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When is $26 Million Not $26 Million?

May 6, 2017

reptomstevens

(A version of this post appeared in the May 4 issue of the Waterbury Record)

When is $26 Million not $26 Million? When it is considered to be real savings by the Governor when they trash long-standing collective bargaining agreements for our teachers, principals and support staff. It sounds sexy — who wouldn’t want to find a $26 million present under their Christmas tree? — but like so many of his proposals this year, once you take off the wrapping paper, there’s nothing inside.

Earlier in the year, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that achieved one of Governor Scott’s prized notions — it was balanced without raising taxes or fees. By choosing to present a budget this way, the House acknowledged that our economy, while stronger than most, has plateaued. And with the unknown of fate federal money, it is a budget that proposed little or no new spending, or spending that was offset by cuts elsewhere. What the House did not do was to approve of certain initiatives proposed by the governer that were attractive, but would have required a substantial increase in your property taxes. Flatlining a budget is, due to inflation, essentially cutting the budget by 2% or so, but the House chose to live with the reduction of certain services in order to make it work.

The Senate, on the other hand, has other thoughts about how our resources should be spent, and have proposed paying for some initiatives with the property tax. Again, the House does not support raising revenues through the property tax that should be raised through the General Fund, where everyone contributes.

And most recently, the Governor has promised to veto the budget if it doesn’t include changes to the teachers’ health insurance program, as well as ending the teachers’ right to strike over this benefit. (see p. 2540) While the Governor stated his desire to change the way teachers receive a locally bargained benefit, his administration did not make a proposal until the closing days of the session. Worse, this proposal was concocted in the shadows in conjunction with the Vermont School Board Association without the input from the teachers or their union. This is unconscionable. The rallying cry of many individual groups applies here, as well: Nothing about me without me.

I am opposed to this proposal for a number of other reasons, as well, the first of which is that this is an attempt to destroy the teachers union, which will weaken our strong public schools, for savings that cannot be booked in good faith. The savings proposed by the administration are unproven and inaccurate, in that, with the proposal starting on January 1, 2018, we would only see half of that proposed amount. That amount, if it existed, would not be the result of premium savings, or extra deductibles. The amount calculated by the administration is based on a reduction in the use of the benefit — in other words, they are counting on Vermonters changing their behavior in a way that savings can be booked. Our Joint Fiscal Office, responsible for estimating the economic effects of this proposal if asked, which it was not, speculated that the savings were fleeting at best, and possibly a wash. This is an unacceptable way of budgeting.

And while it seems to easy to disparage the “union,” let’s remember that the “union” is synonymous with “our teachers.” These are the teachers (and staff) who work under incredibly byzantine and convoluted federal and state rules that restrict innovative teaching and have somehow provided Vermonters with one of the best public school systems in the country. Their median salary, meanwhile, ranks in the middle range of those across the country. In other words, we get more than what we pay for. Then, if you take the test scores away and measure the schools by who works in them, you find a bunch of people who care about your children, and who will step in front of bullets to protect your kids and who, this past year, ushered our kids through the emotional aftermath of the worst tragedy our high school has seen in recent times.

I am not willing to demonize our teachers — who are also voters, taxpayers and parents — for the sake of a political gesture full of empty promises to “the rest of us.” Or, for that matter, our local school boards, who do the hard work of making sure our schools are the best they can be while minding the limited resources provided by taxpayers.

So the local problem is this: Teachers (and others in the school system who have access to the same health insurance) currently negotiate with their employers — our school boards. Changing to a statewide system — without their input as a stakeholder in their contracts — means they would be negotiating with an entity that is not their employer — the governor. If the administration (and the school board association) were serious about moving health insurance in this way, they would advocate moving to a single payer health insurance system. And even if there were any savings accrued in this way, those savings would not go to the local taxpayers.

Further, splitting negotiations over health insurance out of a collectively bargained contract is, in the testimony of the Vermont Labor Relations Board, “unprecedented.” Unprecedented means this policy has never happened before. Even if there were merit to the idea, I will never support legislating an “unprecedented” policy without debate and negotiation.

Finally, an amendment being considered would end the teachers’ right to strike after an impasse over negotiations about health insurance, and would also remove a school board’s right to impose a contract upon the teachers. This is a fundamental collective bargaining right that is balanced between the two parties. They exist as the absolute last and worst option to come to an agreement, and it works. Over time, there have been over 5,000 contract negotiations between the teachers’ union and local school boards, and only 50 have resulted in a strike or an imposition.

These proposals are discussed in some way every biennium, and while there is some merit to each point, the proper process to deal with them is through negotiation, with all the stakeholders, and not by fiat at the end of the session by the privileged few. As a member of the committee that handles labor law, I am always open to a conversation held in good faith, with the acknowledgment that the subjects are difficult to negotiate, regardless of good intentions. That didn’t happen here, and for the sake of our teachers, our ethics and our pocketbooks, I opposed it.

If this is a serious proposal, put it on the table and shine a light on it. Weakening the teachers for the sake of sport, without really meaning to save money, is a policy that needs to be transparent. Have that discussion in public, and then we can vote on it.

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