Gov. Phil Scott says that after 100 days in office, he’s already transforming culture in state government and bringing needed fiscal restraint to the state budget. But the new Republican executive is still struggling to bring the Legislature on board with some of his most sweeping proposals.
Scott’s political messaging is nothing if not consistent, and 100 days into his first term as Vermont’s 82nd governor, his basic message to Vermonters is indistinguishable from the one he offered up back on his inaugural in January: “to grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable, and take care of the most vulnerable,” Scott said Tuesday.
Less than four months into the job, Scott says he’s already making progress on those goals. And at a Statehouse press conference on Tuesday, with members of his cabinet standing behind him, Scott spent 17 minutes itemizing the laundry list of early achievements. Chief among them, he says, is the budget passed by the Vermont House last month.
“I’m proud that with the help of legislators, as we stand here today we have a budget that does not raise taxes and fees,” Scott said.
Scott took credit for that particular triumph.
“I believe this was a result of my commitment to not sign any bill or budget that adds taxes or fees, or makes Vermont less affordable,” Scott said.
Scott says his administration made less visible gains as well. According to Scott, the so-called “government modernization and efficiency team” he assembled in February is already yielding operational reforms.
Scott says ideas from frontline workers have turned into new reform initiatives, such as a plan hatched by an employee at the Department of Buildings and General Services to better organize state travel.
“Based on the proposal she presented recently to the cabinet, BGS is now working to adopt telemetrics to measure vehicle usage and a new fleet reservation system to improve user experience,” Scott said.
Scott also heralded three trips to Canada to build relationships with businesses in Quebec, the reconfiguration of government IT services into a new state agency and the creation of an opiate coordination council to spearhead the state’s response addiction.
But many of Scott’s flagship proposals continue to flounder in the Statehouse, where the Democratically controlled Legislature has mostly rejected his plan to cut spending in the K-through-12 public education system.
Scott says he hasn’t given up on the proposal, which he says would have freed up tens of millions of dollars for new investments in child care subsidies and spending increases for higher education.
“We’ll continue to fight for progress, and I hope the Legislature will join me in recognizing we have to have the courage to change the status quo,” Scott says.
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson has a more modest assessment of the Republican governor’s first 100 days.
“I think he’s taking time to settle into the office,” Johnson said Tuesday, asked to assess Scott’s first 100 days. “It’s a new role for him.”
Johnson says the return to divided government has had its high points, like when Scott and the Legislature united across party lines to pass legislation intended to thwart some of President Donald Trump’s executive orders related to immigration.
The legislation, signed into law by the governor last month, forbids local police from enforcing federal immigration orders without the governor’s consent, and also prohibits state and local law enforcement officers from sending personally identifying information to the federal government that might be used to create a national registry based on race, religion, nation of origin or immigration status.
“I think there are some things that we’ve worked really well together on,” Johnson said.
But Johnson says Scott’s unwillingness to engage with lawmakers on key budget issues has been disappointing, and she says it’s legislative rigor, not gubernatorial edict, that produced the budget that House lawmakers voted out last month.
Johnson pointed specifically to an administration memo forbidding executive branch staff from sharing any money-saving ideas directly with legislative committees.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Johnson said. “So that’s disturbing and to me very counter to the relationship that Phil took a long time to build in this building.”
Johnson said House lawmakers have had a productive first 100 days of their own. She pointed to House-passed bills that would extend workers compensation coverage to first responders who suffer from job-related post-traumatic stress disorder; create a racial justice oversight board to root out implicit bias in the criminal justice system; and allow police to remove firearms from the scene of an alleged domestic assault.
Scott says the relationship between the new governor, new House speaker and new Senate president pro tem is still evolving.
“I think we’re still trying to jockey for position,” Scott said. “It’s just the way politics works. It’s not just partisan, it’s about the role of the executive branch and the legislative branch."
And Scott said he’s hopeful he and lawmakers will find new areas of agreement even as they jockey their ways through the final weeks of the session.