- File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Jason Gibbs
Republican Gov. Phil Scott surprised many last week when he told WCAX-TV's Neal Goswami that he wouldn't go to the wall to stop any increase in property taxes. It was a remarkable change in position for a guy willing to risk a government shutdown over the very same issue last year.
Won't happen again in 2019. "This isn't something that we can prevent this year," Scott told Goswami, pointing to the overwhelming number of school budgets that passed on Town Meeting Day. That in itself was a shift; in previous years, Scott had insisted that Vermonters didn't really understand the link between budget votes and tax rates.
The governor's statement was a big relief for those dreading the prospect of another legislative cliffhanger. It was a disappointment for those who see Scott as Vermont's tax fighter-in-chief.
But the governor's people insist it's not that big a deal. Last year, they say, the projected size of the property tax increase was nine cents — big enough to fight over. This year's hike is looking more like one cent. "The governor has said if we were looking at eight to 10 cents, he'd think differently," said Jason Gibbs, Scott's chief of staff. "Given the size of locally determined increases, we're investing our energies elsewhere."
And trying to avoid conflict.
"Both the administration and the legislature are making a good-faith effort to prioritize consensus and consider compromise," Gibbs said. The chief cited Scott's own proposal for a voluntary paid family leave program, his support for a new tax on e-cigarettes and the administration's plan to establish a handful of new fees as other areas where Scott is willing to give ground.
Top lawmakers agree. "The whole session has been much more collaborative than in the past two years," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).
So they all sang Kumbaya.
Well, sort of. Funny thing: Both sides agree that this year is a lot different, but neither seems to want credit for the change.
"Last year we were inviting the administration to work with us, but we didn't get anywhere," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "This year they're taking us up on it, which is helpful."
Over to Team Scott. "There was the notion [last year] that the administration wasn't engaged," said Administration Secretary Susanne Young. "I didn't think that was a fair assessment, but we did look at what engagement means to the legislature." That resulted in a small adjustment: "We have the right people in committee to express our proposals at the right time," Young said.
Gibbs credited the legislature for creating a better atmosphere by giving administration proposals "a fair hearing." In the past, Scott has often complained that lawmakers would rudely dismiss his plans. Ashe returned serve, asserting that the administration is providing workable proposals this year instead of the "vaguely described policy ideas" of the past.
Even while they celebrate collaboration, they just can't resist the temptation of relitigating past disputes.
Both sides acknowledge — but seek to minimize — the impact of November's election, which gave House Democrats and Progressives a supermajority coalition to go along with an overwhelming edge in the Senate. "It is certainly true that the legislature can do what it wants over the objection of the governor," said Gibbs, "but we're choosing areas of consensus instead of conflict."
Well, now. Sounds like if things go off the rails, those guys over there should get the blame.
Legislative leaders also downplay the supermajority because they've got to manage the expectations of progressive lawmakers and the activist base. "I remind people that whatever concept they're advocating, it has to be a priority to at least 100 [House] members to override a veto," said Johnson. "It's not easy to gather that level of support, nor should it be."
Despite their expanded political power, Johnson and Ashe are throwing cold water on activists' hopes for an ambitious climate change agenda. "Vermont has been very proactive over the past two decades," Ashe said. "The first thing is to take stock of what we've done and decide where we go from here."
Nice. But by a variety of measures, Vermont is falling far behind its renewable-energy and carbon-reduction goals. That was the message carried to the Statehouse last Friday by hundreds of school kids who may well live to see a climate catastrophe — and want dramatic action immediately. Doesn't sound like the bulked-up Dem/Prog majorities are willing to risk a climate showdown with Scott.
Will the détente continue through the rest of the session? "I'm optimistic," said Young. "The first half is indicative of the spirit of moving forward in a collaborative fashion."
But the second half will include all of the hard stuff: potential passage of a minimum wage hike, a universal paid family leave program, full cannabis legalization, a bill to impose a waiting period for buying guns, and a funding mechanism for a federally mandated waterways cleanup — plus the budget, taxes, fees and capital spending.
When asked which issues could produce conflict, Gibbs was circumspect. "I don't want to say anything through the media that can be construed as argumentative or confrontational," he said. "We're not opposed to having a discussion. But it's unlikely the governor could be persuaded to support a $100 million payroll tax." That's the generally accepted estimate of the cost for a universal paid family leave program.
There's another worry in the backs of lawmakers' minds: the prospect of an April surprise. In each of his first two years, Scott delivered major reform proposals in late April, little more than two weeks before scheduled adjournment. Could it happen again, despite the current outbreak of warm fuzzies?
"There's no indication of an 11th hour surprise so far," Johnson said, "but that's what makes it a surprise."
In the meantime, the 2019 session is being brought to you by the letter C: consensus, compromise, cooperation, caution. It's not exactly inspiring for progressive voters who turned out in surprising numbers last November and shifted the legislature leftward — or for those on the right who helped reelect the guy who drew a hard line on taxes and fees, only to see him erase parts of the line.
But after a biennium marked by conflict and brinksmanship, maybe a low-drama session is just what Vermont needs.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is apparently going Beltway with his 2020 presidential campaign. According to a story last week in Politico, the Sanders campaign will be "co-located" in Burlington and Washington, D.C. His 2016 campaign was headquartered in Burlington, with just a small outpost in D.C.
The shift makes some sense. Sanders' first presidential run was led by his longtime allies, many of whom had roots in Vermont or deep ties to the senator. The new team includes political veterans from a variety of backgrounds — and a lot more diversity than the largely white male 2016 group. A group of hires announced Tuesday includes Pakistani-American campaign manager Faiz Shakir; deputy campaign manager Rene Spellman and national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, both African Americans; and Latina national political director Analilia Mejia.
Another sign that Vermont is not top of mind for the Sanders camp: The senator has yet to hold a campaign event in his home state. According to documents obtained by VTDigger.org, he had planned a kickoff rally for late February on the Burlington waterfront but canceled it on the advice of the city's parks department due to icy conditions. His team might have thought to reserve an indoor site as a backup, but nah.
Does all of this signal a move away from Vermont for the man who's now a big deal nationally? The Sanders camp only gave us one hint, and it had to do with the size of the two HQs. "I do not have information at the moment re: number of staff at each," communications director Arianna Jones wrote in an email, "but DC will be larger."
I guess another big employer is moving jobs out of the Green Mountain State.
Star of the Show
The Vermont Republican Party has lined up a real star for its April 5 fundraiser in South Burlington. Star Parker, in fact. She's a black conservative writer and commentator. She's also founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a right-wing policy shop that promotes "market-based strategies to fight poverty," according to its website.
Parker has some fringy views on social issues. She doesn't believe in evolution and believes that birth control and divorce are contrary to the Bible. She equates abortion with slavery as "crimes against humanity," said that the Confederate flag and the LGBTQ rainbow flag "represent the exact same thing," and claimed that food stamp recipients are "watching porn, they're watching TV, they're watching women, they're watching everything, but they're not working."
Perhaps a little extreme for Vermont?
"That's not why she's here," said Deb Billado, chair of the Vermont Republican Party. "She's here to tell her own rags to riches story and talk about her foundation. She's not here to speak about social issues."
Still, it's another sign of the distant relationship between the party and the socially moderate Gov. Scott. 'He won't be attending," Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley wrote in response to an email inquiry.
Too bad. The one and only Republican who can win statewide ought to be a bit of a draw himself at a party fundraiser.
Now here's a deal for you. Earlier this month, the Burlington Free Press raised its single-copy price from $2.00 daily and $2.50 on Sunday to $2.50/$3.00.
Monday's paper checked in at 24 pages. Such a deal.
"I have not sold one yet today," said Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), owner of Dick Mazza's General Store in Colchester, speaking Monday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. "I think I sold two dailies all last week. On Sunday, I sold six copies."
Mazza recalled selling 80 to 100 Sunday editions during the Free Press' salad days. Now, he said, "If I dropped the paper, no one would miss it."
To add insult to injury, Mazza said the store's take for each paper sold is a measly 10 cents. Ouch.
Free Press executive editor Emilie Stigliani said corporate parent Gannett mandated the price hike. She declined to speculate on how many people would be willing to pay $2.50 for a daily paper or whether Gannett's endgame is to go entirely digital.
It sure seems that way.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.