky and the Delta variant goes away.
The school situation is not getting better anytime soon. The “test to stay” program is still being rolled out more than six weeks into the school year. The administration has touted the program’s success in Massachusetts, but there’s a big difference. In Massachusetts, the program was implemented in late July. There was time for planning and adjustment before the doors opened to students. Up here, Education Secretary Dan French is like an auto mechanic working on a car while it’s being driven.
Actually, since he hasn’t offered any resources to schools, it’s more like he’s in the passenger seat telling the driver to work on the engine while the car is in motion.
School districts are floundering. The Test to Stay program will eat up an unpredictable amount of staff time at the beginning of each day. Staff are already stretched thin and feeling the stress. One teacher tweeted that this is “The hardest year in my 23 years.” Jim Murphy, chair of the Montpelier Roxbury Board of Education, wrote an essay on VTDigger saying the public schools “are at a breaking point” due to the Delta variant and the administration’s lack of support and unclear policies.
He also pointed to understaffing in public schools and their challenges in hiring enough staffers to do their own work, much less a regimen of Covid testing and contact tracing. How bad is it? Bad enough that the Burlington school district put out a call to parents asking them to pitch in for the Test to Stay program if it’s implemented.
“We are assuming we need a list of 9-12 individuals who would be willing to be ‘on-call’ for a few hours in the mornings (approx. 7:30-11:30 am),” it says. The district is apparently ready to pay for their hours, but the rate is unknown. Otherwise, what a deal: Make yourself available every weekday morning, and get paid only for the days you’re needed. I predict a low response rate. But that shows you how desperate the schools have become.
After all of this, I’d have to think the teachers’ union would be all-in on a serious challenge to Gov. Scott. And a lot of parents must be re-evaluating their view of Scott.
As for the emergency housing issue, Scott has once again been forced to retreat after insisting he wouldn’t budge. Thursday afternoon, the administration announced it would extend the program past its Oct. 22 deadline. For how long and under what conditions, we don’t yet know.
But the heart of the matter is this: On two separate occasions, Scott has played the tough guy. Both times, he was the one who blinked. Which means he took a hit for appearing hard-hearted while also losing the policy battle. The damage will be compounded if he tries to niggle the details. His best course would be to allow the program to continue through the end of the year, when federal funding will expire, and re-enroll all those who were kicked off the program in July. Then he should work with the Legislature to commit to continuing the program into the new year and/or figure out a rational glide path that won’t kick hundreds of Vermonters out into the snow.
It’s the right, compassionate thing to do. It’d also be smart politics for Scott. He’ll have to do something to ensure that moderate Democrats and independents don’t abandon him in 2022.
This is the first time that that seems like a real possibility.