By Angelo S. Lynn
In Vermont, Democratic legislators must carefully consider (and reconsider) a late-in-the-session move by Gov. Phil Scott that could potentially save taxpayers $26 million annually in education costs. To ignore it could risk losing this one-time opportunity and give Republicans political ammunition in upcoming elections.
Here’s the deal: For the past several weeks, Gov. Scott has been working with the Vermont School Boards Association and with the Vermont Superintendents Association to develop a new Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI) that would serve as a statewide health care contract for teachers and school employees. The impetus for the change is a provision in Obamacare that mandates all state supervisory unions switch their health care contracts to the state exchange by mid-November of this year.
Individual school districts would still hold teacher and employee negotiations for salaries, days off and other provisions of the work place, but health care benefits would no longer be part of that discussion. That’s either a positive or negative development depending on one’s perspective. For the NEA, the teachers’ union, it is seen as a negative because the union loses a bit of its clout.
For most citizens and taxpayers, however, it is no doubt seen as a positive development — not just because it is one less thing for district school boards to have to negotiate, but also because larger districts would no longer be able to offer better health insurance packages than smaller districts can afford. With health care benefits equal across the state, smaller districts can be more competitive on salary discussions.
From the public’s perspective, this appears to be a win-win-win scenario. It saves $26 million annually; it provides the same health care benefits for teachers and school employees at no added cost; it provides health care parity across the state; it maintains collective bargaining rights and the right to strike locally; and it lowers cost in K-12 spending.
The one downside is that the plan wasn’t finalized until fairly recently, not allowing state legislators the opportunity to vet the issue as thoroughly as they would like. And here’s the catch: It’s a one-time offer. So, if the state Legislature doesn’t act on it this session, the opportunity for years of savings is lost.
After the Senate Finance Committee initially expressed its reluctance to consider the bill and the Senate leadership also initially balked, citing its concern that the measure would step on the collective bargaining rights of teachers, a vote was held Wednesday, May 3. The vote divided the Democratic majority in the House and gave Republican Gov. Phil Scott the upper hand. Sixteen Democrats supported the proposal, and momentarily, the coalition won, until Dem. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson cast a tie vote (74-74) to kill the amendment. Johnson, however, won’t have the votes she needs to override a veto of the budget, which it is unclear if Scott will resort to if the House and Senate don’t go along with a statewide contract.
The governor, however, did recently affirm his stance on the importance of acting for the common-sense savings in a statement May 8, and a veto seems likely—and wise—should it come to that.
Politically, it would be a mistake for Democrats to dismiss this proposal. With the support of the state school board association and superintendents association, and with common sense on its side, this is precisely the type of issue that could swing political allegiance among moderates and independents to the Republican camp. If Democratic leadership is so beholden to the teachers’ union as to not pursue common sense objectives when they are presented, that spells trouble with a capital T.
If it takes a few extra days to debate the issue, and possibly flush out other concerns, so be it: the Democratic leadership should add the days to the agenda. There are few ways state legislators could ever save $26 million annually that also creates no loss of benefits for those involved. And it’s money, year after year, that can be invested in our school systems to yield better student outcomes. That’s a powerful talking point that wins elections if your opponent voted against it.
Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister pubication to the Mountain Times.