Commentary

Mitzi Johnson: Doing right by Vermonters

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mitzi Johnson, the Vermont Speaker of the House.

When your state representatives were sworn in Jan. 4, each pledged faithful, honest service to the people and constitution of Vermont.

In my opening remarks as Speaker of the House, I asked them to do this by evaluating and prioritizing our state’s needs to support the long-term health and wellness of our state.

Given the vast uncertainty at the national level, and your voices at the local level, your legislators crafted a budget that carefully balances Vermont’s diverse, sometimes competing requests.

We worked across political aisles to find budget reductions. Together we invested in housing, higher education, water quality, economic development, child care and mental health. We put more money into the education fund to reduce pressure on your property taxes and raised NO taxes and fees. We spent less than the projected revenues, building savings that will mitigate uncertainty in federal funds.

The budget invests in Vermont’s future, makes good on our promises, and does so with great fiscal restraint. It passed 143-1 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate. Former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas praised the budget as a “positive step.”

In vetoing the budget, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said no to a morally and fiscally responsible budget, and no to its inclusive, non-partisan process.

In addition to the budget veto, Scott vetoed a property tax decrease in H.509 that would have gone directly to Vermont taxpayers. Two years ago, teachers agreed to move from comprehensive health care plans to high deductible plans with much cheaper premium and much higher out-of-pocket costs.

The teacher health care savings that have been widely discussed come from that already-agreed upon change. It’s happening no matter what the Legislature and governor do. Those savings are already happening in local negotiations. Centralizing those negotiations in Montpelier doesn’t necessarily increase savings — it just makes it easier for Montpelier to raid those savings to spend it elsewhere. We can’t let that happen.

Just how much is the savings on your property taxes? Hundreds or even thousands of dollars? Nope.

Under Scott’s last-minute demands, a home valued at $200,000 would, at most, bring savings to Vermont families of less than $22 each year, less than a tank of gas.

The House and Senate passed various bills that would have guaranteed savings of $25 to $65 a year, but Scott rejected these as well.

A veto of the budget should not be taken lightly. It is the second budget veto in Vermont’s history. If a budget is not in place by July 1, Vermont state government shuts down.

In Vermont we do things differently than in Washington, D.C. We work together, solve hard problems, and help out our neighbors. Our economy and our communities do not need MORE uncertainty. Given that there were other options on the table, $22 is not worth the veto that rolls back the investments we made and throws our state into weeks of uncertainty.

So how would the investments in vetoed budget have helped Vermonters? The $2.5 million increase in child care services for working families could have helped parents get back to work and build a workforce for small businesses. Higher education is a key component of a strong, healthy future, but it is out of reach for many Vermonters. The Legislature’s budget allocated an additional $3 million that would have improved access to the Vermont State Colleges.

The Democratic Legislature earned an “A” grade from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which applauded the Legislature’s no new taxes as well as the expanded investments that would have gone to economic development throughout the state in Small Business Development Centers, micro business development, economic development marketing, downtown infrastructure development (known as “TIFs”) and career and technical education.

Appreciating the importance of agriculture and forestry in rural economic development, the Legislature made additional investments in working lands, the farm-to-school program, and the logging sector.

The vetoed budget included a $35 million housing bond that would have generated a $100 million in construction of affordable and middle-income housing.

The Legislature listened to Vermonters underserved by an overwhelmed, underfunded mental health system and made significant investments that would have supported community mental health care and developmental services. We reinforced funding for our home and community based services, including adult day centers and Meals on Wheels. We budgeted significant funds to clean up our state waters.

This is an excellent budget that is the culmination of years of difficult decisions and strong work this session across party lines.

While legislative leaders will continue to work with the administration to find our way through to agreement that restores these critical investments and property tax savings, Vermonters can be very proud of the Legislature’s budget, its tripartisan support and the solid, fiscally responsible investments their Legislature made in our communities, economy and future.
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  • Jason Brisson

    NEA talking points from the speaker of the house?!
    I wish our politicians fought to give every Vermonter back $22, as much as they fight to take it away…

    • Clancy DeSmet

      Collective bargaining is not negotiable.

      • John Freitag

        Clancy,
        Where and in what venue it takes place is.
        There is a tremendous waste of time, money and energy by teachers, administrators and school board members in district negotiating for health care that should be put in the common goal of educating our children. It is why years ago, Democratic House Speaker Ralph Wright , a teacher and union activist , proposed doing so on a statewide level.

      • Jason Brisson

        Act 60 made every teacher a state employee.
        Teachers are paid by statewide property taxes.
        Teacher benefits affect my property taxes.
        Are my property taxes “negotiable”??

      • Matt Young

        “Collective bargaining” has become union bullying. The NEA’s $2,000,000 donation to Vermont democrats…is that part of “collective bargaining”

  • Gary Murdock

    “Under Scott’s last-minute demands, a home valued at $200,000 would, at most, bring savings to Vermont families of less than $22 each year, less than a tank of gas.”
    And this is the same argument used by the progressive democrats every time a tax and or fee is increased…”This will only cost $22 a year”. So why does the same logic not apply to a savings? If not for the actions of Speaker Johnson, climbing down from her pedestal to side with the VT NEA and against the will of the majority, we would not be here today. I hope the VT Republican Party is working diligently to line up a candidate to run against Speaker Johnson. If they do this, I will donate the maximum allowed to that candidates campaign, and ask that anyone else with the means consider doing the same.

    • Jason Brisson

      ^^Truth! and bears repeating:
      “If not for the actions of Speaker Johnson, we would not be here today.”

  • John Freitag

    This past session marked a turning point from the Shumlin years of property tax and fee increases. The Democratic Legislature did indeed stay within Governor Scott’s parameter of no new taxes and fees and there credit is due to all. While the first step to get out of a hole is to stop digging , much remains to get us out of the hole and back to living within our means, and the challenges abound. Over one third of state spending is dependent on federal funding, there are no dedicated funds necessary for the amount needed for the clean-up of Lake Champlain and the teachers retirement fund has a over 80 million dollar deficiency. We will need to make significant adjustments to meet these and other needs at a time when Vermonters are feeling tapped out by property taxes and fees.
    This is why Governor Scott’s proposal to go to statewide collective bargaining for teachers retirement benefits, a position supported by the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association , the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and many Democrats and Independents, is so important. An annual savings of 26 million dollars a year , while not solving all our fiscal woes, is an important step in the right direction. Not to take advantage of the situation would truly be a missed opportunity.

    • Paul Richards

      “…the teachers retirement fund has an over 80 million dollar deficiency.” $80 million worth of local school boards caving in under insurmountable pressure from highly effective highly compensated, single purpose, expert “negotiators”, wearing them down behind closed doors. $80 million worth of local taxpayers, only essentially being allowed to vote on 20 percent of the budget. The other 80 percent is decided behind closed doors and signed by the school board and the union lawyers before it goes to a vote. $80 million to fund a pension plan for monopolized government employees so they can retire early and receive social security AND their pension plans that we mostly fund and pay to administer. This is ridiculous. If social security is good enough for me it’s good enough for them. If retiring at 67 is good enough for me it’s good enough for them. If they want their own pension plan they can fund it and manage it themselves. I’m tired of being forced to pay for their gold plated pay and benefits while I struggle to provide for my own family. That is discrimination.

  • bob Zeliff

    The key point here is do we Vermonters to move Local control of our education money rom our local school boards or to Montpelier as Scott proposes?
    One size does not fit all. The Burlington area is rich…most other places are not.
    Let’s keep our local control and reject Scott’s relentless push for Montpelier control.

    • Matt Young

      “Keep our local control”. Absolutely, but if we are really going to have “local control” then let’s do it on everything, not merely things that benefit the big public monopoly union.

    • Jamie Carter

      We vermonters already move our education money to Montpelier. What control do you think you are losing? It’s already gone…

    • Edward Letourneau

      We do not have local control now, and we haven’t had any since Act 60.And anyone who thinks so, does not know what is going on.

    • Cheryl Ganley

      This fallacy of local control needs to stop being brought into these conversations. There is no local control when it comes to the financial aspect of educations in Vermont. The money is taken by the state and dived up to the schools. The only part of local control that is real is course offerings and salaries and benefits. The VTNEA wants salaries and benefits to remain local so they can pit one district against another and endless increase wages and benefits.

      • bob Zeliff

        Well I get to vote form my school board, vote to approve the budget or not. Seems Democratic and like local control to me.
        I don’t know how this falls short of your definition of local control?
        I do know that Scott wants to claw back the control of teacher health care negotiations and claw back to Montpelier that money. He proposes (for this first year…who knows what he will say next) to use 1/3 of the money to pay down teach pension bills, 1/3 to give back to the teaches for co pay etc, and the rest to some General fund spending he wishes.
        I do know what he proposes is NOT local control.

        • Cheryl Ganley

          The budget that you vote for isn’t necessarily paid for entirely by the taxes raised by that district.

  • Matt Young

    Miss Johnson states, “in Vermont we do things differently than in Washington D.C.” If that were true Miss Johnson wouldn’t be trying her case in the press, if that were true Miss Johnson wouldn’t be bowing to a huge political donor (NEA), and if that were true Miss Johnson wouldn’t be misleading in her description of our Governors intentions. Miss Johnson says, “Two years ago, teachers agreed to move from comprehensive health care plans to high deductible plans with much cheaper premium and much higher out-of-pocket costs.” Please share details so that Vermonters can compare their own health care plans to those of union teachers. Please let us know how “high” these deductibles really are. Do they receive full dental and insurance for spouse as well? Are these benefits lifelong?

  • jan van eck

    Where Speaker Johnson’s analysis fails is that is chooses to ignore that her Budget is a reconfirmation of the status quo – a system that supports an extended bureaucracy that continues to impoverish Vermonters. It is not sustainable; the system has to go, and the bureaucracy has to be restructured. The start point for any policy should be: does this policy both reduce the tax load and improve the lives of Vermonters? Second, does this policy push towards a more prosperous society? And if you cannot do that, then the policy proposal gets chucked.

    This budget does nothing to address obsolete, worn-out housing. It does not provide for heat for the poor. It does not attack homelessness. It does not attack dental care for teens. It does not attack the collapse of pediatric practices in Franklin County. It does not address the collapse of the forest-products industry. It does not even address road salt. It is a blind continuation of the status quo, and the bureaucracy of the status quo.

    Mitzi Johnson’s budget is a failure.

  • Neil Johnson

    Perhaps we should discuss the other grade Vermont government has received year after year a D+ or D- in ethics?

    Perhaps we should discuss the nations largest EB5 scandal of what $200 million?

    Perhaps we should discuss the health care expense that tis 2x any industrialized nation, the one crippling our citizens?

    Perhaps we should discuss the $182 million in extra health benefits we give to teachers every year, those benefits above and beyond what any Vermonter can eve purchase. WE as citizens aren’t even offered to purchase the Cadillac plan any first year teacher can get.

    The priorities of this government are lobbyists first, poor and needy second. You’ll notice the first to suffer are not the lobbyists, but the poor and needy.

    Our budget increase every year but they talk about the cuts they are having to endure, and the press let’s them get away with such non-sense.

    Where’s the faithful and honesty, please we are waiting.

    • Karen Ann

      “The priorities of this government are lobbyists first, poor and needy second.”
      Taxpayers take a distant third and are actually the first to suffer. Poor and needy and the lobbyists are always taken care of.

  • Jamie Carter

    While Mitzi does a wonderful job of advocating for her budget, along with all the benefits and good things about it, she fails to make her case… mainly because she doesn’t really try.

    The issue here is not the budget itself. Everyone more or less agrees the budget is a good one. The issue is also not so much about savings… they are pretty well agreed upon that savings are going to be achieved.

    So great job building that straw man Mitzi.

    The issue really is thus, Phil has an a proposal to level the playing field so to speak. A proposal that seeks changes that will benefit Vermonters long term. A proposal that will simplify how our education funding system works. Mitzi does nothing to discredit the Governor’s proposal, and she further does nothing to tell the readers what her proposal is, or why it’s better. The status quo isn’t sustainable and it isn’t acceptable. Unless Johnson has a different proposal to assist struggling school boards who are asking for help then she needs to get out of the way and let Phil enact his changes. Until someone can make a case for why a statewide health insurance system is a bad idea and why it will leave Vermonters worse off the legislature needs move forward with Scott’s plan. Johnson has done nothing more than indicate she is against the policy just because and deflects to patting herself on the back for the budget. In short she offers nothing of substance and instead uses the opportunity to take a few political swipes while pretending to take the high road.

  • JohnGreenberg

    Brava Mitzi!

  • Rick Cowan

    Mitzi fails to mention one detail that illuminates the issue:
    According to public records, VTNEA pays over $933,000 per year to its team of lawyers who go up against the volunteers representing taxpayers on local school boards in contract negotiations.
    Does that sound like a level playing field? Who do you think comes out on top every time–taxpayers or teachers?
    Mitizi doesn’t understand that Phil Scott wouldn’t have been elected without the votes of lots of Democrats like me who can barely afford to keep living in this state.

  • Steve Baker

    Mitzi, Teachers should pay (to quote the liberal dogma) their fair share.

  • Jason Brisson

    Are “carpenters, electricians, painters, plumbers, roofers, nurses, doctors” all paid by the state of Vermont, thru property taxes?
    Act 60 changed the field, gold towns have dealt with it, the teachers will too.

  • Jason Brisson

    How do you know she is not misleading?
    Her district is a cash cow under Act 60, those towns contribute more $$ to the state for education than they get back for education.

  • Cheryl Ganley

    The teachers contracts are public documents that anyone has access to can can read, but only after the contract has been ratified. If you are riled up now then I suggest you do not read them cause it will make you even more upset.

  • Paul Richards

    Are these trades people all in a government monopoly paid for by the taxpayers against their will? You are talking apples and baseballs.
    Collective bargaining for government employees should be relegated back to illegal status pure and simple.

  • Matt Young

    Walter, could you please substantiate the following claim, “Two years ago, teachers agreed to move from comprehensive health care plans to high deductible plans with much cheaper premium and much higher out-of-pocket costs”. It seems when liberals want to avoid a conversation they say something about President Trump or the Koch brothers. Deflect deflect

  • Matt Young

    Clancy, asking union members to contribute a SMALL portion toward their own healthcare can hardly be classified as “trampling”. Particularly when those who are paying the bill do not enjoy the same benefits they are funding for others. Why is okay for the union to “trample” on taxpayers and children?

    • Clancy DeSmet

      Union members are taxpayers with children. Gov. Phil Scott Walker wants us to live in a “right to work” state, which is unacceptable.

  • Jason Brisson

    Exactly. Find a better way to fund education that’s not so divisive, by severing education funding from property taxes.