In 2023 inaugural speech, Gov. Phil Scott turns his focus away from pandemic, back to rural communities
In an inaugural speech designed to set the legislative agenda in Montpelier over the next two years, Gov. Phil Scott called on lawmakers Thursday to lift up rural economies by cutting bureaucratic red tape and prioritizing investments in local communities.
Scott’s fourth inaugural address — which opened with a congratulatory nod to newly retired U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy — didn’t include any major policy surprises.
The presentation hewed to the same topics the Republican governor has covered in previous addresses, such as housing, mental health, child care and workforce and economic development. And it in many ways hearkened a return to a pre-pandemic gubernatorial agenda that cast government bureaucracy and regulation as enemies of prosperity.
Scott derided “decades-old regulations” as stumbling blocks to housing and other infrastructure projects needed to grow the workforce and revitalize local economies. And he said rural towns are suffering the harm caused by land-use regulations that were crafted at a time when Vermont needed to act quickly to save its farms and forestlands from overdevelopment.
“Whether it’s housing burden, income, property value, poverty levels, labor force, or access to broadband, it’s clear some places are consistently doing better than others,” Scott said. “And when you are driving 500 miles in one day, you see this data reflects real communities. In an instant, the view goes from vibrant downtowns, healthy neighborhoods and bustling offices, to tarped rooves, abandoned homes and shuttered businesses.”
While Scott didn’t list any specific policy proposals related to rural economic development Thursday, he said his administration will unveil a spending proposal Friday that “includes funding to help level the playing field for underserved regions.”
“So rather than wait until the end of the session, we can build on our efforts to strengthen Vermont right now,” he said.
Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims is the Democratic co-chair of the Legislature’s nonpartisan Rural Caucus, which includes more than 50 members.
“I was really pleased to hear the governor highlight some of the issues that are really important for the Rural Caucus,” Sims said after the speech.
Sims said those issues include lack of administrative capacity, the need for regulatory reform, child care, and climate-resilient infrastructure. Sims said there are still “lots of details to flesh out” as lawmakers begin their work with the Scott administration.
“But it’s exciting to be starting here at this place,where I think there’s a level of attention and focus on some of the challenges that we’ve been hearing from our communities and our constituents for a long time,” she said.
Lack of affordable housing is at the top of the legislative agenda for lawmakers of all political persuasions this year, and Scott Thursday said they’ll need to focus on regulatory reform as much financial investment in order to ease the crunch.
Scott said local land-use ordinances in places like Middlebury and Castleton have threatened or thwarted needed housing development proposals. And he said it’s up to the Legislature to reverse municipal permitting and zoning requirements that stand in the way the public good.
“They empower very small groups of residents to stand in the way of projects, not because of a legitimate environmental threat, but because they simply don’t want it in their backyard,” Scott said. “Here’s the bottom line: The failure to update a system that was meant to curtail development is contributing to the housing crisis we face today.”
Many lawmakers this year have identified child care as a top priority, and Scott said his budget address later this month will include proposed expansions in both child care and pre-kindergarten programs.
But the relatively brief mention of child care toward the end of the speech read like a snub to the advocates that are pushing to fundamentally reform the child care system this year.
“Honestly the lack of mention was really inconsistent with his own goals and commitments of safe and healthy families, equalizing opportunity, attracting young families to the state, reversing our aging demographics, making Vermont more affordable,” said Aly Richards, executive director of Let’s Grow Kids.
Let’s Grow Kids is leading a coalition of advocacy organizations that are calling on lawmakers to substantially increase public funding for child care. Richards said Scott’s inaugural address didn’t reflect the urgency and attention the issue deserves.
Some lawmakers have already begun contemplating tax increases to fund substantial new investments in child care. Scott made clear Thursday that won’t be his approach to solving issues related to the affordability and accessibility of child care.
“We must find ways to achieve our shared goals without adding taxes and fees, because this only increases the cost of living,” he said.
Richards said if that’s a redline from the governor, then she doesn’t think it will stand in the way of lawmakers who think investments in child care — even if they require tax increases — will generate a positive rate of return for Vermonters.
“We’ve known for some time this will take public investment, and that’s where the courage comes in,” Richards said. “We need to understand that long-term, sustainable public investment is what it’s going to take to have a system of high-quality child care in Vermont. And when we do it, it’s actually very fiscally responsible.”
Scott Thursday signaled plans to redouble efforts to address what he said is an opioid “epidemic” in the state, and he also referenced a forthcoming proposal to improve access to care for people experiencing mental health crises.
He also talked about improving the state’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure, as well as the quality of the electricity transmission grid needed to deliver that power.
Lawmakers will likely see more specifics on those proposals and others in his budget address later this month.
That's what Sen. Christopher Bray of New Haven is hoping for. He chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
"The point is that we need to take timely concrete steps as opposed to just agreeing that climate change is important to address at a very high level," Bray said Thursday.
Bray is planning to introduce a bill called the Affordable Heat Act in the next week. He says it will share some in common with last session's Clean Heat Standard, but have a greater focus on making home heat affordable.
"These things need not be juxtaposed, you know, like be in competition with one another," Bray said. "Sometimes we call it the Vermont way: you can do well economically, while you're also making good progress environmentally."
Vermont Public's Abagael Giles contributed reporting to this story.
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