The Democratically-controlled Vermont Legislature adjourned last Friday despite budget veto threats from the Republican governor over the failure to reach a deal on a new teacher health insurance negotiation plan.
Late in the legislative session Republican Governor Phil Scott proposed a plan that would create a statewide contract for teacher health benefits. Democrats feel that plan would undermine collective bargaining. The governor promised to veto the budget because lawmakers didn't pass the bill, which he claims will save property taxpayers an estimated $26 million a year by changing the way the state's 14,000 teachers get health insurance.
The insistence that lawmakers pass the measure extended the legislative session by two weeks. Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe have expressed frustration with what they have characterized as the governor's changing demands for the teacher health care proposal.
Speaker Johnson says the parties were very close to an agreement Thursday. But in the end she says the governor wanted a piece included that the legislature could not do without understanding the full implications. “We’re really focused on keeping the conversations local and keeping the money local. When the governor put this plan on the table he was talking about giving a third of the savings back to taxpayers and spending two-thirds of it. You know that was the plan. And I think once you start centralizing that decision making and centralizing that negotiation it becomes easier to then build those savings into the state budgets rather than let local taxpayers decide their fate.”
Senator Ashe finds the governor’s veto threat disturbing. “The governor is threatening to veto a budget that was supported by all but one legislator. It is a very serious statement to say that you’ll veto the budget for something that has nothing to do with it. I think the fact that the governor has now sort of gone back and forth about whether he’ll actually follow through with it says that the administration is maybe appreciating for the first time that if you veto a budget it’s actually a really big deal.”
Ashe learned of the governor’s proposal to change how teachers negotiate on April 20th. School boards are already renegotiating contracts based on a federal mandate. Ashe says that allows the legislature more time to review the governor’s idea. “The governor wanted to change collective bargaining, which is the term for how teachers negotiate with school boards, this year. And the legislature had felt that to interrupt about a hundred negotiations midstream is not a fair or right way to go about business, especially with no process to determine whether it’s going to cause all sorts of problems we haven’t thought of. So because the governor was unwilling to yield from dismantling the current negotiating process at the local level that has been really the sticking point.”
House Minority Leader Republican Don Turner says the budget is good but a lot of money is left on the table by not including the governor’s proposal. He would support a gubernatorial budget veto. “I think it’s the responsible thing for the governor to do at this point. We have an opportunity to return an estimated $26 million to property tax payers. We have to do everything we can to achieve that. The NEA and the majority wanted the negotiations to be done locally. And what we had seen in the first eight contracts that were settled there were no savings because the local boards were giving the money back in pay raises, more money to teachers and so on. So there was no money for the taxpayers. It was all being basically negotiated away into salaries and other benefits
Legislative leaders have scheduled a special session on June 21st and 22nd to deal with any vetoes from Governor Scott.