Op - Ed
May 24, 2017

The political “big one”

By Mike Smith

Race fans at Talladega Superspeedway call it “the big one.” It usually happens toward the end of a NASCAR race when drivers are tense, emotions are high, and the cars are tightly bunched, vying for a win. And then: a wrong move by one driver starts a massive chain reaction crash that eliminates many of the cars from the race.

There was a political wreck last week when Democratic leaders failed to reach an agreement with Republican Gov. Phil Scott over how to reap savings when teachers have to change to new health care plans at the beginning of next year. And depending how events play out, this could result in “the big one,” where a political pileup could alter fortunes.

The Affordable Care Act means Vermont teachers will switch to lower-cost plans in January. This will present a unique opportunity to capture savings.

The governor and the Vermont School Boards Association want the state to take over the negotiation of health care benefits with the Vermont branch of the National Education Association. Currently local school boards negotiate benefits as part of the collective bargaining process.

The governor believes there could be as much as $75 million in savings. He’s calling for the majority of those funds, $49 million, to go back to teachers to hold them harmless against increases in health care expenses because of this change, and he would support sending the remaining $26 million back to Vermonters in the form of property tax relief.

The Democrats in the Legislature and the statewide teachers’ union vehemently disagree with this approach and believe negotiations should be left between unions and local school boards.

The Senate, led by President pro tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, passed its own plan, but it put additional pressure on school boards by requiring them to collectively find $13 million in health care savings during their upcoming negotiations. If boards failed at this, they would be required to reduce their budgets by $13 million. Even Democrats acknowledged this plan had the potential of taking money from classroom programs. Soon, the Ashe proposal lost support.

In the end, Democrats decided to punt the entire issue down the road and passed legislation to study and then revisit a statewide teachers’ health care plan in 2019.

Scott is indicating he will veto the budget if the Legislature fails to provide property tax savings and accomplish the objectives he’s seeking in his teachers’ health care proposal. That will result in the Legislature needing to come back into session and vote to either sustain or override the governor’s veto.

Given the tripartisan support for the governor’s plan, it’s unlikely that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, will be able to muster the votes to override the governor’s veto. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess. But the potential for “the big one” becomes more of a reality.

Right now, many political observers believe the governor is winning this debate. The Democrats have created problems for themselves because of several significant miscues.

First, at the outset of this political fight Democrats failed to recognize the potency of the governor’s message. Vermonters still possess a high degree of economic angst, even years after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Scott’s proposal became an issue of saving money and reducing taxes, and the Democrats’ response to his plan — of not having enough time to look at it — did not resonate with Vermonters. In fact, it angered many.

Second, when Democrats did finally respond with their own plan they crafted one that was likely going to be unpopular at the local level, and they readily admitted it could mandate budget reductions affecting educational programs. So they abandoned that plan but couldn’t agree on another plan to effectively counter Scott’s proposal. Instead they voted to postpone addressing this issue until 2019. It’s unlikely Vermonters will be pleased by this delay.

Third, Democrats were caught defending the status

quo at a time when Vermonters are looking for more than the status quo to ease their economic concerns.

The Democrats also looked subservient to the teachers’ union, especially when Johnson started to make headway on a compromise proposal and was immediately attacked by union leaders. Even Ashe was initially supportive of the compromise, but union opposition made him and Johnson abandon their efforts.

The worst thing that can happen to a political party, even one as strong as the Vermont Democratic Party, is to have working families and small businesses feel they are taking a back seat to a special interest group.

Lastly, many Democrats came across as disingenuous, since they supported single-payer health care a few years ago when a Democratic governor proposed it — which is, after all, a statewide health care plan — yet rejected it when a Republican governor proposed something similar in concept.

All of this could put Democratic legislators at political risk, and some have broken ranks with their leadership over this issue.

On the other hand, the governor needs to be equally aware that health care issues can have an enormous influence on his political future.

Issues surrounding health care have either boosted or hindered the political careers of recent governors and play a key role in their legacy. Governors Howard Dean and Jim Douglas are nationally recognized for their innovative health care programs, including Dr. Dynasaur and Catamount Health.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, on the other hand, stumbled badly trying to devise a single-payer plan and ultimately had to abandon his efforts.

Politically, he was never able to recover.

Scott finds himself facing a defining moment, and again it deals with health care. How Scott handles this challenge may have a lasting impact on the rest of his tenure as governor. Right now, he has many Vermonters supporting him. His job is to keep them supporting his plan and expand that support, while getting to a solution on the state’s budget.

If support for Scott’s plan falters, or if Democrats can’t get past their previous missteps and the inflexible demands of a special interest group — the teachers’ union — then “the big one” may be coming, and it will certainly impact political futures.

Mike Smith was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas. He is a regular columnist for VTDigger and a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He is also the host of the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM.

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