Impasse Over Teacher Health Contracts Stymies Adjournment

May 5, 2017

Efforts to close out the 2017 legislative session by the end of this week have fizzled in Montpelier, where an impasse between Democratic leaders and Gov. Phil Scott over the issue of teacher health contracts has delayed adjournment until at least next week.

House and Senate lawmakers have been working to resolve differences on a number of policy issues, such as more money for affordable housing development, a marijuana legalization bill, and an economic development package. The chambers also have yet to cut a final deal on a $5.8 billion state budget.

But it’s the issue of teacher health care contracts that’s responsible for the postponed adjournment. With Gov. Phil Scott standing his ground on the need for a statewide contract for teacher health plans, Democrats have decided to take extra time to figure out their next steps down a path that could well lead to a gubernatorial budget veto.

“At this point it just seemed the best thing to do was to put the brakes on for a bit and let maybe some better thinking emerge in the next couple days, so when we come back we’re a little closer to resolving this,” Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said Friday evening.

House and Senate leaders announced the decision to postpone adjournment until next week. The ensuing half hour or so revealed that while the main policy fight may be between the Democratically controlled Legislature and the Republican governor, the House and Senate are also at odds over how to proceed.

Ashe says his motive for postponing the close of the session is to try to find a compromise with Scott on the issue of teacher health care. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says she was ready to send the governor a proposal he’s already indicated he would veto.

Scott says a statewide contract for teacher health care benefits would allow the state to save $26 million in education costs, money he says Vermont could use to boost childcare subsidies, increase funding for higher education and provide property tax relief.

Democratic leadership in the House and Senate say that the Republican governor’s proposal would undermine the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers. They’ve put forward a counterproposal that they say would extract savings from the education system, but keep teacher health care bargaining at the school district level.

Ashe says that in private talks in recent days, Scott has been immovable on his position. That said, Ashe says he thinks there’s a road to agreement.

“I think a few extra days allow people to reevaluate how to all feel comfortable with the final construct,” Ashe says. “And the worst thing we could do is care so much about adjourning tomorrow that we make silly decisions that we’ll come to regret, so a few days to cool off and reset I think is going to help us get to the finish line.”

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, meanwhile, says the reason lawmakers aren’t adjourning this weekend is because Senate lawmakers walked away from budget negotiations with the House.

“The Senate said the Senate isn’t meeting anymore,” Johnson said. “The Senate conferees didn’t come back to the table for the rest of the day.”

The House and Senate are still trying to work out philosophical differences in the fiscal year 2018 spending plan.

The Senate wants to shift some general obligations to the general fund, thereby freeing up money for investments in childcare subsidies and increased higher education funding. The House says that approach would put new pressure on the education fund, which would have the effect of raising property tax rates.

Johnson, however, says she was ready to stay late Friday to work out those differences, thereby keeping a Saturday adjournment in play. And while Ashe says he wants to work out a deal with Scott on the teacher health care issue, Johnson says she’s ready to proceed with a plan passed by the House this week that Scott said he’d reject.

“The House is ready to do that,” Johnson says.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse Wednesday.