Consensus Eludes Lawmakers As Legislature Extends Session Another Week

May 12, 2017

A seemingly unbridgeable divide between Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers has again postponed legislative adjournment, forcing the two sides back to the Statehouse next week to try to negotiate a compromise over the issue of teacher health care benefits.

The branches are split over a proposal from Scott to either create a statewide contract for teacher health benefits, or to impose via legislation a uniform health plan for every public school employee in Vermont.

Scott says those options are the only ways to guarantee $26 million a year in ongoing savings in the education system, and that he’ll veto the budget if lawmakers don’t capitulate. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say the governor’s plan would trample the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

But lawmakers now need to iron out differences not just between them and the governor, but between the House and Senate, which have suddenly found themselves at odds over how to proceed, despite reaching an apparently short-lived accord Thursday afternoon over a unified path forward.

The House and Senate counterproposal to Scott, unveiled by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe on Thursday, guarantees $26 million in annualized education savings. But it leaves it to local school districts to decide how to come up with the money.

"We would not prefer this to be the way we have to move forward, but if taxpayers think that we’ve been opposing giving them their money back, which has never been the case, this is the first instance where they can call the question." — Senate President Tim Ashe

The Senate plan would then use the money to buy down property tax rates in fiscal year 2018.

The Senate approved that plan Friday afternoon. Ashe says he’s no champion of the proposal. But he says it’s the best chance lawmakers have to avoid a gubernatorial budget veto, despite the fact that Scott says it doesn’t satisfy his demands.

“There is a veto threat saying that if we don’t guarantee … savings, then we’re not getting out of here, there will be no budget,” Ashe says. “So we would not prefer this to be the way we have to move forward, but if taxpayers think that we’ve been opposing giving them their money back, which has never been the case, this is the first instance where they can call the question.”

The plan has some prominent critics, however, in the Vermont School Boards Association and Vermont Superintendents Association. Both organizations favor the governor’s call for a statewide teacher contract, or the imposition of a uniform health benefit plan for all school employees.

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says it would be “disrespectful” to mandate district savings, as the Senate plan does, without putting mechanisms in place to guarantee that the savings comes from health care costs.

“I think a lot of places that have developed budgets that don’t account for the amount of savings that are now going to be required are looking now at having to make pretty steep cuts,” Mace says.

"There's a real risk of cuts to things that go directly to kids, like supplies, technology, books, materials and or deficit spending in order to achieve these targets." — Nicole Mace, Vermont School Boards Association

Since those districts have already inked employee contracts for the year, Mace says they won’t be able to meet those targets through reductions in staff.

“So there’s a real risk of cuts to things that go directly to kids, like supplies, technology, books, materials and or deficit spending in order to achieve these targets,” Mace says.

The Senate proposal says that savings can’t come from “any expenditure related to direct instructional services.”

But that provision offers little comfort to House Democrats like Burlington Rep. Joey Donovan, who said she’s received calls from school board members in her district criticizing the plan the Senate approved on Friday. Donovan says the board projects that Burlington’s savings mandate will total about $500,000.

She says board members tell her “a lot of the cuts in programming” would likely affect “kids of lower-income status that are being supported now by different programs, and that they may very well be the first ones to be cut.”

Donovan isn’t the only House Democrat concerned with the Senate plan. And 24 hours after expressing her chamber’s support for virtually the same proposal the Senate passed Friday, Johnson said the House is recalibrating its stance.

“We are on the cusp of finding a solution that preserves that local control while trying to steer people toward that health care savings,” Johnson said Friday.

Johnson said she isn’t ready to say what solution entails.

The House and Senate will return either Tuesday or Wednesday to resume work.