(Updated at 9 p.m: House Minority Leader Don Turner in a later interview said Republicans in the House did not try again Thursday to push the amendment backing Gov. Phil Scott’s healthcare negotiations policy. Scott indicated in a news conference that he may not support the state’s budget proposal without that policy in place.)
MONTPELIER – Gov. Phil Scott wants to reshape how teacher health care contracts are negotiated, having them done at the state level rather than the supervisory union level. He says this initiative could save the state $26 million.
“We could return all of these savings to taxpayers, or invest in child care and early education, reduce the cost of college, or better manage our obligation to teachers’ retirement,” Scott said in a press release. “What we can’t do is leave this savings on the table.”
Late Wednesday night, the House voted 74-73 in favor of Scott’s proposal in an amendment to H.509 relating to education tax rates. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson cast a final vote resulting in a tie, so the initiative stalled. Scott responded in another press release.
“While the Speaker’s vote ensured this savings proposal was not adopted tonight, this vote is a clear indication that enough votes exist in the House to ensure that, one way or another, the Governor’s proposal can still become law, saving taxpayers up to $26 million each year, without asking teachers to pay more or cutting programs for kids.”
According to House Minority Leader Don Turner, two apparent supporters left the Statehouse early and missed the vote, including one of the sponsors. Turner said in an interview with True North that he hopes to give it another shot on Thursday.
“I think what we have to do is continue to convey the message that Vermont taxpayers need this. The governor now has to take what we’ve worked on and really consider vetoing the budget if it doesn’t include these provisions,” Turner said. “It’s so critical at this point — you know we’ve done everything at our level that we can to try to achieve this, we were so close, and I think we did have the votes had everybody been there last night.”
He said he’s still glad for the House floor debate, including that they were able to win over 17 Democrats. He said he just hopes that they won’t get tugged back into party lines before the next effort.
Turner reassured the measure would not negatively impact teachers’ healthcare. He explained that the total estimated savings is actually in the $75 million range, and the remaining roughly two-thirds of the money would be used on the teachers to ensure their health coverage is not undercut.
“The difference is going to be used to hold teachers whole,” he said. “Through the creation of health savings accounts and HRAs [Health Reimbursement Arrangements].”
Vermont National Education Association spokesman Darren Allen said the Vermont NEA has been against this whole initiative from the start.
“We’ve been opposed to this proposal since it was first sprung on us by the Vermont School Boards Association and the governor,” Allen said. “We’ve been very clear that it takes power away from local school boards, it busts the union, and it really chases magical savings that rightly belong at the local level.”
He said he feels this really short-changes the teachers at the bargaining table.
“The underlying problem with this bill is it takes away collective bargaining rights,” he said. “It takes away the ability of local educators to bargain with their actual employers, which are the local school boards.”
The Webb amendment
Wednesday evening, Democratic leadership proposed another amendment known as the Webb amendment. Proposed by state Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, the amendment would have bargaining remain local, and that any savings should stay in local communities. It was approved by the House, although Turner is not satisfied.
“That is not going to achieve anything,” he said. “Seven districts have already finalized their contracts and there has ultimately been no savings realized because they’ve negotiated the rest of their savings into other benefits.”
Allen is in favor of the Webb amendment.
“One of the things that the Webb amendment does is it allows school boards, after the savings they generate … to capture the savings they generate together with teachers and keep that in the community, as it should be.”
Turner said Republicans would likely tack the amendment onto another bill today. Scott is expected to hold a press conference Thursday which may address this matter.
Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. He can be reached at email@example.com