MONTPELIER — Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s proposal to save on the cost of teachers’ health care plans appears to be growing on Gov. Phil Scott, but she received a lashing from unions Tuesday and may have trouble getting fellow Democrats on board.
Democratic leaders in the Legislature and the Republican governor have been engaged in a stalemate for three weeks over a demand by Scott that teachers pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums. The impasse has caused the Legislature to remain in session beyond the 18 weeks included in the state budget.
Democratic leaders and Scott 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.
Democrats have been working to find a compromise that protects teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Scott has called for a uniform health care benefit for all teachers, and said negotiations over teachers’ health benefits should occur on a statewide basis with the administration to ensure parity and uniformity.
Johnson floated a plan late Monday that would keep negotiations at the local school district level but includes “parameters” for benefits. Local unions that pay less than 20 percent of premiums would be required to pay higher out-of-pocket costs under the plan.
The governor’s office signaled Tuesday that it was open to the idea. Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley told the Vermont Press Bureau the governor has reviewed the plan and provided recommended changes that could lead to his support. Kelley said the recommendations worked “within the framework” of the speaker’s proposal, meaning he would no longer demand a single statewide benefit or statewide negotiation.
But while the speaker and governor appeared to be moving closer to agreement, the Vermont NEA, the union that represents about 14,000 teachers in the state, went on the offensive to denounce Johnson’s proposal.
Vermont NEA President Martha Allen, flanked by representatives from about a dozen other unions, held a State House news conference Tuesday to firmly rejected the proposal.
“While I haven’t had a chance to review it in any detail — I’ve first learned of it from a reporter — I can say that it’s conditioning of bargaining. This is an affront to local educators and local school boards, and sadly, an anti-worker intrusion into the collective bargaining process,” Allen said. “As it stands now, we oppose the approach that would pre-condition bargaining on such an important topic, wresting control from local school boards and local educators.”
Johnson also held an extraordinary meeting with many of the union representatives from the Vermont NEA news conference in the State House cafeteria Tuesday morning. The unions expressly asked her to guide the House in a direction that protects collective bargaining and does not narrow what can be negotiated.
“It is a sacrosanct issue for labor and infringements on our collective bargaining rights, whether it’s the Vermont NEA or any of these labor unions, is something … we take as the most serious and deepest infringements upon working people,” said David Mickenberg, a lobbyist with the Necrason Group who represents several unions.
Another Necrason lobbyist, Rebecca Ramos, urged the speaker to back away from limiting what teachers can bargain for.
“We’re asking you to lead on the value of labor, which means that collective bargaining is something that we just don’t mess with,” Ramos said. “We want you to lead the Democrats in the House protecting labor on this issue. We know you’re working hard and that it’s complicated, but right now, that’s not what’s happening … and that’s why all these people are here.”
Johnson made no promises as she attempted to explain the intricate political landscape she is trying to navigate. She said the House has advanced several issues important to unions, including covering PTSD in workers compensation for first responders, passing additional protections for pregnant women in the workplace, supporting a $35 million housing bond to boost construction of affordable housing and passing a budget that fully funds benefits and pay for state workers.
“I think the House has taken some strong steps in all of your favors this session,” she said.
She also noted her own vote two weeks ago to create a 74-74 tie in a “very, very evenly divided” House that scuttled passage of Scott’s plan in the chamber.
“If you remember a few weeks ago I cast a very historic vote myself to protect the concept of being able to bargain with one’s employer and not bifurcate that system,” the speaker said. “Vermonters duly elected a governor that does not share your thoughts and they did elect a Legislature that does share your thoughts, for the most part. We saw the other night that when push came to shove, people chose property tax relief over collective bargaining rights.”
Compromise is needed, Johnson told the union representatives, because the 150-member House is split on the issue and the 53-member GOP caucus is enough to sustain a Scott veto.
“It’s not a secret that we don’t have the votes to override a governor’s veto. We don’t, and I think that is partly because of the stress that people feel about their property taxes and wanting to just do anything they can and letting their representatives know that,” she said. “Frankly, I think it’s also because there are an awful lot of representatives that don’t fully understand what you do and the importance of unions, the importance of working people being able to bargain.”
The House, the speaker insisted, cannot force the governor to back down from his veto threats and accept whatever it passes.
“Just say no isn’t working. It isn’t working and the political reality is there aren’t the votes for ‘just say no’ to get us all the way through the process,” Johnson said. “We also have very practical constraints of needing to find something that a House, a Senate and a governor, all with very different priorities and interests, can all agree on. We’re not getting all the way through this until we can all find some agreement.”
Ramos said Johnson’s plan would lead to Scott and others looking for more union concessions in the future.
“This is just the beginning. What is the next that we’re going to pull out?” she said. “That is what the folks around this table are worried about.”
The political landscape, some labor supporters said Tuesday, has been complicated by the laissez-faire style of leadership Johnson has employed in her first term as speaker. Unlike some past speakers, Johnson has not shown an inclination to exert pressure on Democrats to vote with leadership. Many first-term Democrats in the House, who are more moderate in their politics, voted in favor of Scott’s proposal two weeks ago, requiring Johnson to cast a vote.
It’s unclear if the Senate, should the House pass Johnson’s plan, will go along. While Johnson has briefed reporters and held the open meeting with unions Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, has declined to speak to reporters and holding all of his meetings behind closed doors.
Peter Sterling, Ashe’s chief of staff, issued a brief statement Tuesday evening to clarify why Ashe is not commenting.
“As frustrated as Senator Ashe is that a solution to the impasse with the Governor hasn’t been found yet, he doesn’t want to say anything publicly that could preclude an agreement being reached,” Sterling wrote in the statement.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was “premature” for the Senate to stake out a position on Johnson’s plan.
“I think it was an attempt to get the governor to agree and I don’t think he has. Then you have the labor unions coming out strongly against it,” Sears said.
While the stalemate continues, Johnson was clear with the unions that lawmakers and the governor would reach a deal and nobody will get everything they want.
“At some point, whether that’s tomorrow or whether that’s a month from now, at some point we need something that everybody can say yes to. It’s not going to be everybody’s first choice, I will promise you that,” she said. “But if we’ve disappointed everybody in equal amounts and what we come up with is not everybody’s first choice and not everybody’s last choice, then we’ve hit the right balance.”