Lawmakers adjourn, await veto

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers ended the legislative session early Friday morning, passing a state budget and other key bills, but with no accord reached with Gov. Phil Scott on the cost of teachers’ health care benefits, lawmakers will surely return next month for a veto session.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, met with the Republican governor several times Thursday hoping to hammer out a deal. The meetings occurred with such frequency that rank-and-file lawmakers began to assume a deal was imminent.

But the legislative leaders finally acknowledged Thursday evening that a deal was to remain elusive and set in motion the process required to complete the budget and other money bills without the governor’s approval for adjournment. Scott, who spoke to both chambers before they adjourned, reaffirmed his intention to veto the budget and a bill that sets property tax rates.

“As I stand here tonight, it’s unfortunate we have not been able to reach agreement on one very significant issue, despite our best efforts. The last few weeks have demonstrated the challenges and frustrations that come with public service,” the governor said. “I’ve been clear that we have an obligation to taxpayers to ensure we have the mechanisms in place to maximize the education health care savings available without costing school employees more. And that has not been accomplished. Therefore, I cannot support the budget or the yield bill.”

Scott has been demanding for weeks that the Democratic-led House and Senate pass legislation to capture projected savings from the health care plans offered to teachers. Democrats agree that savings are possible, but are unwilling to upend the current collective bargaining process over health care benefits that takes place between teachers and local school boards.

The Vermont Education Health Initiative is offering new plans to all 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 save money in the Education Fund by requiring all teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums. He would use nearly $50 million of the projected $75 million in savings from lower premiums to offset the higher out-of-pocket costs, leaving up to $26 million in savings.

Democrats have been working to find a compromise that protects teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Scott has called for a uniform health care benefit for all teachers, and said negotiations over teachers’ health benefits should occur on a statewide basis with the administration to ensure parity and uniformity.

The House and Senate passed a yield bill Thursday night that will end all health care contracts for teachers on Sept. 1, 2019. That will provide the state with another opportunity to consider creating a statewide health benefit, or even statewide negotiations at that time. The bill also creates a commission to study how best to implement a statewide benefit.

The plan has flaws, however. Any local school districts that settle contracts before July 1 of this year will not be subject to the law, so not all districts would be forced into a statewide benefit, if lawmakers move in that direction, in 2019.

This story will be updated.

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