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Scott Touts ‘Action Over Inaction’

  • During an editorial board meeting in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2018, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott talks about his decision to support gun control in the state after police in February charged a teen with planning to carry out a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. "He had a hit list with 32 people on it," Scott said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont Gov. Phil Scott answers a question about what is being done in the state to improve the business climate during an editorial board interview in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2018. He said businesses are willing to expand but are having trouble finding qualified candidates to fill jobs. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2018 11:29:25 PM
Modified: 11/1/2018 2:58:07 PM

West Lebanon — He says he has no regrets, even if it could cost him come Election Day.

First-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday acknowledged that his controversial decision to sign gun safety legislation has cost him support among some Republican supporters — including family members who have stopped talking with him — but he doesn’t question his decision.

Moreover, Scott said the National Rifle Association’s attack on him for veering from GOP orthodoxy has led the governor, a lifetime hunter with a “gun safe full of guns,” to let his NRA membership lapse.

“So, yeah, I guess I’ve decided not to sign up again,” Scott said, who is being challenged by Democrat Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive.

“Certainly I don’t want to lose,” Scott said of his signing the new gun laws on the Statehouse steps in front of vocal opponents and supporters, which happened in the wake of a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school and alleged threats a teen made toward a Fair Haven, Vt., school. “But I wouldn’t do anything different. ... I chose action over inaction and I was ready to face up to the consequences.”

The comments came during a meeting with Scott and Valley News editors and reporters.

Scott acknowledged he was “very concerned” during the primary, when North Springfield Republican Keith Stern challenged Scott for signing into law gun restrictions that, among other things, require buyers to be at least 21 years old unless they’ve completed a hunter safety course. Scott ultimately won 67 percent of the vote in that primary, and although worries about a backlash have lessened, Scott said, they have not gone away entirely.

“Having been successful in the primary has reduced (chances for defeat) — at least alleviated that in some respects for the general — but it’s still there,” Scott said. “Every day someone will ask me about it or voice their displeasure.”

Scott said he was particularly annoyed at the NRA for twisting the facts about Vermont’s law in its campaign against him to leave the impression among members that the restrictions are much more draconian than they are, thus stoking outrage among some of the state’s GOP voters.

“They made mention of me being a traitor and giving the middle finger to the Second Amendment. I just fundamentally disagree. There is nothing that we did, that I signed, that is in conflict with the Second Amendment,” Scott said, explaining that many have been led to believe that gun use in Vermont was outlawed for anyone under 21, which is not the case.

Education Challenges

Scott said a hallmark of his first term as governor was the state’s budget surplus in the last fiscal year, which he credited to a better economy and keeping school spending growth capped at 2.5 percent.

“That helped us tremendously in preventing another property rate increase,” he said.

But he said it is critical that local school boards and education administrators come to grips with the state’s challenging demographics in which a declining and aging population is shifting the burden of costs to a smaller number of taxpayers at a time in their lives when they can least afford it.

Act 46, the law to consolidate the school governance system in the state, is the right step in Scott’s view — it was passed when he was still lieutenant governor and he had no input into its design — and “I believe in time it will save money” because it provides for sharing and pooling of administrative resources.”

But he warned that Vermont educators — whom he praised for ultimately agreeing to adopt a statewide health insurance plan for teachers — are facing some grim trend lines.

“The bottom line is we have a problem because we have fewer students,” Scott said, explaining that on average Vermont schools are losing three students per day.

“We have 30,000 fewer students in K-12 than we did 20 years ago, and that’s like a canary in the mine shaft,” he said. “That should be sounding the alarms for everyone because this has a ripple effect throughout the whole workforce and population.”

“For the first time ever, there are now more deaths than births in Vermont, and that’s an issue,” he said.

Scott said in the coming legislative session he will be pushing for a greater percentage of the state’s $1.7 billion education budget to go toward “pre-K learning” and higher education. At present, according to Scott, about 90 percent of the $1.7 billion is spent on K-12 to “educate about 75,000 kids.”

Research shows how critical the early years are for brain development, Scott said, and the more attention and support given to pre-school children, the more likely they are to succeed later on.

“We spend the bulk of ($1.7 billion) on K-12 and I think we need to take some of that, some of the meat out and push it in other directions because I think it will give us a better return,” he said.

Scott said past efforts to modernize Vermont’s schools “haven’t had much progress” and he will be challenging state educators to think outside the box.

If people were given the opportunity to design education programs rather than recycle ones developed decades ago, or longer, “it would be something totally different,” according to Scott.

“It would be interactive learning. It would be something with trades training, all integrated with our schools,” he said. “Our schools are outdated at this point. I’m just asking them to be bold, creative and open-minded because we could truly use this as an economic tool to bring more people to the state.”

Prison Population

Scott said he believes substantive progress also has been made in reducing the state’s prison population.

He said the current state prison population now is about 1,750, down 500 from 2007-08 and “the out-of-state population as well is down to 200 to 225 right now, “but we don’t have facilities to bring them back.”

Scott said he “would rather have all our offenders here within our borders,” but noted the plan his administration presented last year, which included a “campus approach” and which was to be built by a private prison corporation but operated by state employees “wasn’t well-received.” He attributed the pushback on the plan to “misinformation.”

“It was just an idea,” Scott said of the failed plan, suggesting the administration was regrouping with a new proposal.

“We have outdated facilities throughout Vermont, so we need to move forward with that in some capacity. I’m confident we will do that.”

But when asked if too many offenders were incarcerated, Scott replied, “Ninety percent of the offender population is felons. This isn’t petty crime. Again, we’ve reduced by 500. A lot of the low-hanging fruit, if you want to call it that, has been picked. So we are at the point where I don’t see a lot of opportunity to reduce it further. There’s very limited the number of people in there for low-level crimes.”

Scott acknowledged that the state needs to do more in providing the resources to reduce recidivism, especially when it comes to post-prison residential programs.

“We don’t have all we should. We need more transitional housing, and that’s what we want to invest in as well because, once they are released, they need to transition into some sort of normalcy,” Scott said of ex-convicts. “We don’t want them to get caught up in their past lives and repeat. That’s why some of them are still in because there is no place to go.”

Carbon Tax

Scott said he doesn’t see it as necessary to spend money for a study, as voted by the governor’s climate change commission, to look at regulatory and market controls for a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which experts say are a driving cause of climate change.

Scott said he rejected his own commission’s recommendation for a study because “from my standpoint, we know what it is.”

“And from a national perspective, if they want to take that up and implement it throughout our country, maybe it makes some sense,” he continued. “But for Vermont to do it alone, it would put us on an island. It’s very regressive. It hurts the most vulnerable, those who can’t afford to have an electric vehicle or go to a different type of heating source or weatherize their homes. It just puts them further at risk. So you spend $500,000 on a study? You know what the results are.”

Moreover, Scott added, a carbon tax would only add to the state’s reputation as being inhospitable for business.

“We are viewed as being anti-business, very expensive state to live in, and I fail to see where a carbon tax would enhance that in any way. If they have that perspective now, a carbon tax isn’t going to make it any better,” he said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed several gun-safety measures into law this spring after police in February charged a teen with planning to carry out a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. An earlier photo caption with this story misstated the year of the alleged plot.




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