MONTPELIER — Rutland County’s three-person Senate delegation has introduced legislation that would codify into law the far-reaching education reforms Gov. Phil Scott proposed in his budget address Tuesday.
The three Republican senators — Peg Flory, Kevin Mullin and Brian Collamore — were sought out by Scott ahead of his budget address, according to Flory.
“Gov. Scott reached out to us … sometime last week and explained that he was going to be making a proposal that would need some legislation,” she said Wednesday. “So we had legislative counsel draft it and we agreed to sponsor it for him.”
Scott surprised many when he called Tuesday for lawmakers to pass legislation that would require teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care insurance premiums. That would put them on equal footing with state employees, and close to workers in the private sector. But health care costs are typically part of the collective bargaining process between local school boards and teachers’ unions.
Scott is also seeking legislation to restrict spending in local districts. Under his plan, local school budgets would be required to be level-funded. He said a one-time assessment of up to 5 percent of grand list values could be assessed at the local level if districts were unable to level fund.
The savings will be used to fund a early $10 million investment in early education efforts, and more than $6 million for higher education. Other savings will be used to help close the projected gap between revenue and spending of more than $70 million.
The ideas are sure to see fierce opposition from the Vermont National Education Association, the state’s largest labor union, and from local voters who could view Scott’s plan as a power grab by the state that upsets the state’s history of local control.
All three members of the Rutland County Senate delegation said they agreed to sponsor the legislation to begin a conversation. None of them offered their full support yet, however.
“I think that we need to have a conversation about how to best allocate our resources, pre-K all the way through college or training. I welcome the conversation and the only way you can have that conversation is to have something to talk about,” Mullin said.
“As is true with a lot of legislation introduced here, it can serve as a starting point for discussion about how we go about making changes. I can’t predict how people will feel or won’t feel going forward,” Collamore said.
Flory said she expects some backlash from her constituents in Rutland County. Many lawmakers inside the State House said they expect local voters to push back against any legislator that supports Scott’s plan — not matter what party they belong to.
As a former select board member, Flory said she appreciates the desire of local communities to determine their own budgets. But the state has been involved in education finance for many years now, she said.
“Most things we do here you get backlash one way or the other. I think some may regard it that way. Act 60 was regarded that way. Act 46 was regarded that way. I am sensitive to the right of locals to govern themselves,” Flory said. “Once we got the state involved in financing education there were changes. Once Act 60 came and we had a statewide property tax, the state already was intruding into local affairs.”
Mullin and Collamore said they expect to anger some constituents as well.
“Yes, I’m worried about a backlash,” Mullin said. “But, it’s also a majority of my constituents telling me they still need meaningful property tax relief and they don’t feel that has every really occurred. In order to get property tax relief you have to have the conversation,” Mullin said.
Collamore said Wednesday — less than 24 hours after Scott delivered his address — that he has already received some negative feedback.
“We understand that there are always conflicting views on any topic. So, I’m sure that some do view this as sort of a local versus top-down situation. I guess that’s unavoidable, given the situation. I’m very sensitive to other people’s views on it,” he said.
Flory declined to say whether she thinks the bill will make it into law. Instead, Flory said she hopes legislative committees give it a fair airing.
“I’m still here because I still am, down deep, an optimist, and believe most people think very few issues are black and white. They’re a shade of gray. Hopefully, the committee will look at this and not say it’s black or white but some shade of gray and work through it to get the right shade,” she said.