REGION – Republican Gov. Phil Scott, in his first speech as Vermont’s top executive, laid out a general blueprint for reviving the state’s flagging economy, lowering the cost of living and welcoming young people and families to the state.
Scott proposed five key goals for his first term during his inauguration address.
Bringing back jobs
A cornerstone of Scott’s 2016 political campaign was his call to create new jobs and retain existing jobs.
The former lieutenant governor has been especially concerned about Vermont’s declining workforce, particularly in the 25 to 45 age range.
“Since 2010 we’ve lost 16,000 workers, and that downward trend continues. We are losing 2,300 more every year, which means by tomorrow we will have six fewer workers than we have today. Those loses shrink our tax base and deter businesses from opening here,” Scott said Thursday in his inaugural address.
He said IBM and burgeoning technology businesses helped mitigate the loss of jobs resulting from closed mills and railroads following World War II, noting that Vermont needs similar growth going forward.
“I know future economic development will look very different than it did in 1957, but we must develop a network of small-to-midsize businesses that will grow into the next IBM, My Web Grocer or GW Plastics,” he said.
As a part of making Vermont more attractive to a new generation of workers, Scott alluded to reducing property taxes by controlling school spending, among other factors.
“We spend $1.6 billion annually on K-12 education — about $19,000 per student, which is one of the highest in the country,” he said. “However, we’re not yet an education destination for young families.”
Scott said investment in early education is one way to reduce health care and special education costs. He added that Vermont’s level of support for state colleges and universities is among the lowest in the nation, and also needs to change.
The opiate crisis
In his address, Scott also pledged to continue the fight against opiate and heroin drug abuse, a major initiative of the Shumlin administration.
“The opiate crisis is one of the most significant challenges we face,” he said. “It shows no bias towards the rich or poor, young or old, urban or rural. This epidemic touches nearly every Vermont family.”
Scott called for improvements in drug treatment, prevention and enforcement. He also urged better communication between agencies: “[We need] models for success and lessons-learned to flow freely from agency to agency and community to community.”
To help achieve that goal, Scott plans to establish a director of Drug Abuse Prevention along with an Opioid Coordination Council.
A tense political climate
During the election season, Scott refused to endorse Republican President-elect Donald Trump. Even so, on Thursday he said he hopes his administration can function regardless of current political tensions.
“This transition comes at a time when the political divide across the country feels as deep and as personal as it ever has. [It’s] a time when uncertainty and anxiety cloud our view of the future, and a time when many have lost confidence in government’s ability to solve the real and diverse problems facing so many.”
Scott said he has put a team together to handle the big changes ahead: “The change in Washington creates a level of uncertainty, but we have a strong team in place to respond.”
Rather than make empty promises for his administration, Scott was careful to temper expectations and focus on immediate budget woes.
“Despite modest economic growth, state revenues are flat and costs are increasing faster than we can pay. Between federal funding changes, statutory liabilities, and caseload pressures in human services and health care, we face a budget gap of at least $70 million this year.”
Scott expressed hope of working across party lines during the legislative session.
“I know we’re not always going to agree, and even when we do, change may not always come as fast as we would hope. But we must always treat others the way we want to be treated. It’s a rule I’ve followed in life, politics, business and racing,” he said.