Editorial: Dems deal themselves a weak hand to Gov’s aces

As the Vermont Legislature approaches adjournment, possibly this Friday, it is most likely that the budget, as it stands, will be vetoed by the governor a few weeks from now. Negotiations will continue via an appointed committee, and legislators will be called back to Montpelier this summer for a final reckoning.
At issue is Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s insistence that Vermont not miss what he calls a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save up to $26 million annually by virtue of renegotiating teacher health insurance policies statewide under a provision in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare.) That provision effectively imposes a more cost-effective way to provide teachers health insurance, and has a November 2017 deadline.
To capture that opportunity, Scott proposed that the state negotiate health care benefits for teachers across the state, so that maximum savings would be created for the taxpayer while preserving the same benefits for the teachers. It was, he said, a win-win scenario; and that, he says, is still his ultimate aim.
What has happened since that proposal is a series of miscalculations by the Democratic leadership: First, Democratic party leaders dismissed Scott’s proposal as coming out of left field with too little time left in the session (that was three weeks ago) to adequately consider the measure. When that excuse failed, and the House passed by one vote a measure to approve Scott’s proposal (that was later killed by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson casting the tie vote), Democratic leaders woke up to the notion that Scott’s proposal had public support and they needed to respond more thoughtfully. But the measures proposed by Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson drew plenty of arrows from both sides of the political aisle, and neither garnered the governor’s support.
On Wednesday, after several days of trying to reach a compromise, the House and Senate declared they were at an impasse with the governor, which sets the stage for what seems certain to be one of the first budgets in years to be vetoed by the governor and sustained by the minority party in the Legislature. If that happens, score a victory for Scott and a defeat for Democratic leaders.
Here’s why it will be a victory for Gov. Scott:
• He’s fighting for property taxpayers, while ensuring teachers don’t pay more out of pocket for the changes to their health insurance policies. The key to the governor’s proposal (if true) is that it holds teachers harmless, and puts $50 million of the estimated $75 million savings, aside to cover added teacher costs. That’s not an anti-teacher policy; in fact, as we have argued before, providing small school districts with health insurance parity strengthens the poorer and smaller school districts across the state. In most other circumstances, that is a policy idea Democrats would champion.
• Scott’s proposal, ironically, builds on the Democratic initiative that lies at the heart of Act 46, which has been roundly opposed by the same Republicans who are now supporting Scott on this issue — and for opposite reasons: Republicans opposed a state-centric approach in Act 46, while championing it here. Whatever. Act 46 is above all a measure to try to get a grip on K-12 education spending, and Scott’s initiative to have the state — or any collective approach — negotiate teachers’ health insurance is another step in the direction of cost containment.
• Finally, Scott wins because he will have split the Democratic Party, neutralized the huge advantage the Democratically controlled Legislature has over his agenda, and he will have proved himself a savvy political leader — which few expected from Scott in his first year.
How will the Democrats fare?
Well, they’ll keep the teachers’ union on their side, though the VTNEA was miffed by both Ashe’s and Johnson’s proposals, so tensions are likely to grow and bonds fray rather than be strengthened. And Dems will keep the faith among other union heads and lobbyists — but then they weren’t really in danger of losing them, so no gain there.
To the negative, Democrats are in the position of defending the teachers’ union — not teachers or taxpayers, and definitely not the students nor their parents. And considering two out of three households in the state do not have students attending school, the political math doesn’t favor Democrats.
Democrats are also giving up some of their political turf: Democrats are traditionally in favor of supporting education, and promoting best practices to achieve better student outcomes. In this battle, however, Scott is the one proposing an initiative to take existing school spending, reduce health care costs but hold teachers harmless, send some money back to taxpayers, and spread the remainder to pre-school and higher education programs, if possible. Democratic plans have paled in comparison.
Finally, the Democrats seem to be trying to paint Gov. Scott with the same ultra-conservative, union-busting brush of Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker. It’s a poor strategy that won’t stick. Gov. Scott is no ultra-conservative in the mold of a Tea-Party Republican and to suggest so paints the Democrats as desperate. Unions are still there to help negotiate teacher salaries, retirement, length of workday and year, extracurricular pay, vacations, sick leave and on and on; and no one thinks Scott wants to undermine that relationship.
In short, Scott’s approach makes intuitive sense to the average taxpayer, many school boards and school administrators, parents of students and students. The Democrats, on the other hand, are seen fending for the petty concerns of a union whose main worry is losing its clout over teachers, rather than trying to help spend the taxpayers’ money as wisely as possible for the best student outcome.
Unless that narrative changes, Democratic leaders will have dealt themselves a weak hand, while Scott is holding a pair of aces as budget negotiations resume ahead of a summer session.
Angelo Lynn

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