It was an exciting week at the State House. The topics ranged from marijuana, family leave, a new Green Mountain Retirement Plan, property taxes and much more.
The major controversy centered around a proposal by the Governor to save an estimated $26 million by having health insurance bargained through a statewide contract instead of at the local level as it is today.
There were two proposals before us relating to the Governor’s plan. They were very different, though they dealt with the same topics; property taxes, health insurance and unions.
The first proposal was the “Beck Amendment”. It would implement a statewide contract for teachers’ health insurance. Assuming the negotiations went accordingly, the estimated savings could be $26 million for a full year. The second alternative amendment, known as the “Webb Amendment” also aimed to save $26 million but left the bargaining of insurance benefits at the local level.
A key difference between the two amendments, besides how health benefits would be negotiated, was what would become of any savings. The Beck amendment would allow the savings to be spent. In fact the Governor, who strongly supported the amendment, called for spending some of the savings on state colleges and child care. Many people never imagined their local property taxes would be spent on colleges, but thought they were for their local schools.
The teachers union has felt attacked by these discussions. They believe if health care benefits and wages are split, with their school board negotiating with them for their wages, and the state bargaining with them for their health insurance, they are at an extreme disadvantage. Their ability for example, to offer to pay more for their health insurance but receive a larger pay increase would be gone. Instead of bargaining for better pay or benefits they would be left to simply plead for more as their bargaining leverage would be gone. Some have suggested this is why the Beck proposal has been offered, to break the union.
I decided to support the Webb amendment because it guaranteed the savings would go to lower local property taxes. There were many who claimed, including school board members, that the process of bargaining benefits was challenging and that the locals were no match for the high powered union, and it was unlikely large savings could be achieved. Others said that while it was hard work, local boards did a good job. In fact, right in the Lamoille-South district $200,000 in health insurance savings has been achieved through local negotiations.
There were many who were frustrated that the Governor waited until the end of the session to offer his proposal. While his current proposal does not guarantee the savings will lower taxes, he should get credit for trying to keep this issue front and center on the public policy agenda. I am hopeful we can find a workable solution that respects our teachers and helps taxpayers at the same time.