MONTPELIER — Phillip B. Scott, Vermont’s 82nd governor, was sworn into office Thursday afternoon before promising in his inaugural address to bring a “centrist governing philosophy” to the office while focusing on making the state more affordable for its residents.
Scott, 58, succeeded Peter Shumlin, the now former Democratic governor, who set the state on a course of bold action. Scott, in his 30-minute address, described a more subdued approach to governing. He said his administration would focus on four core issues — continuing the fight against opiate addiction, revitalizing the state’s approach to economic development, transforming the education system and building a sustainable state budget.
But while he described the initial themes of his governorship, he offered few policy prescriptions to achieve them, promising more in the weeks to come.
As he did during his gubernatorial campaign, Scott promised to govern in a style more connected to Vermonters.
“My administration will not approach our challenges from the top down, but from the bottom up. I will establish a culture that ensures our focus is always on you — helping you keep more of what you earn, creating better opportunities for you children, and building a future where you can retire with financial security,” he said. “You elected me to make this change, and I will not let you down.”
Before subtly criticizing his predecessor’s administration, Scott offered strong words of appreciation for Shumlin, however.
“Gov. Peter Shumlin led our state through the flood waters of Tropical Storm Irene. He led our nation to recognize the magnitude of an addiction crisis that still threatens the very fabric of our
communities. And like so many before him, he championed Vermont and her people each and every day he served,” Scott said.
Scott said he would look to boost Vermont’s economy by focusing on what employers need to grow. Vermont “will mirror our strong support for larger employers with our efforts for small business,” he said. And in doing so it will foster job creation and help recruit entrepreneurs.
Details of his plan for a “significant realignment of our economic development tools” will be released in the coming days, Scott said.
And he promised to “uphold our obligations,” but said it will not be done by raising taxes or fees, remarks that brought Republicans in the Legislature to their feet in a standing ovation, while Democrats remained seated.
The governor foreshadowed a likely showdown with the Democratic-led Legislature later this year over the state budget as they all negotiate how to close what is projected to be a $70 million gap between revenues and spending.
“We cannot continue passing budgets that grow faster than the economy nor wages of working Vermonters. I will set clear limits that reflect the changes working families see in their own finances. I will not support, or carry out, experiments at taxpayers’ expense, and I will only sign a budget that meets these standards,” Scott said.
In continuing Shumlin’s strong push to address the challenge with opiate addiction, Scott said he will create a Director of Drug Abuse Prevention, an Opioid Coordination Council and later this year will convene a state convention on drug abuse prevention.
“This battle continues to be one of the great challenges of our time. How we react and how we choose to respond to it will be remembered long after our service has ended,” he said. “It’s important that those who’ll this chamber in the future — and the families whose lives have been forever scarred by addiction — know we did every we could to end it.”
Scott called for transforming the state’s education system, saying significant amounts of money are spent on public, K-12 education, but not enough on early education and higher education.
“Investment in early education is a proven approach to reducing special education and health care costs. And our level of support for state colleges and universities ranks one of the lowest in the nation,” he said.
Scott called on Vermonters to not be paralyzed by fear of change in the system and challenged educators think of new approaches, but offered no plan of his own to complete the transformation he called for.
“If we are innovative and we are willing to change we can have the best education system in the country, and perhaps one of the best in the world — with what we already spend,” he said.
The state will “restore fiscal responsibility to the budget” under his administration, Scott declared. Details will be provided when he delivers his budget address later this month, but Scott promised better and cheaper access to health care, protection of waterways and the environment and safe, clean drinking water for all Vermonters.
The state will move forward with its efforts to clean Lake Champlain — currently mandated by the federal government — but will do so “within our existing resources,” Scott said, because Vermonters “do not have the capacity to pay more.”
“Instead, my administration will establish more sustainable budgeting policies, which address fundamental cost drivers across state government. We will modernize and rethink government to find efficiencies and budget more strategically. And we will make necessary investments to group our workforce and economy,” he said.
Scott must work with Democrats in the House and Senate, however, to achieve the goals of his administration. Newly elected House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said Scott’s priorities “overlap in the areas of good government, results-based accountability and prioritizing where we want resources to go.”
“That core of good government and re-evaluating what we’re doing, I think, we’ll be able to work together very, very well there,” she said.
But Johnson sought to reframe the day by welcoming Scott to the work the House has undertaken in recent years.
“The Democratic House here has struggled for a while with those issues of affordability and taken some steps toward better affordable child care, better affordable higher education for lower-income Vermonters, really trying to help people make their budget ends meet. If the governor would like to join us in that work, that would be fantastic,” she said.
Johnson said she is eager to hear more details from Scott on his vision for transforming education in Vermont. Moving money from K-12 education to early and higher education comes with additional challenges, she said.
“I have no idea what he’s planning there, but I think we have to look very carefully. I haven’t heard of people asking Montpelier to take more control over budgets or schools. I’m not sure how you move money from to the other without more mandates,” she said. “I haven’t seen any details.”
Johnson also cast doubt on Scott’s assertion that he will meet the state’s obligations, including the costly effort to clean Lake Champlain, without any new revenue source.
“I’ve been on the budget committee for the last 10 years and in leadership on that committee for the last six, and I can’t for the life of me picture how you would that without substantial cuts somewhere else. I hope that when we do see his budget he is as transparent in his cuts and reshuffling as he talks about being, in general, with people,” she said.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, who was elected Senate president pro tem on Wednesday, expressed similar doubts about Scott’s ability to craft a budget that meets the state’s needs without raising taxes or cutting programs deeply.
“I think you saw not everybody stood and jumped up, and it was not because those people wanted to raise everyone’s taxes and fees all the time,” Ashe said.
But crafting policy with such a “hard and fast rule” is not always possible, he said.
“We’ve heard previous governor say similar things and then in the end they have to make a tough choice — do we live by this hard and fast rule, which governors all over the state have rarely done, even those who are the most anti-tax governors, or do we cut programs deeply, which every governor also finds hard to do,” Ashe said. “I think he expressed that position on the campaign trail. I think as they work on their budget we’ll see if that can be done realistically and I’ll be really anxious to see how they plan to do that.”
Scott is scheduled to deliver his budget address on Jan. 24.