With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, Gov. Phil Scott is calling on lawmakers to overhaul the collective bargaining process for public school teachers, so that his administration can try to extract $26 million in health care savings from the education system next year.
Vermont spends $1.6 billion a year on K-12 education, and Scott has made it his mission this year to try to spend some of that money on other things.
The Republican governor began the 2017 legislative session with a controversial plan to freeze spending on public education; Democratic Lawmakers quickly torpedoed that proposal. Scott’s latest school spending proposal comes in the waning days of the 2017 session, and also isn’t garnering much support from Democratic leadership in the House and Senate.
“If this was a priority of the governor’s, then why wasn’t it on our desks in January?” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said Tuesday. “[Collective bargaining] is a practice that has been going on for how many decades? And to try to upend that with two weeks left in the session is, I don’t think, very respectful of the legislative process.”
In his budget address back in January, Scott proposed a spending freeze on local school budgets next year, and using the ensuing savings to boost childcare subsidies, and increase spending on higher education. Lawmakers derided the proposal as an unprecedented power grab from Montpelier, and said it had the potential to decimate education services as many schools.
Now Scott is back with an alternate plan, and he made his pitch to the Legislature, and the public, at a press conference on Tuesday morning.
“Now we have once in a generation, if not a lifetime, opportunity to save up to $26 million a year while maintaining health care coverage for school employees,” Scott said.
Virtually every school district in the state is renegotiating its teacher health insurance contract this year, thanks to federal health care reforms that are forcing schools to adopt new insurance plans. By all accounts, the new health plans will yield considerable savings.
Scott says it’s a unique opportunity for the state, but one it can seize only if it creates a statewide contract for teacher health benefits. Scott says his plan would strengthen taxpayers’ hands at the health care bargaining table, and ensure $26 million in savings that Vermont could use to pay for other spending initiatives.
The governor says he’d leave all other elements of teacher contract negotiations at the local level.
“We have an opportunity to slow down what some thought was an unstoppable cost driver without harming employees,” he says.
Jeff Fannon, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, says there’s one major problem with Scott’s proposal.
“It’s not collective bargaining,” he says.
Fannon says the governor’s proposal strips teachers of a critical bargaining chip at the negotiating table. He says it also undermines teachers’ ability to negotiate directly with their local district employers, instead forcing them to bargain for a major contract component - health care - with the state.
“So you’ve taken away one of the big items on the table for discussion, health care, and it then magnifies all the other issues that are left for teachers and local school boards to deal with,” Fannon says.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says she’s open to the concept of statewide negotiations for teacher health benefits. She says though that it would be impossible to vet such a sweeping overhaul in the last eight days of the legislative session.
“If this was a priority of the governor’s, then why wasn’t it on our desks in January?" she says. “This is a practice that has been going on for how many decades, and to try to up-end that with two weeks left in the session is, I don’t think, very respectful of the legislative process."
Senate President Tim Ashe says he has similar concerns.
“Open minded, as ever,” Ashe says. “But being boxed in by virtue of a last-second proposal is not something that feels like it can fly this year.”
The Scott administration first presented the plan to teachers and legislative leaders at a meeting last Thursday.
Ashe and Johnson also say that rejecting Scott’s plan doesn’t mean they’re also rejecting the prospect of health benefits savings. They say that local districts will still be able to renegotiate benefits packages in ways that deliver taxpayers savings. The only difference is that instead of the state taking that money and using it for general government programs, as Scott wants to do, the savings will stay at the district level, where local voters can decide how to spend that money.
Scott, however, has marshaled an impressive roster of supporters for his plan - namely the school boards and superintendents that oversee teacher contract negotiations at the local level. The Vermont School Boards Association and Vermont Superintendents Association were among the most vocal critics of Scott’s plan to freeze local school budgets. On Tuesday their members stood by as Scott heralded his new plan.
“Board members, from what I’m hearing across the state, want the state to do this,” says Geo Honigford, president of the Vermont School Boards Association, and a board member in Royalton. “They’re willing to hand this over. It’s going to be an immense relief to school board members.”
Honigford says school board members generally lack the expertise to deal with complex health benefits issues, and that local board members are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating those benefits with professional union lawyers.
“We’re focused so much on health care, teacher pay, other issues like that, that we’re not focused on what kids need to develop, programming for kids. It diverts the conversation,” Honigford says.
As for the timing issues, Scott says that if lawmakers need a few extra days to work out the details, then it’s worth extending the legislative session if it means moving ahead with his plan.
But timing isn’t the only hurdle to winning legislative buy in. Chittenden County Sen. Philip Baruth, the Democratic/Progressive chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says he’s witnessed a pattern of Republican governors across the country chipping away at collective bargaining rights.
He says it’s concerning to see that kind of proposal now surface in Vermont, “because I think it undercuts collective bargaining and unions, which have been successful in putting people in the middle class and holding them there.”
“So I’m never for the Legislature universally and unilaterally overturning collecting bargaining,” Baruth says.
Scott says his proposal does nothing to undermine collective bargaining, only that it changes the table around which that bargaining would occur.