MONTPELIER — The stalemate between the governor and lawmakers over teachers health care negotiations continues, even as many at the Statehouse are ready for the extended session to adjourn.
“Right now, the negotiation of the budget is going on behind closed doors so we don’t really know what’s going on with that,” House Minority Leader Don Turner told True North Wednesday.
“Basically, we’ve passed a few bills, we’re working on an ethics bill right now … we’re trying to get some direction on how long we are going to be here,” he said.
Negotiations on teachers’ healthcare negotiation policy, namely whether it should be done at the district or state level, are still ongoing as of Thursday.
On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott rejected a proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, which tried to keep collective bargaining on health care at the local school board level. Scott wants to bring health care negotiations to a statewide level to take advantage of a $26 million savings for taxpayers.
In 2020, expensive “Cadillac plans” will be penalized and teachers must move to plans that require them to pay 20 percent of premiums — up from about 14 percent now. Shifting over to health savings accounts Jan. 1, 2018, would reap a savings of $75 million, and $49 million of that would be used to cover new higher copays and deductibles. The remaining $26 million will go to reducing property taxes.
Scott says any alternative to his plan has to maximize this savings opportunity, hold teachers harmless and provide parity, and simplify negotiations for school boards that would have to negotiate complex new plans.
Ashe’s plan would require districts to negotiate through collective bargaining and pass on expected savings to a new fund.
Also on Wednesday, a marijuana legalization bill, S.22, passed the House 79-66 and now heads to the governor’s desk. Eight states have passed pot legalization by ballot initiative, but Vermont is the first to get approval through the Legislature.
Scott has stated he doesn’t think marijuana legalization is “a priority” for Vermont, but that he would look over this latest proposal.
The bill is considered to be a compromise between the House, which was leaning towards just legalization of an ounce of possession and growing a few plants at home, and the Senate, which wanted to tax and regulate the market. Not everyone was happy about it.
“We passed the marijuana bill this morning and I’m tired,” said Rep. Steve Beyor, R-Highgate Springs. “We have discussed this over, and over and over again, and when I see all the marijuana bills that are out there right now — H.170, H.167, and S.22 — they are all doing [broad legalization].”
He said legislators have listened to doctors, psychiatrists, educators and police, and he does not recall any of them supporting legalization.
“So obviously, if we are not going to listen to the experts, the only thing that’s left is how much money we can make on it,” he said.
Turner said he was not for this marijuana bill, and he joined 65 others to vote against it. He said he sees no guarantee Scott would sign such a broad approach to pot.
On the economic and community development front, Karen Horn, director of public policy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said she was interested in the ongoing legislative wrangling about tax increment financing (TIF) districts.
Part of economic development bill S.135, these districts allow communities to use property tax revenue attributed to new infrastructure development.
“Basically it is a means by which a municipality can invest in public infrastructure, without tapping into current, existing tax dollars,” as real estate consultant David White recently told NPR.
The main concern, according to Horn, is that all income tax is for education spending only.
She said the Senate would like to see 14 more of these districts whereas the House would only like to have just two. However, Turner told True North he’s with the Senate on this one.
Two popular examples of TIFs are Newport’s industrial park and Burlington’s waterfront area. Rutland, Brattleboro, Bennington, Newport, Springfield and St. Johnsbury are other examples of communities with TIFs.
Lawmakers will be at it at least until the impasse over teachers’ health care is resolved. A typical week of the legislative session costs tax payers about a quarter million dollars.
Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at Bielawski82@yahoo.com.