Gov. Phil Scott has, in many ways, lived a charmed life in the corner office. There haven’t been any scandals — or at least none that have been uncovered by our anemic press corps. He has, by general acclamation, kept his image as Gov. Nice Guy in spite of his outbreaks of verbal dyspepsia in press conferences and All Those Vetoes. And his greatest challenge has come with an incredible upside.
That would be the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused huge disruptions but was actually a strong net positive for the Vermont economy. A flood tide of federal relief aid meant there was no need for tough budget battles in the Statehouse and there was plenty of capacity for new investments. The money had the usual multiplier effect on disposable income, economic activity, and tax receipts. The latter eliminated any budget pressure that might have been left over from the direct federal infusions.
He had to make some tough calls on controlling the pandemic, for which he got plenty of praise and almost none of the criticism he, at times, deserved. Overall, the pandemic made his job a hell of a lot easier.
This isn’t the first time a crisis has elevated a governor. The high point of Peter Shumlin’s tenure was the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, when he got to look strong and resolute and was able to throw money around and be a hero without anyone asking any inconvenient questions. Given the rest of his record, I wonder what we’d find if somebody did a deep dive on the Irene response, but that’s water under the bridge, pun intended. And Dick Snelling is fondly remembered for accepting tax hikes in order to pull Vermont’s economy out of the gutter, and not so much for being an asshole.
But that tide of federal aid is starting to recede, and budgets are about to get very tight around these parts.
The Public Assets Institute put out a good piece on this today. It points out that Vermont has received a staggering $11 billion in Covid relief since the spring of 2020. Between the direct infusions and the knock-on effects, PAI notes, “the Legislature and the administration have been able to play catch-up and slap launch new initiatives.”
Those included investments in public sector pensions, higher education, workforce development, economic growth, rural broadband, housing, climate change, and more. But as PAI warns, many of these “are, in effect, only down payments.” In spite of Scott’s stated refusal to commit federal funds to any ongoing expenses, he and the Legislature frequently did just that.
The latest economic forecast is for state revenue to decline for a couple of years before resuming to a more normal growth rate. (Which is nothing to write home about, need I remind.) The governor has continued to record a high number of vetoes through these boom times. What will his relations with the Legislature look like when things are actually, you know, tough?
Scott will spend a lot more time saying “No” in the next two years. Which assumes he’ll win, which I don’t; Brenda Siegel has the moxie to pull off the David/Goliath upset, and should never be underestimated. But if he does win, there may come a time when he’ll wish he hadn’t. There’s plenty of evidence that this would be the toughest term of his governorship.
It’s rare when a politician or an athlete or anyone else has the guts to exit the stage while still on top. Howard Dean, Jim Douglas, and especially Shumlin all overstayed their welcomes and saw their influence diminish well before they left office. Phil Scott’s Teflon has been thick and astoundingly durable, but he might well be following the same path.