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Tweaks and Tinkering: Scott Budget Calls for Boldness, Delivers None

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Gov. Phil Scott delivers his second budget address - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott delivers his second budget address

Gov. Phil Scott's second budget address was entirely in character with his administration so far: long on warnings of critical challenges and short on meaningful proposals to meet them. There was little new or notable in his speech or his new budget. As always, Scott's ability to pursue new programs is strictly constrained by his pledge to not increase taxes or fees.

Indeed, that was the most noteworthy accomplishment in Scott's new budget: no new fee or tax hikes. The budget's small spending bump is tied to his administration's calculation of wage growth in Vermont over a six-year period.

"We can do what is truly bold," Scott said at the end of his budget address. But the speech was remarkably lacking in boldness.

Scott touted numerous initiatives in the six-figure range, which is pocket change by state government standards and out of scale with the big issues he was trying to address. For example, he boasted of a new investment in wood heat — "a critical way" to achieve Vermont's renewable energy goals. The dollar commitment: a mere $300,000 to help homeowners upgrade old, inefficient woodstoves.

In this landscape of molehills, the highest peaks were his "menu" of suggested education spending cuts, $3 million in new money for workforce recruitment and training, $6.4 million in borrowing to build new mental health facilities, and a phased-in tax exemption for Social Security income below $55,000 a year for single filers and $70,000 a year for joint filers. The exemption would cut tax revenue by $6 million annually when fully implemented.

In a pre-speech briefing for the media, Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin touted a brand-new "strategic approach to budgeting." But when asked to identify specific savings, he could only identify a couple of examples. He acknowledged the paucity of actual results but explained, "We've just started down this road." He said he expects to identify more savings as the new budgeting model becomes more established. That may well be true; it may also turn out that the low-hanging fruit was picked first. Time will tell.

The briefing was confrontational at times. On the education spending "menu," Secretary of Administration Susanne Young was asked if the governor was abdicating responsibility for putting forward an actual plan. She insisted that the menu was an example of leadership in action, a characterization that convinced no one in the room.

The biggest dispute was over the administration's failure to provide copies of the budget. Young contended that this was nothing new, but experienced reporters pushed back. "Budgets are really complicated," said Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger.org. "We want to understand what you're doing."

Young repeatedly insisted that no copies were available. But, as the meeting adjourned, a stack of budget books suddenly appeared from the next room — too late to inform our questions or to help us form our own conclusions. It was a gratuitous flick on the collective media's nose.

Sneak Previews

During his first year in office, Scott ran into trouble with the legislature by springing proposals on lawmakers with little notice. In the session's opening days, he announced his plan to upend the school budgeting process midstream, moving school budget votes from Town Meeting Day to late May. Late in the session, he unveiled his bid for statewide negotiation of school employees' health care benefits.

This year, the governor is trying a different approach. He allowed two major policy initiatives to be released several days before his budget address. And he floated them in ways seemingly designed to shield him from political fallout.

First came the 925-bed mega-prison proposal, made public on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Agency of Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille. Then, three days later, administration officials met with key lawmakers to discuss their ideas for education funding reform, which were immediately released to the media.

Both proposals would take novel approaches to major problems. The prison plan would replace aging, inadequate facilities; allow Vermont to bring almost all inmates home from out-of-state prisons; and provide new space for offenders who are elderly, juvenile or mentally ill. Gobeille proposed a public-private partnership, in which a contractor would build the complex and lease it to the state.

The idea got immediate blowback, mainly centering on the potential involvement of CoreCivic, the private prison operator formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. Within days, the governor made it clear that he didn't necessarily support the plan. At a Thursday press conference, he called it "refreshing" but emphasized that it was "a vision, a proposal" and that all aspects were open to negotiation.

That's either a nobly cooperative spirit or a fundamental aversion to risk.

An even clearer lack of commitment could be seen in the education spending plan — which wasn't a plan at all, but a menu of cost-cutting ideas from which the legislature could pick and choose.

Again, it's either a collaborative approach or a way to avoid blame.

Any idea for cost-cutting in public education carries political risk. There would be winners and losers, and you know whose voice would be loudest. By presenting a menu instead of a concrete proposal, the governor avoids identification with any specifics. At the same time, he has set the bar; if lawmakers fail to meet his estimated savings, they will have failed the taxpayers. If they reject his ideas and substitute their own, they get the negative fallout.

It's a good tactic: taking credit for bipartisanship while avoiding blame for unpopular specifics.

Is it good leadership? That's a different question.

A Family Affair

Carina Driscoll doesn't like the fact that her political career is always linked to her famous stepfather, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "I will never, ever get credit for fully completing anything on my own," she told Seven Days' Katie Jickling in mid-December.

Well, yeah. But she will also never, ever have to find out what it's like to not have powerful connections. And it's clear that her candidacy for mayor of Burlington will benefit, both tangibly and intangibly, from the Sanders relationship.

Take, for example, the endorsement she got last week from Our Revolution, the progressive advocacy group that arose from Sanders' presidential campaign. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, who was one of Sanders' most prominent campaign surrogates, leads Our Revolution. Every member of its board of directors was involved in Sanders' presidential effort.

More crucially, the group's support includes access to Sanders' matchless donor list. Spokesperson Diane May confirmed that Our Revolution uses Sanders' email list as its own.

Driscoll has said she won't accept money from her parents. But money raised by Our Revolution could make a yuuuuge difference in her campaign's fortunes.

In response to an email inquiry, Driscoll's campaign manager, Elise Greaves, said that the campaign "will not ask Our Revolution for any fundraising help" but "would accept financial contributions from Our Revolution" or its members.

I bet it would.

New Panel Gets a Hot Potato

Vermont's brand-new Ethics Commission is now open for business!

The legislature created the panel last year. It was designed to provide an outlet for ethics-related complaints against state officials and employees — but without any actual authority or investigative powers.

The commission has a single part-time staffer and an annual budget of $100,000. When it receives complaints, all it can do is a cursory fact-check followed by referral to the governmental entity that's involved. The commission can also, upon request, provide advisory opinions.

The all-volunteer, five-member commission began meeting in October. Its first order of business was filling that sole paid position — executive director. Its choice, Brian Leven, started work at the end of December. Leven is a familiar face around the Statehouse; before practicing law in Stowe in recent years, he was a longtime staff attorney for the legislature. He has also served as deputy secretary of state.

Leven is still feeling his way around his brand-new office (more on that in a moment), but he's already got a hot potato on his hands. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, has formally requested an opinion on Gov. Scott's relationship with DuBois Construction, the contracting firm Scott used to co-own with his cousin Don DuBois. The firm frequently bids on state construction contracts.

At the end of 2016, before he took office, Scott announced he was selling his half of the company to his cousin. Scott himself financed a $2.5 million, low-interest 15-year loan to Don DuBois — which means that although Scott has no managerial authority, he clearly has a personal stake in the firm.

"The governor himself has conceded that he has an ongoing interest in the continued success of his former business as the full payment of the loan is dependent upon DuBois Construction's continued success," Burns noted in his letter of inquiry to the Ethics Commission.

The arrangement was seen by Scott as the only way to keep the business in the family, since its estimated $5 million net worth is almost entirely tied up in equipment, buildings and land. Still, it raised ethical questions at the time — and, as Burns wrote, "there was no Ethics Commission in place ... when the governor devised his plan."

Now there is, and Burns is taking full advantage. The commission cannot force Scott to take any action, but a negative opinion would be awfully embarrassing.

Considering this high-profile complaint will be one of the first tasks of the Ethics Commission, which is still trying to organize itself. Leven and commission chair Madeleine Motta appeared last Friday to update the Senate Government Operations Committee on their progress — such as it is.

"We were given an empty room," Motta told the panel. "I bought some of the furniture at the state surplus outlet in Waterbury."

"I've been setting up email accounts and trying to get the phones to work," added Leven. He's also met with state archivist Tanya Marshall to discuss records management. "We'll be handling a lot of documents," he said.

One big challenge: The commission needs secure communications and storage for potentially sensitive information. "We have a couple of broken-down cabinets," said Motta. "We've put in a request for fireproof storage with a digital lock."

Their only Wi-Fi access, she added, "is from neighboring state buildings" and is unsecure.

The commission also has to create a website, a complaint form, stationery with a letterhead and an actual, formal state ethics code, among other things. The panel has already spent more than half of its annual budget, and it's barely started paying its lone employee.

And now, a serious inquiry about the governor's ethics has landed on its desk. Welcome to the big-time, folks.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Tweaks and Tinkering"

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