Democrats end talks with Scott over health plan, veto looms

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Democrats end talks with Scott over health plan, veto looms

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 4:15pm -- tim

by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine Democratic leadership in the Legislature announced today that it has given up trying to find a compromise with Governor Phil Scott over the issue of a statewide teacher health insurance plan. They said they will now finalize the state budget and send it to the governor, where he could sign it, let it become law without his signature or veto it, as he has suggested he might. A veto would require the Legislature, nearly two week already behind their intended adjournment date, back into session soon after a veto.

In April, the governor suggested that the state could save some $26 million in school costs if teacher health insurance plans were rolled into one state contract. They are now negotiated school district-by-school district as part of the usual collective bargaining process. But starting January 1, 2018, those health plans must conform to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Those plans have lower premiums but higher deductibles. Scott wants to take the $75 million savings in premiums, apply about $50 million to offset out-of-pocket insurance costs, and use the remaining $26 million to lower property taxes.

The National Education Association, along with Democratic legislative leaders, have balked at taking health insurance off the local bargaining table. They say it diminishes the collective bargaining process and reduces local control.

Because of the timing, the governor maintains that this is a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to make substantial savings in school costs that will also take some pressure off volunteer school boards across the state.

A vote to add the governor's plan as an amendment nearly passed in the House two weeks ago, with Speaker Mitzi Johnson needing to make a rare, tie-breaking vote. The closeness of that vote suggested that the governor might be able to sustain a veto, if it came to that.

Both Speaker Johnson and Senate leader Tim Ashe both floated compromise plans that fell short of what the governor requested. They had also complained that such a sweeping change came much too late in the legislative process.

Earlier today, Scott issued a statement saying that the statewide plan would actually be better financially for the teachers themselves. The governor cited Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and Vermont education Health Initiative, which offers the benefits, as confirming that the actuarial value of the new plans is greater than that of the school employees’ current plans, which means teachers would save money (CLICK HERE).

Scott's spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, in today's statement, reiterated the taxpayer savings and also said: “Perhaps best of all, the plans themselves will be more valuable to the employees than their current plans. It’s a real win-win for taxpayers and school employees.”

WCAX reported that Kelley said that even after Johnson's and Ashe's announcement the governor is still willing to negotiate.

However, the NEA has maintained throughout this debate that Scott's real motivation is to weaken the union.

Martha Allen said shortly after Scott proposed the health insurance change that: "This assault on collective bargaining is straight out of the Donald Trump and (Republican Wisconsin Governor) Scott Walker anti-union playbook. It will end up hampering the ability of local school boards and local educators to do what's best for their schools and children. The state does not employ teachers in Vermont – locally elected and accountable school boards do."

The NEA and teachers in general are an important ally to Democrats.

Faisal Gill, Vermont Democratic Party chair, said in a statement after the Democratic announcement: "The House and Senate will now get back to work constructing a fiscally responsible budget that keeps local control and protects working Vermonters. Previous versions passed both chambers 143-1 and 30-0 respectively, demonstrating a clear path forward. The only thing preventing adjournment now may be the threat of the Governor's veto pen."