MONTPELIER — With the legislative session winding down, Gov. Phil Scott is pushing a proposal for a major overhaul of the way Vermont teachers negotiate their health care benefits, leaving Democrats puzzled as to why he did not present a detailed proposal sooner.
Scott held a State House news conference Tuesday, surrounded by superintendents and school board members, to tout his proposal to have teachers across the state negotiate their health care benefits with his administration, rather than with local school boards. He said the state is in a unique position this year to save Vermont’s property taxpayers $26 million.
That’s because the health care plans offered to teachers by the Vermont Education Health Initiative are changing as a result of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. As a result, all local school boards across the state are negotiating new health care benefits with teachers. The health insurance programs offered by VEHI are expected to cost $75 million less in premiums but have higher out-of-pocket costs for co-pays and deductibles.
Scott said having all teachers negotiate one health care benefit with his administration could result in savings while covering the higher out-of-pocket expenses for teachers, leaving more than $26 million leftover. The savings are incumbent on the Scott administration being able to negotiate a deal that requires teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, however.
“We have a once-in-a-generation, if not a lifetime, opportunity, to save up to $26 million per year while maintaining health care coverage for school employees. Put another way, we have an opportunity to slow down what some thought was an unstoppable cost-driver without harming employees,” the governor said. “We must act now because we will not get another bite at this apple.”
Scott said he worked with the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association to craft his plan to create a single statewide teachers health care contract. The state would assume the role of negotiating the benefits, a departure from the tradition of health care benefits being negotiated between teachers and local school boards.
Scott said he would look to use the savings for property tax relief and to pay for new spending on early and higher education.
“I think we can have all of that. We can take a portion of that, as I advocated for, for taxpayers. At least not raising property taxes, but maybe some taxpayer relief, as well as investments in areas that we desperately need,” he said. “Those could be negotiated, but I’d say a third, a third, a third. I’d say everyone can win.”
Scott, and several school board members, said Tuesday the proposal would also assist local school boards who are overmatched in the negotiating process with the Vermont National Education Association, the union that represents most teachers in the state.
Additionally, the proposal would not diminish teachers’ right to bargain for their health care benefits, Scott insisted.
“While this proposal changes the dynamics of bargaining for health insurance, it maintains collective bargaining rights,” he said.
The governor said the Senate has acknowledged the potential savings from the changing VEHI health insurance plans, and even included moving the cost of retirement benefits for current teachers to the Education Fund — an $8 million shift from the state’s General Fund, that could be covered by the VEHI savings.
But Scott said the savings will not be achieved unless lawmakers go along with his proposal to negotiate health care benefits on a statewide basis.
“I appreciate the intent of this proposal but the vast majority of school districts have not taken advantage of any savings. So if we do not move the bargaining of health benefits of our teachers and school employees to the state level, we cannot achieve these potential savings, nor can we ensure these budget changes are not just new costs paid for by property taxpayers,” he said.
While Scott has the support of school board members and superintendents, he lacks support from the Vermont National Education Association and Democratic leaders in the Legislature. Scott administration officials met with all of them last week to float his proposal and it was rejected out-of-hand by the union.
On Tuesday, Vermont NEA spokesman Darren Allen reiterated the union’s opposition.
“That the governor suggested he would veto a budget if he can’t impose his anti-union proposal that strips power from local school boards and teachers is stunning,” Allen said. “That the (Vermont School Boards Association) doesn’t trust its own members is insulting to those locally elected men and women who, with teachers, do what they think is best for their communities.”
Minority Republicans in the House and Senate are enthusiastic about Scott’s proposal. But like Scott’s previous budget proposals involving education, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have received the latest proposal cooly.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said it has been known by all stakeholders since last fall that the health insurance plans offered to teachers would be changing. A major proposal like the one put forward by Scott is “something you should bring up when you know it has a chance of actually being discussed,” she said.
“To have it brought up with 10 days left in the session does not, to me, indicate that he’s really serious about trying to get it done,” Johnson said, noting that the Legislature is aiming to adjourn for the year by May 6. “You can’t govern by mission statement. You can’t govern with a big, broad-stroke idea. You have to at some point get details behind it.”
Johnson said teachers are already negotiating with their local school districts on health care plans and some savings can be achieved.
“Those VEHI savings can be achieved in our current system as well. There’s nothing guaranteeing more savings at a local level versus at a statewide level,” the speaker said.
The governor, Johnson said, may be motivated to push the proposal now because many of his previous proposals have already foundered.
“I think he’s seen that there aren’t necessarily a lot of his proposals that we have gotten the details on that have moved forward, so it’s a Hail Mary,” she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, and Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said the Democratic caucus in the Senate is also unlikely to get behind Scott’s proposal at this late stage.
The governor indicated that he has raised the issue with Democratic lawmakers before and suggested they would have rejected it no matter when he presented them with details.
“I’ve been having conversations with legislators and leadership about this initiative. This is no surprise. But we haven’t moved to the next step,” Scott said. “If I presented this a month-and-a-half ago I’m sure it would have been turned down.”