Photo: Governor Phil Scott. Photo: Phil Scott for Vermont.
Phil Scott, 62, was elected 82nd Governor of Vermont in 2016. He previously served three terms as Vermont’s lieutenant governor (2011-2017), and prior to that served 10 years as a senator for Washington County. For 30 years until becoming governor, he co-owned the family construction business DuBois Construction in Middlesex. He was born in Barre, graduated in 1980 from the University of Vermont and now lives in Berlin.
The interview was conducted via Zoom September 16 with James Dwinell and Timothy McQuiston. The story is written by James Dwinell.
VBM: As the climate bill is now law, what is there left to oppose in it?
Scott: There is a constitutional question. Separation of powers, and a new unelected council with 23 members is unaccountable. We are looking at that. Its constitutionality has not been fully vetted. It is clear to me that it is not, but I am not a constitutional lawyer. I want to engage with someone who is and ask their perspective. Our general counsel doesn’t think it sounds constitutional. I think that my veto was on full ground. I am on board with climate legislation, but not this way, this is bad policy.
Think of what could happen? This council could pass a carbon tax without any input from me or the legislature. They don’t have to come back to either of us for any policy changes, that is ridiculous! It sets us up for failure if we do not stop it now.
VBM: Your thoughts on climate have differed from the legislature's ideas. To reach the same goals, will you buy more hydro, more electric vehicles?
Scott: Yes, and we need to incentivize further for the purchase of electric vehicles. Battery storage is gaining. We have some cutting edge businesses here in Vermont working on new technology and that will enhance renewables. We need to build out that infrastructure. Sixty percent of our carbon emissions are in the transportation sector, that is where we need to focus. Electric cars, trucks, and buses. We have a multi state agreement to push this technology. There is federal help. We have a couple of school buses that are electric already.
Technology is getting us there ever so quickly. For those who think this problem is linear, that we are all going to meet a goal in 40 years from now and then another goal 10 years more years and then another 10 years in a straight line, it will not work like that in my perspective. Technology has changed things dramatically in just the last 5 years. Mustang has an electric option now. Ford 150 trucks as well. It is not just Tesla, it is all of them pushing this technology. The trajectory of change will not be linked to legislative action.
VBM: Will energy sources be changing as well?
Scott: We have hydro now, we could buy more. I wonder now if closing Vermont Yankee was a good idea as there was little carbon footprint now that carbon emissions are so troubling.
VBM: What is the plan to put the economy back on its feet post-Covid?
Scott: We will resurrect the plan which we have had for the past four years which has been working very well: build the economy, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable. We had a surplus this year with this program which is remarkable as in the last quarter, the fiscal year ending June 30th, as we had a Covid economy the last quarter plus a couple of weeks. We can enhance that and build upon that.
We had three budget cycles with a surplus. Without the pandemic when many businesses were shut down, we would have had a record surplus. We could have given some of that back to taxpayers to make Vermont more affordable. We were on our way, we just need to keep our focus on those three principles.
VBM: Our room and meals tax, gas tax, both personal and corporate income taxes, and personal property tax, as some folks just won’t be able to afford to pay on time or at all, are all going to be down. Will you use the rainy day fund, and/or pray for federal relief?
Scott: So far, my budget passed by the house, and with it we do not have to touch our reserves as we had a previous surplus. It is the next 2022 budget that may be a concern. If we have a vaccine for Covid that is safe and reliable, I think that we will be okay in putting people back to work and our economy as it was before.
VBM: By January with four months of experience in opening schools, do you think that we might move to a more uniform system of teaching across the state based on that experience to provide a more predictable work schedule for both employers and employees?
Scott: My preference is to return to in person teaching. Most of the health officials and pediatricians have advocated for this. But we recognize that there is apprehension, fear, and anxiety among teachers and parents and students, and so we have a flexible hybrid approach to build confidence with experience. I think that we will see the natural shift to in person instruction begin to occur before the end of the year.
VBM: Does your emergency powers give you the right to mandate how schools may operate?
Scott: Probably. But we would have been met with lots of opposition and resistance. We are a local control state. Even Dr. Fauci said that what we are doing is what other governors across the country are doing. I speak with all the governors once a week, and it is really all the same.
It is so important to the students to be in the classroom, and that as we prove that it is the better option and a safe one, I think that all the kids will be back in school soon with in person instruction.
VBM: The Covid hopefully is a one off. But it is forcing us to think about how we educate the kids. What about the future?
Scott: We are going through different phases now. We have to prove ourselves in each phase. I firmly believe if we continue our approach that more and more schools will return to in person instruction. At that point, school boards will adapt their districts. I think that the change will come organically and will be transparent.
VBM: Do you like the Zoom press conferences which are both longer and with a much wider press participation?
Scott: I actually think that this is one of the silver linings with Covid. Opening it up to more than just the Montpelier press corps to a wide variety of press people from across the state is great. There are many towns and organizations which have issues, laws, and interests different than those here in Montpelier and are not of a concern to or in the knowledge of the typical press corps here. Hearing questions from the Northeast Kingdom down to Bennington and Brattleboro is healthy.
It takes not just longer but there is more preparation time as well. It has become both essential and useful, and spreads the message to gain acceptance from Vermonters as to our approach in building the trust with them and that is so important.
I hope to continue for the statewide press to have the ability to call in to the regular in person press conferences if they wish. Now we can have a member of the cabinet able to participate as well under this method. I don’t have all the answers, and I can’t ask all the cabinet to come to a room here in the capital in case there may be questions that they can answer that I can’t. But with Zoom, or on the phone, they now can. It is important.
Photo: Governor Phil Scott at press conference in March. Courtesy Photo.
VBM: Are we maintaining our responsibility to fund the state and teacher pension funds?
Scott: To the best of our ability, but we do have a problem until the legislature has an interest to solve the problem. I just need a willing partner, I don’t have the horsepower to force it.
VBM: Would you consider buying out some of the state workers or transitioning them to a different plan?
Scott: I don’t know if that would make the problem better or worse. Some have suggested this to reduce the state work force. I am all ears for new ideas.
VBM: The dairy industry is failing. Is there a way to save or at least support it in some sustainable way?
Scott: Dairy is part of Vermont’s backbone and DNA. We need to continue to support dairy. To see Thomas Dairy folding after 99 years is disheartening; with luck, someone will buy the dairy. How to take care of it ourselves? Dairy is important to us. We need to keep adapting.
VBM: How are you campaigning in the Covid moment?
Scott: These are unusual times and this will be an unusual election. Our budget is lower, our start is later. I did not have the bandwidth to do everything, to do my job with the pandemic and be a candidate, so I chose to do my day job first, and now to begin the work on re-election.
We will raise some money, enough to fight, hopefully enough to win, but both the money, time, and effort will be dramatically less than the previous efforts.
VBM: Will you personally be able to be out and about, or use mostly paid media of mail, social, radio, print, and television?
Scott: We will travel but no house parties or gatherings. Most of the campaign will be done remotely.
VBM: How are your efforts cleaning our lakes and streams coming?
Scott: The goal remains. We keep working on reducing phosphates. We have done many storm water separation projects for impermeable runoffs from storms. In some respects it has made the problem worse in some areas. It used to go into the treatment plant and be treated.
Now some of the storm runoff goes directly into the river so we don’t overwhelm the treatment facility. With the high intensity storms which we seem to be having more of, the water still overwhelms our systems which we are not happy about; we keep working.
VBM: Despite the negative headlines about prison issues from sex to drugs to overpopulation, are you making progress?
Scott: In some respects Covid has forced us to reduce the prison population by over 350 inmates, both here and in our out of state prison. I have much confidence in the new commissioner, Jim Baker. He has righted the ship. We have a long ways to go. Secretary Mike Smith has been working on this issue as well.
As we move out of the pandemic, with cooperation of the legislature, we will continue to keep our focus on lowering the prison population. Covid has given us an opportunity that we should take advantage of. Will we bring offenders back from Mississippi? Will we learn from past mistakes? Will we stop re-incarcerating parole violations? Time will tell.
VBM: Will you return to Thunder Road next season?
Scott: I look forward to going back. But at my age, missing a year will make it hard to go back and be competitive, but I am hopeful. My car and crew are still racing with another driver from the stable, so to speak, and they are doing quite well. But I am really looking forward to getting back to Thunder Road!
VBM: Please tell us why we should vote for you.
Scott: One goal when I came into office was to leave Vermont and Vermonters better off than when I arrived.
I think that I am achieving that goal. I am proud of what my team and I have accomplished thus far. This once in a century crisis has made things more difficult. I believe that we need to maintain the steady consistent leadership that we have provided, and that we need someone who is not afraid to continue to make the tough decisions such as vetoing budgets or bad pieces of legislation when it is important.
We will continue to follow our guiding principles, build the economy, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable. With that, I think that we can put our economy back on track. You know what you have in me: I am transparent, I am approachable, and I pride myself in the value of the team which I have put together.