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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson on the 2017 Legislative Session

The June installment of the Chittenden County Democrats Show featured an interview with Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, who reflected on the 2017 legislative session so far. The legislature will gavel back into session next week for two days, June 21st and 22nd, for an override session on the Governor's budget veto. Host Bob Hooper and Speaker Johnson discussed several topics including the impasse between the legislature and Governor over teachers' health care benefits, the future of the Windsor prison, and potential impacts of proposed federal tax cuts. The interview can be seen here.

The Word in the House 5/24/2017 - End of Session Summary

As the 2017 legislative session ended shortly before midnight on Thursday, May 18, it was with a lot of pride and a lot of disappointment. The reason for the disappointment was because we would have to go back to Montpelier on June 21 for a veto session because Governor Scott declared that he will veto both the budget (H.518) and the education bill (H.509) because of the teachers’ health insurance issue. I’ve written extensively in the last few weeks about the standoff on this issue, so if the reader wants a recap of the last day as well as a timeline of what passed as negotiations, I refer you to my website/blog at www.MikeYantachka.com. What I will do instead here is write about some highlights of the session.

Ironically, the budget passed by the legislature on the last day achieved all the targets set by the Governor in his budget address in January. The budget does not depend on any new taxes or fees, and held to a 0.7% increase in state funds and a 1.3% increase in total funds, which include federal money. This is well below the revenue growth projections of 3.5% and reflects the steps taken in prior years to close the budget gap. While this budget originally passed both the House and Senate with only one dissenting vote, 48 House Republicans voted against it in support of the Governor’s objections on final passage.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson

For several years, Vermont has been given a grade of “F” for lack of ethical accountability in all three branches of government from The Center for Public Integrity. This year, the House and Senate finally passed an ethics bill that requires disclosure of candidates’ and legislators’ income sources and prohibits legislators from becoming a paid lobbyist for one year after leaving office. Candidates for statewide office will have to disclose their individual income tax form 1040 with their confidential information redacted. These offices include the Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, and Attorney General. Candidates for the House and Senate will have to list each source of their income that exceeds $5000, but not income totals.

The legislature also passed significant legislation supporting civil and individual rights. Senate bill S.29 prohibits the creation of a registry based on personal characteristics and gives the Governor alone, in consultation with the Vermont Attorney General, authorization over agreements in which state and local law enforcement can assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement. Another bill, S.96, provides that journalists cannot be held in contempt for not disclosing their confidential sources. In House bill H.25, not yet passed by the Senate, sexual assault survivors are guaranteed the right to a forensic medical exam, and that the “rape kit” be sent to a lab within 72 hours, and to be notified of a DNA match, or when the kit is scheduled for destruction. Since identity theft has proliferated, the legislature passed H.111 to modernize Vermont’s system of issuing birth and death certificates. Requests for a certificate will be restricted to the person and close relatives, and a statewide registration system will be created as a central repository in the Secretary of State’s office, which will enable a request for a certificate to be filed at any town clerk’s office.

The legislature also helped working families. Low-income working Vermonters eligible for food assistance and Reach Up cash assistance will be able to save up to $9,000 for retirement or their children’s education without being penalized. This will help them earn more without being discouraged by loss of benefits. Pregnant employees also benefit from a bill (H.136) that requires employers to offer accommodations that allow the employee to continue working with a minimum of discomfort. According to AARP, there are around 100,000 Vermonters who do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. Part of the economic development bill (S.135) establishes the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan, which will be available on a voluntary basis to employers with 50 or fewer employees who do not offer a retirement plan, and to self-employed persons. Employees will automatically be enrolled, but can opt out if they do not want to participate.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

House Adjournment Recap 5/19/2017

The gavel came down shortly after midnight ending the 2017 session of the Vermont House pending a veto session in June and a possible callback in October.  The October date was set aside in case the passage of the federal budget later this year deals some major impacts to Vermont.  The last day was not without its hopes and tensions.  Thursday morning Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem received word that the Governor wanted to meet over the stalled teacher health insurance issue. 

The legislators presented the agreed upon language that they would vote on which included:
1) setting up a commission to study the implications and feasibility of having a statewide teachers health insurance program;
2) setting a statewide termination of teachers health insurance contracts that have not yet been negotiated to December 31, 2018;
3) exempting from that termination any contracts negotiated prior to July 1, 2017; 
4) exempting those negotiated afterward that fit the Governor's proposed 80%-20% premium split with a $400 deductible; and
5) passing legislation in 2018 that would reflect the results of the commission's study.

This proposal would honor the dozen contracts that have already been negotiated, encourage the adoption of the terms that the Governor says will achieve the $26M savings ($13M in FY18), and allow the legislature to properly examine, with everyone's input, over the course of a regular session the pros and cons of a standard statewide health insurance program for teachers. No agreement was reached.

In the afternoon, the three parties were joined by the Dean of the House, Alice Emmons, and the Dean of the Senate, Dick Mazza, the longest serving members of each body.  After hours of discussion focusing on the points everyone agreed on, the talks once again reached an impasse as the Governor insisted that the contracts had to be negotiated at the statewide level instead of between local teachers and boards.

At around 9:30PM the House received word that the House-Senate Conference Committee agreed on language for H.509, which was passed by the Senate 20-8. The House was now ready to vote on the language described above except for points 4 and 5. H.509 also set the education tax yields for FY18, which was the original purpose of the bill. The yields, how much $1 of the property tax will raise per student based on the statewide grandlist, determine the local education tax rates.  The higher the yield, the lower the tax rate needs to be.  For residential property tax payers not income sensitized, the yield will be $10,160.  For those eligible for a property tax adjustment, the yield is $11,990.  These yields result in an average homestead property tax rate of $1.505.  The nonresidential rate will be $1.555, down from $1.59. This measure passed on a vote of 84-54.

In his remarks to the House in closing the session, Governor Scott told us he would veto the budget because we did not agree to statewide teacher negotiations. So, we will be returning on June 21 to consider overriding his veto.  What will change between now and then, I don't know. As I stated in my vote explanation after voting for H.509,  "The right of employees to enter into collective bargaining with their employer is a right that was hard-fought and won over the last century and a half. It is a right that we should not throw away. My yes vote underscores my support for this sacred principle.”

At the same time the teachers' unions would do well to ensure that their demands are reasonable when they enter negotiations so as to avoid alienating the property taxpayers whose support they need in times like this. 

Impasse on Teachers' Health Insurance Plans

The Legislature reached an impasse in negotiations with Governor Scott on his plan to use $26 M in potential savings from the new VEHI health insurance plans for teachers.  After 12 days of negotiations with the Governor and his staff, the Governor was unwilling to compromise according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe who held a joint news conference on /Wednesday, May 17th. The goalposts kept moving from one meeting to the next, according to Johnson. The Governor would not move from his position to short-circuit the collective bargaining process, so there was no point in continuing to negotiate.  The legislature will now convene a Committee of Conference between the House and Senate to come up with a joint proposal that will address the potential savings in a way that will preserve the bargaining process and allow the savings to reduce property taxes.  The collective bargaining process is a hard-fought and won right of workers to negotiate directly with their employer.  We should not allow Vermont to become a state which devalues this right.  I recommend reading the editorial by David Moats, editor of the Times Argus newspaper, which can be found at this website: 

Legislative report 5/17/2017 - Stuck in Session

As I write this late Friday afternoon on May 12th, I should be home in Charlotte. Instead, I am in a holding pattern in Montpelier. There are a number of bills that are still under negotiation, all of which deal in some way with money. The Budget cannot be passed until all the constituent parts are finalized. These parts include the capital bill that deals with the overhead required to run the state government, the fee bill that covers the expense of administering regulations and licenses, the transportation bill that maintains our transportation infrastructure, and the education tax bill that determines what the statewide property taxes will be. While the capital, fee and transportation bills, have already passed both the House and Senate, the education bill has become the sticking point over how to deal with the new health care plans being proposed for public school teachers.

The education tax bill, H.509, was close to being finalized until Governor Scott proposed his teachers' health insurance plan to capture an alleged $26M savings within days of adjournment. The fact that only $13M would apply to the FY18 budget, since the new insurance plans don't start until January 1, has not stopped him from repeating the $26M figure. The Governor insists that the only way the savings can be achieved is with negotiations between the administration and the statewide union. This runs counter to the right of workers, the teachers, to negotiate directly with their employer, the school board. With the backing of the Republican caucus, he has refused to compromise on this point. He also has proposed that only 30% of the savings should go for property tax reduction.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have been working toward a way to realize the estimated savings while maintaining the integrity of the employer-employee relationship of teachers and school boards. The latest amendment passed by the Senate would require $13M to be saved in the second half of FY18 which would reduce the statewide homestead property tax by 3 cents. Based on the number of employees, each school district would be allocated a proportion of the savings which would be achieved by negotiations between the school board and its teachers, a process that is already taking place across the state, by the way. Any difference between what the district actually saves and the allocated amount would reduce the state's payment to the district. Since each action on a bill requires a 24 hour waiting period, the failure of the Governor to work with the legislature to find a solution guarantees that the session will run beyond the budgeted 18 weeks.

A couple of weeks ago the 2017 session seemed to be moving along nicely with no new taxes and a budget that got nearly unanimous support. Yet, here we are. Despite agreement on what could potentially be saved, the issue has boiled down to labor relations and how much should be applied to reducing property taxes. I hope that by the time you read this we'll have a solution and a budget that won't be vetoed.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).