Legislative Review: Rep. Peter Conlon, Sound state budget faces veto
By Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall
With the legislative session now in the rearview mirror, I wanted to touch on a couple major accomplishments and address the issue of school employee health insurance.
First the good: the Vermont Legislature passed a very responsible budget. The overall increase is 1.5 percent, while revenue is expected to rise more than twice that rate. That means we significantly bent the cost curve to make sure revenue and expenses match without the use of one-time funds for ongoing costs, which has been common practice. The budget needs no new taxes or fees.
The budget was no small feat and should not be lost in the noise of the end-of-session hoopla over health insurance costs for school unions. It seemed every dollar in the budget had to be justified. I, personally, had to appear before the budget committee and was grilled over the cost of a federally mandated special education committee, the per diem for which was going up $20 per day per person — about a $6,000 per year increase.
The result was a House budget that earned the support of every House member of every party but one — Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh. The similar Senate version won unanimous support there. Sadly, when it came time for the end-of-session vote on the jointly agreed budget, the House Republicans followed their marching orders from Gov. Phil Scott and voted against it, despite giving it high praise (Scott, too, earlier said he would vote for it).
It was a budget that included high priority items for the governor (and for everyone, frankly) such as funding for a $35 million low- and moderate-income housing bond for new home construction, private and public, and plenty of money for Lake Champlain and other waterway cleanup.
Now, Gov. Scott is poised to veto the budget because he did not get his way on control over negotiating health care for school employees.
Let’s tackle that issue with some key clarifications.
First, although the press, the governor and many legislators continued to refer to the somewhat mythical $26 million in health care savings as coming from “teacher” contract negotiations, to come close, it actually needs all school employees covered by the Vermont Education Health Initiative to move to a model insurance plan that includes an 80-20 cost share in premiums and each person covered contributing to a health savings account.
While teachers statewide aren’t that far from an 80-20 split, support staff contracts are all over the place. Some districts have a 97-3 cost split for low-wage workers and only cover the employee. Others might have a 60-40 split, but cover full families. Magically negotiating all of those non-teacher employees to the model plan seems unlikely — and who would it cover? And moving folks currently paying 40 percent to paying 20 percent, or going from single to family coverage costs more, not less.
It’s also important to remember that the savings in just teachers’ health care is based on the governor successfully hitting the sweet spot of the 80-20 split for the model health plan. He would be negotiating against the powerful and skilled NEA. And it is also important to remember that he will not always be governor.
Gov. Scott advocated using most of that savings for spending other than reducing property taxes. Two-thirds would go to higher education and childcare subsidies.
It is no secret that in an earlier debate in the House, I voted to shift negotiating health care to the state level. That proposal would have all savings used to reduce property taxes. I supported that measure because I feel that these negotiations have become too much for volunteer citizen school boards, and that the effort, emotion and complexity of these issues are keeping good people from running.
I also support the concept of teachers statewide having the same health care benefit — equity for all. This would allow better focus on salaries and working conditions truly reflecting the community, without it being tied up with who pays how much for premiums, for out-of-pocket costs, for yearly caps, etc. The model plan is also excellent.
So what happened? We had a full debate on the issue in the House with all voices and opinions respected and heard, and no political games. It lost. Yes, narrowly, but that is democracy. And it never stood a chance in the Senate. None. Since then, with the threat of a veto, the governor was brought compromise after compromise, including one from the Democratic Speaker of the House that earned strong condemnation from the NEA, but would have really accomplished something. Gov. Scott was having none of it.
So, he ordered his party to vote against a budget that it had overwhelmingly supported and that he also heaped praise on, a budget that met his demand for no new taxes or fees, and that included several initiatives he said were critical, such as the housing bond. Pure politics.
For me, it will not overshadow standing side-by-side with Republicans, fellow Democrats, Progressives and Independents voting for a budget that all Vermonters can be proud of. It will not overshadow forward steps in criminal justice reform, providing mental health coverage for first responders, finding ways to eliminate the benefits cliff for low-wage workers, providing accommodations for pregnant workers and investing in our state’s infrastructure and environment.
Hopefully, the governor will come to his senses and drop his veto threat.
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