Weeks into a stalemate among the House, Senate and governor over how to negotiate teachers’ health care benefits, a new proposal is emerging from the House.
Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, shared the latest counterproposal with Senate leadership and Gov. Phil Scott on Monday.
However, as Johnson sought to work out the House response to proposals offered by the Senate and the governor, a coalition of unions confronted her over what they perceive as an assault on collective bargaining rights.
The House and Senate have been unable to reconcile with Scott over his requirement to change how teachers’ health care is negotiated in order to capture up to $26 million annually in savings, in part because of concerns about implications for labor rights.
Johnson proposes to keep teachers’ health care negotiations at the local level but set parameters for those talks.
Every district would be asked to negotiate health care benefits based on the value of a plan in which employers pay 80 percent of premium costs while teachers pick up the remainder and are responsible for $400 out of pocket.
Each district could negotiate a different package but would be expected to work toward the value of that model package. The premium divide could be set at a different ratio, but the out-of-pocket payment would need to be adjusted accordingly. A lower premium share for teachers would correspond to a higher out-of-pocket expense, for instance.
If costs for a health care plan went above that value, the excess expense would be split equally between teachers and the district.
Johnson argues that the flexibility within the set parameters “preserves the spirit of the local bargaining” and addresses what in her view is the “most egregious” element of the governor’s initial proposal: that it split negotiations so one element of teachers’ contracts would be negotiated at a statewide level while the rest would be negotiated locally.
As of midday Tuesday, House members were expected to reconvene the following afternoon. However, Johnson was uncertain if her proposal would be ready to come up on the floor by then.
Whether she will be able to get the governor on board remains to be seen. House leaders are still in talks with the administration, she said.
“They haven’t said no,” Johnson said. “We’ll take that for now.”
Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley said the governor sent suggestions back to the speaker’s office on how to adjust her proposal to meet his priorities, but Kelley would not go into specifics. She said Johnson’s idea is “moving closer” to accomplishing the governor’s goals compared with previous legislative counterproposals.
“It was a productive conversation today,” Kelley said. “We put forward some constructive recommendations for ensuring we’re maximizing this opportunity to the benefit of all Vermonters.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, refused to offer a public reaction to Johnson’s proposal Tuesday. He canceled a press briefing scheduled for early afternoon and would not comment when asked by reporters as he went in to a meeting in the speaker’s office. By 4:30 p.m., when Statehouse staff turned off the lights in the building, he still had not made himself available to reporters.
His chief of staff, Peter Sterling, issued a statement later. “As frustrated as Sen. Ashe is that a solution to the impasse with the governor hasn’t been found yet, he doesn’t want to say anything publicly that could preclude an agreement being reached,” Sterling said.
Ashe was the architect behind a plan that passed the Senate on Friday that would reduce school spending by $13 million in the next fiscal year and suggest to school boards that they look to health care to find those savings.
Johnson said school boards are “very concerned” that the Senate proposal would take money from school budgets in areas other than health care.
Meanwhile, early details of Johnson’s plan got a chilly reception from the leader of Vermont’s largest teachers union.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Martha Allen, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, called the proposal to set limits on teachers’ health care negotiations an “affront.”
“Setting parameters, to me, is an erosion of collective bargaining rights. It’s conditioning of bargaining,” she said.
The Vermont-NEA has support from 16 other Vermont unions against efforts to change how teachers’ health care is negotiated.
Allen contended that the governor’s proposal is not really about reducing the pressures on property tax payers, but instead is an effort to erode collective bargaining rights.
“The governor and his allies see this issue as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take power away from working people in this state, and in particular to take power away from working women, the vast majority of my fellow members,” Allen said.
Asked if she feels the governor’s proposal is the beginning of a broader effort to erode union power, Allen referred to the Republican governor of Wisconsin who spearheaded controversial labor reforms.
“This looks an awful lot like Scott Walker’s work to me,” she said.
Johnson later sat down with more than a dozen representatives in the Statehouse cafeteria. She said she believes the House has passed many labor-friendly initiatives this year.
However, she said, when collective bargaining rights came up against property tax relief in a recent floor vote on Scott’s proposal, the body very nearly came down against the union’s position. Johnson’s vote was the one that scuttled Scott’s plan.
“‘Just say no’ isn’t working,” Johnson said. “It isn’t working and the political reality is there aren’t, there aren’t the votes for ‘just say no’ to get us all the way through the process.”
A threat from the governor to veto the budget if lawmakers do not meet his demands requires her to seek middle ground, she said, acknowledging that there are not the votes in the House to override a veto.
“At some point, we need something that everybody can say yes to. It’s not going to be everybody’s first choice, I will promise you that,” Johnson said. “But if we’ve disappointed everybody in equal amounts and what we come up with is not everybody’s first choice and not everybody’s last choice, then … we’ve hit the right balance.”
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said she had not seen a proposal out of the House.
“Sounds like an interesting concept, but I haven’t seen the language,” Mace said.
She last spoke with Johnson on Friday, she said. During that meeting, the proposal was mentioned as one of several ideas, she said.
“There’s a long distance between a concept and language,” she said.