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

When Others Say it Better Than You Can

June 11, 2017

reptomstevens

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?

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When Time is of the Essence, Mistakes Can Be Made

May 11, 2017

reptomstevens

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.

 

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. Read more