Legislature goes into overtime as disagreements with Scott remain

MONTPELIER — The Senate passed a proposal Friday to achieve $13 million in Education Fund Savings, but lawmakers are stuck on a slow-motion path to adjournment and will return to the Capitol next week after House Republicans declined to suspend House rules to immediately consider the legislation.

The Senate voted 20-9 in favor of mandating $13 million in savings from local school districts in the 2018 fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2018. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, said the plan is intended to meet Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s demand for Education Fund Savings.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, speaks with her chief of staff in the House chamber Friday. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

But the proposal approved by the Senate achieves the savings in ways the governor has said he does not support. Scott wants to save money by requiring all teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature and the governor agree that savings can be achieved from changes to the health insurance plans offered to teachers by the Vermont Education Health Initiative. VEHI is offering a new slate of plans to 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 use nearly $50 million of the projected $75 million in savings from lower premiums to offset the higher out-of-pocket costs, leaving an extra $26 million. The savings is predicated on teachers paying at least 20 percent of their health care premiums and put restrictions on what teachers could negotiate for.

The plan passed by the Senate Friday would mandate $13 million in savings, which could come from the health care savings, during the final six months of the 2018 fiscal year — a period that stretches from January through June of 2018.

Three Democrats joined with six Republicans in voting against the plan. Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, broke with his party’s leadership in favor of the governor, who is a close friend and political ally.

“You gotta do what’s right. Nothing to do with [political] parties,” he said.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, also voted against it, saying he disagreed with how it achieves the savings.

“I suspect that this proposal does no harm, but I am not confident in that,” he said. “I am not able to defend anything being proposed now with confidence. I am hearing from my school boards.”

McCormack said he is not afraid to vote against something his constituents dislike, but said he wants “to really know that I can argue with confidence, moral confidence as well as intellectual confidence.”

The Senate-passed plan states that cuts could not come from direct student instruction, but they could come from areas outside of health care costs.

“We do not want them cutting back on a science teacher or removing a program for the arts,” Ashe said on the Senate floor Friday. “We believe that is … a guardrail.”

The Senate-passed plan would return savings directly to property taxpayers in each district. It would also create a commission to study whether a statewide health care benefit for teachers makes sense in the future.

Additionally, it leaves in place the way teachers negotiate for their health care benefits — directly with local school districts. Scott has advocated for changes to the collective bargaining process. The Vermont NEA, the union that represents most teachers in Vermont, has accepted the Senate-passed plan because it does not require a statewide health care contract or benefit.

The Senate suspended its rules to send the plan directly to the House Friday, but the House Republican caucus refused to suspend House rules to take it up — effectively bringing progress to a grinding halt.

Gov. Phil Scott has a quiet moment Friday before speaking with reporters. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Scott told reporters Friday that the language passed by the House Friday is not enough to win his support, meaning even if the House follows suit and passes it a veto is likely. House Republicans hold 53 seats in the chamber and can sustain a veto.

Scott said any agreement should “rebase” teachers’ health care benefits to make them more uniform around the state.

“It doesn’t meet some of the standards that I had put in place about trying to have some uniformity throughout Vermont,” Scott said. “I think it puts more pressure on the school boards in trying to accomplish the $13 million in savings.”

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, faces challenges in getting the Senate-passed proposal through the House. Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, a leader of the Working Vermonters Caucus, said she will not support the measure and could bring many of the dozens of caucus members with her.

Johnson told House members Friday that more negotiations are needed before the Legislature can adjourn for the year.

“Adjournment can’t happen without everybody being on the same page woe we are doing our darnedest to make sure that we can get everyone on the same page,” she said.

Scott said he is not opposed to lawmakers returning next week — even though the state budget does not include funding beyond the 18 weeks they’ve already been in session — as Democratic leaders continue to move closer to his position.

“I think they have to agree to (my proposal).” We’re moving ever-so-slowly towards that,” he said. “I’m still hoping that they will come to the table that all of us can accept and go home.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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