Lawmakers won’t be back for their veto session until June 21, but Senate President Time Ashe says he hopes to have a resolution with Republican Gov. Phil Scott over the issue of teacher health care well before they return.
Prior to the session’s close, Scott had been relatively clear about what he planned to do with the budget and property tax bills, if lawmakers didn’t heed his call for a statewide contract for teacher health benefits.
Last Friday, Scott used a press event to put to rest any remaining ambiguity.
“I called this press conference today to articulate clearly I intend to veto H.518 and H.509,” Scott said.
If Vermont doesn’t have a budget in place by July 1, the state constitution forbids allocation of any funds for government services; the prospect of a government shutdown heightened the stakes in the political game of chicken between Scott and lawmakers.
But Scott’s veto declaration included a surprising addendum: If he and lawmakers can’t find agreement over the issue of teacher health care, he’ll sign the budget as is, to avoid destabilizing government.
By revealing his end game, Scott seemed to play into lawmakers’ hands. Now that they know he’ll eventually sign the budget no matter what, they could theoretically walk away from the negotiating table and declare victory.
Ashe says it’s not quite that simple.
“It’s not just the budget the governor has threatened to veto, it’s also the property tax bill,” Ashe says.
Without that bill, Ashe says Vermont will soon encounter some choppy waters.
“If vetoed and the Legislature didn’t do anything, [it] would put a $400 million hole in our education system, which would be a big problem,” Ashe says. “So we have to come back to the table, one way or the other, because whether it’s the budget or the property tax bill, we would have a major crisis on our hands.”
Ashe says he plans to reach out to Scott this week to resume talks over the administration’s proposal to use a statewide contract for teacher health benefits. Scott says the move is needed to save $26 million a year in teacher health costs. Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson say the governor’s proposal infringes on the collective bargaining rights of public employees, and that the proposal needs to be vetted more thoroughly before lawmakers can responsibly sign off.
On Tuesday, Johnson held a conference call with her House leadership team to plot their approach.
“We are right now just looking at our options,” Johnson says. “We’re just taking a moment to reflect with our constituents about what’s the best policy for Vermont.”
Johnson says the House is ready to work with the governor, but that it isn’t ready to abandon core principles in the interest of cutting a political deal.
“So I think the things we’ll be focused on are making sure the money that is being saved currently in the system goes back to taxpayers, and that the [teacher bargaining negotiations] stay in our local communities,” Johnson says.
Ashe says he plans to run some possible compromise measures by members of the Senate this week. He says it’s imperative that the House, the Senate and the governor find a middle ground before lawmakers return for the veto session next month.
“It’s important not only to not have a fiasco on those couple days of the veto session," Ashe says, "it’s also important to give predictability in the outside world to people who depend on that state budget."