Category Archives: Phil Scott

Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

Of course, “a line in the sand” is the easiest thing to erase.

Last Friday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Gov. Phil Scott asserted that Vermont faces a $70-80 million budget shortfall.

Err, well, not quite.

What he actually said was, Vermont “maybe” faces what “could” be a gap of $70-80 million between revenue and spending. And those weren’t the only qualifiers. In fact, if you read a transcript of his remarks, you might wonder what he actually meant to say. (Part of Scott’s charm, and his political appeal, is that if you listen to him long enough you’re almost certain to hear something you can agree with.)

As far as I can recall, this is the first time Scott has made this claim, which seems to be a gauntlet thrown at the legislature’s feet. It’s familiar and politically attractive ground for the Republican governor, who has to deal with a restless base (and a conservative challenger) in the 2020 primary. Being tough on the budget is Scott’s best tactic for shoring up the base — and for drawing a distinction between himself and those evil, big-spending Democrats and their endless appetite for raising taxes.

That’s a joke, by the way. The Dems may be fiscally looser than the Repubs, but they are about as far as you can get from Tax-And-Spend Libertines as you can get. Just ask any of the four money committee chairs.

But let’s get back to the governor’s remarks. (NOTE: All transcripts are mine, and are as accurate as I could get. I left out the stammers and false starts, which were quite numerous. The gov wasn’t on his A-Game.) Start with this… um… not-a-sentence.

We’re seeing a lot of pressures, maybe even creating a $70-80 million gap between what we’re taking in and, if all remains the same, that we would feel.

I listened to this passage several times, and that’s what I heard. Let’s leave aside the disconnect between the beginning and the ending, and focus on the “maybe even creating” part. He’s not claiming an actual $70-80M gap; he’s saying that budgetary pressures could, at worst, create such a gap.

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VT Dems go trolling for candidates

So, according to VTDigger, the Vermont Democratic Party is conducting a poll to see how well Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would do in hypothetical matchups with Gov. Phil Scott.

I have no inside information on this, but here’s how it looks from my view.

It’s a sign of desperation and a waste of money. Also, Donovan and Zuckerman are still Hamletting it up.

Let’s take desperation first. I’m assuming that party leaders initiated this poll, not Donovan or Zuckerman. If so, it says that leadership — whatever their public protestations — fears what will happen if former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is the party’s nominee, because (a) they think she’d lose badly and (b) might actually hurt their prospects in legislative races.

Well, it’s really (b) they’re most concerned with. The experiences of Peter Clavelle, Scudder Parker, Gaye Symington, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist show that the party is perfectly content to toss a nominee off the sled when the wolves are closing in.

They’d much rather go to battle in 2020 with Donovan or Zuckerman leading the charge. Which is understandable, given that Holcombe is untested in the political arena and virtually unknown outside policy circles. But when party leaders are willing to spend scarce party resources — at a time when they’re not exactly swimming in money — they reveal a certain unseemly desperation. This is a Hail Mary pass: If the poll shows unexpected weakness for Scott, or significant strength for one of the two Hamlets, then one or both might be enticed to make a run.

Of course, the poll is unlikely to provide that kind of evidence. Scott has done nothing to diminish his popularity — nor have legislative Dems done anything to push him in that direction — and his two potential rivals are much less well-known statewide. (Those of us inside the #vtpoli bubble vastly overestimate the public’s engagement in state politics.) Donovan lacks a policy profile outside of law enforcement, and both men lack any significant record outside of their jobs.

Both are better positioned than Holcombe to overcome Scott’s lead because they are statewide officeholders, and that’s by far the best launch pad for a gubernatorial bid. (The last six Vermont governors were either statewide officeholders or top legislative leaders before assuming the top job.) Both also have better fundraising potential: Donovan because of his political lineage and national connections, and Zuckerman as the state’s leading Bernie Bro.

Right now, I doubt their poll numbers would be much different from Generic Democrat. What they do have is a chance at being competitive, after running a vigorous statewide campaign for a solid year. So I don’t expect the poll will provide any real insight. Hence, waste of money.

And if Donovan and Zuckerman, in the middle of very successful political careers, lack the self-confidence to make that decision without a marginally meaningful poll, then they’re really not cut out to carry the banner.

Hey look, a Republican candidate!

The candidate and his base. From the John Klar for Governor Facebook page.

John Klar, a man of many talents including authorship of far-right commentaries on True North Reports, and the possessor of a notable chin, has become the first Republican candidate for governor in 2020.

Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent, has said he won’t announce his intentions until next spring. But he’s gonna run, let there be no doubt.

And he has nothing to fear from Mr. Klar, whose ideology is such a mixed bag that even the Never Scotters may have a hard time flocking to his banner. Klar’s message is roughly equal parts Ethan Allen, Arthur Laffer, and the prosperity gospel on a societal level. That is, he believes if government gets out of the way, everyone will rise out of poverty and into prosperity.

Klar calls himself and his followers “Agripublicans,” adherents to the notion that Vermont has suffered an Edenic fall from its original state of grace due to the excesses of big government and the depredations of flatlanders. In short, he’s the one true advocate for Making Vermont Great Again.

Of course, this golden age of liberty, prosperity and rugged individualism — centered on the life-giving profession of farming — is less a historic reality and more a picture postcard. But hey, a man can dream.

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The kids aren’t going anywhere

The legislature has been warned. At the end of the 2019 session, a small band of climate protesters occupied the balcony in the House chamber and unfurled a banner promising to return in 2020. They were largely met with disdain by legislative leaders, for their offenses against regular order.

Well, those leaders had better get ready for more. Climate activists were distinctly underwhelmed by the legislature’s meager accomplishments. Their attitude can’t have improved since then, what with top lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott all acknowledging that Vermont is going to miss its near-term climate targets by a mile. And Scott pinning his hopes on the magic bullet of technological advances to drag Vermont forward.

The problem with that approach is (a) it’s iffy and (b) it lets us keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until The Golden Age Of New Technology appears. In the meantime we’ll be doing our part to deepen the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, climate activists have launched a series of Statehouse actions. They recently held a rally calling on MMR, the capital’s most successful black-hat lobbying firm, to drop so-called “reprehensible” corporate clients, including fossil fuel producers and other corporate giants. Last week, a few dozen climate activists camped out on the Statehouse lawn, braving lousy weather to emphasize their point: They’re not going anywhere, and they’re not at all satisfied with the “progress” made by our political leaders, who mostly address the crisis by way of lip service.

And who, truth be told, are probably gearing up for more disappointment on the climate front. Nobody’s talking about the kind of action that would get us back on track to meet our goals. Nobody with any power is seriously talking about, say, a carbon tax — which was originally a Republican idea to address climate change through market forces, but is now considered anathema by even the self-identified moderates of the Vermont GOP. Democratic leaders are likely to prioritize the stuff they fumbled this year: minimum wage, paid family leave, a full tax-and-regulate system for cannabis and a waiting period for gun purchases.

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Let Us Now Praise Doomed Policy Proposals

The fine folks at the Vermont ACLU got together Tuesday to unveil a plan that would cut the state’s inmate population by hundreds — which would, among other things, allow Vermont to bring its out-of-state inmates back home. (It’d also save money in a bloated corrections budget.)

Great idea. And in the words of Rice University Prof. Quincy Maddox, “Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen.”

Seriously, I have to admire the dedication of these public interest advocates who do all kinds of research and put together plausible policy proposals in professional-quality brochures and pdfs that you just know are destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir. (Not on the official public tour.)

The plan calls for an end to cash bail (at any moment, hundreds of Vermonters are behind bars for failure to post bail), expanding alternatives to incarceration, better treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, decriminalization of certain offenses including sex work, and better options for released inmates.

For years now, our political leaders have paid lip service to the notion of bringing all our inmates back home. But even as we’ve seen scandals and problems and questionable policies at out-of-state prisons, our leaders have failed to follow through.

This time, as usual, there’s plenty of lip service to be had.

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Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

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State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.