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Now What? As Scott Fashions Agenda, Dems Watch and Wait


Published December 21, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2016 at 11:40 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Governor-elect Phil Scott campaigns in South Burlington last August - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Governor-elect Phil Scott campaigns in South Burlington last August

Throughout his campaign for governor, Republican Phil Scott was crystal clear about what he hoped to accomplish: Grow Vermont's economy and make the state more "affordable." Far less clear was how he'd get that job done.

Now, with two weeks remaining before Scott takes office, the governor-elect's agenda is no less a mystery.

"We just honestly don't know what's going to come," says Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Contributing to the uncertainty is the concurrent leadership transition at the federal and state levels. Scott will be the first Vermont governor to take office at the same time as a newly elected president since Dick Snelling and Jimmy Carter in 1977. And if Scott's campaign pledges were vague, Republican president-elect Donald Trump's were practically nonexistent.

For Vermont state government, the consequences of Trump's early actions could be enormous: Will he dismantle state-based health insurance exchanges? Will he stop the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its Lake Champlain cleanup mandates? Will he starve Vermont of federal funding — or will he invest in an infrastructure program that fills our coffers and paves our roads?

"As a state, we are so dependent on federal policy and money — especially because we're such a small state — and we have essentially no idea what the Trump administration is going to do," says Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), the Democratic nominee for president pro tempore.

It wasn't like this when retiring Gov. Peter Shumlin took office in 2011. Back then, the Putney Democrat had campaigned on a commitment shared by the incumbent president, Barack Obama, to expand access to health insurance and increase the government's role in providing it.

When Shumlin took office, he had all the support in the world — including massive federal grants — to turn his vision into reality. Within five months, he signed into law Act 48, a major restructuring of the state's health care system and a blueprint for single-payer.

It didn't hurt that Shumlin could count on his party's super-majorities in the Vermont House and Senate to rubber-stamp his agenda — at least at the start of his governorship.

Scott, it seems, won't have allies in the White House or the Statehouse — and he hasn't foreshadowed any ambitious agenda.

To what extent legislative Democrats will engage with Scott remains to be seen.

"There will be things we're going to want to work on together with the governor, and there are things we're going to stay strong on and try to pass," says Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), the recently elected House majority leader.

The "things" for which House Democrats may go to the mat include a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and better broadband, Krowinski suggests.

"We're not going to check our values at the door," she says. "We're going to fight really hard for what we care about."

That fighting won't start immediately. All sides seem committed to finding areas of common ground, at least for now. Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), the Democratic nominee for House Speaker, met Monday with Scott at his transition offices in Montpelier.

"It was really just the warm fuzzies of, we're looking forward to working together," she says. "We think there is some good overlap in his priorities and the House's interests."

Johnson, the outgoing chair of the House Appropriations Committee, has called on her committee chairs "to do a strong evaluation and prioritization of state government: to really focus on good government." That's a concept Scott wholeheartedly supports.

Ashe, who met with the governor-elect last month in Winooski, says he believes Scott and the Senate will find common cause addressing mental health treatment and opiate abuse. And while they may differ in their approaches to Lake Champlain cleanup, Ashe says, both branches of government are committed to the same goal.

Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), a policy adviser to the Scott transition team, says he's confident the legislature won't just tread water.

"I think it's going to be a very successful session. I really do," he says. "I think there are a lot of areas where the governor-elect and the new leadership is going to be able to work together."

In recent weeks, the transition team's most public work has been a steady stream of cabinet appointments. Last Friday, Scott named BTV Ignite executive director and former Burlington police chief Mike Schirling to serve as commerce secretary. He appointed Lindsay Kurrle, the co-owner of a Montpelier convenience store and fuel hauling company, to be his commissioner of labor. On Tuesday, Scott announced that the entire leadership of the Department of Financial Regulation — Commissioner Mike Pieciak and four deputies — would remain in place.

As they work to fill the rest of Scott's cabinet, his advisers are simultaneously drafting a budget and fleshing out his policy priorities, according to chief of staff-designee Jason Gibbs.

"The policy team is doing great work to convert the governor-elect's priorities into either administrative or legislative packages," he says. "And we are right on track to introduce the full agenda of policy proposals and administrative directives when he takes office."

Gibbs won't reveal specific proposals but points to two areas in which he expects collaboration with the Democratic legislature: "increasing the availability of housing" and "modernizing state government so that every dollar goes as far as it can."

"I think that there's a lot of opportunity for the legislature and this new administration to work together, and the governor and his team are looking forward to it," Gibbs says.

And if the legislature isn't willing to play ball?

"A lot of this can be done administratively through some creative approaches to how these programs are administered," Gibbs says.

Now that's teamwork.

Spin Room

As the legislature debated ethics reform last April, Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) proposed prohibiting ex-lawmakers and cabinet officers from spinning straight through Montpelier's revolving door to a job at a registered lobbying firm.

An existing executive order already prevented administration officials from directly lobbying state officials for a year after leaving office, but there's a loophole as wide as State Street: Those governed by the rule can simply take a job at a firm, share their intel with colleagues and let others do the direct lobbying — at least until the "cooling off period" expires.

"In my mind, the distinction between lobbying firms and lobbyists is an artificial one," says Sirotkin, himself a former lobbyist.

Sirotkin's amendment failed by a vote — and the underlying ethics bill died in the House soon thereafter. So the revolving door continues to spin.

Soon to pass through it is Secretary of Administration Trey Martin, who announced Monday he'll return to Downs Rachlin Martin next month, when his tenure as Shumlin's top cabinet official concludes.

Martin didn't hold that job for long. The former Agency of Natural Resources deputy secretary took over in October after his immediate predecessor, Justin Johnson, left to join another Montpelier lobbying firm: MMR.

Both men abided by the Executive Code of Ethics. When they launched discussions with their future employers — in Martin's case, on December 1 — they sent Shumlin's chief of staff memos disclosing their negotiations and recusing themselves from potential conflicts. In Martin's memo, he said he'd steer clear of decisions involving such DRM clients as AT&T, VELCO, VTel, Vermont Gas and FairPoint Communications.

Though he lobbied for DRM earlier in his career, Martin says he has no plans to do the same when he returns to the firm.

"When I go back, the idea is I'll be building a practice around some of the skill sets I've developed in the last five years at the state," he says, pointing specifically to his work on clean-water regulations.

Says DRM external affairs manager Joe Choquette: "The skills that you learn by working in government can only help when you want to represent clients in the private sector."

But isn't that the point of revolving-door bans — to keep private entities from profiting off public-sector information and access?

"I wouldn't be going there if I thought I was just trading in on this experience," Martin says, adding, "I have a family. I have folks that I'm taking care of. So I'm taking the best and most exciting opportunity that I can."

Patti Komline sees it similarly. The former Republican representative from Dorset resigned from the House in August to launch a consulting and lobbying practice. She hasn't yet snared any lobbying clients, but she worked for the Grafton Woodlands Group this fall as it fought a wind project in southern Vermont.

"It's a very small state. I think there's limited jobs for the experience people have," she says. "You can try to vilify us. We're just trying to pay our bills and pay our property tax."

Take a Chair

Vermont's about to experience some serious government turnover — from House speaker to Senate president to governor — but one class of political leaders is likely to stay the same: committee chairs.

If she takes over the House, Johnson says, she expects to retain most of retiring Speaker Shap Smith's (D-Morristown) leadership team, though there will be vacancies on three committees: appropriations, natural resources and energy, and government operations.

"As a farmer, I believe in pruning to make room for growth," she says. "But there's already a very significant amount of change in the system."

Ashe expects similar continuity in the Senate, where only the Finance Committee chairmanship, which Ashe currently holds, will be vacant.

Still to be decided is who will serve as Senate majority leader now that Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) is giving up the post. Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), a second-term lawmaker, is the only declared candidate — and she claims to have support from 16 of 23 Democrats and Progressives.

"I've been doing my vote count, and I feel confident that I will become majority leader," she says.

But Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) says she's also considering running. While Balint, a Brattleboro resident, would bring geographic diversity to the leadership team, Lyons would bring more experience: She has served in the Senate for 16 years.

Lyons concedes that majority leader, a less powerful post in the Senate than the House, is a fallback option. She'd "very much prefer" to regain a chairmanship. That's why she and her allies are hoping committee assignments will be doled out before Democrats pick their majority leader in January.

Unlike the House, where the speaker makes committee assignments unilaterally, Senate chairmanships are decided by the secretive, three-member Committee on Committees. That panel will have two new members this year: Ashe and lieutenant governor-elect David Zuckerman.

But just because the committee will feature two Democrat/Progressive hybrids doesn't mean it will become any more transparent — and open its doors to the public and the press.

"When you're discussing people's personal conflicts with each other, that's really a personnel matter," Zuckerman says.

"These are decisions that are no different than any organization when they have personnel discussions," Ashe adds. "Should we make open the performance evaluations of reporters if they want to be so transparent?"

Huh. Last I checked, reporters don't work for voters. Senators do.

Media Notes

A little over two years ago, political reporter Alex Keefe left Chicago's WBEZ to host Vermont Public Radio's broadcast of "All Things Considered." Now, the voice of VPR's afternoon and evening programming is headed back to the Windy City to serve as WBEZ's senior editor of government and politics.

"It was just too good to pass up," he says of the new gig. "It's kind of a dream job for someone who grew up in Chicago."

Keefe says he's particularly disappointed to leave behind "Brave Little State," the Vermont-centric podcast he launched last summer with VPR's Angela Evancie. According to VPR senior vice president John Van Hoesen, the podcast will continue under Evancie's leadership, and the station will launch a search for a new host of ATC.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.