Local reaction varies to governor's address

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MONTPELIER — A sample of opinions among local lawmakers Thursday revolved around the key points in Gov. Phil Scott's inaugural address: There are multiple budget areas where all parties can work cooperatively, but the administration will likely again oppose any tax increases.

In their comments, some legislators tilted toward the governor's overall assessment of what Vermont wants and needs in terms of taxation, while others challenged that view, at least in part.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said of Scott's address: "In this time of unprecedented divisiveness and dysfunction nationally, I continue to appreciate this governor's consistent and sincere call for all Vermonters to rise above partisanship and work intentionally and with civility. There are too few political leaders in our country who insist on this means of engagement."

Sibilia said she was relieved to hear "a continued deep sense of urgency with regard to our demographics — this challenge is affecting every aspect of life in our state. And of course the promise of connectivity initiatives is welcome news.

"As aware as I am of the decline of workforce and student populations, the highlighting of loss percentages by county was still striking. I hope my House and Senate colleagues were similarly struck by the grimness of the trajectory if we don't act intentionally and decisively," Sibilia said. "I thought the final call out about our duty — to 'solve problems and help people' was important, and reminds us all that details do matter. I am eager to see what problems will be addressed and which people will be helped in the governor's budget."

"I was encouraged to hear from the governor that his administration now agrees lead in water testing should occur in all of Vermont's schools within one year," said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington. "This is in line with [Senate President Pro Tem] Tim Ashe and my legislation, which includes remediation and testing."

An earlier version of the Scott administration's plan, revealed late last year, had called for testing all school water taps for lead levels by 2022, beginning with those providing kindergarten.

"However, the governor did not mention climate change and its costly and destructive impacts already affecting communities and our state," Campion said.

He added, "I do appreciate the governor's commitment to economic development and look forward to working with him on these issues."

"What I heard most clearly from our governor today was his eagerness to reach out to me and my colleagues in the Legislature to engage positively in an effort to find ways together to increase the collective prosperity of Vermont," said Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset. "It's hard to argue against that, and it's equally hard not to applaud messaging that embraces the moral imperative to protect the needy and to act constructively on the basic goodness that we in Vermont have, as he said, `in our hearts and in our minds.'"

She added, "Certainly, every proposal that will be advanced by the administration is not going to be perfect, and the nature of our system is that there is always going to be some level of contentiousness around policy choices. But I'm all for working collaboratively to finding solutions to our most vexing problems — and, as the governor made clear, there are many. So, I'm hoping we can do a bit of a 're-set' from this past election cycle and get down to the work necessary to address our challenges. That starts with an openness to engage in a dialogue. I, for one, am game."

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Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the county's senior senator, said he heard a familiar refrain in the address he hopes won't lead to the kind of disputes that erupted during the last session between the administration and the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

The gist of the governor's remarks, Sears said, "means no new fees, no new taxes, but then we've got new initiatives. And those new initiatives cost money, so that means that other programs will be shortchanged. And that is what we went through the last couple of years and made life difficult."

He added, "I was disappointed that there was no mention of what to me at least, are the two biggest social problems facing the state. One is the opioid crisis and two, the mental health [care] crisis. If we don't deal with either of those in this biennium, we're dooming a lot of folks in the future."

Sears said he "loved the discussion and the talk was great about not being like Washington, D.C., but he is setting us up to be like Washington, D.C., with the new initiatives.

"So we will see during his budget address," Sears said. "The budget address will be key to see who is being cut in order to fund his new initiatives."

"I thought that Governor Scott gave a spirited address," said Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, "that seemed to me to contain a positive and aspirational approach to solving the demographic problem that challenges Vermont's prosperity and has long been one of his priorities. (i.e., a shrinking labor force, not enough young people)."

Scott "called for finding common ground and creative compromises that overcome divisions," Browning said, "which is always a good thing to call for, but perhaps especially for a governor facing a larger legislative majority of the opposing party."

She added, "I share the governor's main goals of economic development while protecting the environment and our most vulnerable, but as is always said, the devil is in the details: How is something paid for, how is a policy designed? And in many cases the governor said that those details would be forthcoming in his budget address later in January.

"I look forward to seeing his fully developed proposals, and I hope that they are truly based on economic realities rather than political ideology. If they are not, I will be working to pull them in that direction ... Also, I wish he had mentioned continuing tax reform — we got a start reforming the income tax last year; we need to continue to work on the property tax," Browning said.

"As with any governor's inaugural address, the devils are in the details," said Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington 2-1. "I look forward to seeing the specifics of his clean water plan and how he's going to fund it."

Corcoran added, "The testing for lead in all the schools, expanding broadband service in Vermont, and investing more in electric vehicles are a no-brainer's to support. Also, I'm open to the concept of an opt-in approach for paid family leave. Furthermore, I look forward on seeing his plan to reform health care insurance."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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