The Scott Paradox: Political Courage and Political Bullying

by Hamilton E. Davis

   These are sad, even poignant days for people who pay attention to and care about state government in Vermont. Sad because Phil Scott, a very popular new governor, is making a total hash of the management of the state’s finances, poignant because that fact contrasts so strikingly with his stand on gun control, one of the most courageous political decisions I have ever seen.
   When it became clear how close Vermonters had come to a mass school shooting earlier this spring, Scott immediately shifted his earlier position in the most candid way possible. When he met the press, he described how he had always assumed that gun problems had no relevance to Vermont; but that he had looked into the abyss when he saw the details of the Fair Haven case and realized that Fair Haven would have been on a scale with the recent school shooting in Parkdale, Florida.
   Many politicians would have said the same, and most of them would have signed onto stuff like more checks for guns sales, and increased security measures. But Scott went right to the very heart of the whole gun issue when he supported limiting high volume magazines, 15 to 30 round devices that seem to appeal particularly to the troubled young males that have been shooting up American schools and other places people gather.
   It was the high-volume magazine issue that touched off the continuing rage of some of the Vermont gun community, but that didn’t deter Scott at all. He signed the gun bill outside the State House with 300 or so gun people howling bloody murder at him on the lawn. Scott just stood up and took it--a historic act of political integrity.
   Which makes it puzzling why Scott is making such a mess of managing the state’s business. The current impasse over the financing of the state’s elementary and secondary schools is just the latest example. The principle underlying the operations of government is that the executive and legislative bodies are co-equal branches of that government.
   Scott talks about it, however, as if he thinks that the executive makes the decisions, and it is the duty and obligation of the legislature to endorse them. That would make Scott a king, not a governor. It’s not like most governors do not try to out maneuver their legislature so as to achieve their policy goals. But in the past, governors of both parties understood that they do not control the other branch, and, moreover, they work very hard to buttress their goals. For example, Vermont governors in the modern era routinely begin working on the following years budget very soon after that year’s legislation winds up. Their staffs are well into it by summer and when the new legislature arrives in January, the administration knows the new budget inside and out.
   That was just the first step, however. Their budget guys especially spent the whole legislative session shepherding their document through the money committees, House Appropriations and Ways and Means; Senate Appropriations and Finance. They would shadow the key legislative players from the first day to the last, constantly working to iron out kinks, and resolve differences. The ultimate failure of such an effort is a gubernatorial veto. And those failures have been very rare.
   The way Scott runs his government is a very significant departure from his predecessors of both parties. He has basically turned the locus of decision making over to his chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, and the Gibbs strategy clearly has been to out-maneuver and bully the legislature, and, in effect, to Invite them to like it or lump it.
   For the second year in a row, Scott has waited until the last few days of the session to drop a major policy demand on the lawmakers, and then made it clear that he would veto any budget that didn’t fall in line with those demands. The issue Is how to deal with the financing of the state’s elementary and secondary schools—the details are complex and have been laid out in the press. From a 30,000-foot perspective, however, the situation looks like this:
   Both the Scott proposal and the budget passed by the Legislature are plausible ways to proceed. There is a strong consensus across both parties, however, that the Legislative plan is superior public policy.
   You can find evidence to support this view in the response of the Republicans to the Scott ploy. The Senate, including all seven Republicans, supported the Legislature’s budget unanimously; and one of the GOP’s more important players, Randy Brock of Franklin County, made it clear in comments to the press that he was surprised at how far the Legislature had moved in the effort to render the document acceptable to Scott. Then last Wednesday, a group of House Republicans floated a compromise bill of their own, an indication they think the Governor is overreaching.
   Yet, the administration and the Legislature are sliding steadily into an impasse that could shut down state government on July 1. So, it is critical for everyone concerned to consider what the implications are in the next few weeks for the way state government is going to function in the Scott era. Right now, it doesn’t look good. And the major reason is that Scott doesn’t seem to really understand how government works. I just don’t believe that the Scott who faced down the gun mob, a good guy with more sheer guts than a busload of standard politicians, would operate this way if he did. Jason Gibbs would, but he has disclosed himself over the last year as a reckless partisan who delights in tormenting a Legislature that he knows is irretrievably stacked against his party.
   So, a major question: will Vermont have a Scott government, or will it just be “Douglas lite.” I say Douglas lite for two reasons. One is that Gibbs made his bones as press secretary for former Governor Jim Douglas during the ‘oughts; and the Douglas playbook included all sorts of maneuvers to disadvantage the Legislature, including sorrowful ruminations on how his opponents in the state house didn’t really represent the “Vermont Way.”
   At the same time, however, Douglas had an amazingly fine-grained understanding of how government works, and he was anything but reckless. Gibbs working for Douglas was one thing. Gibbs actually running the Scott administration is quite another. Hence: Douglas lite.
   It may seem presumptuous to suggest that the Vermont governor doesn’t understand, but that’s the way it looks. Consider: he tells the Legislature that he “wants to work with” them; but that isn’t what his administration does. He drops a ragbag of 18 to 20 ideas on lawmakers early in the session, and then lets them begin working on the issue with almost no input—until the very end of the session. Then he announces what his “non-negotiable” positions are, and he makes it clear that he will veto anything else.
   When the veto session convened last week, the Legislative leadership—the Speaker, Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe—held a press conference ln the Speaker’s office. The main line of questioning ran along the lines of: the Governor’s non-negotiables are such and such—what are your non-negotiable demands?
   To their credit, Ashe and Johnson refused to get sucked into that game. The budget is a negotiation and that makes it different from all the other issues that animate a legislative session. If the players on both sides of a question have non-negotiable positions, not much real negotiating is going to go on. On all the other issues, the Governor has pretty much an impregnable position, assuming he has enough votes in at least one of the two chambers to sustain a veto; Scott has such a potential blocker in the House. So Scott can veto any bill the Legislature passes, and he is acting as though that is true of the budget. The budget, however, is unique because government can’t operate without it.
   Scott appears to believe that the legislature has to send him a budget he is willing to sign. It’s true of course that we can’t have a budget if the Governor won’t sign it. It is equally true, though, that we can’t have a budget that the Legislature won’t pass. So, in power/responsibility terms, the executive and the legislature are exactly equal, 50, a decimal point, and two miles of zeros, They have precisely equal power and responsibilities on that issue.
   What that means is that the resolution necessary to have an operating government on July 1 devolves to a political question. Either one side caves between now and then, or government shuts down, and the public has to decide who is responsible and who should pay the political price for the damage and dislocation that occurs.

Managing that calculus is the nub of the next several days.

I’ll look at that issue in my next post.