Walters: Scott Budget Is More a Dare Than a Plan | Off Message

Walters: Scott Budget Is More a Dare Than a Plan


Finance Commissioner Andy Pallito and Administration Secretary Susanne Young deliver a budget briefing Tuesday to members of the media. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Andy Pallito and Administration Secretary Susanne Young deliver a budget briefing Tuesday to members of the media.
There was much shaking of heads Tuesday afternoon as reporters exited a briefing at Gov. Phil Scott’s Montpelier office, hours before he would deliver the first budget address of his tenure. The shared but unspoken verdict seemed to be: This plan is dead on arrival.

The briefing, hosted by Secretary of Administration Susanne Young and other officials, was dominated by questions about Scott’s education reform proposal. It would throw early education and higher education into the state’s Education Fund, along with the public schools; call for level-funded local school budgets; and force teachers to pay more for their health insurance.

Scott’s first budget includes plenty of popular ideas — designed to strengthen early childhood education, make higher ed more affordable, ease the burden on property taxpayers, enhance worker-training programs, support the fight against opiate addiction and build affordable housing. Taken as a whole, the initiatives target some of Vermont’s most persistent problems.

The bad news is how Scott proposes to pay for it all — while holding the line on taxes and fees.

The governor’s single biggest source of new funds for education? A legal mandate forcing public school boards to adopt level-funded budgets for the foreseeable future. That would seem at odds with Scott’s campaign rhetoric about the importance of local control. If anything, it would accelerate the unpopular aspects of Act 46 — the 2015 school-district consolidation law much-criticized by candidate Scott. But his plan seems designed to increase the pressure to consolidate school systems. He hinted as much in his reference to “empty spaces and overhead costs” in the schools.

Gov. Phil Scott delivers his first budget address Tuesday at the Statehouse - STEFAN HARD
  • Stefan Hard
  • Gov. Phil Scott delivers his first budget address Tuesday at the Statehouse
In Tuesday’s pre-address briefing, Young offered no room for negotiation on the ed plan. “This is a package,” she insisted. “We all need to work together on a shared vision.”

Well, yeah. Phil Scott’s vision.

She also called for quick action. “We would want to get this done before school boards publish their budgets for Town Meeting Day,” she said.

With all due respect, Madam Secretary: Fat chance.

Even when the governor’s party controls the legislature, nothing so impactful happens that quickly. Scott’s education plan is destined to raise hackles in almost every corner of the state and every interest group connected to education. Matter of fact, that distant “BOOM” you may have heard around 2:45 p.m. was the sound of hackles slamming into the locked and upright position.

The Scott plan offers goodies to early education and higher education, while robbing the K-12 cookie jar. It sets the stage for internecine warfare between early and higher ed on one hand, and the public schools on the other.

There was a moment of black comedy at the budget briefing, sparked by Your Correspondent. What happens, I asked, if a school board approves a budget increase? What punishment or sanction would the state impose?

“That’s a very good question,” Young replied.

So they’ve designed a non-negotiable “package” to dramatically recast public education, but they haven’t even thought about an enforcement mechanism for one of its critical elements? That’s, um, quite an oopsie.

The governor’s budget address appealed to lawmakers’ “courage” — a commodity often in short supply under the dome. At the same time, Scott’s own proposal is largely an exercise in deferral and delay.

For starters, there was nothing more than a pair of token references to the potential budgetary havoc from the Trump administration. Any big new plans may well be swamped by a tsunami of federal cuts. There were two brief references to “the uncertainty in Washington” and setting aside “reserve accounts” against any loss of federal funds. Otherwise, damn the torpedoes.

The pressure on education funding is diverted from the state to the local districts. In the general budget, Scott identified a few specific savings, but he leaned heavily on a call for level-funding of all administration budgets. Instead of targeting those legendary inefficiencies, those dank corners of bureaucratic bloat, all that waste, fraud, and abuse we hear so much about, he’s just lowering the ceiling equally on all his departments and agencies.

Scott touted his efforts at modernizing and reorganizing government — but said they wouldn’t generate real savings until sometime down the road. To be fair, he’s only been governor for a couple of weeks, but boasting of remaking government while deferring its benefits until a date uncertain is asking Vermonters to buy a pig in a poke. Every time an efficiency drive or a reorganization is launched, savings are promised. More often than not, they fail to materialize. Such was the fate of former governor Jim Douglas’ famous “Challenges for Change” initiative. By the time he left office, observers across the political spectrum considered it a failure.

This budget address did, finally, deliver the goods. It outlined details of a Phil Scott agenda. But somehow, it also temporized. While Young was touting a take-it-or-leave-it “package,” the governor spoke of “compromise” and the need to “have an honest discussion ... and work to find common ground.”

In the end, somehow, we still don’t know who the real Phil Scott is. Visionary reformer with an eye on the bottom line, or blue-collar compromiser whose signal political strength is getting along with everybody?

We all waited for the budget address. Now we’re waiting to see how it will translate into real action during the 2017 session.