Politics

Final Reading: ‘The State of the State is strong,’ despite these unprecedented times

Gov. Phil Scott delivers his State of the State address remotely from the Pavilion office building in Montpelier on Wednesday, Jan. 5. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As is tradition for the opening week of the legislative session, Gov. Phil Scott addressed lawmakers and the public Wednesday in the biennial State of the State speech. And like most things over the past two years, it was a little weird.

The gov was “escorted” onto the “House floor” for the “joint session” by several legislators. I use air quotes because the whole thing was conducted virtually over Zoom, and Scott politely stood and smiled in front of his American and Vermont flag backdrop as the legislative pageantry nevertheless persisted in these still-unprecedented times.

Scott went on to tell Vermonters that “the state of the state is strong” in spite of its issues, including but not limited to the ongoing pandemic, which continues to deliver record-breaking case counts in Vermont by the day.

“(W)e have to learn to manage life with this virus and cannot let it derail us from addressing our most fundamental challenges: Our desperate need for more people in our communities and more workers to fill the tens of thousands of jobs available in Vermont today,” he said.

If you were to make a drink recipe modeled after Scott’s speech, it might look something like this:

  • 2 oz. workforce development talk
  • ¾ oz. inspirational quotes on how well the state is doing, despite it all
  • ¾ oz. All The Other Issues
  • Garnish with a tease of a potential tax cut and serve over ice

Scott spent much of his address promising to address Vermont’s shrinking workforce, and not just by pumping money into training and education (though, that’s part of it). He also said housing and affordability are tied to recruiting workers, because they need to find a place to live and be able to afford it when they get here.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said later Wednesday during a press availability to respond to the address that she thinks “it’s great” that Democratic leaders can agree with Scott that workforce development needs to be a focus. But, she said, “We need to really understand the details of what that means to him.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, took a bit of a jab at the gov, saying “it was surprising” that Scott made no mention in his address of the state’s pension crisis, a subject she said the Legislature is working hard to address and is “incredibly stressful for Vermont state employees.”

At the press availability with the Democratic leaders, WAMC’s Pat Bradley observed, “It sounds like neither of you have had much conversation with the governor in the lead up to the session… on some of these issues.” Balint confessed, “That’s — that’s true. That is true.”

Though Balint said there’s a “lot of overlap” between Scott’s legislative priorities and those of Democratic leadership, one item that immediately raised her and Krowinski’s eyebrows was Scott’s hinting at a potential tax cut.

If any tax cuts come down the pipeline this session, Krowinski said, “it's going to be laser-focused on families with kids.”

“If we're going to go and we're going to be talking about tax policy, I think what's incredibly important to us is that it's something that really helps families with kids,” Krowinski said, “We come back to this theme about helping working families.”

It’s no secret that Balint and Krowinski have disagreed with Scott’s approach to the pandemic in recent weeks, as Covid cases have continued to soar and legislators push for some sort of indoor masking requirement at the state level. Scott previously committed to vetoing any sort of mask mandate should the Legislature pass one. Asked Tuesday if she believes his tune has changed with the rise of the Omicron variant, Balint replied, “I'm not a mind-reader. I don't know.”

Still, she said, the Legislature will attempt to pass one anyway.

“We will do our work in the Legislature, but it would be a whole heck of a lot easier and faster if the governor could pivot on this issue,” Balint said.

— Sarah Mearhoff


ON THE MOVE

The Senate on Wednesday fast-tracked a bill, S.172, that would allow municipalities to temporarily replace traditional Town Meeting Day in March with Covid-safe or warm-weather gatherings. The bill mirrors a law passed last year during an earlier stage of the pandemic.

The bill, which Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, told VTDigger she wants on the governor’s desk by week two of the session, cleared her Senate Government Operations Committee on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Senate suspended its rules several times to pass the bill and send it to the House.

Read more about S.172 here.


IN THE KNOW

If Vermont charges forward with all of the Climate Action Plan’s recommendations, can it actually cut emissions in half by 2030? 

That’s the question Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, asked Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, Wednesday morning when she presented the plan to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. 

Moore said the plan had relied on the Transportation Climate Initiative Program, or TCI-P — a regional program designed to reduce tailpipe emissions — which has crumbled.

“Absent TCI, we do not have a package in front of you that is sufficient to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements, particularly for 2030,” Moore said. 

Other programs need such “significant scaling up” — going from less than 5,000 electric cars in Vermont to 43,000 by 2025, for example — that it would make the goals hard to achieve, Moore said. 

The Climate Council has committed to finding a replacement to fill the gap left by TCI-P, said Jared Duval, a council member who also testified Wednesday.

“I just think it's important that we be frank that we really are not doing what we set out to do,” MacDonald said.

— Emma Cotton

The strange nature of the virtual session was on full display at a House Health Care Committee orientation over Zoom Wednesday morning, when Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, discovered the livestream didn’t show committee members who weren’t speaking. 

Cina suggested that his colleagues introduce themselves to viewers at home, noting that they should use the “raise hand” function on Zoom if they wished to speak. 

“Brian has his shoe up,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield. 

“I was just experimenting. We can put up more than a hand,” Cina said, to which committee Chair Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, replied, “Why don’t we just use hands?”

— Liora Engel-Smith


ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

With two open congressional seats and the lieutenant governor's post up for grabs in Vermont, 2022 is shaping up to be an election cycle unlike any seen in a long time. And during his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott warned his fellow politicos not to let "the antics of an election year" get in the way of getting big things done for Vermont as its leaders decide what to do with the billions in federal aid doled out to the state by Washington.

"General (Colin) Powell believed, 'There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.' I guess that’s why he never ran for office," Scott said during his virtual address.

But will the governor — who has ruled out a run for Congress — be on the ballot himself this year? He's still not saying.

"The Governor has not decided whether he will be seeking reelection yet," Jason Maulucci, Scott's press secretary, wrote in an email to VTDigger. "I’m as eager to find out as you!"

— Lola Duffort


IN THE FEED

Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, introduced his 12-week old daughter, Sophie, on the (virtual) Senate floor Wednesday.

“I will admit, we woke her up from a nap for it,” Parent said. 

— Riley Robinson

Rep. Becca White, Hartford-D, internet-fist-bumping the governor: 

@beccawhite4

Happy to share the cinnamon buns post escort Govenor Scott! #vtpoli

♬ Vermont - Little Mazarn

(If there are other VTpoli people on TikTok, please drop their @.) 


MAILBAG

Dear Final Reading,

How does this “mailbag” thing work? What exactly are you planning to put in this section, anyway?

— Paul Heintz, managing editor of VTDigger and washed-up Statehouse reporter

Hi Paul,

Thanks for asking. You can write in about anything: Did you see something weird on Zoom? Is there an issue you want us to dig into? Have a question about legislative procedure? Just want to gripe? All goes here. Like an antiquated form of Reddit. 

— Riley Robinson

P.S. You can also write to Mailbag to suggest a more graceful title than “Mailbag.” 

P.P.S. Send your Mailbag entries to [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected].


WHAT’S ON TAP

For Thursday, Jan. 6:

9 a.m. House Corrections & Institutions hears from Sergeant-at-Arms Janet Miller about a proposed Statehouse expansion

9 a.m. House Government Operations takes testimony on, marks up and possibly votes on its fast-tracked redistricting proposal, tentatively titled committee bill 22-0538

10:30 a.m. — Senate Judiciary, House Judiciary and House Corrections & Institutions to hear from the Council on State Governments on racial equity in sentencing, part of the Justice Reinvestment II initiative (Joint meeting to be streamed on Senate Judiciary’s channel

1:30 p.m. — Senate Finance and Senate Education to meet with the chairs of the Task Force on Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report (Joint meeting to be streamed on Senate Finance’s channel)

2 p.m.  Senate Institutions to discuss the reopening of the judicial branch with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the Vermont Bar Association


WHAT WE’RE READING

Democratic, Republican and Progressive leaders in the Vermont House and the Senate talk their 2022 priorities (VPR)

Vermont officials distributed only about half of nearly 90,000 test kits set aside for students (VTDigger)

Can Vt. cultivators grow enough pot for when legal sales start? (VPR)

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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