MONTPELIER — Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said Monday she is working on a compromise with Republican Gov. Phil Scott to end a stalemate over teacher health care savings that has prevented lawmakers from completing the legislative session.
Johnson, of South Hero, said she met with the governor Monday to reveal her plan to achieve the health care savings without infringing on the collective bargaining rights of teachers. Scott has been demanding for several weeks that lawmakers achieve up to $26 million in savings in the Education Fund from health care savings.
“It keeps negotiations local and respects collective bargaining practices, which is important to some of the parties at the table,” the speaker said. “It really narrows some of that discussion a bit and works to create savings up to the $26 million statewide.”
Democratic leaders in the Legislature and the governor agree that savings can be achieved from changes to the health insurance plans offered to teachers by the Vermont Education Health Initiative. VEHI is offering new plans to all Vermont teachers beginning in January that have lower premium costs but higher out-of-pocket expenses. That change is driven by a provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that will tax high-end insurance plans that many teachers currently have.
Scott wants to save the money by requiring all teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums. He would use nearly $50 million of the projected $75 million in savings from lower premiums to offset the higher out-of-pocket costs, leaving up to $26 million in savings.
Scott has sought to change the negotiating structure to ensure teachers pay at least 20 percent of premiums. Under his plan, all teachers would negotiate for a single statewide health benefit with his administration. But Democratic leaders in the Legislature, and the Vermont NEA, the union that represents most teachers in the state, have rejected that, saying it would impede on collective bargaining rights.
Lawmakers and the governor have been at impasse for the two weeks, causing the legislative session to extend beyond the 18 weeks of funding included in the state budget. Lawmakers left the State House Friday with the dispute lingering and will return Wednesday to attempt to reach a compromise.
The Senate passed legislation Friday that mandated $13 million in Education Fund savings, representing the last six months of the 2018 fiscal year. That plan did not require the savings to come from health care costs, however, and could result in school districts making cuts elsewhere.
Johnson told the Vermont Press Bureau Monday the Senate-passed plan would likely fail in the House. School boards were also opposed.
“I think Democrats were split on it and I don’t think that would have passed the House,” she said. “I think reluctant is probably too gentle of a word on the Senate plan.”
The plan Johnson is crafting would narrow what teachers can negotiate for. Local bargaining units that negotiate a premium share of less than 20 percent would see higher out-of-pocket costs. Those that agree to pay at least 20 percent would have lower out-of-pocket costs.
“It’s all driving people toward the same type of savings but we’re not dictating how you get to those savings and it keeps the conversation on health care,” she said.
Johnson said the Senate-passed plan is the only one that guarantees savings, but her new proposal comes “very close.”
“We’re saying, ‘Here are the tight parameters that you can negotiate your health care contracts in,’” Johnson said. “We’re going to make sure that that amount of savings gets put back to taxpayers, that it can’t be spent elsewhere.”
Scott was presented Monday with “a very rough draft” of the plan that introduces the concept, according to the speaker. A commitment from the governor is needed before the House moves toward a vote, she said.
“I told him that more than anything the thing that will get everyone to the table is hearing that he will be able to commit,” Johnson said. “I made it clear that this is our best chance, but for us to put this in legislation we need to hear confirmation that the governor is on board. We do think this meets the main principles that the governor was concerned with and meets the main principles of the Legislature.”
Johnson said she is waiting to hear back from the governor’s office.
“We don’t have a confirmed yes. The fact that [Secretary of Administration] Susanne [Young] and I were in a number of conversations on Friday and over the weekend and walked through things today, I am cautiously optimistic,” she said.
Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said the administration is reviewing the proposal but declined to comment on whether the governor will accept it.
“We’re taking a look, evaluating it against the governor’s principals and then we’ll be responding back to the speaker,” she said. “We want to get back to her with our thoughts.”
Kelley said the administration is “looking to move quickly because time is important in this discussion.”
Vermont NEA spokesman Darren Allen said union officials have not yet seen Johnson’s proposal. However, he said any plan that places restrictions on what teachers can bargain for is “unacceptable.”
“It is an intrusion into collective bargaining. It is a preconditioning of bargaining,” Allen said.
The union is planning a news conference at the State House Tuesday with representatives of most unions in Vermont to denounce the “attack on the rights of all working people in the state.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, did not immediately responded to a request for comment.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 6:05 p.m. to include comments from the Vermont NEA.