Editorial: Is defense the political strategy of Gov. Phil Scott
As Vermont’s Legislature and Gov. Scott’s administration maneuver toward a veto session on June 21-22, Vermonters will soon have a keener insight into their newly elected governor’s political skills and instincts.
Until his veto of the budget, which is tied to his last-minute move to impose a statewide teacher contract for health care benefits, Gov. Scott had taken a passive role in shaping legislation -— preferring, it seemed, to let Democrats take the lead on new initiatives.
Then Scott also vetoed a bill to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use and create a commission to propose how best to legalize the substance for commercial sale down the road. But that wasn’t all. In almost the same breath he slyly suggested that he could be persuaded to pass a compromise bill during the veto session, if only the Legislature would address a few of his concerns.
In both cases, Gov. Scott has taken the good work of a Democratic-controlled legislature and given the legislation his personal touch. Is that the work of a cunny, political operative; or the outcome of an inexperienced staff and governor finding their way in leadership roles?
From the public’s perspective, our hunch is that most Vermonters think the governor has staked out two issues that reflect his common-sense approach to government. There is much to be said for a statewide teachers’ contract for health insurance: a measure that has broad support from superintendents, school boards and taxpayers.
But the move is not without political risk. Scott angered lawmakers, who will be suspect when working on future bills with a governor they feel they can no longer trust. And he put the VermontNEA, and other unions, on alert that he poses a threat to them. Even if this is a measure the union comes around to support — and that is not outside the realm of possibility — the way Scott proposed it prompted an unintended anti-teacher backlash and created speculation that Scott is out to bust the unions.
It’s hard to call that a politically astute move, but then again, Democrats were left defending a union whose mission is to seek higher pay for school employees — that is, increase the cost of education and make taxpayers pay more. There is no question which move appeals to more voters.
With his veto of the marijuana bill, the governor risks being guilty of trying to have it both ways: placating his conservative constituents, but keeping the possibility of passage alive so as to create support among liberals, libertarians and independents. As written, the bill would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older, and would also allow adults to grow two mature plants at home. If passed, the legislation becomes effective July 2018, but would not legalize the sale of marijuana. That wouldn’t happen until a study commission scrutinized the issue and created a proposed path to commercial sales that met approval of the Legislature and governor at a future date (2018 or later.)
In announcing his veto, Scott said he’s not opposed to the concept of legalization, but is seeking a few revisions — including creating stiffer penalties for using marijuana around children. “These are not drastic changes,” Dave Silberman, a Middlebury lawyer and marijuana legalization advocate, told Seven Daysfor a recent story. Silberman said he remains wary that Scott could seek further changes that would derail the new bill, but “for now I’m willing to take him at his word.”
If Scott follows through and approves a bill, he will likely win over some Progressives and liberals on future bills for which he will need bipartisan support, while putting the kibosh to political comparisons between himself and the conservative, union-busting governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. That’s savvy politics. But if he reneges and the bill dies, trust in his word takes another heavy hit and comparisons to ultra conservatives will linger.
Finally, throughout these first months of Scott’s first year, the governor has skirted responsibility on issues by letting the Legislature take the lead. That’s playing defense to the Legislature’s offense — not a typical strategy for a governor, but as the sports-saying goes: depending on your team’s skills, a good defense is sometimes the best offense.