MONTPELIER — The House and Senate are continuing to wrangle with crucial money bills as they aim to adjourn the first half of the legislative biennium Saturday.
They have plenty of work left to do, however, and a showdown with Republican Gov. Phil Scott looms large at the end of this legislative session over his main priority for this year.
Late Wednesday night, Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson cast a rare vote to fend off a Republican-led amendment to fundamentally change the way teachers in the state negotiate their health care benefits.
Johnson, D-South Hero, cast her vote after the House voted 74-73 to embrace a plan pushed by Scott to move negotiating for teachers’ health care benefits from the local school district level to one statewide contract. With her vote against the measure, the House was knotted at 74-74 — close, but not enough for the GOP and 16 Democrats who bucked their own leadership to secure a majority.
The House had been struggling for several days to deal with an education financing bill that sets statewide property tax rates that help fund public education. Scott has insisted that lawmakers move negotiations for teachers’ health care benefits from the local district level to one statewide contract.
Scott says the state is in a unique position to save up to $26 million in the education fund because all teachers across the state will be offered new health care plans in January because of changes brought on by the federal Affordable Care. The new insurance plans offered by the Vermont Education Health Initiative will cost about $75 million less in premiums, but they have higher out-of-pocket costs.
Scott maintains that some of the $75 million in premium savings could be applied to offset the higher out-of-pocket costs for copays and deductibles. It would still leave about $26 million leftover in savings. Scott’s plan is contingent on his administration being able to negotiate a deal that requires teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their premiums.
Scott wants to use the money in several ways, including applying one-third of the savings to property tax relief.
While the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association back the governor’s plan, the Vermont NEA, the teacher’s union that represents most teachers in the state, is strongly opposed. They say it undermines teachers’ right to negotiate directly with their employers — local school boards — for their benefits.
And now both the House and Senate are on record in opposition. The Senate previously voted 20-9 against a similar proposal.
House Republicans were excited Wednesday morning, believing they had enough votes to pass a version of the governor’s proposal. But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate worked on a substitute amendment that sought to achieve savings without upending the collective bargaining process between teachers and local school boards. That amendment, which would return any health care savings to districts in the form of grants to lower property taxes, was enough to entice some Democrats away from the GOP proposal.
The education financing bill, H.509, now heads to a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators will iron out their differences. Both chambers are likely to continue opposing creating a statewide teacher health care contract.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said Wednesday night’s defeat was difficult because House Republicans were close, and for a time, thought they would win.
“We knew the vote was going to be close. Just disheartening to lose, to have more votes until the speaker votes,” he said.
While Scott has pushed hard for his proposal, he has stopped short of telling lawmakers he will veto the state budget or education financing bill unless they accept it. Turner said that must change.
“I don’t know if it’s hurting me, but it’s not helping. I want him to take a firmer stand. I’m going to advocate for it this morning in our meeting. We’ve done all we can. We brought it as close as we can to victory,” Turner said. “We need the governor now to take his stand.”
Scott, however, refuses to say explicitly say he will veto the 2018 fiscal year state budget if Democrats do not include his teacher health care proposal. At his weekly press conference Thursday he said he is sticking to his approach.
“He came in and voiced his opinion on what needed to happen. I have a great relationship with Don. I believe that my approach is the right approach to give as much flexibility to legislators to do the right thing,” the governor said. “There’s still time. They’ve come a long way. It wasn’t but three weeks ago they weren’t doing anything with the VEHI savings, so they’ve at least come to the table, put a proposal together that I don’t believe works, but at least recognized the fact that there are savings and that we should be taking advantage of them.”
Scott said the House’s tie vote “demonstrated that at least half of the lawmakers in the House are willing to make this common sense policy change on behalf of taxpayers.
“I stand ready to work with them to realize the savings for taxpayers. To do so we must have a mechanism to ensure taxpayers see these savings. Any alternative proposals we’ve seen so far do not accomplish that. A wait-and-see approach that hopes savings will materialize organically on a district-by-district basis ignores reality,” Scott said.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have drawn a line in the sand over changing the negotiating process. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, said the Democratic majority has no interest in changing that process without going through the traditional committee process.
“We are not interested in, literally, in the last week of the session, contemplating a departure from decades of the way teachers and school boards negotiate. If the governor wants to prepare to actually proposal a bill and fight for it for a session, he can do that next year,” Ashe told reporters Wednesday.
Scott rejected the assertion by the Vermont NEA and Democrats that his plan harms the collective bargaining rights of teachers.
“I don’t believe that it gives up anything in terms of collective bargaining,” he said.
The governor said he would consider alternative proposals that do not include moving to a statewide teacher health care contract if it ensures savings.
“I’m all ears. If there is I’d like to hear what they have to say and I’m willing to negotiate in that regard but I’ve seen nothing yet that would satisfy what I believe should happen,” Scott said.
Scott said he would also consider abandoning his push to use the projected health care savings for things other than property tax relief.
“If we came down to the end and they didn’t feel it was necessary to invest in early child care and learning, if they didn’t feel it was necessary to backfill the teachers’ retirement fund … and they just wanted to give everything back to taxpayers, sure. That’s part of negotiating,” he said.
Meanwhile, House and Senate negotiators worked Thursday to finalize the 2018 fiscal year state budget that can pass both chambers. The biggest difference between the two chambers is the Senate’s plan to shift the cost of retirement benefits for current teachers from the General Fund to the Education Fund. The Senate plan would raise property taxes by about $8 million.
The House is eyeing a way to cover the cost of the transfer so it does not raise property taxes. A final version of the budget was expected to be ready Friday.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. on Thursday.