Legislative Digest: Budget Still Not Resolved, Adjournment Nears

dsc_0975More Meetings But Little Movement at the Statehouse

Gov. Phil Scott and leaders of the Vermont House and Senate continued to meet in private Monday, attempting to reach a compromise over how to negotiate savings in teachers’ health insurance plans. The dispute over how to implement changes in health plans prompted by the Affordable Care Act is prolonging the legislative session. Originally planned for last Saturday, adjournment was postponed until this Thursday. Scott is demanding that the budget include the expected savings, but his proposal to recoup them by negotiating a statewide teachers’ contract has met with resistance in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate. After failing to reach agreement Friday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) met with one another again Monday morning — and with the governor later in the afternoon. No one, however, suggested a grand bargain was imminent. Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley said Monday morning that the governor remains “confident” that his proposal is best, and he doesn’t plan to offer up any other solution. He has rebuffed legislative counter-proposals that would preserve collective bargaining at the school-district level. Scott has not, however, “drawn a line in the sand that it has to be this proposal,” Kelley noted. (7Days/ Freese)

The Power of One

Former Gov. Howard Dean used to describe the respective legislative and executive powers this way: “The House gets a vote, the Senate gets a vote, and I get a vote.” As Dean knew, though, some votes are more equal than others, and he was not reluctant to exercise his. With the legislative session entering its final week, lawmakers seem to have forgotten that Gov. Scott will have a final say in every decision that emerges from the Statehouse. The Senate passed its budget this week, and the most noteworthy departure from the House-passed bill was the transfer of $8 million in teacher retirement spending from the general fund to the education fund — a decision that freed up significant new spending for pre-k and higher education. The new demand on the education fund, however, necessitated an increase in the statewide property tax, which the Senate passed yesterday. Both decisions, if approved by the House, are almost certain to result in a veto. Scott has maintained an unusual clarity of message since he took office in January:  affordability, economic opportunity and compassion for the less fortunate. Within the legislature, the message has been simpler:  no new taxes.

Until this week, lawmakers had grudgingly accepted Scott’s line in the sand. For the first time in years, and perhaps decades, the legislature has approved no additional fees or taxes. For the Senate Appropriations Committee, the fiscal restraint finally became too much. In fairness, former Gov. Peter Shumlin held a similar, albeit less rigid line on new taxes, as did Gov. Jim Douglas before him. The limited growth in existing revenues has created considerable pent-up desire among legislators for new spending. Surprisingly, the Senate unanimously approved the budget bill (which included the education fund transfer), and then passed the property tax increase bill by voice vote. The Senate’s action is a political softball pitch to Scott. While some voters no doubt disagree with the governor’s firm line on taxes generally, it would be hard to find a Vermonter who believes that property taxes are not high enough. The governor’s political advisors are likely to be salivating at the prospect of his veto of what is almost certainly a wildly unpopular proposal.

While the governor gets a “vote” on bills, he can’t, of course, force the legislature to act – he can only ask. This week he asked the legislature to adopt a statewide contract for teachers’ health care benefits, which he argued would save the state $26 million annually. The legislature declined, and that decision may also pay political dividends for the governor. Lawmakers rejected the statewide health care contract on the grounds, in part, that individual school districts should be allowed to negotiate teacher benefits. There is an inherent inconsistency in the legislature’s approval of higher education fund spending while rejecting a statewide teachers contract. The state has largely taken over the field of education finance in Vermont, so the notion of local control over spending decisions rings a bit hollow. Legislators also argued that they don’t have time to consider the governor’s proposal to save $26 million in education spending this late in the session. Voters may also look askance at that argument as well given the Senate’s willingness to approve $8 million in new education fund spending during the same week it rejected the governor’s proposal for its tardiness. (DRM/ Hollar)

At Impasse Over Teacher Health Insurance, Vermont Legislature Postpones Adjournment 

A game of chicken between lawmakers and the governor will go on through next week. The House and Senate will be asked to return Wednesday and Thursday to negotiate and vote on budget and tax deals. The Legislature had planned to leave a week early; the additional days next week are covered in the current budget. At issue is a disagreement over a plan to reduce property taxes. Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers are at odds over a proposal to take over teachers health care negotiations. (VTDigger/ Galloway)

GOP Plan To Overhaul Collective Bargaining Gains Steam, With Help From Democrats

Late Wednesday night, the Democratically controlled Vermont House of Representatives almost did the unthinkable by passing a proposal put forth by Republican Gov. Phil Scott that would drastically overhaul the collective bargaining process for public school teachers. While the measure failed, by the slimmest of margins, the vote has changed the political calculus in Montpelier on an issue that may well lead to a budget veto. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate couldn’t have been firmer in their opposition to Scott’s proposal. Scott wants a statewide contract for teacher health care benefits, and says the change would allow Vermont to save $26 million a year in education costs. House and Senate leadership say the plan is an attack on the bargaining rights of organized labor, and that Vermont can still get those savings under the existing collective bargaining structure. A number of House Democrats, however, were unwilling to follow their speaker’s lead. “It really did provide a positive opportunity to not hurt teachers, to keep them whole, to help taxpayers, and to change the course a bit that I think is needed,” says Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood. Wood was among 16 Democrats and six independents who joined House Republicans in voting for an amendment that would have instituted the governor’s plan. The vote failed in a 74-74 tie that required House Speaker Mitzi Johnson to take the unusual step of casting a vote on the House floor. (VPR/ Hirschfeld)

If The Affordable Care Act Is Repealed, Birth Control Coverage Will Still Be Mandatory In Vermont

If the American Health Care Act, which was passed by House Republicans on Thursday, becomes law, birth control will no longer be mandatorily covered by insurance plans. But in Vermont, birth control benefits for men and women will stay intact. That’s because Vermont codified those benefits locally, from the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Last spring, lawmakers passed legislation that requires insurance companies in Vermont to cover contraceptives for women and vasectomies for men, which actually extends past the benefits outline in the Affordable Care Act. (VPR/ Sananes)

Senate Makes Renewed Pitch for Pot Legislation

With the end of the session looming, the Senate again passed legislation that would legalize marijuana Friday. The Senate approved language very similar to the version of legalization the House narrowly passed earlier this week in H.170. But the timing of the bill’s passage — just a few days before adjournment is expected for the year — could make it impossible for the bill to move through the Senate. Eager to see the issue move forward this year, the Senate Friday attached the House’s plan for legalization to a separate bill, S.22, which originally related to criminal penalties for distributing fentanyl. (VTDigger/ Hewitt)

House Extends Water Cleanup Funding, Diverts $1M A Year to Housing

The Vermont House averted a showdown Friday between clean water advocates and affordable housing proponents by passing a bill that extends a fee that funds Lake Champlain cleanup in perpetuity. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed the fee to expire in 2019. The House approved a compromise deal that takes $1 million from the $5 million currently allocated to the Clean Water Fund each year and uses it to pay a portion of $2.5 million needed each year to pay debt service on a $35 million affordable-housing bond. (VTDigger/ Polhamus)

House Dems Run Amok?

The vote on teacher health care benefits last week divided the Democratic majority in the House and gave Republican Gov. Phil Scott the upper hand. Sixteen Democrats supported the Beck amendment, which was backed by the governor. And momentarily, a coalition of Republicans, independents and blue dog Democrats won last Wednesday night. Until House Speaker Mitzi Johnson cast a tie vote to kill the amendment. At issue is whether the Scott administration can achieve $26 million in savings by taking over statewide negotiations for teacher health care benefits. Democrats in the House and Senate say local school boards should continue to bargain with teachers over the benefit. Both the governor and Democratic leaders say they want to “maximize savings” and reduce the property tax burden. (VTDigger/ Galloway)

Outlook Good For Bill That Will Create An Ethics Commission In Vermont

When lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Wednesday, one of the first items up for debate is a bill that creates an ethics commission in Vermont. Vermont is one of a handful of states without an ethics commission, and backers say this bill is a small step forward. The bill creates a five-member commission that will review allegations of unethical behavior. If they find the case has merit, it will be sent to the attorney general’s office for further review. The Vermont Senate passed a bill that seeks to level the playing field for independent doctors, despite intense pushback from hospitals, insurance companies and the chairs of two key committees. The Senate passed H.29, with an amendment on medical pay parity, overwhelmingly on a voice vote Friday. (VPR/ Kinzel)

Images Courtesy of: VTDigger, 7Days, VPR, Freedom Leaf, Burlington Business Association. 


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