Legislative Review, Chris Bray: Vetoes set state towards July 1 shut down

Earlier this month, Gov. Scott vetoed both of the state’s “must-pass” bills — the budget and the tax bill. His vetoes set us on a course for a shut down of state government on July 1. 
This did not need to happen, however, and the governor’s vetoes are both surprising and disappointing.
In January, the governor issued a challenge to the legislature: Pass a budget that relies on no new taxes or fees. In a time of rising health care costs, an opioid epidemic, and a housing shortage, this was a difficult test — one that required months of hard work and compromise in both the Senate and House. 
Happily, the legislature met that challenge, and we passed the budget on an almost unanimous vote of 173 to 1, with the support of Democrats, Independents, Progressives and Republicans. It was the first time in living memory anyone had seen such an accomplishment, and Gov. Scott applauded the effort, “giving credit where credit is due.” 
But before we adjourned for the session, the sense of nonpartisan accomplishment was crushed when the governor announced he would veto the budget because we wouldn’t go along with a last-minute tax bill amendment that would break open the employment contract for all municipal school employees. 
What was this poison-pill amendment to the tax bill? 
The governor made a proposal that, to be absolutely clear, is currently illegal. It violates state law dating back 50 years that spells out “the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relation with each other.” These rights include bargaining “in good faith with respect to wages, hours and terms of employment.” 
The governor proposes to take away the right to bargain — from both the employee and employer — over health care, an essential part of “terms of employment.” Under current law, taking away this right is illegal — it is an “unfair labor practice.” 
Today, the employers are the local school districts, and the employees are the teachers and staff at the local school. The law says that the bargaining goes on between these two parties. There is a give and take that leads to a new contract, and over the last 50 years, 5,000 such negotiations have successfully taken place in our state. 
Now, the governor proposes unilaterally to set the terms on health care — for everyone, employer and employee alike. He says it will save money. 
What’s at stake is the right of working men and women, and the families that depend on them, to have their contracts upheld. Further, the thousands of Vermonters who work in our school system are not all the same in terms of their hours, wages, other terms of employment, much less their age, health and family situations. Imposing a one-size-fits-all mandate from Montpelier makes no sense.
And, again, it’s against Vermont law. 
Let’s come back to the money. 
The insurer for school employees (VEHI) is offering all new plans for next year. Across the board, these policies are less expensive; for single employees, for instance, the plans cost 22 percent less. We can count on heath care premiums going down. This requires no action on the part of the governor or legislature. 
In fact, we’ve seen such savings in the more than two dozen school contracts signed in the last several months. It’s worth repeating that: These savings are already being achieved. We need no knight on a white horse to ride in and “find savings.” 
Once these savings are realized, then the next question facing the local school board is “What do we do with the savings?” 
Some school boards have decided to reduce their budgets. Other school boards have decided to apply the savings to make school repairs that had been put off. The money is saved locally, and the local school boards — elected by their neighbors — decide how best to use those savings. This is the Vermont way: Elect your neighbors to office and count on them to use their judgment. Where is your voice better heard — at the governor’s office in Montpelier, or at a meeting right in town? 
I have yet to meet a person who wants to follow the governor’s plan to take all the money saved locally and send it back to Montpelier. 
This week I return to Montpelier, where I’m confident we will pass both a budget and at a tax bill. I’ll be looking for a budget crafted by Democrats, Independents, Progressives and Republicans alike. If we’re wildly successful, we’ll have a vote like 173-1. I know where I can find just such a budget — it’s the one we already passed. 
As for the tax bill, the Senate proposed — and I’ve proposed a further amendment — to reduce tax rates while also convening all stakeholders to discuss contracts with municipal school employees. Instead of high-stakes, government-shut-down arm-twisting, let’s use the legislature properly and productively — as a deliberative body, with voices from all over the state, coming together to analyze the facts and develop a well-thought-out plan for action next year. 
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