MONTPELIER — While House lawmakers occupied themselves with marijuana legalization this week, Gov. Phil Scott stayed true to familiar campaign themes, pledging to address a hole in the education budget while keeping up the fight against opioids.
While 2017 began with a $60 million deficit, the problem for lawmakers this year is an $80 million education budget deficit which will result in about a 7 percent rise in statewide property tax rates.
In Thursday’s State of the State address, Scott pledged to tackle this challenge by allowing no tax increases. “That includes statewide property tax rates,” he said.
It took just 3 minutes into his speech to remind Vermonters of the shrinking student enrollment in Vermont that contributes to high property taxes.
“We were elected to chart a course that restores the economic and fiscal fundamentals required to invest in our future. Imagine a future with classrooms that are actually full of kids,” he said while addressing lawmakers in the House chamber.
Two weeks earlier at an education forum at Norwich University, Scott placed blame for education spending troubles on Vermont’s lowest-in-the-nation student-to-staff ratio, which is 4-to-1.
“We know our school population is shrinking. We’ve lost nearly 40,000 students in the last 20 years, as staffing levels and costs continue to rise and property taxes continue to overburden families and businesses,” he said.
He repeatedly emphasized the high price Vermont pays to educate kids: $1.6 billion annually to educate 76,000 students.
“Think about it: If I came to you with a check every year for $1.6 billion and asked you to educate the same number of students, I dare say that our system would look much different then it does today and be much stronger, more nimble and responsive to every child.”
He suggested that one way to lower costs is to focus education more specifically on the careers that await post-grads in the end. He referenced his “cradle-to-career” philosophy which emphasizes this strategy.
Scott suggested the effort at the Statehouse to tackle marijuana legalization this week illustrates a lack of right priorities among lawmakers, especially while everyday Vermonters struggle economically.
“Imagine how it must seem to a family who is struggling to get by, who can’t afford to pay their property tax bill, to turn on the news and hear that the marijuana debate was ranked Vermont’s No. 1 news story of 2017,” he said.
“I talk to people every day about the biggest issues they face in their daily lives, and their hopes for the future. They need us to understand their struggles and consider them as we prioritize the limited time we have here in Montpelier to make a difference.”
He also laid out his plans for the opioid epidemic. The governor has been active in overseeing the opening of new treatment facilities, and he reminded lawmakers that this effort remains a priority through the new Opioid Coordination Council.
“Last year we funded a new treatment center in St. Albans, this helped us eliminate the wait-list in Chittenden County which once included more than 700,” he said.
In 2017, Scott and other healthcare leaders indicated that the opening of new facilities creates a statewide ripple effect because it alleviates the burden on existing facilities. “We know this issue touches nearly every Vermonter, and we should be proud of the fact that efforts from this very chamber are being implemented across the nation,” he said.
In his 2016 campaign for governor, Scott stressed a balance of environmentally conscious development with economic growth. While there was no mention of a carbon tax, which he adamantly campaigned against, he did emphasize his commitment to mitigate climate change and move away from carbon-based energy.
“So much good work is being done by businesses, utilities, individuals, and at the state level, with our commitment to clean energy and carbon reduction goals and our participation in the U.S. Climate Alliance,” he said.
The alliance to which Scott refers is a group of states committed to fulfilling the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement to cut carbon emissions, a deal that some experts claim inhibits economic development, and which President Donald Trump rejected in 2017.
The governor said he will support efforts to make electric vehicles more affordable, though this may prove a challenge as the vehicles continue to rely heavily on subsidies.
Also on the environment, he addressed the ongoing effort to clean up Vermont’s waterways and especially the phosphorus in Lake Champlain.
“Last year, we committed $51 million to clean water projects, increasing state funding by over 70 percent. Our Agencies of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Transportation have already put more than $17 million to work for cleaner water,” he said.