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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

When Others Say it Better Than You Can Part 2

June 20, 2017


This opinion piece was written by Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson and published around the state. It is a straightforward and honest description of the dilemma we are facing as a Legislature and a state — how do you react to a situation where you are faced with a negotiation over something less than tangential to what you are negotiating over, and when the opposition, in this case Governor Scott, refuse to negotiate in good faith? It is easy to call this “spin,” especially if you don’t agree with it, but in this case, it speaks to the truth. The Vermont Legislature, and Democrats/Progressives in general, passed a budget that raised no taxes or fees, and an education tax yield bill that lowered the statewide property tax rate. This is fact. The Governor’s initial budget proposal would have required a substantial rise in the statewide property tax, and his desire in these negotiations is to take savings negotiated by local school boards for statewide purposes. We fundamentally disagree.

When your state representatives were sworn in January 4th, 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, childcare 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. Read more

When Others Say it Better Than You Can

June 11, 2017


Rep. Valerie Stuart from Brattleboro sent this text as a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer. She captures the innate conflict between what reality the Legislature worked with during the session, and the alternative reality created by the Scott Administration in the waning days of the session. Her words are clear and accurate.

There’s an old saying, and like a lot of old sayings there is a lot of truth to it: Actions speak louder than words. That axiom comes to mind when House and Senate Democrats reflect on the last session, which, unfortunately, hasn’t ended yet because Governor Scott vetoed the budget. As a result, the Legislature plans to convene again on June 21 and 22 and attempt to reach a compromise that will avert our state government’s shutdown.

During his tenure as Lt. Governor, Phil Scott appeared to be a moderate Republican. He also appeared to be a middle of the road Republican throughout his gubernatorial campaign. Consequently, many Democrats assumed he would pursue the open lines of communication characteristic of Vermont’s governors.

Unfortunately, there have been many instances during the last session when Governor Scott’s actions have spoken louder than his words. For example, during his inaugural address the governor said he would sign a budget that was balanced and did not raise new taxes or fees. The budget passed by the House and Senate — just one vote short of unanimous support — achieves both goals. It lowers property taxes for working Vermonters. And it balances the budget without raising any new taxes or fees. In addition, the budget the House and Senate developed: invests $100 million in affordable housing statewide; fosters mental health care improvements; bolsters higher education; and supports child care. Those were all priorities Vermonters called for during the last election. The Democratically led Legislature delivered a budget that addresses Vermonters’ concerns.

So what is wrong with this picture? Everything. Cleary, Phil Scott is playing politics with Vermonters. He has vetoed the budget, ostensibly over an idea his administration sprang on the General Assembly during the final weeks of the session when there was insufficient time to carefully vet it. What is particularly troubling about his proposal is the fact that it takes away local control away from school boards and school staff, which are values Vermonters have repeatedly shown they support.

Perhaps worst of all, the Governor did not negotiate in good faith. Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate put multiple proposals on the table that would insure an equal amount of savings for Vermont taxpayers as the Scott’s proposal. And both bodies’ leadership teams were more than willing to meet him halfway.

Scott ran his campaign claiming to be a leader who was committed to working across the aisle. By refusing to work with legislative leadership and refusing to play by the rules that have historically underpinned politics in Vermont, he has proven that what he said was just empty campaign rhetoric. So now one of the key questions Vermont voters need to ask themselves is: Who is the real Phil Scott. And what does he really stand for?

When Time is of the Essence, Mistakes Can Be Made

May 11, 2017


Detail, Senatorial Shoes, Vermont State House

Nothing has caught attention like the desire of the Scott Administration to somehow collect some kind of savings from the savings to be found if and when our local school boards negotiate new health insurance packages with our teachers.

The administration has been promulgating a number which is, at best, 100% too big. Those of us who oppose this attempt to split the way a teacher’s salary and benefits are negotiated, which will weaken their union, have asked the Administration for numbers, and, at last, there are two different reviews of the proposal, one by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, and one by our Office of Legislative Council.

The fate of the legislative endgame is at stake with the outcome of this discussion. Up until this week, the Administration had not met with representatives of the teachers. There have been a handful of meetings this week, and the Governor is holding firm to his threat that a solution must be found to reclaim these (phantom) savings or he will veto the budget.

These two documents are lengthy, but if you want to know why I am hesitant to break into a teacher’s right to collective bargaining for the shallow claim of savings, please read them.

Money quote:

The Contracts Clause (of the US Constitution) provides that “[n]o state shall . . . pass any . . . law impairing the obligation of contracts….” That happens when a legislature enacts a statute that trumps the terms of an existing collective bargaining agreement.

We are a nation of laws. We should live by them. There is nothing wrong with negotiating change to collective bargaining agreements if they are done by law. Trying to step around contracts, as the Vermont School Boards Assn. and the Administration have proposed, is simply unprecedented in Vermont. That is why I will continue to support preserving the collective bargaining rights of the teachers.

Update 4:00 PM 5/11/17: The House and Senate have made a proposal that goes like this: The House and Senate will propose a three cent, immediate cut in the statewide property tax. Expectations are for $13 million savings in the first year from locally negotiated contracts. Three cent deduction is baked in for the time being and Waterbury benefits even more by starting to see the “gift” from the state for merging under Act 46. We are still checking to see if those are negatively affected. The estimates are more solid than those proposed by the Governor. What we would vote on would provide immediate and real savings to property taxpayers without disrupting relationships between school boards and teachers.

Update 10:00 AM 5/12/17: The details of the “Ashe amendment” have been made clearer, and they have inspired many more questions about the notion of calculating possible health insurance savings within the current legislative session. School boards are concerned that if they do not meet the savings that curricular programming would have to be cut back. These factors really dovetail with the need to take more time to work out what the desired outcomes should be and what the consequences may be. It’s clear to me that the issue has moved further away from the actual policy and is deadset in the middle of politics. The possibility of making mistakes grows when trying to negotiate issues in the waning days of the session.