Governor Scott: Remote but not remote

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Governor Scott: Remote but not remote

Sun, 12/05/2021 - 3:20pm -- tim

Governor Scott photo courtesy State of Vermont, 2018.

This interview with Governor Phil Scott was conducted in early November by contributor James Dwinell, who wrote the final piece, and VBM Editor Timothy McQuiston. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Since then, COVID-19 cases have surged and the governor signed into law a local-option mask mandate. Several municipalities have enacted one, including Brattleboro and Burlington and others are considering the measure. He opposes a statewide mandate.

Scott maintains that individuals already have the means and knowledge to reduce transmission and hold down serious illness, including wearing a mask indoors in a public space, staying home when sick, frequent testing, getting vaccinated and boosted, and taking personal responsibility.

VBM: You are now almost five years into your governorship. At the outset, the first year was a little rough with significant vetoes. Now after five years, how do you think you are doing?

Scott: I have learned how to manage a pandemic. The vetoes are ongoing as I feel that I am the last line of defense for Vermonters and what is best for Vermonters.

VBM: How has the government been running with remote and with Zoom?

Scott: It has become more normal now. It worked well at the outset and continues to work well but there nothing like getting together in person. I think it is better if workers can be at work so we have brought the work force back. There has been a little resistance. By in large, giving people flexibility in working remote as well makes it advantageous. We can deliver better services doing a little bit of both.

I am blessed to have such a good quality team around me, the cabinet meets regularly and we are there for each other. Gathering more often during the pandemic, we have been able to break down many silos but getting out of our own wheelhouses and working together to solve the problems of other areas of government. We will not be successful as a team if we only think about and try to solve just the problems in one’s own agency.

VBM: Will you keep the current weekly remote press conference allowing and scheduling reporters from around the state to participate instead of only the Montpelier press corps?

Scott: Yes. So few others used to attend, the drive and time and distance made it impossible for many but the “regulars” of the Montpelier press corps to be here. Now we have questions from around the state, my taking the temperature of each corner of the state through their local reporters and hear their perspective. We have maintained live televised and recorded press conferences at the same time so Vermonters still have pictures and sound. It has been tremendously helpful to me, incredibility helpful to Vermonters. It’s all in real time, not only as the story is reported, but just as it happens, sometimes for up to two to three hours. Vermonters now have the real story.

VBM: Has COVID kept you office bound?

Scott: It is starting to ramp back up. I recently received my booster shot, Moderna having taken the Johnson and Johnson earlier, up at the North Country Hospital in Newport. I was in Fairfax talking about a pilot program for electric buses. I am traveling more now.

VBM: Do you have any regrets about COVID decisions which you made or didn’t make?

Scott: By and large we handled things appropriately and without any playbook and not knowing what was coming next. COVID put lots of pressure on Vermonters in many many different ways, emotionally as well as physically.

VBM: Was it risky in retrospect to have the county fairs in Barton and Tunbridge to proceed maskless?

Scott: To have had a mask mandate we would have had to continue the state of emergency. I don’t think that that was necessary or appropriate to continue that form of government. It can be so easily abused.

VBM: You have had remarkably little turnover in your staff, it seems like you have had the least amount of staff turnover ever. What is the reason for that?

Scott: We are very loyal, we are a very tight group, we are a team, we meet regularly, I very much value their input, and all of that helps. That is what I learned to do in business, and in my racing career at Thunder Road, the value of building a good team leads to success.

VBM: The housing question is complicated: price, availability, age, distance from work, BIPOC, permits, land, needs of the homeless, the disabled, those with mental health challenges and so forth. Where do you start?

Scott: The good news is that we started early in my administration. I identified this need right out of the gate. We had been talking about the housing challenges in Vermont for decades, but getting nowhere.

I put the proposal forward to State of Vermont bond, a $37 million bond, which leveraged another $65 million of private assets, making it the largest investment in housing that Vermont has ever seen, by far. That is in place. There are still housing projects from that money just finishing.

The governor's press briefings have been popular and relentless. They began with three a week in March 2020, went to twice weekly and now every Tuesday. Terms such as "Star 6 to unmute," and "Can you hear me?" became catch phrases. Health Commissioner Dr Mark Levine, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith, and Financial Regulation Commissioner Micheal Pieciak became household names if not local celebrities. ORCA Media screen grab from May 2021.

Now with the $1.2 billion of federal infrastructure funding and with the Legislature’s help, I think that we should use $250 million of that money for housing, the homeless, those with disabilities and mental health issues included. But it is the affordable housing for our workforce that is our biggest challenge, maybe even now a crisis, and where most of the money should be spent, affordable housing for our workforce.

We need attractive, available, and affordable housing to attract those people into Vermont whom we need to keep our economy not just moving, but growing. How do we grow the workforce in Vermont is our challenge and is and will be my focus.

VBM: Are you considering repurposing any of the housing that comes up, closed prisons, schools, or colleges, where it has been housing and can be converted into workforce affordable housing?

Scott: We would consider almost any ideas in this regard. In Rutland they have opened up housing for the homeless in a former school, but all this takes money. Repurpose might work, new housing will definitely work. We also have some very old housing stock that needs rehabilitating and we are focusing on that too.

This money I hope will be split into four buckets. The second bucket is broadband to everybody. We have the legislative support and it is an economic necessity. With this $250 million, and following the model of the Rural Electrification Act from the 1930’s, we need to bring broadband into all the rural parts of the state. The housing bucket needs another $250 million of support for infrastructure such as sewer, water, storm water all needs to be upgraded for the new housing. This will help to bring back communities. The last bucket is for climate change mitigation including weatherization and the upgrading of our older housing stock.

VBM: Do you have the authority to do this, or do you need legislative input and cooperation?

Scott: We need legislative cooperation. And we are not doing as well as I would like. That said, last year was very difficult for the Legislature, it was very much not ideal for the Legislature, with much dislocation. They did the best that they could. The guidelines for spending this money were not available when they were last in session. I put forward the ideas. They listened to my four-bucket plan.

I think that we need to take this once in a lifetime opportunity of $1.2 billion given to us, it probably never to happen again, as an investment to get the best return possible. Rather than putting the money into programs which will become unsustainable once the money is gone, we need to make sure that it is used to give us a better economic foundation to provide more opportunity and revenue for us in the future.

VBM: A couple of years have gone by since you vetoed the marijuana law. Have they now answered your concerns so that opening up pot shops so to speak will be safe for all of us?

Scott: Yes. My veto message was clear and conditional. They came around and met the vast majority of my concerns. I appreciate that. I think that it is moving in the right direction. The commission that we put together is doing its due diligence regarding the laws, rules, and regulations proposed. It’s moving along fine.

VBM: Teacher’s pension funds are still a challenge. Is there a remedy, and are there other school issues that you are tackling?

Scott: Education is a huge expense and investment, almost 30 percent of our budget. I have a cradle to career concept to make our schools better, we need to do a better job. We need early care learning as well as post high school learning, particularly with trades training, bringing our citizens to a point of having a worthwhile career. We will keep working on building the best education in the county, we are certainly spending enough, we are small and nimble. With the best public education we will attract the people which we need to keep growing the economy.

We keep trying to address the pension issue. The legislature has now taken this up, it’s having a committee working on this, we are working with them, but they have to carry the ball, only they have the power to make the changes that are necessary. Our economy is doing well but it is not on the best foundation. We have been fortunate to have so much federal money of support and to prime the pump. The foundation may not be as stable as we assume. Some say that we have plenty of money for the pensions, but that is not so. The pension needs that are projected in the coming years are not sustainable without significant changes. It must be fixed now.

VBM: Where is the money coming from to expand education, cradle to career?

Scott: We have sent proposals to the Legislature to pay for this. The Wayfair decision (taxing internet sales) money we can put towards early care and learning, but they didn’t accept that. Now we have a surplus in the Education Fund, that’s another source. We offered up some online gaming revenue as well. So far, the Legislature has not moved yet.

VBM: Is the Vermont public school population still declining?

With influx of new folks moving in, we may have flattened out a bit.

VBM: How are you approaching health care’s cost continuing to rise?

Scott: We want to continue to push the all-payer model as the alternative, the single payer concept is not sustainable. Prescription drug pricing is mostly a congressional issue. Some money has been forwarded to Vermont to help the those who can’t afford their drugs. We are still working on our waiver.

VBM: Do you have a rural initiative other than extending broadband?

Scott: I spoke of the community infrastructure “bucket.” We need to do that. Many communities are a shadow of themselves. We need to help with housing, we need to offer tax credits. That is my focus on the ARPA money, not to focus on Chittenden County, but to make other areas more active and attractive with more opportunity to welcome new workers to town. We have to spend the money within a certain amount of time. We may need to alter Act 250, without giving up our environmental principles, to more quickly issue permits before the expiration date of spending this money.

We have asked our team, our cabinet, to focus on what were once thriving communities and now not. One cause is that there are residual brownfields making some areas undevelopable. Take Springfield for example. As you enter the town from the interstate, all you see are mammoth, unoccupied, abandoned, unmaintained, grand buildings which were once the heartbeat of Springfield.

I thought that we needed to be involved so we put $25 million forward to try and mediate some of these brownfield areas. For instance, the Lamson site in Springfield is being demolished, this is encouraging, and this will provide more area for economic improvement and give people a lift, some help.

VBM: Is Vermont still reducing its prison population?

Scott: I watch the prison population numbers on a weekly basis. I almost always see some small reduction in the prison count. We are now down to about 1,300.

VBM: Is Vermont receiving federal money to continue to upgrade the rails of Vermont?

Scott: The (federal) Tiger Grants are helping to make the railroad viable once again. I am looking forward to seeing Amtrak going from Burlington to New York City. That will be a boost to the western side of Vermont. I keep hoping that we can have trains going to and from Montreal once again.

VBM: Did you go to Thunder Road as a driver or a fan this year?

Scott: I raced 10 times this summer.

VBM: Had you lost a step?

Scott: Yes, in the beginning. Towards the end it started to come back. I had one podium finish, I had a third and a fourth and a fifth in consecutive races. I need more time. I need time to stand still as well.

VBM: Is the fan base still showing up?

Scott: Yea, more than ever. It was pretty packed with good crowds. Being outside you are fairly well protected from COVID. We saw that early on. We observed the protests in Burlington and Montpelier and we didn’t see any outbreaks created by those. It taught us that the big risks of contagion is inside, not outside.

VBM: Given our vaccination rates, are we near normal yet?

Scott: Once we get the children vaccinated, the overall infection rates will go down. We are not going to rid ourselves of COVID. This will be with us for quite some time. It seems like many people are comfortable with the idea that it is over. When you look at Thunder Road or see Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, it is shoulder to shoulder with no masks.

Governor Scott and First Lady Diana McTeague get vaccinated in April 2021. Courtesy photo.

The 5-11 years old vaccinations will be critical to get to where it will be sort of normal though we will still have to keep learning how to mitigate. In the first three hours of appointment opportunities for the 5-11 year olds, we had over 8,000 sign ups, by the end of the week we may have 25 percent of them signed up. There are and will be many cautious parents out there who will take their time before allowing their kids to be vaccinated, to see how the vaccines affect other kids. (As of November 29, 34 percent of 5-11 had received at least one dose and 82.2 percent of Vermonters 12+ had completed vaccination).

VBM: Will you run again? (Scott told VBM he would definitely not run for US Senate or US Representative)

Scott: I am still contemplating that. I will have to make a decision and announce it during the legislative session. I think that during these times I need to think about whether or not this is my time to step down and let another take over. This pandemic has presented a number of challenges.

VBM: If you do run, why should I vote for you?

Scott: I have a seasoned crew, my team, that I have put together. We want to see some things through. There is still work to be done. We have kept tax increases at bay throughout. We need to keep making Vermont more affordable. I want to make sure this one time gift of money from Washington is spent wisely to set us up to become a more prosperous state in the future, a more stable state, in providing for the people of Vermont. I have the vision to do that, I don’t now see another who does.