By EMERSON LYNN
It’s true that the Legislature and the executive branch are separate and equal in the eyes of the Republic. But separate and equal have little to do with messaging, and what the public hears or knows about each.
The stand-off between House and Senate Democrats and Gov. Phil Scott over property taxes and school spending is a classic illustration.
The governor speaks with one voice, the Legislature speaks with many. The only thing the public hears is that the governor will hold firm and not agree to a budget that raises the property taxes Vermonters pay.
In a press conference Thursday he made it clear: “There are only two possible outcomes for Vermonters right now: We can work together in Montpelier on a plan to prevent a property tax rate increase while introducing long term stability into the system, or we can burden Vermonters with a $60 million dollar education tax increase.”
And the Democrats’s response: The governor’s proposal comes too late in the session. It uses one time money, again. We don’t really know if the governor’s $300 million in savings will materialize. We’d have to undo some of the budget work we’ve done.
The Democrats’ message is confused and complicated. The public doesn’t hear it. The only thing the public hears is that the governor wants Vermonters to keep in their pocket the money they have.
Voters don’t care if a couple of committees have to stick around to figure out how to fill the $58 million hole in the education budget. That’s a small price to pay if they can avoid a five cent increase in their property tax bills [seven cents for businesses.] Democratic leaders try to defend themselves by suggesting that voters are okay paying more, as evidenced by their overwhelming support of school budgets on Town Meeting Day.
That’s the message they want to take into the November general election?
Obviously, the Democrats can’t be too confident that their position trumps that of the governor given the reluctance of any Democrat with statewide name recognition to challenge Mr. Scott in November. And it’s the little things that give us pause. Today WDEV had a “debate” between the two sides with Mr. Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, defending the administration and former Speaker of the House Shap Smith defending the Democratic leadership in the House.
Why Shap Smith?
How thrilled current Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson must be.
Or Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe.
A confused message? Just a bit.
When Phil Scott prevailed over Democrat Sue Minter to become governor he was portrayed as a political rube; nice, honest, direct, but not someone skilled at the political game, particularly when compared to his predecessor Gov. Peter Shumlin. The chattering class took delight in predicting he would be putty in the hands of those who took their politics more seriously.
Well, this is the second session of the biennium and this is the second time Mr. Scott has held the stronger position.
Part of the reason is that he’s governor and he can spend 12 months doing what Legislators have only five months to do. This year Mr. Scott also coopted part of the Democrats’ appeal by leading the effort to pass gun control legislation.
But part of it is also the weakness of the Democrats’ message and their inability to connect to those who live and work beyond the walls of the golden dome in Montpelier.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 isn’t enough.
How do we grow?
How do we make ourselves an attractive, affordable place to live?
How do we make our educational system better?
People are looking for answers that extend beyond the tried and true. They are looking for leaders bold enough to operate outside their zones of political comfort. [As Mr. Scott did with gun control.] In the messaging game, the advantage will always be in the governor’s favor. But the Democrats are ceding more of the advantage to him than they need by keeping the conversation so confined, and so small, and so complicated, and so politically safe.
Look where it’s put them.
Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of The Essex Reporter and is publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, where this editorial first appeared.