SUNDERLAND — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is one of two leading Republicans running in this year's elections to succeed Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is not a candidate for re-election. Scott, 58, has served three terms as lieutenant governor, winning election initially in 2010. He was re-elected by convincing margins in both 2012 and 2014.
He first entered the political arena in 2000, when he won the first first of what turned out to be five consecutive terms to the state Senate from Washington County. He is from Barre, a graduate of Spaulding High School, and a 1980 graduate of the University of Vermont. He is a co-owner of Dubois Construction, which is based in Middlesex, Vt.
Recently, Scott made a campaign swing through the area and stopped for an interview at GNAT-TV. The following is an excerpted, abridged version of that discussion with the Manchester journal. The full interview can be seen online at gnat-tv.org.
JOURNAL: You've made the "affordability crisis" in Vermont a centerpiece of your campaign for governor. What is that, and how will it be fixed?
SCOTT: I'm a hands-on type of learner, so I went out on the road and did what I call my "Vermont everyday jobs tour." I worked a day in about 35 jobs in someone else's shoes throughout the state. The common theme I've gathered from working all those jobs, working side-by-side with employees and employers is that they are struggling to make ends meet. They're working 2-3 jobs just to pay the property taxes and put food on the table. So I started thinking more about that — you hear folks saying we have the lowest unemployment rate almost in the nation — and I keep thinking why aren't we doing better? When you start looking into that, you see as a state we have a stagnant population — what's changing is that we're losing young people — the 25-45 year-olds in particular. We've lost about 30,000 out of that category alone since the last census.
That's the category of folks who buy homes, who have families, put kids in school and pay taxes. We need to focus heavily on the economy. We do have a crisis of affordability. What we need to do is set a goal for increasing our population to maybe 700,000 from about 625,000 today, and focus on that category of 25-45 year-olds, providing more jobs and opportunities.
JOURNAL: What's the role of the state government in that? Is it to be a cheerleader, a provider of incentives or 'get out of the way'?
SCOTT: I think there are many things we can do if we realize this will benefit everyone. A growing economy is going to benefit all social backgrounds and I believe if we decide what the goal is — to grow the population and grow the economy — that we can have a positive effect. Affordability is something that directly affects all of us.
On Single Payer (a health insurance planned advocated by the Shumlin administration until late last year where payments would be funneled through the state rather than by individuals or insurance agencies), I'm objective enough to take a look and if somebody has a better way of doing something, prove it to me, to us. But we need to do those things in a short period of time because I believe the conversation about Single Payer went on for 5-6 years and was detrimental to our economy. The businesses I spoke with about coming to Vermont would always end with 'what are you doing with your health care system,' and rumors of a 16-18 percent increase in payroll tax. When they heard that, they hunkered down, didn't want to expand, because they weren't sure they would be competitive. The carbon tax proposal has the same look and feel. This is a multi-year conversation and we don't need a multiyear conversation.
We need to reduce the cost of living in Vermont, not increase it. A carbon tax would raise the cost-of-living in Vermont.
JOURNAL: Wouldn't a modest increase in gas tax be a good idea to ay for roads and infrastructure repairs?
SCOTT: That's a separate conversation from the carbon tax. Rebuilding our roads and bridges is something we need to do; perhaps nationally — our vehicles today are more fuel efficient.
I'm not convinced we're going to continue to have the benefit of low gas prices for the foreseeable future — low gas prices have put a band aid on the economy and when it does increase and we have more taxes on top of that, I think we're going to be in trouble.
JOURNAL: A recent report commissioned by the Legislature looked at the economy of southern Vermont and found cause for concern. Would it be a focus of your administration, if you're elected governor,to help rebuild it?
SCOTT: What we need to do is look broadly across the entire state's economy. I grew up in Barre, where the population has shrunk by 2,000 over the last 50 years. There are struggles we've faced there. Even when you take Chittenden County and compare them to other regions I would say that even Chittenden county could do better and we want them to do better.
JOURNAL: What is your view on Act 46, the education consolidation statute?
SCOTT: The affordability crisis is driven in large part by property taxes. In the last number of elections, Vermonters have been screaming for relief, and the Legislature hasn't responded accordingly, until they finally took up some form of trying to address the issue in Act 46. I was encouraged. While I didn't believe it would provide instantaneous relief, it was at least a step in the right direction. We're spending about $1.5 billion to educate 86,000 kids. We value our schools and education but there's got to be a better way to do it.
Act 46 was hurried in the first half of the biennium and wasn't as well thought-out as it should have been. Taxpayers want to pay less, not more. So we're going to have to take a different approach, one way or another. Change is difficult, but for us to survive we're going to have to take a different approach when it comes to education.
JOURNAL: What about legalizing marijuana?
SCOTT: I'm not saying "never," but I am saying that right now we have an opportunity to watch other states and make sure we know what we're getting ourselves into. We're struggling right now to fulfill our responsibilities with our budget, and I would rather watch other states and learn from them, and if we're going to do it, let's do it in a thoughtful way.
There's no good measure of (evaluating)impairment for operating a vehicle. How do we collect the taxes?
I think we should go back to the fundamentals, building the economy and a budget we can afford. If it is inevitable that's fine, but I don't think it needs to be immediate. It shouldn't be about the money. To count on the money and not know what we would be spending it on in terms of the ripple effect, I think that would be short-term thinking.