MONTPELIER — Democratic leaders in the Legislature, frustrated by a lack of movement in negotiations with Republican Gov. Phil Scott, said Wednesday they are moving forward with wrapping up work on the state budget and other key bills and hope to end the legislative session Thursday.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, held a State House news conference Thursday morning and declared an impasse in their talks with the governor over how to save on the cost of teachers’ health care. The two leaders presented a united front after several weeks of talks with the governor failed to produce an agreement.
“We have reached an impasse,” Johnson said. “We’ve had over a dozen meetings in the last couple of weeks where we brought proposals forward to the governor to talk about how reduce property taxes for Vermonters and what we’ve discovered is that the key component of this is not actually the money piece, it’s about who’s controlling the conversation.”
“There is a point where negotiation becomes a dictation,” Ashe said. “So, at this point, I think our House and Senate leaders will be working together … trying to work toward the best resolution that we think is out there for taxpayers, for the working people in our state.”
Scott has been demanding for weeks that the Democratic-led House and Senate pass legislation to capture projected savings from the health care plans offered to teachers. Democrats agree that savings are possible, but are unwilling to upend the current collective bargaining process over health care benefits that takes place between teachers and local school boards.
The Vermont Education Health Initiative 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 money in the Education Fund 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.
Ashe crafted a proposal that would mandate $13 million in Education Fund savings in the final six months of the 2018 fiscal year. The proposal said the savings could come from the health care savings but left room for school boards to seek cuts elsewhere. Johnson, meanwhile, crafted her own plan that placed strict parameters on what health benefits teachers could negotiate for — a proposal that draw a strong rebuke Tuesday from union leaders.
Johnson said Wednesday that Scott seems intent on altering collective bargaining.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that we really need to ask, ‘What is this conversation really about?’” she said. “We stand very firm on needing to keep these conversations in our local communities, needing to support our working-class.”
Ashe also said the governor’s focus is no longer about saving up to $26 million.
“They’ve now shifted to something fundamentally different, which is changing collective bargaining,” he said.
Scott, who spoke to reporters before the Democrats’ news conference, reiterated his intent to veto the state budget unless Democrats reach a deal with him on the health care savings.
“I’ve made it quite clear that if we aren’t able to get agreement on what I believe needs to be in the bill, that I will not hesitate to veto it,” the governor said.
He claimed broad public support for his position among Vermonters.
“There might be this vortex here surrounding the State House but outside the State House there’s a constant wind of support for what I’m proposing,” Scott said.
Johnson and Ashe said the issue is separate from the state budget — which passed the House and Senate by near-unanimous support, including Republicans. Scott, himself, praised the House version of the budget last month.
“It’s ridiculous to say the budget is the issue because we have seen incredible agreement on a strong budget that supports Vermonters and doesn’t raise taxes,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Ashe said lawmakers have extended the legislative session in an effort to find a compromise and put several proposals on the table, but Scott has rejected all of them.
“We have stayed here for a few extra weeks. We have really worked to bring as many ideas and compromises to the table as possible and we don’t have much of a negotiating partner, and that’s unfortunate,” the speaker said.
House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said House and Senate negotiators planned to work on finalizing the state budget, a housing bill, an economic development bill and a tax bill Wednesday. She said leaders were hoping to find agreement between the two chambers and adjourn for the year as early as Thursday. A Thursday adjournment is contingent on House Republicans agreeing to suspend rules to speed up the process.
Lawmakers will return early next week to complete their work if the GOP does not agree to suspend rules, Krowinski said. If Scott follows through on his promise to veto the budget, lawmakers would return sometime in June to renew negotiations.