COLCHESTER — Standing at the front of a St. Michael’s College classroom Monday afternoon, Gov. Phil Scott defended his proposed budget before fielding questions from an audience primarily of students, touching on everything from the industries to the incentives that might keep some of those students in the state.

Much of what Scott discussed with students related to his campaign platform of “affordability,” a catch-all term referring more generally to Scott’s goal of keeping taxes low and offseting increasing expenses through tax base-expanding development.

Among the policy proposals Scott defended was his paid family leave plan, a proposal that would have employees or employers voluntarily sign into an insurance system shared between Vermont and New Hampshire. An initial risk pool would be created by signing Vermont and New Hampshire state employees into the program.

It contrasts sharply with the mandatory, statewide family leave plan passed by the Vermont House of Representatives last week, funded through a payroll tax on employees, which employers can volunteer to pay. The plan offers more robust coverage than Scott’s proposal.

Both proposals would be contracted through private insurance companies.

Scott, invoked the state’s rollout of Vermont Health Connect, warning the legislature’s plan would create an IT “debacle,” which he contrasted with his and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s “walk before you run” approach to family leave.

When he turned the floor over to students, questions focused on Vermont’s tech industry and the viability of incubators like Hula, currently being built along the lakefront in Burlington’s South End. “They’ve been largely successful,” Scott said, dubbing them “another tool in the tool shed” for fostering growth.

Later questioned on industry in Vermont, Scott would revisit technology alongside aeronautics and renewables as places where Vermont could see growth. He cited companies like Beta Technologies in Burlington, where an electric aircraft was “being built right here in Vermont,” and South Burlington’s Dynapower.

These were places where he also saw cooperation with Canada, the state’s largest trading partner and from which Scott said his administration has drawn several tech companies to Vermont.

Scott also fielded questions about housing development, answering both in reference to his the $35 million housing bond in the 2018 budget and a proposal to incentivize housing restorations with the caveat that they be energy efficient, paired with a proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax on land.

A file photo of St. Albans City’s downtown. Scott proposed freeing up development in downtowns as a way to balance development with conserving Vermont’s more rural character. (Messenger File Photo)

On the question of how to balance development with Vermont’s rural nature, Scott turned to the downtowns, previously identified by the Scott administration as a place where needed development can occur without carving into surrounding rural landscapes and wilderness. “I like the rural character of our state – I grew up here,” Scott said. “But we can have both.”

“Without branching out, without sprawling, we can replace some of what we’re seeing right now,” Scott said. “We can make more condensed housing in places that need it – want it.”

The survivability of Vermont’s colleges was raised by a member of St. Michael’s faculty, the question asked in reference to several high-profile closures in the state. It was a difficult question, Scott admitted, and one that spanned the whole of the Northeastern United States.

Scott said the question was made even more challenging by both limited resources and declining school enrollments at the elementary and middle- and high-school level. “What are the ripples?” he asked rhetorically.

An answer, he suggested, could come from partnering with other sectors for education opportunities. Offhand, Scott hypothesized nursing as one of those possible areas, as healthcare needs were growing while hospitals continue to be short-staffed.

Asked whether encouraging more immigration and inviting refugees could offset some of Vermont’s demographic losses, Scott said immigration is in the hands of the federal government. “We’ve reached out,” Scott said. “So far it’s fallen on deaf ears.”

Scott turned to his administration’s incentives program, which would reimburse moving expenses up to $10,000 – spread over two years – for people who move to Vermont and work remotely. The program, he said, was a huge success, drawing 3,000 applicants despite the fact that only a couple dozen rewards could be given.

Closing on a similar note, Scott turned a question over to students, asking them to offer any suggestions they might have to inspire their peers to remain in Vermont. “We want to hear what you have to say,” Scott said. “You never know where that next $10,000 incentive will come from.”

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