Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address, delivered Tuesday, was a careful match of limited resources against pressing needs in an election year that, for Mr. Scott, summoned the same pledge common to his tenure, which is that it can be done without raising taxes.

It’s this balance between meeting needs and doing so affordably that has kept him in office, despite the challenge that he’s a Republican in a deep blue state. As he’s done with prior addresses, he made it clear the primary crisis is one of demographics; we have to figure out how to stop the drain and we can only do that if we invest prudently and if we make ourselves more affordable.

The proposed budget is not only the guide the governor sets for how he thinks taxpayer dollars should be spent, it’s also a guide for the politics in play between now and the general election in November. A close read shows where Mr. Scott [and his staff] thinks he might be vulnerable and how he intends to respond.

He didn’t leave himself open to any major challenges.

Most notable, for example, was his proposal to direct 25 percent of all future budget surpluses to climate change initiatives, including things like more charging stations for electric vehicles, weatherization, electric grid optimization, clean energy, etc. It won’t be enough for the most ardent climate change advocates, but it’s something, and the 25 percent of “future surpluses” is a good sound bite if nothing else.

The point is that the issue of climate change and how Vermont responds will be a recurring topic from now until next November’s election. Mr. Scott has his response in play.

The governor was also aggressive in pushing for additional state investments in workforce development, adult education, our downtowns, childcare, tourism, roads and bridges, suicide prevention, addiction, mental health improvements, newborns, TIF expansions, renter rebate programs, water quality, and military veterans.

His overarching theme was two-fold; first, is his continuing lament regarding the state’s population loss and its inability to keep our youth; second, is the regional inequities that are becoming more pronounced, and more difficult to address, in part because of our demographics, and in part, because of the changing nature of work and markets. It’s a challenge common to rural America, including our New England brethren.

All Vermonters should welcome an election year that puts those challenges and the candidates’ proposals to deal with them, before us.

Budget addresses also have their in-between-the-lines messages, which was also the case with Mr. Scott’s address. That message was directed at OneCare, the accountable care organization whose task it is to switch from our traditional fee-for-service health care to one based on health care outcomes with the system funded on a per capita basis. As the governor said, “The challenge is changing the way we pay for something that is 20 percent of our state’s economy without making it harder to access care, adding new costs, or reducing quality.”

Mr. Scott noted the skepticism the ACO has generated, and confessed to having a measure of skepticism himself…”we’ve seen firsthand that there’s no quick fix or political promise to make healthcare more affordable.” He also made the point that OneCare [the ACO] “hasn’t done a great job explaining how they’re improving people’s health and reducing costs.”

The governor pushed for the approval of $5.7 million appropriation for the ACO. But the message for OneCare — and for the Green Mountain Care Board — is crystal clear: Political support for the organization is wafer thin, the ACO has to get its message out and it has to be convincing. This is particularly sensitive since there is a political nexus in the Legislature that continues to push for the single payer approach in Vermont, a group that includes Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who has announced his intention to run against Mr. Scott. There are few issues easier to demagogue than health care and no issue affects more of us. Mr. Scott has declared his qualified support for the all payer model run by OneCare. How strong that support remains will depend, in large part, on OneCare and how it well it tells its story and how well it defends itself.

On a local note, it was encouraging to see the governor embrace downtown development and the role of TIFs, with St. Albans being one of the best examples of its power. It’s a story that should be told statewide and it’s a process that should be embraced from one end of the state to the other. It was also highly encouraging to hear Mr. Scott pledge $2.8 million for the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, money that will leverage another $11.3 million in federal funds to complete the 93-mile trail from Swanton to St. Johnsbury. That would be fabulous and a huge asset to this part of Vermont.

by Emerson Lynn

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