In the final week of the legislature, bills move at a fairly rapid pace between the House and Senate as differences are resolved and agreement is reached. Some legislation, however, deals with highly controversial issues such as marijuana legalization, paid family leave, and education issues. These bills often generate much floor debate and take hours, if not days, to bring to completion.
On two different days of the expected final week, legislators remained on the floor until nearly midnight before completing business.
One of the most contentious bills was the education financing bill, H.509. This bill was being amended to include the governor’s proposal that would create a statewide health insurance contract for teachers. While the proposal sounds like a good idea, it was offered so late in the session the legislature was not able to properly investigate the assumptions, tax implications and labor policy implications in the way the legislature conscientiously approaches all legislation. Issues like this are not black and white and require getting input from many sources and affected parties.
With that in mind, the House Ways & Means Committee did examine the proposal and determined that there may be up to $26M of savings to be realized, but only half of that in FY18. It is important to note also that the $26M figure is a guesstimate based on a presumed decreased use of health care services by teachers under the new plans.
Furthermore, the Governor’s proposal would direct much of the savings to be used for other purposes than reducing the property tax. Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne offered an alternative proposal as an amendment that would use the same expected savings from the lower premiums of the new teachers’ health insurance plans to go to the Education Fund and be funneled back to the individual districts according to the savings realized by the district.
The right of employees to unionize and bargain collectively with their employer is a fundamental right of American workers that was hard fought for and won over the last century and a half. Without unions, we would not have a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, safety standards, workers’ compensation, a minimum wage, and other employee rights we take for granted.
The governor’s proposal would take the negotiation of health care contracts out of the hands of local bargaining units and districts and give it to a statewide union and the Department of Education. Since teachers are employees of individual districts and not of the state, the proposed arrangement takes both the employees and the districts out of the process. And if negotiations broke down and teachers went on strike, it would affect the entire state instead of being localized to a single district. This would not be good for Vermonters.
The Webb amendment keeps the negotiations local and guarantees that the savings will come back to the local districts. As a practical matter, since about 25% of teachers’ compensation comes in the form of health insurance, removing that huge piece from the local negotiation of teachers’ contracts takes a big piece off the table as the negotiators balance pay increases against health insurance benefits.
As you probably have heard, the vote ended in a tie, 74-74, on the Beck amendment, and the Webb amendment was subsequently passed. The bill went to the Senate, which will have its own say. Our hope is that the governor and the legislature will come to some compromise agreement that will accomplish the savings in a mutually satisfactory manner and avoid a potential veto session. The expected May 6 adjournment has been postponed as those negotiations take place and will resume the following Wednesday.
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