MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Employees Association and the three Democratic candidates for governor are calling on lawmakers to fully fund a new labor contract for state workers recommended by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, but Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin says it is too costly.
The VSEA and the candidates — Matt Dunne, Sue Minter and Peter Galbraith — held a State House news conference Wednesday calling on the Legislature to include a 2 percent salary increase for state workers in the 2017 fiscal year state budget and a 2.25 percent increase in the 2018 fiscal year budget. That increase was recommended by the Vermont Labor Relations Board Tuesday in a 3 to 2 split decision over the Shumlin administration’s proposal for a 1 percent increase in 2017 and a 1.25 percent increase in 2018.
VSEA President Dave Bellini said Wednesday the union has been seeking a fair contract through collective bargaining since last August that respects state employees.
“You show respect and support by putting your money where your mouth is — funding our contracts, our retirements, making investments in safety for the hardworking Vermonters who are state employees,” he said.
State employees voluntarily accepted a 3 percent pay cut during the Great Recession, Bellini said, after it was recommended by a fact finder. Now, he said state employees are looking for a reasonable increase. He knocked the outgoing governor who is not seeking re-election for opposing the increase supported this year by an independent fact finder and the VLRB.
“Those days are over and now we’ve had an independent fact finder say 2 (percent) and 2.25 (percent),” he said. “This is the beginning of a new day and we look forward to working with a new administration. And, boy, do we want a new administration.”
Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, who is also not seeking re-election, said at the news conference that he supports funding the salary increase selected by the VLRB.
“The promise that we made was that we would fund what the last best offer or the contract was. We have known for a long time that we were going to have to do that. We did not negotiate a contract, but we now have a number that we’re obligated to pay and it is my personal believe that that’s what we will do and I will do whatever I can as speaker of the House to make sure that the … last best offer is funded fully,” Smith said. “That is my promise to you. Promises made, promises kept.”
Dunne and Galbraith both said they support the increase and called on lawmakers to fund it.
“It is this kind of conflict and consternation that prevents us from being able to work together. We all know the challenges that are facing as a state are real and they’re serious and they’re ones that state workers get asked every day to try to solve,” he said. “It can be done. It’s late in the session. They need to make sure it happens so that we can go forward together in talking about a new future for the state of Vermont.”
Dunne, however, said he was not recommending a detailed way to fund the increase, which is expected to increase the state’s general fund by about $11 million over the next two years.
“I am confident that they will be able to find the resources to be able to do this,” Dunne said.
Galbraith said the services state employees provide make the state attractive to potential residents and businesses and they should be compensated fairly.
“The key question here is is the state of Vermont the very things that make Vermont a desirable place to live and a desirable place to do business. What is it that does it? It is the quality public services that we have. It’s the environmental protection that we have. Who is it that delivers that environmental protection? Who is it that delivers those quality public services? It is the state employees. That’s where we should be investing,” Galbraith said.
“We’ve gone through the process, the decision has been made, and now it is time to fund it,” he added.
Galbraith said he would look to end corporate subsidies and special interest tax breaks to cover the cost of the contract.
“To me the choice is clear,” he said. “There are the resources there it just requires stepping away from a culture, frankly, that approaches crony capitalism, and focus on essential public services.”
Minter, who was sick and unable to attend the news conference, said through a surrogate that she also supports the VLRB’s recommended contract.
The House Appropriations Committee committed $3.5 million for salary increases in the budget it passed last month. The plan recommended by the VLRB would require an additional $2 million to cover the full cost and would need to be added by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which now has possession of the budget bill.
The governor said Wednesday that he stands behind his proposal, which he said amounts to a 5 percent pay increase when annual step increases are factored in.
“I don’t think we should come up with the extra $2 million,” Shumlin said in an interview Wednesday. “The administration’s position is very reasonable — a 5 percent increase over the next two years, which is more than most Vermonters are going to get in their paychecks over the next two years. The state employees are asking for almost 8 percent.”
“I would urge the Senate to fund the plan that the administration put forward. And by the way, it was a 2 to 3 split decision by the board, so this was hardly a unanimous decision,” the governor added.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said the committee will look to make a final decision by Friday.
“We don’t have a position yet,” she said. “The challenge before us is where do we find the additional $2 million if we were to say we’ll fully fund it. That could mean making reductions in other places to find that.”
She said the committee could also look to “fund as much as you can” and then leave it to the administration to find the savings throughout the budget year. The committee could also embrace “the most difficult option,” which would be to fund a less generous pay increase.
“The decision just came down last night and we really haven’t had any discussions how we will proceed,” Kitchel said.