On May 3, 2017

House coalition stands firm on amendment to lower cost of teacher health benefits

By Tiffany Danitz Pache

Moments before the House was to take up an amendment that would have moved teacher health care negotiations to the state level, the bill was pulled from the floor.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said he pulled the amendment because the Democratic majority planned to send the school tax bill directly to conference committee, which would have eliminated an opportunity for lawmakers to vote on the amendment.

A group of House Republicans, independents and Blue Dog Democrats support Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to absorb one-time teacher health care savings of $26 million.

Teachers’ unions and the state’s 60 supervisory unions are currently in negotiations over health care benefits. It is the first time in memory that the negotiations are happening all at the same time. That’s because under the Affordable Care Act, so-called “Cadillac” plans, or high value insurance programs, will be taxed next year.

In order to stay under the federal threshold, teachers across the state must accept lower value insurance, similar to a Platinum level plan (the highest value option) under Vermont Health Connect, the state’s insurance program. (The current benefits are the equivalent of nine times greater than the Platinum level.)

The savings generated by the switch is roughly $26 million. Scott wants to use the money to reduce the statewide property tax rate. Democratic lawmakers have said the governor is interfering in the collective bargaining process and that any savings should be absorbed locally. In many local negotiations, however, teachers unions are expected to demand higher pay in exchange for the lower value insurance plans.

Supporters of the amendment need 76 votes to defeat a proposal to send the bill directly to conference committee. The amendment has 19 sponsors: eight Democrats, seven Republicans and five independents.

“We have a lot of votes,” Turner said to a gaggle of reporters and supportive lawmakers, “if it wasn’t close we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington said opponents know it is close, and they don’t want to be on the record voting no on the issue. They would rather see it die in committee, Wright said, adding that Vermonters don’t want that to happen.

“They want to see this debated in open in the public, they want transparency,” Wright said.

Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, said the Democrats can’t win the battle of ideas so their strategy is to keep the debate off the floor.

The amendment would move bargaining for teacher health care to the state level. Any agreements made by the union and the governor would be ratified by a statewide vote of the teachers, administrators and town school employees. Terms would be signed at the local level and all other items, such as salary, vacation time and other benefits will continue to be bargained locally.

Scott’s plan would reduce the statewide property tax by roughly 2.5 cents.

The teachers’ union opposes the governor’s proposal. The Vermont NEA says it is anti-union because it strips teachers of their collective bargaining rights and undermines local control.

Rep. Scott Beck, R-St.Johnsbury, a sponsor of the bill, said he believes teachers will be in a better position if the amendment is successful.

Right now, they only have one lever with the school boards, but under this plan they have two, one with boards and one with the governor. The amendment allows teachers to strike over health care benefits, he explained.

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