Gov. Phil Scott is in search of the middle.
The Republican, up against a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, put forth a balanced budget that includes enough specifics to please and displease both sides of the aisle.
While his inaugural address two weeks ago was a series of broad charges toward compromise and civility, yesterday’s budget address put a fine point to those edicts.
The state, he noted, faces enormous budget challenges, but Scott insisted there are areas of compromise. His tone proved to be more important than any one line item in the budget.
“I’m certain, if we build consensus on solutions, and compromise when we can’t, we can come to agreement on a budget that supports everyone by growing our economy, making Vermont more affordable and protecting the most vulnerable,” the governor said.
He offered several starting points by which some hard discussions can begin. This speech was as much a plea to lawmakers as it was a salvo to the citizens of Vermont.
“We all know our challenges are great. But I believe in the strength of this institution. I believe in each of you and our ability to solve problems and help people,” he told the joint session. “At a time when it’s so easy to focus on the bad, let’s believe in the good, the good that comes from the people of Vermont. And the good that can come from this building.”
His conclusion spoke volumes: “Today, we can be the example. We can reject hate and anger, partisanship and division. We can recognize Vermonters call for balance, for civility and for us to work together. And we can commit to solving the problems ahead of us and helping the people who sent us here to do so. … If we do, we will make a difference in the lives of Vermonters, and our actions will prove that the best work still comes when we’re guided by our core beliefs in freedom and unity.”
So what did the governor put out there for consideration?
— He emphasized investments and policy reforms to expand the economy and state revenues, by reversing Vermont’s demographic trends, increasing the number of Vermonters in the labor force and transforming the state’s education system to the very best in the nation — all pledges on which he campaigned and affirmed in the inaugural.
— He offered to collaborate with lawmakers to continue to modernize state government, and manage the state’s operational costs and financial obligations, while investing in pro-growth policies that benefit all communities.
— He highlighted the importance of investing in clean water, saying: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the 20-year, $2 billion project ahead of us is as much a major infrastructure and jobs program as it is essential environmental policy.” He proposed tweaks toward the estate tax to generate revenue toward that end.
— He proposed a tax on vaping paraphernalia and e-cigarettes in an effort to “stop it in its tracks,” citing staggering statistics about the number of young Vermonters who are now part of the “epidemic.”
— Including about $19 million in federal funds, Scott’s budget funds $48 million in clean water infrastructure projects.
— To advance the governor’s commitment to make Vermont more affordable, the budget includes initiatives to expand the availability of broadband, revitalize homes and downtowns and put electric vehicles within reach of more Vermonters. At the same time he indicated he would not support a carbon tax if it were proposed.
— The governor’s budget also makes the initial investment needed to launch his voluntary paid family leave program, and to eliminate the income tax on military pensions.
— In an effort to spur and support economic growth, Scott detailed a plan to modernize Act 250.
He asked for money to improve the state’s cybersecurity and IT infrastructure and proposed an initiative to expand statewide broadband access through a municipal bonding program and a digital partnership with Microsoft.
He won’t get everything he wants. No governor ever does. But he is making a different kind of ask. It is widely known the Scott administration is trying hard to collaborate more with committees and lawmakers this session. It’s talking the talk and walking the walk, which may pay off.
Certainly, politics plays a role; but the governor is right to insist on finding that middle ground. A gauntlet was not thrown on Thursday. An olive branch was extended.
Now we will see how far it goes.