Late Wednesday night, the Democratically controlled Vermont House of Representatives almost did the unthinkable by passing a proposal put forth by Republican Gov. Phil Scott that would drastically overhaul the collective bargaining process for public school teachers.
While the measure failed, by the slimmest of margins, the vote has changed the political calculus in Montpelier on an issue that may well lead to a budget veto.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate couldn’t have been firmer in their opposition to Scott’s proposal. Scott wants a statewide contract for teacher health care benefits, and says the change would allow Vermont to save $26 million a year in education costs.
House and Senate leadership say the plan is an attack on the bargaining rights of organized labor, and that Vermont can still get those savings under the existing collective bargaining structure.
A number of House Democrats, however, were unwilling to follow their speaker’s lead.
“It really did provide a positive opportunity to not hurt teachers, to keep them whole, to help taxpayers, and to change the course a bit that I think is needed,” says Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood.
Wood was among 16 Democrats and six independents who joined House Republicans in voting for an amendment that would have instituted the governor’s plan. The vote failed in a 74-74 tie that required House Speaker Mitzi Johnson to take the unusual step of casting a vote on the House floor.
Wood’s assessment of the proposal mirrors the governor’s messaging on this issue.
“This [proposal] maintained collective bargaining,” Wood says. “It just changed who the teachers bargain with.”
She isn’t the only Democrat who buys into Scott’s logic.
“I am not the type of representative that will put aside a good idea just because of who presents it,” says Rockingham Rep. Matt Trieber. “So I did not see this as an attack on unions but instead an ability to really create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save some money.”
With one-fifth percent of the House Democratic caucus peeling off in favor of Scott’s plan — a 17th Democrat who was absent for Wednesday’s vote, Rep. Jim Condon, says he would have voted in favor of it had he been there — the Republican governor says the winds in Montpelier are beginning to shift.
“If anybody had wagered the odds of that two weeks ago, I don’t think they would have come to that conclusion, so my guess is we’re building momentum,” Scott said at a press conference Thursday.
Johnson says the vote does not signal a fracture in her caucus’ resolve.
“I think what we saw yesterday was the incredible pressure that so many communities are feeling about our property taxes,” Johnson says.
Johnson says Democrats’ counterproposal to Scott’s plan would leave bargaining at the school district level, and direct any savings in teacher health plans toward local property tax relief. Johnson says that plan won far more support among Democrats than Scott’s proposal did in a vote that came later on Wednesday night.
“And I think a lot of the tension yesterday was about people just wanting to know there’s a solution,” Johnson says. “But the thing is, there aren’t easy solutions to any of these things.”
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint says she’s “disappointed” in the closeness of the House vote. No matter how that vote had shaken out, Balint says the Senate will be a firewall against passage of Scott’s plan.
“It doesn’t have a chance in the Senate. And so it is, from our perspective, a bit of a waste of time to go down that road,” Balint says. “And I think taking that piece of collective bargaining away and having it go to the state is a bad idea.”
The controversy over the teacher health care issue arrived late in the 2017 legislative session, but has come to dominate the Statehouse halls since Scott unveiled his plan to lawmakers about three weeks ago. Democrats criticized it as an 11th-hour Hail Mary from a governor who has failed to back his plan up with a legislative road map for implementing the proposal.
But experienced Statehouse lobbyists say the Republican governor has put Democratic lawmakers in a political jam, despite their efforts to undermine support for his proposal in the public.
“Even though his proposal came out late, he definitely had a strong message when he came out with this proposal,” says Amy Shollenberger, owner of Action Circles, a Montpelier-based lobbying and consulting firm. “Whether you agreed with it or not, he had a compelling case with his talking points around $26 million for taxpayers.”
Kevin Ellis, a partner at Ellis-Mills Public Affairs, has been lobbying in the Statehouse for 25 years.
“This is a smart move by Gov. Scott politically, it seems to me. It’s a governor putting Democrats in a pickle,” Ellis says.
If the issue does lead to a gubernatorial veto, Ellis says Democrats are going to have their work cut out for them when it comes to winning the larger political battle.
“And if he vetoes the budget over this, then the Democrats have to choose between their natural alliance with the education union, and saving [$26 million], and that puts the Democratic caucus in a pickle,” Ellis says.
That’s precisely the framing Democrats are working so hard to avoid.
Scott insists that only through a statewide teacher contract will his administration be able to ensure $26 million in savings to the education system. The Vermont School Boards Association has backed him up on that assertion, saying local board members lack the actuarial sophistication and legal resolve to bargain effectively against union negotiators.
But Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe say local boards will be worthy adversaries when it comes time to work out a deal with local teachers. They say the choice presented by Scott — adopt a statewide teacher health care contract or lose out on $26 million in savings — is a false one. And they say Vermont can leave in place a decades-long tradition of bargaining at the local level, and secure the same level of savings that a statewide contract would yield.
House Minority Leader Don Turner says there was a moment during the vote count Wednesday night when he thought the amendment might have the votes to pass. He said he did not find a moral victory in the tie.
“It was so disappointing,” Turner says.
Turner, however, says hope remains. He says he went to a private meeting with governor on Thursday morning with a clear message.
“We need you, governor. We need you to step up and veto the budget if they don’t enact this provision,” Turner says. “I want him to take a firmer stance. We’ve done all we can. And even if we won that [vote], it wasn’t going to take us all the way there, because the Senate’s still involved. So we need to governor now to take this stand, because he has the ability to negotiate with both of them, and we don’t.”
At his press conference Thursday, Scott offered some mixed signals on veto prospects. Asked by reporters whether he planned to adopt Turner’s preferred tactic of an explicit veto threat, if lawmakers don’t approve his proposal, Scott said he would not.
“In my years of being in this building, I like to give a little latitude … do the right thing,” Scott said. “I still think there’s an opportunity for them to do so.”
In the same breath, however, Scott said, “I’m also saying I’m unwilling to walk away from this [proposal].”
Asked if that line would be interpreted by lawmakers as the same thing as a veto threat, Scott said, “I hope so.”