A tentative compromise between Democratic lawmakers and Republican Gov. Phil Scott over the issue of teacher health benefits appears to have resolved a weeks-long political standoff that had threatened passage of the budget and a key tax bill.
Until as recently as Monday night, the two sides were at odds over a proposal from Scott to intervene in the collective bargaining process that is used to negotiate health benefits for employees of public schools. Scott says a statewide teacher contract, or a legislatively mandated uniform teacher health plan, would save $26 million a year in education costs.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate had said they were unwilling to institute changes to the collective bargaining process without proper legislative vetting.
“I think conceptually we’ve agreed to stuff, which is a huge step forward from yesterday,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said Tuesday evening. “And so now it’s just making sure we didn’t miss anything in the details.”
Exactly what’s in those details remained a mystery as of late Tuesday evening. Neither lawmakers nor the administration would disclose specifics of the compromise, saying they want to hold off on making the plan public until they have legislation in place for both sides to review.
Lawmakers adjourned the legislative session on May 12 without adopting Scott’s proposal. On June 6, Scott vetoed the state budget and the property tax bill as a way of forcing them back to bargaining table.
Administration Secretary Susanne Young says the process has yielded a successful result.
“[The compromise] is a proposal that will help the state achieve significant savings in the education fund and lower property tax rates for Vermonters,” Young said Tuesday evening.
Young says the compromise isn’t everything the governor had been looking for.
“But it does take advantage of the opening of all of the teachers contracts and takes advantage of the savings can be achieved, as has been our goal,” Young said.
The fact that all teacher health contracts were up for renegotiation this year is the bureaucratic phenomenon from which the entire debate sprang. The insurance program that covers employees of public schools — called the Vermont Education Health Initiative — is overhauling insurance plans in response to changes instituted by the federal Affordable Care Act.
By all accounts, premiums for teacher health benefits will be lower under the new plans than the old ones. Scott has called for a legislative mechanism to capture some of those savings and use them for other state spending initiatives.
Though they question the accuracy of Scott’s $26 million figure, lawmakers by and large agree the new health plans will be less expensive. But they’ve said they’re unwilling to reach into local contract negotiations between teachers and school boards, to mandate what those health plans should look like.
Lawmakers looked for other ways to appease Scott; the Senate passed a bill that would have forced schools to save $13 million in next year’s budgets, but left it to local districts to decide how to come up with those savings.
Scott, however, has been adamant that the savings derive exclusively from lower health care expenditures.
Lawmakers return to the Statehouse for a veto session Wednesday, when they’ll get an in-depth briefing on the compromise measure leadership negotiated on their behalves.