GOP pushes governor’s teacher health care savings

MONTPELIER — The House postponed action on an education financing bill Monday as Democrats and Republicans continued to posture over Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to save $26 million in the Education Fund by changing how teachers negotiate their health care benefits.

Scott is looking to capitalize on a unique situation this year that has all teachers in Vermont negotiating new health care benefits. That’s because the Vermont Education Health Initiative, which provides health care plans to teachers, is changing its offerings in response to the federal Affordable Care Act.

Gov. Phil Scott (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Scott’s plan seeks to save $26 million by removing negotiations for health care from the local level and having them take place on a statewide level with his administration. If teachers agree to pay for at least 20 percent of their health care premiums the savings are attainable, according to the governor.

While the Vermont School Boards Association and Vermont Superintendents Association strongly support the idea, the Vermont NEA, the union that represents most teachers in the state, is firmly opposed.

The House was planning to consider changes made by the Senate to H.509, which sets rates for the statewide property tax that helps cover the cost of public education in the state. An amendment to incorporate the governor’s proposal was also on the schedule for consideration.

But House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, agreed to delay action until Tuesday at the request of House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, who had to leave the State House early Monday evening.

Republicans and independents grew agitated Monday when word spread that Johnson was considering the use of a parliamentary maneuver to send the bill straight to negotiations with the Senate rather than consider amendments.

“If you can’t win the battle of ideas, keep the debate off the floor,” said Rep. Adam Greshin, an independent from Warren.

Rep. Don Turner

“The reason they are doing this is one, we are close, and two, they don’t want their members voting on this at all,” said Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington.

Scott has been pushing his proposal heavily for the past two weeks, and momentum appears to be on his side. Although the Senate rejected the plan, the amendment in the House to incorporate the idea includes eight Democrats. More Democrats may support it, Turner said.

“I spoke to (Democrats) over the weekend and I know the governor has been talking to people. I think we’re really close,” he said.

House Democratic leaders did not confirm Monday if they were planning to use a parliamentary procedure to prevent amendments.

Scott, meanwhile, said he is hoping the House will approve of his idea. He said he is not threatening a veto over it yet, however.

“I think there’s still an opportunity to do it legislatively. I still hope that’s still what happens in the next couple of days,” the governor told a gaggle of reporters.

“I would be very wary of going home without taking advantage of the situation that we have at this point in time,” Scott said. “ Using the veto term at this point might not be advantageous. I’d still like to give the Legislature an opportunity to do the right thing. But, if they don’t, we’ll react accordingly.”

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