Legislative Review, Rep. Peter Conlon: Scott held state budget hostage

Last week’s veto session in the Legislature ended with what has been described as a compromise that few were happy with — therefore a true compromise. I would classify it as a hostage negotiation with Gov. Phil Scott, House Republicans and conservative independents to free the state budget, a hostage they all praised in glowing terms two months ago.
That budget met the governor’s goal that it have no new taxes or fees. But he vetoed it anyway. The budget earned tripartisan support for meeting the needs of Vermonters while, for the first time in years, really closing the gap between spending and revenue without using one-time funds. In the entire House and Senate, only Rep. Warren Van Wyck of Ferrisburgh voted against it. This was model legislation, model bipartisanship. But when we returned for the veto session, the Republicans joined Gov. Scott in holding the budget hostage by reversing course and voting against it to sustain the veto.
The governor vetoed the budget because he did not get his way on public school employee health care negotiations during the session. It was an idea worthy of debate, and it was debated and voted on with no political tricks. It lost. That’s democracy. Meanwhile, many school districts were settling contracts and realizing savings locally — savings that would go back to taxpayers. There was a window of opportunity where the governor’s proposal might have worked, but it closed many weeks ago. 
It would have been tempting last week for Democrats to simply let the veto stand, and let Gov. Scott and House Republicans put the state’s bond rating and borrowing power in jeopardy, and potentially cause a government shutdown. They created the problem. Let them solve it.
Fortunately, cooler Democratic heads prevailed. Putting Vermont’s bond rating in jeopardy would cost all Vermonters dearly. A government shutdown helps no one. So a “compromise” was worked out. Too much time had passed and too many contracts had been hammered out for government to step into health care negotiations, so, instead, the Scott administration will simply take from school districts the savings that the governor believes he could have negotiated on his own and apply that money to reducing statewide property tax rates. The administration is simply going to short Education Fund payments to school districts by $13 million.
Who can argue with reducing statewide property taxes? Well, that savings is based on all school districts hitting specific benchmarks in negotiating health care. If a school district does not hit the benchmark, it will have to make up the difference. Of the roughly 15 districts that have reached settlements only a couple have hit the benchmark. Those school districts that settled contracts before this new law was passed and did not hit the target will pay, even though they can no longer negotiate.
Locally, the recent Addison Central School District settlement with teachers missed the benchmark, and that money will have to be found elsewhere in the budget, or the district will have to cut or deficit spend. Other districts in Addison County are at impasse but will also find themselves short if they miss the benchmark. 
This is why I see this more as a hostage negotiation, not a compromise. Folks in school districts that miss the benchmark will pay the ransom. Folks in those districts may want to ask their Republican representatives why they supported the governor on this.
I am not normally one to play politics, but that is what this was all about. The governor wants Vermonters to think he is saving them $13 million and told his party’s House members to play along. But those savings were already under way at the local level, and the opportunity for the governor to really make those savings happen passed when the snow was melting. Now, if local boards can’t negotiate to the benchmark — and most won’t, or haven’t — that money will simply be added back to the local tax rate.
At least the hostage was rescued unscathed.
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