Scott: Lawmakers must `face facts' about education spending, fiscal trends

MONTPELIER — In his second address to the state, Republican Gov. Phil Scott urged lawmakers to back his push to rein in spending and restructure the state's economy.

Demographic and global economic trends are working against the state, Scott said Thursday, and the state must restore its fiscal foundation "to ensure we have the funding needed to achieve our aspirations for Vermont."

Scott took credit for improving the state's fiscal health last year by closing a budget gap of $60 million and limiting budget growth to 1 percent. The governor pledged to repeat that performance this year, cementing a new era of austerity in state government that he believes will restore the economy and ultimately lead to more prosperity for Vermonters.

"This means — for the first time in recent history — that state government actually helped people keep more of what they earned," Scott said.

That lean approach to state spending must continue, Scott said, in order to restore economic growth, which has lagged in the post-Great Recession period.

Scott reeled off sobering statistics that put the state's economic situation in stark relief. He detailed how the workforce has shrunk as young people have left to seek employment elsewhere and the remaining population has aged. There are 23,000 fewer people under the age of 20 in Vermont than in 2000, and 30,000 more people over the age of 65, Scott said.

The governor underscored those data points as he made a case for fiscal discipline "because Vermonters still cannot afford higher taxes or fees."

He promised to block attempts by the Legislature to increase fees or taxes — including a 7 percent projected increase in property tax rates for K-through-12 public schools.

"I, along with my administration and members of the Legislature, stand ready to prevent taxes and fees from increasing again this year," Scott said. "And, just so I'm clear, that includes statewide property taxes and fees."

The governor said lawmakers must "face facts" about the state's shrinking student population. Despite the fact that the state has lost 30,000 students over the past 20 years, costs at local schools have continued to rise, he said. Vermonters currently spend $1.6 billion a year on 76,000 students.

He urged the Legislature to "transform" public schools and shift money from the K-through-12 system to workforce training, technical education, child care and higher education — "without raising the price tag on Vermonters."

Scott was adamant that he will not tolerate an increase in property taxes.

"We cannot let this happen," he said. "Vermonters can't afford it, the state cannot sustain it, and I will not accept it."

Scott emphasized that the state must make investments in startups, workforce education and job creation.

He said his administration will develop a workforce expansion plan for students, families and veterans. As part of that proposal, he will offer free tuition to members of the Vermont National Guard. The governor also wants to eliminate the income tax on military pensions.

Scott's staff, who occupied the second floor gallery of the House chamber, punctuated Scott's speech with applause, while members of the Democratic majority in the Senate and House, many of whom feel burned by Scott's bait-and-switch tactics on school spending last year, did not clap.


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