A late-session budget proposal from Republican Gov. Phil Scott has Democratic lawmakers suddenly contemplating new ways to book savings in the public education system.
Democrats have criticized Scott’s plan to save $26 million in teacher health care benefits, saying the “last second proposal” came too late in the legislative session for lawmakers to vet the plan.
But Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate aren’t ready to throw all elements of the governor’s concept overboard. And lawmakers say they’re considering ways to harness some of the savings that might be up for grabs in teacher health plans.
“[M]embers of my caucus … are saying, before it dies, is there a way we can save this and find a compromise?” House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said Tuesday.
Last week, Scott called a press conference to announce what he called “a once-in-a-generation, if not a lifetime, opportunity to save up to $26 million a year while maintaining health care coverage for school employees.”
All the state has to do to extract those savings, according to Scott, is to overhaul contract negotiations for public school teachers. The Republican governor says his plan would allow the state to invest new money in critical programs, and give Vermonters some property tax relief at the same time.
There are elements of Scott’s plan that Democratic lawmakers are exceedingly unlikely to go along with. Scott has called for a statewide teacher health care contract; many Democrats say that upends a decades-long tradition of negotiating at the school district level, and would undermine the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers.
Democrats also say it’s inappropriate to use savings in the education system to subsidize general government programs — such as increased funding for higher education and higher child care subsidies — as the governor had proposed.
But lawmakers say public schools will likely see system-wide savings as a result of health care contract negotiations now underway, even if those negotiations stay at the district level.
“There are savings to be had. We’re committed to looking at what those savings might be,” says Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint.
Balint says she thinks Scott has well overestimated the scope of the potential savings. But she says they're substantial enough to warrant a conversation.
“I would say that the senators in my caucus are committed to continue talking with the governor about potential savings," she says.
The House, too, is looking for a middle ground.
On Tuesday, House Republicans had planned to offer an amendment calling for a version of Scott’s teacher health care savings plan. Democratic leadership decided to postpone a vote on the underlying bill. Krowinski says they want to put off that vote to see if they can find a consensus approach to the issue of health care savings.
“These are very early negotiations,” Krowinski says.
House and Senate Democrats seem to agree on the fact that districts will spend less on teacher health next year than they did this year. The question they’ll wrestle with now is whether the Legislature should have a hand in how those savings are spent — and, if so, how to go about doing it.
Balint says the Senate is mulling “all the options,” but that she isn’t ready to disclose what those options are “at this time.”
Lawmakers won’t have much time to work out the details. After Tuesday, they’ll have only four days left until their scheduled adjournment.
This post was edited at 1:50 p.m. on 5/3/17 to correct the title of Sen. Becca Balint