In what may have been his final press conference before the Vermont legislature adjourns for the year, Gov. Phil Scott held his cards close to his vest on Thursday morning. He refused to say whether or not he would veto any of the major bills that seem likely to land on his desk.
It's a prudent strategy at a time when lawmakers and Statehouse observers are wondering how Scott will handle the endgame. Will he continue the cooperative path he has followed to date this session, or will he revert to the Quick Draw McVeto of 2018? The uncertainty does force lawmakers to negotiate details among themselves, as they try to avoid veto showdowns whenever possible.
The governor's presentation tended strongly toward the former. "I wanted to set a standard of behavior, one that unites rather than divides," he said. "I have focused on areas of agreement and listened to all ideas. I asked the legislature to give my ideas a fair shot, and I thank the legislature for doing just that."
Scott acknowledged that "tensions will rise" as the session draws to a close but expressed a hope that civility would rule the day. (Precisely when the legislature will adjourn remains an open question. Lawmakers had hoped to gavel out this Saturday, but House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) signaled Thursday afternoon that adjournment may be postponed until next week.)
Scott did complain that legislative Democrats are taxing and spending too much, particularly given the recent uptick in state tax receipts. "We're seeing revenue upgrades. I anticipate another upgrade in July," he said. "I'm not sure why we'd contemplate raising taxes."
His message was congruent with a letter sent Tuesday by Administration Secretary Susanne Young to House and Senate leadership. She listed potential tax increases floated in the legislature and wrote, "This is not the approach the Governor would have taken and, again, it contributes to our concerns as we look at tax proposals in the aggregate."
In the end, though, Young struck a positive tone. "Despite our concerns listed above, we have found common ground on many important initiatives," she wrote. "We hope to continue to work together [with lawmakers] to iron out our differences."
Scott said the single biggest point of contention is identifying a funding source for a 20-year waterways cleanup plan. The House and Senate have rejected Scott's proposal to devote $8 million in estate tax revenues to the task but have yet to find common ground on an alternative. The House has approved a tax on cloud-based computer software, but both the Senate and the governor are opposed. The Senate was working on its own plan Thursday afternoon. Whatever emerges from the Statehouse, Scott insists he prefers his own idea.
On another subject, Scott acknowledged the limits of his power. From the Education Fund, he said, "we're spending $67 million more than last year with fewer children in our schools. But I didn't find a lot of partners last year [on limiting school spending]. I have to pick my battles."
Scott, who has consistently kept his distance from President Donald Trump, was asked if he supported the only other Republican candidate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. Scott was noncommittal and expressed hope that others would join the race — perhaps Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. But when he was asked if he would choose Weld over Trump, he simply said "Yes."