Editorial: Scott earns a repeat but with significant caveats
In Vermont’s gubernatorial race, expect Gov. Phil Scott’s incumbency and his steady hand through the ongoing pandemic to usher in a third term. While Democrat David Zuckerman proved to be a worthy adversary on the issues, Scott’s widely popular actions to keep the virus contained presents an overwhelming advantage.
But if Scott wants to create a legacy that is more than his handling of the pandemic, he needs to be far bolder in his next two years on the state’s underlying economic issues.
Specifically, he must:
• Undo the damage he has done to the state’s solar industry in which he severely restricted community solar projects and diminished incentives to grow solar power and renewable energy policies. Jobs have plummeted in that industry since Scott became governor and it is 100% due to actions he has taken.
• Put far more effort and resources into solving the high cost of childcare. When parents are facing annual costs of $10,000-$16,000 per child per year, that creates a greater deterrent to living in Vermont and raising a family than any other single factor.
• Commit to expanding broadband to underserved communities just as if it were as important as electricity, because it is.
• Provide more than lip service in his efforts to make Vermont “more affordable.” He has, quite simply, failed to address many of the costs that make Vermont expensive. Childcare costs are but one factor. Low wages are another, yet he twice vetoed gradually raising the minimum wage (it was passed over his veto this past session) and he has vetoed sick and family leave measures — both issues that would help struggling Vermonters make ends meet. Creating more affordable housing is another of the biggest obstacles to overcome and while Scott added limited housing bonds to help spur some development in a few select towns, it was far too little to change the story. A more creative and widespread focus is needed, yet too little has come from his office.
• Lessen his emphasis on lowering state costs in the mistaken belief that public investments make Vermont unaffordable. The facts prove otherwise. According to Vermont-based Public Assets Institute, in 2017 (the last year statistics were available), state and local taxes were 11.8% of Vermonters’ total personal income. That compares to 12% of personal income in 1992, and an average of 11.6% in the 25 years since. In other words, while taxes have consumed a consistent percentage of a Vermonter’s income, other costs (childcare, housing, health care) have risen more dramatically, while wages have not kept pace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Vermont’s average wage in 2019 was 18% lower than the U.S average. Scott’s fundamental misunderstanding of the forces that make Vermont unaffordable has hamstrung the state’s economy and prevents the state from prospering in sectors Vermont should dominate. It’s imperative he and his team shift their focus to face the facts.
In short, Scott’s failure is that he’s unwilling to make adequate investments in areas that could help the state grow jobs and attract a younger demographic wanting to set down roots and raise a family. As with any business, you can’t cut your way to growth and as a state we can’t get to a dynamic and growing economy from where we are without investing in targeted sectors.
On that score and others, Zuckerman is the better candidate. While Scott has claimed the “affordability” mantra, Zuckerman is the candidate who supports the policies (on childcare, housing, minimum wage, family leave, adequately funding education and supporting a new farm economy) that would make the state more affordable to the majority of Vermonters. As a small business owner, he understands the state can’t afford massive spending, but he’s willing to invest in those areas that could move the needle to stem the tide of young Vermonters leaving the state while attracting others.
Zuckerman also has a more progressive policy on renewable energy and climate change and is willing to make energy conservation a priority, not an afterthought.
But Zuckerman’s leadership skills are largely unproven and it is not likely Vermonters will throw in the towel on an incumbent who is, above all else, credible, competent, honest and has gained the public’s trust in handling the pandemic — a health threat that will be with us for at least the next year.
Scott will likely have two more years to prove he can lead Vermont to a more invigorated economy, rather than a caretaker trying to maintain a diminished status quo. If he fails to follow through, a change in leadership in 2022 will be needed.
— Angelo Lynn