By Gov. Phil Scott
Every village, town and city in Vermont can have a thriving economy. We can have an economy consistently growing faster than the costs of living, so our state is more affordable, and each year families can be more secure. We can have the best education system in the nation, where every school offers a full range of 21st Century educational opportunities and every child graduates prepared to compete and succeed. And with a thriving economy, we can invest in a cleaner environment, safer neighborhoods with fewer suffering from addiction, and meet our obligation to the most vulnerable.
I ran for Governor because I believe we can achieve this vision with leadership that is honest about the scope of our challenges, sets clear priorities to address them, is willing to put progress ahead of the politics and policies of the past – and is able to do the hard work and make the difficult decisions while encouraging civility and respect.
For years our population growth has been slowing, and a shrinking working-age population resulted in an average of 6 fewer workers in our workforce and 3 fewer kids in our schools every single day. State spending and tax burdens were rising faster than many Vermonters’ pay, and there was too little focus on restoring the economic and fiscal fundamentals required to invest in our future. That’s why my Administration has had the courage to tackle the tough issues, like getting spending growth under control, strengthening our education system, eliminating waiting lists for opioid treatment and fighting to give Vermonters a break from increasing taxes and fees.
While we have much more work to do, in my first 19 months in office we have put Vermont on a better path. And, we are making measurable progress with real results.
State government is now living within its means. Better management and more economic activity have combined to generate a $70 million budget surplus across all funds. Spending growth over the 5 fiscal years before I took office averaged almost 5 percent per year, funded largely by unsustainable tax increases. Now, spending is growing at just 2 percent, without raising taxes or fees – and our surplus should allow us to return more money to taxpayers in the future, if the Legislature agrees.
We are modernizing state government to make it more efficient and productive. By consolidating IT operations within an Agency of Digital Services, for example, we saved about $2.2 million. We’ve reduced State operating costs by $32.5 million, while improving the delivery of services. And the Agency of Human Services, alone, closed out this fiscal year having spent $70 million less, across all funds, than the last fiscal year of the previous Administration. That’s over $100 million taxpayers have not had to pay – without reducing frontline services.
We also prevented about $71 million in forecasted statewide property tax rate increases and held residential property tax rates level for two years in a row. If you are a residential property tax payer and your bill went up, it’s due to local factors, not the statewide rate. And I want to be clear: I am insisting we address education because I believe we can transform our education system from good, to the very best in the country. This requires the courage to reduce inefficiency and invest the savings in more, and better, opportunities for kids.
While we grappled with K-12 reform, we also increased investment in career technical education, workforce training and higher education by about $5 million, and childcare assistance for working families by $2.5 million.
We passed the largest housing investment in state history, which will generate hundreds of new housing units working families can afford, 1,000 construction jobs and $100 million in construction activity. We also streamlined the regulatory process so more housing for working families can be built and cost less.
Over the last two years, we’ve cut the cost of workers compensation insurance by over 10 percent, saving employers an estimated $30 million. This year, we cut income tax rates across the board and eliminated income taxes on social security benefits for low and middle-income retirees, saving Vermonters $30 million. And, while we still have more to do to expand our workforce, there are now 4,500 more Vermonters in the private sector labor force.
We have taken many positive and measurable steps forward in just 19 months, and we’re on the right track. But we still have much more work ahead. If we stay focused on making Vermont’s economy stronger, and our state more affordable for families and business, Vermont will be a state where every community and every family can thrive and prosper.
Phil Scott is the governor of Vermont.