MONTPELIER — Phil Scott likes to tell people how, about 20 years ago now, he did not have a political bone in his body. He grew up in Barre and spent his adult life building a family, a career as a contractor, and a reputation as a race car driver. He takes great pride in his blue-collar roots.
But when he started to see politics miring the Legislature, he decided to step up.
That trajectory — serving in the Senate and then as lieutenant governor — has forced him to become the leader he felt Vermont needed then — and now.
On Aug. 9, he appears on the Republican ballot with primary challenger Bruce Lisman to be the state’s next governor.
“I certainly have lived a different life than many,” Scott, who turns 57 this week, said during an interview at The Times Argus offices last week.
He pointed to working 30-plus years as a small-business owner, spending many sleepless nights worrying about how to make ends meet. “I think that has forced me to have a frugal, common-sense approach,” Scott said.
The Republican, known for his moderate views that closely mirror the demeanor and policies of former governor James Douglas, has always served in the minority in Montpelier.
“I have been slugging it out in the trenches. … But I have known I wanted to be part of the solution,” he said. Scott said he has done that by reaching out to Democrats, independents and progressives at the State House when it came to building coalitions. He said he has always made a point of listening to others, because “no one person ever has all the ideas.”
“I’ve been able to build consensus. I have the respect and trust of others. And I think you lead by example,” he said, adding that he is glad he can say he is a safe-and-steady politician. “I think people appreciate my independence, my follow-through. … I am not one to over-promise.”
So why run now when the state faces some difficult fiscal and infrastructure challenges?
“I want to provide for a much more affordable Vermont,” he said. “I believe a more vibrant economy will lift all boats — taxes will go down. We will provide more resources for all of those who need services. … (Being governor) has not always been an aspiration, but I believe it is a calling today.”
Scott maintains the state is having an “affordability crisis” that is affecting many public policy sectors, as well as the economy.
“Expectations are far outweighing our ability to pay,” he explained. “We are having a crisis of affordability right here in Vermont.”
He said it would be imperative to look at the state’s economy over the previous year and examine what has grown; then, set a cap that corresponds to that growth before building the budget. From there, Scott said, he would go through a prioritization process that looked at both the budget, cuts and savings.
“Vermonters have to do it at home and in their businesses They expect the state to do the same,” he said. “It’s not easy. But we can live within our means, and send that message to Vermonters. … It will go a long way toward our recovery.”
Scott says he would form a committee to look at ways to modernize and make efficient the various departments of state government. “We should always look for ways to save money. There are ample ways to look for savings.”
Scott looks upon Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration as having taken too many risks at the expense of Vermonters, especially when it came to Vermont Health Connect. Critics of the Democratic governor characterized many of his initiatives as “experiments.”
Scott is less condemning in his rhetoric and criticism of Shumlin but does point to what he sees as an overarching problem that the next governor will certainly face.
“We need to restore the faith and trust in government across the board,” Scott said. “Democracy is messy. It is difficult.” But he insists that has to happen through coalition-building, partnerships, thinking outside the box, and taking measured, tactful steps forward.
“Vermonters deserve that right now,” he said.
“We often get caught up sometimes in adding and plugging all of the holes. We need to be more efficient. … I am confident there are ample opportunities to do things differently. It comes down to ways in which we are treating our businesses, entities and citizens fairly.”
While Scott has not rolled out specific plans for improving the economy, changing the state’s demographic — especially bolstering the age group between 25 and 35 — and for transportation and other sectors, his stances on many issues on Vermonters’ minds are clear.
First and foremost, Scott says, Vermont has to get its economy on track. He says that hinges on attracting and retaining families and businesses.
“We need to be a magnet,” he said, whether that is keeping students who attend colleges and universities in Vermont, or creating more incentives and breaks for businesses who want to be here. “We provide many opportunities for people to come to us,” he said. “But we need to keep (that core) here, contributing, paying taxes.”
He said an exodus of the workforce between the ages of 25 and 35 has really hurt the state.
In the end, he said, it requires a “culture change.”
“It’s become stagnant. … If they are not in the system, not part of the community, the burden is on the rest of us still standing. We need a climate that is conducive to growth, and make Vermont affordable.”
He has been quoted as saying Vermont needs to increase its population by about 70,000 to 700,000.
“We need to revitalize, become a magnet,” he said. “There are so many things we have to offer, but we have to market it in a different way.”
After the economy, Scott said one of the biggest barriers facing the state is the opiate epidemic.
“We have seen this rising addiction issue rising in other states, as well,” he said, pointing to how the problem is not unique to Vermont. “It has affected each and every one of us.”
Scott said it has become far too easy to become addicted, in part because he said doctors are over-prescribing certain drugs.
The answer, he said, lies in a balance of prevention, treatment and enforcement.
In turn, Scott said Vermont needs to re-evaluate how it serves the mentally ill and the pressures that parity issues place on other health-related needs across the spectrum of treatment.
He said while Act 46 was not “something I would have crafted, it has been a great way to start the conversation” across Vermont when it comes to school consolidation.
“I have been listening to Vermonters screaming for property tax relief for years,” he said, adding that while he would not — like his opponent, Bruce Lisman — call for its repeal, Act 46 does require some clarification.
“I would support school choice,” he said, as well as making sure those communities that do want to consolidate are provided with proper incentives. “We need more carrots than sticks,” he said. In the end, however, Vermont is educating 20,000 fewer students than 10 years ago and spending $1.6 billion to do so. “Inaction is not the answer. … It is necessary to get a handle on the cost of education,” Scott said.
While he is not a supporter of industrial wind, he is a proponent of solar and renewables. In particular, he said as governor he would open new partnerships with Canada to tap into hydro-electric resources there that would “meet our needs just fine.”
He is not in favor of a carbon tax. “It raises the cost of living throughout. I am looking for make Vermont more affordable,” he said.
And when it comes to health care reform, Scott has been critical of Vermont Health Connect from the get-go. He told Shumlin that until he saw proof it worked, he would not get behind the governor’s plan. Scott stood by that claim.
“I would pull the plug on Vermont Health Connect,” he said, adding that he would opt to switch to the federal exchange but carry over pieces and parts of the system that might be working. Scott said he would look to other states, like Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon and Connecticut, that have cobbled together a health care exchange for far less than what Vermont is spending.
He called Vermont Health Connect a “failed, ill-conceived IT structure.”
“I think there are ways out there that can work for us, too,” he said.
Does Vermont need more restrictions on gun purchases? “No, we just need to enforce the laws we have on the books. … It’s not a problem here in Vermont. In fact, it’s a bit of a distraction.” Scott said while terror threats are real, the solution is not in imposing more rules on guns. “We need to get to the root of the problem,” which he described as the people who are misusing guns — some of them mentally ill — and getting them the help and services they need.
When asked what he thought of the tenor of the campaign so far, Scott, the presumptive front-runner according to polls, said he is “not at all surprised. It is exactly how I envisioned it.”
He said the primary challenge has made him a better candidate.
Of Lisman, he said, “I am disappointed in my opponent, his tone. (I feel he is) misrepresenting the truth, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that. It’s concerning.”