Democratic lawmakers and members of the administration of Republican Gov. Phil Scott returned to the negotiating table Thursday to try to hammer out a deal over the budget and property tax bills that Scott vetoed last week.
Next Wednesday, lawmakers will return to Montpelier to conduct a veto session. Both sides say they hope to have a compromise in place well before then. And while a meeting on Tuesday didn’t yield a resolution, both sides say the talks were productive.
“The conversations have been very positive, very productive,” says Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs. “It’s clear that everyone is working toward the goal of reaching a compromise.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe also sounded optimistic.
“Like is always the case, as you continue to talk through what the goals are, it sometimes opens up a little bit of space to think about those things a little differently, to see how you can get enough overlap,” Ashe says.
They’re looking for that “overlap” on the issue of health care contracts for employees of public schools, a topic that prompted a weeks long political standoff at the end of the legislative session, and led to the ensuing budget veto.
Scott wants a statewide teacher contract for those health care benefits, a move he says would save the education system $26 million annually. Scott says he’s also open to some kind of legislative mandate to get those savings.
But Democratic lawmakers have balked at both options, saying they chip away at the foundation of the collective bargaining rights of unionized K-through-12 school teachers.
The governor didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, and he wasn’t at a second gathering between the two sides on Thursday either. But, at a press conference Wednesday, Scott said he’s confident a resolution is near.
“The bottom line is we had a good positive meeting as we step forward on this. I believe we’ll have resolution by the time we have the veto session, and that’s the important part,” Scott says.
What exactly the compromise measure might look like remains a tightly held secret at this point.
“For the purposes of the integrity of the negotiation, we’re going to decline to get into specifics,” Gibbs says.
Those specifics are going to be of critical importance to some key educational constituencies. On Tuesday night, the Burlington School Board adopted a resolution calling on lawmakers and the governor to refrain from passing anything that has financial impacts on the school budgets adopted by voters back in March.
Burlington board member Mark Barlow says he and others will be closely examining whatever plan the political negotiations yield.
“I’m going to be looking first and foremost for any potential impacts to our fiscal [year] 18 budget, because that has been a concern of ours through various proposals that have already been put forward in the prior session,” Barlow says.
Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson say they hope to have a compromise proposal ready for rank-and-file lawmakers to review well in advance of the beginning of next week’s veto session.
Lawmakers are also trying to negotiate a compromise measure on the marijuana legalization bill that Scott also vetoed.