I was struck by how my ride home from the Capitol Friday morning at 1 a.m. was a lot like the last three weeks of the legislative session. Cruising happily but tired listening to some great music, I abruptly met a fireman just outside of Worcester Village in the middle of the road who told me the storm had brought some power lines down and I could not get through. Faced with turning around and heading all the way back to the interstate, I took the short cut over the mountain top along Gould Road. It was one of those turn the radio off moments, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel, be ready for anything encounters. Those who know me know that I am exceedingly prone to getting lost, and I was sure I would. The end of the session was much the same way, we hit a detour, called “I can save you $26 million”.
Yes, the Governor proposed a plan that became a great sound bite. He advocated for taking negotiation for health insurance away from local school boards and replacing those negotiations with a statewide teacher’s contract for health insurance. He claimed he could save property tax payers $26 million. The allure of saving $26 million was powerful, many jumped quickly on the bandwagon.
I learned a lot a long time ago from a great Vermont leader, Sister Janice Ryan, when she said to me “Dave, no matter how thin the pancake there are always two sides to everything”. So, I started to peel the onion and quickly realized that moving to a statewide health insurance contract would have many unintended consequences.
First, it became clear that if the state negotiated a contract and captured and kept all the savings as the Governor proposed our local schools would have none of the savings. How could they lower taxes? How would they pay for routine cost increases? What if the freezer in the cafeteria had to be replaced, or it was time to get a new school bus, or they had plans to put savings away to help lower the cost of a bond for a new gym, or roof? If they had planned to use some of the savings from lower health insurance contracts that they negotiated to pay for those things they would be out of luck. The state would have spent those savings and the cost increases would have to be passed on to the tax payers.
Second, to achieve the magnitude of $26 million in insurance savings, the contracts would cover not just teachers, but all school employees including hot lunch staff, crossing guards, janitors, everyone. Most teachers across the state pay roughly the same for their insurance, with some variation. Non-teaching staff, other than administrators, receive lower wages and the differences they pay for health insurance are significant. Some only pay 3% of their insurance. Others are eligible for employee only coverage, others have family coverage but pay 40 percent of the cost. To move to a statewide contract where everyone will pay 20 percent of the cost, as the Governor proposed, would be very problematic and in some cases cost more. A one size fits all policy seldom works as intended.
Third, moving negotiations for health insurance from the local level to the state level, puts teachers at an extreme disadvantage. They have nothing to trade, or offer in return for wages. Their leverage would be gone. Some may like that, but it is not fair.
By this point there may be some who say “okay, I understand nothing is completely fair Dave, but we want savings”. To be clear the Governor’s plan never saved much. He spent most of it. His plan spent two-thirds of the money and would have given one-third of the savings in property tax relief. That may sound like a lot of tax relief but in the first year that would amount to less than $7 for a Vermonter in a home worth $200,000. In the second year it would be around $13. “I can save you $26 million” is a great sound bite, but in the end that is all it is, a sound bite. I too want savings. I just am not convinced this plan will get them.
It would be wrong to think I do not like the Governor, completely wrong. I respect him and so appreciate the civility and the good will he brings to the office of Governor. When I ran for office I heard from more than one person who said,” I want you people to get along”. I think it is healthy to disagree. I insist that we be respectful though, and for that I admire the Governor. I am hopeful in the end we will find a solution that supports tax payers and respects teachers, but most of all helps students succeed.
In closing, instead of doing a wrap up of all the things we did this year, I wanted to highlight two things. I know other media outlets will provide an inventory of the laws enacted and provide a good explanation. I am proud I helped write a budget that increased state spending by just .7 percent without any new taxes or fees and provided significant funds for the mental health crisis we face and targeted relief for infant care at our child care programs. Hats off to our Senator Richard Westman for the work he did to help in this regard. Personally I am proud of the work I did to secure a funding increase for our Home Health agencies across the state. I was able to secure support by finding savings elsewhere in the budget to cover this critical need.
This is my last regular column for this year, I think! I am very thankful to the News and Citizen for letting me report to you on a weekly basis. If I can be helpful, please feel free to email me at David.Yacovone@gmail.com or call me at home at 888-5958. Now I am of off to catch up on the “honey-do” list which has grown quite long.