Scott's State of the State speech interrupted by climate activists

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MONTPELIER — Republican Gov. Phil Scott delivered his fourth State of the State address to a Joint Assembly of the Vermont Legislature on Thursday, calling on lawmakers to eschew partisanship to help address the state's demographic and economic challenges.

The speech was interrupted early on by climate change protesters.

"Listen to the people!" the protestors shouted. "We are here because climate collapse is an emergency!"

The activists demonstrated for several minutes before Scott asked them to stop and listen to his speech or face removal. As the chanting persisted, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman called a recess and asked law enforcement to remove the demonstrators from the gallery.

Law enforcement eventually "removed 16 protestors from the chamber without incident," according to a statement released after the speech by the Capitol Police Department and Vermont State Police. Only one of those individuals, Henry Harris, 41, of Peacham, "was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct," police said.

Harris is due in Vermont Superior Court in Barre "at a later date" to answer the charge, according to the statement. The other protesters "were released on verbal no-trespass orders."

When Scott resumed the speech to applause, he thanked the crowd for their patience. "I'll try not to repeat anything you might have just heard," he joked.

Demographic challenges

Vermont's aging population remains a top concern, the governor said. Currently, "there are about 55,000 fewer people under the age of 45 and 44,000 more over the age of 65 than there were in the year 2000," he went on. "For years, we had more deaths than births, and have seen more people move out of Vermont than in."

Only three counties in the state have added workers over the past dozen years, Scott said, and the rest have lost about 18,000.

"My friends, this is what a demographic crisis looks like," Scott said. "In too many places, and in the lives of too many Vermonters, I see and feel the emotional and financial toll of policies built for a few areas in the state that can afford them when the rest of the state cannot."

Scott cited the Remote Worker Grant program, which launched last year, as an example of an initiative that has helped to reverse the demographic trend. Through the program, which pays people who primarily work from home or a coworking space to move to Vermont, 371 people have relocated to dozens of communities across the state, Scott said.

By attracting new residents, the program "helps reduce the tax burden on the rest of us," Scott said.

Scott recapped his efforts to date on reducing taxes for residents, which he said includes "removing the tax on Social Security for low- and moderate-income Vermonters, lowering income tax rates across the board, significantly reducing the land gains tax, bringing the estate tax more in line with our neighbors and more." He plans to include "additional targeted tax relief" in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, he said.

After-school program

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During a section of the speech devoted to educational policy, Scott proposed the creation of a "universal after-school network that ensures every child has access to enrichment opportunities outside of current classroom time."

The concept is "based on a successful model from Iceland focused on preventing drug use as well as improving academic and social outcomes," Scott said.

Participation in the program would be voluntary, Scott said, and it would support "working parents by reducing the logistical and financial burden of after-school care."

Scott said he already has asked Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, and Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chair their respective chambers' education committees, to consider the idea.

"It's my hope we can work together to deliver a plan by the end of the year that puts us on a path toward universal after-school programs without raising property tax rates," he said.

In a statement released after the speech, Holly Morehouse, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Afterschool, said the group was "thrilled" by the proposal.

Housing, Act 250

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The Legislature's passage in 2017 of a $37 million housing bond has resulted in the construction of almost 400 homes, Scott said, with hundreds more units either being built or planned. The bond helped to leverage an additional $170 million in other funds.

Scott said his budget proposal "will include a package to revitalize existing homes and build more of them, targeted to the places that need it most."

The governor said he appreciates lawmakers' ongoing effort to overhaul Act 250, the state's land-use and development law. The approach — recently detailed by Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council — "would enable concentrated development where people want to live and work," helping to support the growth of downtowns, Scott said.

Electric vehicles

Scott, a self-described "car guy," said the state needs to continue to participate in the shift toward electric vehicles.

The state has "invested over $1 million in charging equipment," he said, and expects "to nearly triple the number of state-funded charging stations by the end of 2020."

The number of electric vehicles on Vermont roads has increased by 160 percent since 2016, an increase Scott partly attributed to $1 million in purchasing incentives the state made available to low- and moderate-income residents.

"I strongly believe it's incentives, not penalties, which will help us transition [to clean energy] more quickly," Scott said.

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Brattleboro Retreat

Scott said he is concerned about the Brattleboro Retreat, a psychiatric and addiction treatment hospital that is under financial pressure. About 700 people work for the institution, "making it one of the region's most important employers," Scott said.

"We all have a stake here," Scott said, pointing out that the state recently invested millions in the hospital.

"This healthcare provider is simply too critical for us to let fail, especially without an alternative," the governor said. "This would have a devastating impact on our mental health system and the region's economy."

Scott said he has told his administration to work with legislators "to do everything we can responsibly do to help the Retreat."

In a statement, Jeffrey Kelliher, communications and media relations manager for the Retreat, called the governor's remarks "encouraging."

"While a number of complex issues will need to be resolved in the coming days and weeks, it's important for the people of Vermont to understand that the Retreat remains open for business, and that our focus on meeting the many and complex needs of our patients is unwavering," Kelliher said. "We are working diligently to refine our partnership with the Agency of Human Services based on shared goals and expectations, and the needs of Vermonters. This presents an exciting opportunity not only to address the short-term problems impacting our hospital, but to arrive at sustainable long-term solutions that will allow the Retreat to continue to provide future generations of Vermonters with excellent psychiatric and addiction care."

Democrats react

A spokesman for the Vermont Democratic Party panned Scott's speech.

"Again today, as he has done countless times before, Governor Scott claims to be making Vermont affordable, yet when presented with tangible opportunities to lift up Vermonters he has stood squarely in the way," the spokesman, R. Christopher Di Mezzo, said in a statement released after the speech. " At Scott's first real chance to make Vermont a more affordable and attractive place for young people to live, he vetoed legislation that would give folks a raise and guarantee workers a fair paid leave program."

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, wrote in email after the speech that while "the devil is in the details," he appreciates the governor's "recognition that strong educational opportunities are essential to economic development."

Campion also said he thinks Scott "recognizes that there is a benefit for new business opportunities as the country transitions from fossil fuel use to renewable energy."

The senator said he shares the governor's concern with the state's "declining demographics" and looks forward to working with his administration on solving the problem.

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