UPDATED: Legislative leaders say they’ve reached an impasse

Mitzi Johnson
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, with Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe on her right, speaks to the press Wednesday about negotiations with the governor. Photo by Michael Dougherty/VTDigger

(This story was updated May 17 at 6:25 p.m.)

After weeks of inconclusive negotiations with the governor, legislative leaders declared a stalemate.

“We have reached an impasse,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said Wednesday.

Flanked by dozens of legislators, Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, presented a united front. More than a dozen meetings with Gov. Phil Scott’s administration on the issue of teachers’ health care negotiations have not yielded a satisfactory result, they said.

Now they’ll turn legislators’ efforts toward resolving remaining bills and adjourning. However, lawmakers may be back in the Statehouse in a matter of weeks to respond to a budget veto.

In mid-April, Scott came forward with a proposal to shift negotiations for teachers’ health care benefits from the local to the statewide level, which he said could net up to $26 million in property tax savings. He threatened to veto the state budget if the Legislature does not pass a proposal that meets his requirements.

Key for Democratic leadership is the need to keep collective bargaining untouched and at the local school district level. The governor, on the other hand, will not budge on his position to have a uniform bargaining outcome to maximize savings.

Ashe and Johnson both came up with counterproposals that would return savings directly to the property tax payers. The Republican plans would move the savings into the education fund to either lower property taxes for everyone or be used to provide a tax cut but also help pay for higher education and child care.

Failure to find resolution has twice thwarted legislative adjournment ambitions already. Lawmakers are now back for a 19th — unbudgeted — week, officially running overtime. If Scott vetoes the budget, he would call lawmakers back for a special session to come up with a new budget. The state fiscal year starts July 1.

Ashe and Johnson expressed frustration with the discussions with the governor in recent weeks and said he has been unwilling to meet them on middle ground.

“There is a point where a negotiation becomes a dictation,” Ashe said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, disputed Ashe’s assertion. He said the governor has not been immovable.

Phil Scott
​Gov. Phil Scott. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
“I am standing in front of you and telling you that is not true,” he told the Republican caucus. The governor has been meeting with Turner and some other Republican lawmakers to keep them up to date on proposals. Turner said the governor has been flexible on some things that the caucus wasn’t comfortable with.

“We have to keep our coalition together, too,” he said.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Ashe said the governor’s original proposal did not guarantee that taxpayers would recoup $26 million because the state would have to negotiate the perfect deal with teachers’ unions in order to net the full savings.

Johnson alluded to multiple proposals the Legislature has floated to try to meet the governor’s goals.

“We’ve put out easily three or four different ideas, and none of them are his and so they have all been rejected,” Johnson said.

Last week, the Senate passed the Ashe plan that cut $13 million from the education fund, strongly recommended a specific outcome on health care that keeps bargaining local, and would force school boards to cut their budgets if they were not able to negotiate the exact amount prescribed in the legislation.

This week, the speaker presented the governor with a modified plan — but no actual language. Sources told VTDigger some of the components. Contract talks would continue at the local school district level but with restricted terms. School districts and the union would have to negotiate an 80/20 split on the premiums (pegged to a specific plan) and put an exact amount in health savings accounts to cover teachers’ out-of-pocket costs.

If the bargaining concluded without all the health care savings, school districts and teachers would split the remainder to make up for the lost savings. School districts would cut their budgets, and teachers would forfeit a portion of their salaries.

Don Turner Kurt Wright
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, left, and Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, speak about teacher health care. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
At least one GOP lawmaker said he had been hopeful when he saw the speaker move this proposal forward. Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said that Tuesday it seemed Johnson was standing up to the unions a bit with her latest proposal, before that all changed.

“Obviously, the union laid down the law and (Democratic leaders) backed down,” he said.

Now, Johnson and Ashe said, legislative committees will resume work on the final bills of the year — including the state budget and the education finance bill — to reconcile the House and Senate positions.

The Legislature will remain open to ideas from the governor, but the two leaders said they’re not counting on it.

The plan now is to let a conference committee deal with the education property tax bill using the Ashe proposal the Senate passed and sent to the House on Friday. Both chambers appointed members of the committee Wednesday afternoon, and they were expected to meet in the evening and Thursday morning to find a compromise.

Other conference committees, including on the state budget and the miscellaneous tax bills, were expected to convene Thursday as well.

Adjournment could happen as early as the end of the week, according to an aide to the speaker.

Earlier in the day, Scott said the latest proposal from the speaker’s office is “moving in the right direction” but that the negotiations with legislative leadership had not progressed much.

He claimed there is broad support for his plan among the public.

“There might be this vortex here surrounding the Statehouse, but outside the Statehouse there’s a constant wind of support for what I’m proposing,” Scott said.

He reiterated that he will not support the state budget if the Legislature does not meet his requirements.

“I’ve made it quite clear that if we aren’t able to get agreement on what I believe needs to be in the bill, that I will not hesitate to veto it,” Scott said.

Dustin Degree
Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree, R-Franklin. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger ​

Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, said if leadership is not working with the governor, he expects to be back in June for a veto session.

“If they’re not willing to come to the table with the governor anymore, there’s no reason for us to be here,” Degree said.

Disappointment among lawmakers was not limited to Republicans.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said someone needs to stand up and have a press conference in defense of taxpayers. She urged colleagues at the Republican caucus Wednesday not to forget about the multiparty House coalition.

“Please remember this is not a partisan issue, and hold space for your colleagues across the aisle and the independents,” Sibilia said, prompting applause from caucus members.

Turner said the Republican caucus was “hopeful” there would be some sort of agreement. The caucus is going to cooperate with the majority to get to adjournment, with the expectation that lawmakers will be back after the governor rejects the budget.

“We are on a path to a veto. There is no sense hanging out for two, three, five more days when the inevitable is going to happen,” he said.

The Republican caucus has vowed to sustain a gubernatorial veto, and Turner reiterated his support for Scott’s proposal.

“I’m 100 percent behind the governor,” he said. “This is an opportunity we need to deliver for Vermonters and Vermont taxpayers.”

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  • Tim Vincent

    “Impasse” meaning “our union masters have shown us the red line and we cannot cross it.”

  • John Freitag

    Too bad. It seems that the ones who have remained unmovable are the Democratic leadership who are simply unwilling to consider statewide negotiations for teachers health benefits despite the benefits for taxpayers and children. It appears for them keeping the advantages the VTNEA has in local negotiations is more important than what is good for Vermont.
    This is not only the defining issue for each legislator of this session as this comes to a vote, but will be the defining issue of the next election.

  • Neil Johnson

    This is due to a gross negligence on priorities. They can pass pot legalization, which offers no true benefit for the citizenry, but they can’t be fair to the citizenry and hold out for the lobbyists and big money in government.

    Cadillac Plans, the teachers have a plan that isn’t even available to the general public. It costs a minimum $800 more per month than the very best the Vermont Health Connect offers, dental, eye, what else is in there?

    If we gave them the very best of Vermont Health Connect we’d save $800/month x 12 months x 19,000 teachers = $182,400,000 EVERY YEAR.

    For 600,000 people in Vermont that would translate to a $304 tax cut for everybody. Why are teachers so special? How can they get benefits NOBODY else can get?

    Unions….Lobbyists. You don’t think we need ethics reform? Our state is totally run by Unions and lobbyists.

  • Tom Sullivan

    Once again, thank you Governor Scott for fighting for Vermonters and not a union.

  • Gary Murdock

    May I recommend the following edit to the headline:
    This is a win / win for the governor, he will be rewarded by his veto via a second term. As for the democrats that are steadfastly aligned with the Vt NEA and against the taxpayer desperate for relief, I hope their constituents carry this into the voting booth.

  • Steve Baker

    “Key for the Democratic leadership is the need to keep collective bargaining untouched”
    Let me translate….Protect the Unions over the Taxpayers at all cost.

    “There is a point where a negotiation becomes a dictation,” Ashe said.
    Let me translate….Now you know how the rest of us have felt for years..Mr Ashe!

    The whole “School districts and the union would have to negotiate an 80/20 split on
    the premiums (pegged to a specific plan) and put an exact amount in
    health savings accounts to cover teachers’ out-of-pocket costs” sounds like a scam, we know from the Unions history of take their ball and go home they would be bait’n and switch’n to hit the numbers.

    Thank you to Governor Scott, Rep. Turner and Sen. Degre and a handful of democrats for standing for just a little fiscal sanity

    • Tyler Samler

      Fiscal sanity? This whole thing is just a diversion from Phil Scott and his corporate cronies robbing us blind!

      Since 9/11, where 2000 people were massacred by terrorists, trillions upon trillions of dollars has been displaced from our communities to fund counter terrorism, domestic security, jobs, equipment, think tanks, etc., all to “keep America safe.”

      Why isn’t there similar outrage over hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths occurring every year due to corporate greed, fraud and abuse? For example, 45000 are DEAD every year because they can’t afford health insurance or treatment (according to Harvard Medical School), 58,000 DEAD from workplace related deaths (osha) 60,000 DEAD every year because of pollution (EPA), every year there are 100,000 DEAD from medical malpractice (Harvard School of Public Health).

      Any chance that the corporate state gets to divert attention from what’s really going on is a win for these greedy oligarchs. The teachers asking for a few lousy pennies is just the latest example.

  • Edward Letourneau

    What they are telling us is active teachers are special, and should be treated differently from state workers and retired teachers who have their health benefits negotiated by the state. If we follow the money we will see who owns the legislators who favor special treatment for active teachers, and could care less about the taxpayers.

  • Peter Chick

    The loser says it is too difficult it can’t be done. The winner says it may be difficult but it can be done.

    • Steve Baker

      There are a lot of losers in Montpellier, many with a D behind their name

  • James Q Morrison

    Look how beholden our elected officials are to the big unions whose bread they butter in exchange for the votes and campaign donations they receive to keep them in office.
    It has always been an unholy alliance.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    So discouraging. To think that the only outcome that can be supported by our elected representatives is one that the VTNEA approves. Schoolboards, parents, kids, and taxpayers in more than one of their plans are hung out to dry. Basically boards are told to bargain better or lose money out of your budgets. Truly unbelievable. Statewide retirement benefits are fine, statewide retiree health insurance is fine, but any kind of statewide bargaining for educators’ health insurance is off the table.
    I suggest statewide bargaining between 2 groups- a committee made up of school board reps and a VSBA rep or 2 bargaining with a committee containing a VTNEA rep or 2 and teacher reps. BArgaining is an Open Meeting. Whatever savings are generated to be used to reduce Education Spending. Why can’t that work?

    • Jim Manahan

      The NEA is clearly opposed to reducing education spending.

  • Tyler Samler

    The super rich are laughing at us. Corporate controlled Phil Scott has done them a service by distracting Vermonters from the real drain on our consumer dollar. Anything to prevent us from asking how far we are going to let Pfizer and Blue Cross Blue Shield go in controlling our lives, with “laser” precision (which is no-doubt billable to the taxpayer).

    • Jim Manahan

      This isn’t about Pfizer or BCBS, so your attempts to deflect the attention from the NEA’s most recent money-grab is for naught.
      Governor Scott has been more than generous in his proposal to give 2/3 of the projected health care savings to the teachers, when it should have all been returned to the taxpayers. Remember this is a result of the liberals dream – Obamacare, which is forcing this change. They still get their healthcare coverage, but that’s never enough for the NEA and their lemmings.

      • Willem Post

        Super platinum plans have little, or no, out of pocket costs.
        Gold plans have higher out of pocket costs.

        Switching the teachers and other school employees from Super platinum to Gold plans saves $75 million EACH YEAR.

        But the teachers and other school employees would have $50 million more in out of pocket costs.

        That $50 million will be taken out of the $75 million and put into an account out of which teachers and other school employees get reimbursed for out of pocket costs.

        Few other Vermonters with Gold plans have such a good deal.

        The measly $26 million that is left over will be use to reduce the SCHOOL portion of the property tax by 1.4%.

        That would have been about 4% if the $50 million had not been diverted.

      • Tyler Samler

        I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

        • Jim Manahan

          Ahhh, so you’re an opponent of capitalism. Who decides whether or not one man “does absolutely nothing that is useful”? Is it useful when one man provides the capital and/or takes the risks to provide a good or service, and potentially amass more money? Society has decided that it is useful. Again, this has nothing to do with saving taxpayers $75 million, and it’s just another pathetic attempt to divert attention from the real issue; the greed of the NEA to grab for this savings, while suggesting it’s something else.

          • Tyler Samler

            Nice respectfulness… I think that the bigger diversion is your attempt to call working stiffs “greedy”. The wealthiest country on earth, and we have kids with Rickets, because they’re so hungry and so malnourished. Tens of thousands dying from hospital malpractice. 60,000+ die from air pollution each year. Why do our workers still need to be mired in student loan debt while trying to make ends meet? Why does the lion’s share of our paycheck go to subsidize corporate welfare? The rich are subsidized to the hilt -taking in far more of our money than welfare for the poor. The bulk of every dollar earned gets siphoned out of our hands into the profiteering billionaire class in the corporate power structure. Thousands of workers die in this country on the job every year. Thousands more are living with a lifetime of pain and suffering from toxic working conditions. There are thousands more dying because they can’t afford health care.
            How is a worker who is harassed by their employer going to stack up against an employer and their crony attorneys? What does a worker do when their employer violates the terms of a contract? The depletion of workers rights is pervasive. Where’s equal pay, paid leave, livable minimum wage, or a decent day care that doesn’t cost $400/week? Instead we fight toxic air, toxic water, addictive products, obesity, etc., and we are subjected to systemic, daily abuse on the job. 80% of Americans make less than Americans did in the 1970’s (inflation adjusted) with less purchasing power to their dollar. The gap between wage stagnation and the rise in cost of living continues to widen. Do we keep the trend going until we have sweat shops? How far away is the 80 hour work week with no overtime? How about over-turning the fair labor standard laws or the child labor abolishment? Isn’t it a worker’s duty to have high expectations for their working conditions? Any professional worth their salt should demand more.
            Instead, people are stuck in a malaise, watching 8 hours of TV each day and totally preoccupied with smart phones. In this case, the organized worker – teacher – is asking for a few scraps more from the master class, which everyone should have.

  • Gerry Silverstein

    Because of income sensitivity, where the State of Vermont offers “prebates” to Vermont families with incomes of up to $141,00 to lower property tax payments, the State is in truth a co-employer (with communities) of teachers statewide. As the State of Vermont is so integrally involved in paying for public school education statewide, it seems crystal clear that the State should have a direct say in teacher compensation packages.

    The fact that we are having this “debate” is a reflection of where “unions have gone off the rails”. Unions clearly serve an important purpose, but when they make unreasonable demands upon communities (covertly or overtly threatening strike if their demands are not met), the State must step in so that spending on public school education (consuming 1/3rd of the State budget) is sustainable over the long-term.

    It takes courage to stand up to a bully, but the longer one defers to a bully, the more demanding the bully gets.