By Guy Page
Gov. Phil Scott gave his second inaugural address yesterday. Headliners found six points particularly interesting. Three — praise for churches and political cooperation, and a pledge to create more and better housing — we like. Three others — statewide internet coverage, Act 250 revision, and better childcare — worry us about how he would achieve those worthy goals.
You don’t hear much about churches (or synagogues, temples or mosques) in the Vermont State House. Their extensive, ongoing, mostly volunteer grassroots work in drug and alcohol abuse prevention, career counseling, youth sports, hunger relief, health care, family wellness, housing and feeding the homeless, healthy families, and offender re-entry into society sometimes gets recognized. At other times churches are irrelevant, nosy do-gooders, wrong-thinking promoters of bad “isms” like sexism and racism, and even incorrigible child abusers. So it was good to hear Gov. Scott – a man who publicly keeps his religious views to himself – say from the House of Representatives podium:
“The good is in this chamber. It’s here because it lives in each and every one of our communities. The places we come from and the people we go home to. It’s in our schools and churches, our businesses and farms, our forests, trails and town halls.”
Gov. Scott does not elevate churches above these other worthy institutions, nor should he; but neither does he ignore them. Props for that, Governor.
“We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength.” Phil Scott is in the political middle. These days, ‘middle” means bulls-eye. Liberal visionaries disbelieve his notion that environmentalism, low taxes and economic prosperity can and must co-exist. Some conservatives wonder about this Republican who legalized marijuana and outlawed some gun rights.
Mr. Liberal, consider this: last year, Governor Man-in-the-Middle signed bills you love that you never thought you’d see a Republican sign. Ms. Conservative, consider this: if this year we don’t see a carbon tax, $15 minimum wage, big tax increases, and retail marijuana, it won’t be because the Legislature’s Prog/Dems suddenly got conservative religion. It will be because Governor Man-in-the-Middle said, “not on my watch.”
Our country’s elected officials are swinging to angry extremes. Against that trend, Gov. Man-in-the-Middle is a civil counterweight, a center than can hold. (And I say that as a strong, vocal supporter of President Trump.)
With homelessness up statewide, employers demanding good housing for workers, and Burlington already the 14th most expensive city for rental housing, Vermont’s need for more and better housing across the wage-earning and geographic map is obvious and growing. Gov. Scott wants to aggressively improve our ancient housing stock and build more new homes. Since last year, his administration has spent big on housing. Less noticed has been its support for the U.S. 2017 tax reform “opportunity zones,” which give private capital tax breaks for development (including housing) in 25 neighborhoods in 17 economically-depressed Vermont cities and towns (see map). In response, one prominent businessman has already started three “opportunity zone” job-creating businesses in his city. This local story of the Trump tax reform at work will be told in a future Headliners column.
Act 250 revision
In his inaugural address, Gov. Scott says he would reinvigorate housing by revising Act 250 (the state’s 1970 land use law) to favor downtown development. Streamlining permit and funding process is a beautiful thing! It’s what well-intended developers have been begging for. However, the Legislature’s Act 250 revision (proposal to be finalized next week) has us worried. It too would “encourage more compact development while preserving our working lands and rural character,” by using a carrot-and-stick approach. Speaking generally, the urban areas get all the development carrots. The countryside just gets the stick.
Rural Vermonters do not want to be driven like sheep to live and work in towns and cities. Laws and regulations that make it harder to live and work in the countryside are sticks being used against poorer, older, less politically powerful Vermonters. So offer the carrots, Governor, but put away the stick.
Everyone knows that Vermont can be Death Valley for cellphones and internet. Topsham, can you hear me now? There’s even a dead spot on Rte. 302 in Berlin with a Verizon store on one side and an AT&T store on the other! Like our people-porous southern border zone, we’ve lived with internet dead zones for so long, they have become a normalized crisis.
But before Gov. Scott commits to an expensive, current-tech solution, his administration, the House Energy and Technology Committee, and the VT Public Utilities Commission should look at LEO. LEO stands for “low-earth satellites,” thousands of which may, in a decade or two, be whirring around the globe at low altitudes, providing low-cost, high-powered internet to every square inch of the planet. Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are making it happen.
Like Republican predecessor Gov. James Douglas, Gov. Scott would attract working families by providing professional education to ever younger ages of children. As reported in Headliners Dec. 13, a state advisory council would dramatically increase the professionalized training, certification and oversight of daycare and early childhood education workers. Not only could this put many existing daycares out of work, it would requires millions of dollars of added state spending. Gov. Scott and the Legislature need to squarely face this initiative’s funding and job-killing downsides.
Finally, Gov. Scott and his team must work on their communication. Almost 24 hours after he gave the speech, I can’t find a website link to the text, nor any inaugural address photos on his website or Facebook page. I’ve cut and pasted the text of the speech emailed to me by his office (good) into a Google Doc, which you can read (I hope!) by clicking on the link in the first paragraph. If it doesn’t open, the good people on the governors’ staff can feel free to remind me about people who live in glass houses.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.