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

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.



When is $26 Million Not $26 Million?

May 6, 2017


(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

Constance is Love

April 21, 2017


Every year at this time, I do a “devotional” in the Vermont State House. The time is used for prayer, or poetry, or music, or what have you. I choose to write with a connection to Shakespeare. This year I focussed on the character of Constance, from “King John.”

As we rapidly approach the end of the session, I can feel us, as a body, begin to check out, to dissociate from the connections we’ve made since January, and to focus, like a laser, on whatever the endgame is going to be.

I do this devotional annually as a tribute to William Shakespeare on or around his birthday. Shakespeare, if you know him at all, is about words, rhythms, pauses, caesuras, rhymes that all add up and reveal truths that are as pure today as they were when he wrote them.

It takes some time and patience to read him — say “shakespeare” in a junior high as you reach for Julius Caeser or Romeo and Juliet, and you can be sure the groans will be followed by the sounds of teenagers sleeping in their desks. But if you can get them to get it, they’ll learn about the emptiness of political conspiracy and the way love can almost, almost conquer the nihilism inherent in a generational war between Hatfields and McCoys.

What Shakespeare brings to us, in this building, is his sharp perception about how humans in power negotiate that power — in his histories, that means that the climax leaves the stage riddled with corpses, and some vague glimmer of glory for those just murdered.

His King John ends this way. It is full of palace intrigue, and battles fought over the birthright of men, or the usurpers, or the bastard who ends the play alone, and weakly trying to infuse the glory of the crown. And within this play is a remarkable pair of women characters, mothers, who give the play its emotional core in a way unknown in other of Shakespeare’s plays.

The mother who has shaded me most this year, really since October of last year, is Constance. It is her son, Arthur, who by whatever math the royals use to determine who is next in line, is being held back from his right by his uncle, the feckless King John. John, whose mother is Eleanor of Aquitaine, is brother of Richard the Lion-Hearted and conspires to have Arthur murdered. Arthur’s assassin lets him live, uninjured, and lies to King John, telling him that he did indeed murder the boy. Arthur, in a wicked twist, falls to his death as he is trying to take advantage of his unexpected freedom. Everyone thinks that John, in fact, had him killed, even John.

When she hears that he has died, Constance is angry, angry that others would dismiss her emotion as weakness. The beauty, however quickly it dissipates, is the way her grief grows in front of you, blossoming as she speaks.

It is this grief, and this depiction of grief, and the acknowledgment of grief, that I have carried with me this session, ever since a number of parents from the Mad River Valley and Waterbury were awakened by the call no parent ever wants to receive. From our perch as legislators, the representatives from Moretown and Warren and Waterbury witnessed this grief in our communities. All of us, when we work in this building, and when we hear testimony from mothers who are trying to save their children from homelessness, or addiction, or from the horrors of war, witness this grief. It is the kind of grief that can happen to anyone, and is so raw that it stays with us for years.

Here is how Constance describes it. She says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,

I could give better comfort than you do.

(And then Constance removes her headpiece and says…)

I will not keep this form upon my head,

When there is such disorder in my wit.

O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!

My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

So what do I do with this sadness? The first thing I do is to remain grateful to the communities around the state who became Harwood Strong, who reached out to our kids and told them that they were not alone. And to the first responders, who dealt with the horror they came upon. And to the teachers and principals and educational personnel and therapists and comfort dogs who tried to help the students through their pain while they were trying to keep theirs in check. And to everyone who reached out to those families and did what they could to acknowledge and do whatever that little thing was to deal with their own pain of sudden loss.

And here, in the State House, I try to remember that the work we do is for people. No matter the cost, the concept, or the outcome, everything we do affects people. There is great responsibility with that, and if I were to offer a prayer, I would ask that we, as legislators, honor that, in these closing days, we work for the people first, the people always. They are our joy, our food, our world.