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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.

Legislative Report 6/24/2017 - Veto Session Summary

This report was written jointly by Vermont House Members, Jessica Brumsted, Bill Lippert, Terry Macaig, Jim McCullough, Kate Webb, and Mike Yantachka

The legislature met last week in a veto session to address the statewide budget and education property tax bills.  Although these bills are essential to fund state government and our schools, the Governor believed that the legislature had foregone an opportunity to garner savings resulting from statewide changes in health insurance coverage for school employees and vetoed them. The veto forced the legislature to go back into session to avoid a government shutdown.

By the time Senators and Representatives returned to the statehouse on June 21st, much negotiating had already taken place with the Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, and  Governor Scott's representatives.  After negotiations stalled, Governor Scott joined the negotiations on the last day prior to the veto session. An agreement was reached and a new bill combining the budget and property tax language passed on a voice vote in both the House and the Senate. While no one was particularly happy with the result, no one felt essential values had been compromised.

So what does this mean? First, the statewide property tax rate for residential property tax payers will decrease by 2 cents as passed in May, while the nonresidential rate will remain at last year’s rate of $1.535.  Second, a greater share of the statewide sales tax will be used to offset the cost of education. Only minor technical changes were made to the budget which had originally passed the House and Senate with a single dissenting vote. This was the easy part.  

The challenge came in addressing the issue of health insurance for school employees. Democratic leadership believed that savings were already built into the new plans, and these savings were best accounted for at the local level.  In contrast, the Governor believed that more savings could be obtained if these policies were negotiated at the state rather than local level, identifying savings if all schools negotiated an 80-20 premium split with teachers paying $400 per person toward out-of-pocket costs.

The compromise reached by Democratic leaders and the Governor retains bargaining for the health insurance contracts at the local level, but withholds $13 million from schools for FY 18, thereby requiring schools to reduce spending accordingly, preferably through negotiations over health insurance benefits.  It requires each school district to achieve savings in health insurance in the amount that would have been saved in FY18 if Scott's 80/20 benefit plan had been implemented.  The savings will be measured by comparing the cost of the current insurance plans against the new plans that will start on January 1, 2018.  For districts that do not achieve those savings, the difference between the target costs and the actual costs will be deducted from state Education Fund payments to the district.  To ease the effect on property taxes, 65% of the deduction will be applied to FY18 payments and 35% to FY19 payments.  At the time of this writing, we do not have information on how the Champlain Valley School district will be affected.

The bill also creates a nine-member commission that will study whether the state should implement a statewide teacher health insurance benefit, a provision that was included in the vetoed property tax bill.  This panel will “determine whether and how to establish a single statewide health benefit plan for all teachers, administrators, and other employees of supervisory unions and school districts.” 

The compromise also mandates that all school contracts, other than those districts that have already settled their school contracts, will expire in 2019 so lawmakers can implement the recommendations of the commission. Contracts negotiated by July 1, 2017, will remain in effect as negotiated.  Districts currently in impasse on health insurance negotiations are provided an opportunity to reopen negotiations.

Despite the frustration expressed by many legislators that the bill had flaws, we recognized the hard work that went into achieving this compromise.  Speaker Johnson, President Pro Tem Ashe and the Governor issued the following joint statement:
“We are pleased to announce we have reached an agreement in principle on an education savings proposal that will take an important step to make Vermont more affordable. If passed by the full legislative body, this proposal will help the state achieve significant savings in the education fund and lower property tax rates. The agreement reached upholds the principles each of us committed to during the legislative session, building on areas of agreement and our shared goal to improve the lives of Vermonters. Importantly, it ensures that we will have a budget that does not raise taxes and fees, including property tax rates.”

Before adjournment the House and Senate passed nearly identical resolutions strongly opposing the announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and recognizing Governor Phil Scott for enrolling Vermont in the US Climate Alliance.  We were all pleased to support this timely resolution.

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: