Legislative Overtime

Opinion / May. 18, 2017 9:22am EDT

The legislature is still in session this week.

That’s because of a veto threat from Gov. Phil Scott over a conflict on whether the state should take over negotiation of teachers’ health insurance benefits.

Gov. Scott says that, according to VEHI, the Vermont Education Health Initiative, which puts together insurance plans for Vermont teachers, the state could save tens of millions of dollars by negotiating a single contract for all educators.

When you put it like that, it sounds pretty good.

The Vermont NEA, the union that represents teachers in the state, worries that the proposal would erode local control of contract negotiations and put a major dent in the collective bargaining process.

I guess that’s a little less good.

The governor proposes taking about two thirds of the projected savings and putting that toward the extra expenses to be borne by the teachers, which he claims will make them just as well off as they had been.

Opponents in the House say that this is wishful thinking and relies on flawed assumptions.

Luckily, we have a mechanism to deal with complexity: legislative committees that specialize in particular topics. These folks are there to give an idea’s minutiae the proper consideration. But this plan came too late for that to happen.

Every teachers’ contract in the state is under negotiation this year because of changes that VEHI made in response to the Affordable Care Act last year. The governor sees this as a golden opportunity to deal with every school district’s health insurance budget at the same time.

Well, it’s not quite perfect. Nine or so districts have already entered in contracts with their staff. Many more are in the final stages of mediation after months of work on both sides of the table.

He relies heavily on analysis from VEHI, but it’s not clear that VEHI analysts are even in agreement over the cost savings; the legislature’s independent Joint Fiscal Office sure isn’t.

It’s possible that this proposal makes a lot of sense. But it’s also possible that it isn’t nearly as solid as the governor wants to believe. Either way, it’s an idea that deserves the full diligence of the democratic process.

Hiding the proposition until after the legislature’s committees have wrapped up their work for the session doesn’t allow for that process to work through the details that must be considered.

I have a good deal of respect for this governor. He strikes me as an even-handed and thoughtful person who has the best interests of the state at heart, but that doesn’t excuse him for playing political games with our public policy.

Hiding this proposal until the end of the session shows a disregard for public debate that we might expect to find in Washington rather than Montpelier.

T. Calabro

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