An American flag flapped in the bitter breeze outside the State House in Montpelier last Thursday afternoon.
It held special importance for Vermont’s 82nd governor, Phil Scott: Nearly 50 years ago, it draped the casket of his father, Howard Scott, a World War II veteran who died of injuries sustained during his service when his tank hit a land mine.
Howard Scott’s sense of duty and eventual death when his son was just 11 left a mark on the new governor, who made members of the armed forces a key point of his inaugural address last week before a packed House chamber filled with the state assembly, current and former officials and their guests.
Military members – including some from Milton and Georgia – escorted esteemed guests such as former Govs. Peter Shumlin, Jim Douglas, Howard Dean and Madeline Kunin into the chamber.
Scott also asked all current and former service members to stand and be recognized by the joint assembly – some of who, including Milton’s Rep. Ron Hubert, had served themselves.
Scott personally named some high-ranking members in attendance that day, including Army Maj. Zachariah Fike, a Georgia resident known for his work returning lost or stolen military medals to their rightful owners through his non-profit, Purple Hearts Reunited.
He also addressed the hundreds of Vermont Air National Guardsmen deployed on an overseas mission since early December. They include several Miltonians, selectboard chairman Darren Adams among them.
In his first speech as governor, Scott touched on key points of his campaign like jobs and affordability and addressed the importance of early and higher education and battling Vermont’s crippling opiate crisis, crediting his predecessor Shumlin for making the latter a priority.
In one of four executive orders signed on Scott’s first day of office, he established the Opiate Coordination Council and named Jolinda LaClair the new director of drug abuse prevention to implement drug prevention strategies, a press release from Scott’s office said.
His next three priorities included revitalizing the state’s approach to economic development, transforming the education system and building sustainable budgets.
To bolster the economy, Scott will seek to expand the workforce with skilled laborers that employers struggle to recruit, to invest in job training programs, address housing affordability and capitalize on Vermont’s brand.
“As we focus on growing our economy, we can show the world we are more than a place to visit,” he added. “Vermont is a place to live, raise a family and do business.”
Scott also pondered why Vermont spends $1.6 billion each year on K-12 education – about $19,000 per student – or about 25 percent of the state budget but still isn’t “an education destination for young families.”
He argued for investing in early education, supporting state colleges and universities and rethinking the “entire education spectrum” by challenging all levels of educators to brainstorm creative ways to tamp down taxes without compromising quality of education.
Scott had a similar challenge for lawmakers, to whom he’ll present his budget next month. He pledged to hold the line on new taxes and fees – to this, Republicans responded with a rousing ovation – while still meeting Vermont’s “moral obligations” to health care and the environment.
Scott said modest economic growth and flat-lined state revenues have failed to keep up with the rising cost of services, resulting in a budget gap of nearly $70 million this year.
“We’ve talked about your struggle to make ends meet as costs and taxes rise and good paying jobs are fewer and fewer,” he said. “To all Vermonters, I want you to know: I hear you, loud and clear.”
House minority leader Rep. Don Turner has heard similar cries for relief in Milton, and he took solace in Scott’s promise to heed frustrated Vermonters’ calls.
“The cost of living in this state exceeds Vermonters’ ability to pay, and we heard that loud and clear,” Turner told reporters after Scott’s speech. “His priorities are well in line with what we’ve been talking about … we’ve been overspending our means, and I heard Gov. Scott say that’s going to stop.”
Though Turner said he was pleased overall with Scott’s address, he hoped to hear more discussion of specific regulatory reform, including energy siting. Turner said last year’s bill that gave communities more say over where renewable energy projects were built “did not go far enough.”
For Turner’s caucus – outnumbered 85-53 by a Democratic majority – curbing spending and making Vermont more affordable to live and work are priorities he’s confident the new governor shares.
“We’re very, very optimistic about what we heard,” he said. “Vermont was ready for a change, we absolutely were looking for a change in the administration; so it’s a good day for Vermont and for Vermont Republicans.”
More familiar faces join Turner in leadership positions this session, albeit from across the aisle.
Former Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman (D/P) won his bid for lieutenant governor in November; last week, he presided over the joint assembly at Scott’s inauguration.
Next to Zuckerman sat another local lawmaker, Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle/Chittenden), who became speaker of the House. Also front and center was incumbent Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P), who now leads the state Senate as president pro tempore.
The rest of Milton and Georgia’s representation watched the proceedings from their seats in the packed chamber. A new arrival to the House, Georgia Rep. Carl Rosenquist sat in seat 17, returning to the chamber he once served in from 2001-2002. In November, he handily won his bid for the seat now-Sen. Carolyn Branagan held for 14 years.
Rosenquist was assigned to the House Committee on Human Services. Branagan vacated her influential post as vice-chairwoman of House Ways and Means when she became one of seven Republican senators this year. There, she joins incumbent Sen. Dustin Degree (R-St. Albans) to round out Franklin County’s representation.
Branagan’s new assignments include spots on the Senate Agriculture and Institutions and Corrections committees. Degree serves on the Finance, Transportation, Joint Legislative Justice Oversight, Vermont Liquor Control System Modernization Study and Canvassing committees.
Back in the House, another newcomer joins Johnson in representing the Grand Isle/Chittenden district, which includes a portion of Milton: Democrat Rep. Ben Joseph replaced Bob Krebs, who didn’t seek reelection this year. Joseph sits on the House Committee on Education.
Besides her top spot as speaker, Johnson serves on the Health Reform Oversight, Joint Fiscal and Joint Transportation Oversight committees.
Hubert and Turner, Milton’s Republican legislators, have six committee assignments between the two of them. Hubert was named vice-chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations and also sits on the Public Records Legislative Study Committee; Turner has spots on the Corrections and Institutions, House Rules, Joint Rules and Legislative Council committees.
All five Chittenden County senators are again Democrats or Progressives this session, with incumbents Ashe, Ginny Lyons, Michael Sirotkin and Philip Baruth joined by newcomers Debbie Ingram and Chris Pearson.
Ashe notably serves as a member of the Judicial Nomination Board, which Scott charged with producing a new list of potential Supreme Court justice nominees after the court struck down Shumlin’s attempt to appoint a justice – a victory for Turner, who filed the suit.
The entire joint assembly stood to applaud Scott last week, a self-professed centrist who promised to work across party lines and work to restore faith in government many Vermonters – and Americans at-large – have forfeited at an intense time of political division.
“Consider the motto of Vermont’s Mountain Battalion: ‘Ascend to Victory,’” Scott concluded. “If we’re willing to set higher expectations for state government, raise our standards for success and continue to reach for common ground, then perhaps we, too, can ascend toward a victorious and prosperous future for our brave little state of Vermont.”