Lt. governor outlines his priorities for 2015
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday warned that the 2015 legislative session will be dominated by tough financial decisions and he sees little opportunity for debate on such issues as the legalization of marijuana.
Scott, re-elected last month by a wide margin over Progressive/Democrat challenger Dean Corren, delivered his remarks at a Dec. 11 gathering of the Vermont Chiefs of Police and Vermont Sheriffs Association. The meeting, held at the Middlebury Inn and chaired by association President and Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, saw a veritable who’s who of Vermont law enforcement compare notes on crime trends, plan legislative strategy and voice concerns about funding and equipment issues.
Scott said he’s hopeful the major parties will be able to work together to get things done in Montpelier during what he promised would be a very challenging year. He cited recent financial news indicating a $17 million budget shortfall for Vermont this fiscal year and approximately $100 million for the upcoming fiscal year 2016. This will undoubtedly mean some cuts and some tough choices on the myriad state programs that serve Vermonters, according to Scott, who added he hopes lawmakers can respond to the problem in the same manner that law enforcement responds to public safety crises.
“First responders come to the scene and they don’t ask you what your party affiliation is; they don’t ask you who caused the accident or whatever the incident is,” Scott told the crowd, which included Vermont State Police personnel, municipal chiefs and county sheriffs. “You just come to help. And that’s what we should be doing as public servants. There’s a difference between public servants and politicians, and I think we (in the Legislature) should strive more to be like public servants, like you.”
Scott has, during his tenure as lieutenant governor, made a point of periodically working a day in various jobs throughout the state, ranging from food service to farming. His related discussions with employers and workers have elicited a common refrain.
“Folks are struggling in Vermont,” he said. “They are working two or three jobs trying to make ends meet and they are struggling to pay their property taxes … It’s no longer about the mortgage, it’s about ‘How do I pay my property tax?’”
MIDDLEBURY POLICE CHIEF Tom Hanley talks with a colleague during last Thursday's meeting of the Vermont Chiefs of Police and Vermont Sheriffs Association held at the Middlebury Inn. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
With that in mind, Scott said he will ask every lawmaker next session to look at each bill that comes across his or her desk “through the lens of whether this will hurt or help the economy, because I feel we either don’t have the will, or can’t, cut services anymore. By the same token, I believe we are taxed to the maximum; I don’t believe there is any capacity left. So the only other way we can do this, from my standpoint, is to grow the economy.”
He charged that the Legislature did not take that approach during the past biennium. During that period, lawmakers took up more than 1,200 bills, of which only 20 would have had a positive effect on the economy, according to Scott. Of those 20 bills, only a handful were ultimately passed into law, he said.
“I think that was the referendum in this past election,” Scott said, pointing to voter dissatisfaction that led to an unexpectedly razor-thin win for incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican gains in the House (nine seats) and the Senate (two seats). “I think it’s because voters feel we aren’t listening, that we’re disconnected and not feeling their pain. I think they spoke loud and clear about us listening to them.”
With that in mind, Scott said the Legislature should take great pains in 2015 to prioritize the issues they tackle on behalf of Vermonters. Priority, he said, should be given to those bills that have a direct bearing on “paychecks, prosperity and quality of life.” He said his top two priorities are public safety and making the state more affordable for working families.
BODY CAMERAS AND MORE
Scott’s audience was clearly happy to hear his emphasis on public safety. But they urged him and his colleagues to not support the legalization of marijuana and to refrain from assigning new tasks to law enforcement that don’t come with the requisite funding.
“When you start putting demands on law enforcement, why don’t you put some money with it?” said Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler. “If you don’t have any money, don’t bring the mandates forward.”
Police officials are particularly concerned about the growing debate about whether they should be required to wear body cameras to record at crime scenes. Along with privacy issues, such a requirement could become a significant financial burden to police agencies — particularly small ones, they said.
Individual police departments are currently coming up with their own money to acquire body cameras, according to Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr. Marcoux’s department and Morristown police are among agencies in Lamoille County that have thus far purchased body cameras, he said.
“What we’re afraid of is once we are committed to this, we don’t want any legislation that’s going to restrict us on the use of these cameras,” Marcoux said, citing as an example domestic assault cases in which privacy issues might come into play.
“Last year we were faced with bills that really did not take the concerns of law enforcement into account,” he added. Among those bills, according to Marcoux, was a measure that proposed to do away with all part-time law enforcement in the state.
“I think there is a real disconnect between some of what the Legislature is putting out there and what the true needs and concerns of law enforcement are,” Marcoux told Scott.
Merkel and Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the VSP, called on Scott to oppose any legislative attempt to legalize marijuana. Some lawmakers, as well as Shumlin, have expressed a willingness to consider legalization of recreational marijuana, which advocates said could be taxed to generate more state revenues.
“I cannot see anything good from the legalization of marijuana,” Merkel said. “It would be nice to know the people in the Legislature are listening to us.”
Merkel said marijuana has led children to try stronger drugs and is concerned about how legalization might lead to more cases of impaired driving and traffic accidents.
L’Esperance and other top VSP brass met recently with representatives of a group that has studied the effects of Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana. Some of the unanticipated consequences, L’Esperance said, have included the many ways in which marijuana has been incorporated into foods and the extent to which it has become big business.
L’Esperance also voiced concerns about how the legalization of pot could change Vermont’s image as a tourism destination. He noted the state is currently a huge magnet for families looking to ski and enjoy the scenery.
“Apply that same logic to those individuals who want to come here for marijuana,” L’Esperance said. “The tourism and the landscape of Vermont would look much different. The campsites, the state parks, and all of the things we cherish here in Vermont would change overnight.”
Added L’Esperance: “I have yet to meet a heroin addict yet who didn’t start by smoking marijuana.”
Scott replied that he is in no hurry to delve into the marijuana debate and that the Legislature should focus on weightier issues. Instead, he believes Vermont should wait for more feedback and reports from the only two states to have legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado and Washington.
“I just don’t see that we need to do that,” Scott said of fielding pot legislation.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.