Walters: Down the Center Lane With Phil Scott | Off Message

Walters: Down the Center Lane With Phil Scott


Governor-elect Phil Scott at Barre’s Thunder Road SpeedBowl - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Governor-elect Phil Scott at Barre’s Thunder Road SpeedBowl
Editor’s note: John Walters, Seven Days’ next political columnist, will take over “Fair Game” in January.

Even as governor-elect Phil Scott appears to lean right in his early choices for top administration posts, he hewed a cautious, centrist line Tuesday morning in an interview with Seven Days.

“I believe that there are many coalitions,” the Republican lieutenant governor said, referring specifically to the housing policy arena. “I seek to find areas where we can agree. And if we all have the goal of more housing — more affordable housing — then how we get there is going to be the challenge.”

Indeed. Scott brought up the issue of affordable housing unbidden, after discussing the overarching theme of his pending administration: affordability and economic opportunity. He was clear in making the issue a priority but noncommittal about how he would address it. Government grants, tax incentives, guided zoning, easing the permitting process?

“It’s probably a combination of all of the above,” he declared.

As Scott continued to speak, that issue of permit reform quickly returned to center stage. “Why is it that it takes so long to get a permit through the process, even for those who are trying to do good?” he asked, before descending into rhetorical swampland:

I think it’s more about the process than the way you seek that — and I’m not artfully saying this — it’s not about compromising our environmental goals, it’s more about the process in the way. It’s the bureaucracy that gets in the way sometimes. It’s frustrating. 

It’s hard to know whether this was just his roundabout way of speaking or if he was being deliberately obscure. But the result was, one came away without a clear idea of his actual plans or agenda.

On his inherited budget situation, Scott issued a careful warning that “it may be a little worse than originally thought.” When reminded that retiring Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed similar sentiments upon taking office six years ago, he chuckled and said, “Probably. Exactly.”

Scott remained vague about potential budget cuts. When asked if his budget team, led by Burlington Electric Department general manager Neale Lunderville, had identified any specific savings or areas for cutting, he stalled at the starting line: “Nothing that we, ah, are — nothing that, that, um —”

Nothing that you want to disclose?

Yeah. But there are some interesting concepts that we’re contemplating. There are areas where we think that there can be some improvement. And I believe that we will be able to fulfill my promise of not raising revenue, or not, uhh, trying to limit the growth of the budget. I believe that we’ll be able to accomplish that. But it’s going to take some creative, a creative approach, which I think there’s some opportunity.

He was equally vague about his legislative agenda (“There certainly are a number of areas.”) and how he would use the levers of executive power to advance his agenda without legislative buy-in.

On what might happen to health insurance coverage in Vermont if the Trump administration were to gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act, Scott expressed hope that cooler heads would prevail. Even at worst, he said, “I believe that there will be some sort of off-ramp, some sort of block grant,which could lead to other opportunities.”

He wouldn’t firmly promise to hold harmless the Vermonters who have gained coverage through the ACA — and the state’s own subsidies for its low-income residents — but he came close:

I believe that there will be some opportunity for us to provide for our citizens and protect them. I think it’s essential that we do. 

Asked if there had been any surprises in his role as governor-elect, Scott responded with a dose of humanity.

I don’t think there have been any big surprises, but certainly your life is different. You’re under more of a microscope, and your life is different in terms of having to schedule everything, and your life is scheduled for you, and trying to keep a personal life is challenging.

Referring to a recent two-day training held by the National Governors Association in Virginia, Scott noted that he and his colleagues were warned: “Don’t forget about your family. Don’t forget about your personal life, because if you do, nobody is going to take care of it for you.” And then he added:

Even the spouses were talking about how difficult it is to get in because you have security, so you have a little disagreement with your significant other, and you have to learn that there’s somebody else there, and it’s going to happen. [chuckle] And getting comfortable with the fact is … interesting. 

Finally, on a subject of special concern around Vermont racetracks, the Thunder Road SpeedBowl veteran expressed hope that he wouldn’t have to completely give up his favorite spare-time activity — auto racing.

I’m negotiating that with my security as we speak. To be honest, it’s been part of my life for a long time, and it would be — it’s not the highest priority on my list, but if I could do a couple races, I would.

That’d sell a few tickets at Thunder Road. Wouldn’t you pay to see a sitting governor tradin’ paint with the boys?