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).

Who wouldn't want to save $26 million? (Front Porch Forum Issue No. 2767 May 10, 2017 )


I submitted a commentary on this topic that will be published in The Citizen this week and on my website (www.MikeYantachka.com).  However, I would like to add a few more thoughts here for your consideration since I have received many emails on the subject.

Sound bites are very simplistic. "Save the taxpayers $26M!"  Very easy to say, but another saying that applies is that "the devil is in the details."  The Governor's proposal relates to a change happening to teacher health plans throughout the State. This change is not dependent upon, nor due to the Governor in any way. It is the result of a redesign of the teachers' health plans by VEHI that offerss two high deductible and two regular plans that teachers may choose from, and that have lower premiums than the current plans.

The new plans are cheaper because they are less generous plans. The statewide savings estimate is $75 million. Of that, $48 million is anticipated to be needed to pay for the increased copay and deductible costs in the new plan. The remainder, if you believe the estimates, would be the $26 million which the Governor keeps talking about.

The Governor's plan, as embodied in the Beck amendment to H.509, was to return $8 million of the $26 million to property tax payers and to use the other 70% for other purposes, namely the General Fund and to cover the transfer of the liability for the state portion of current teacher retirement obligations to the Education Fund.  This transfer would lead to higher property taxes in the long run.
The issue of statewide bargaining has no impact on whether the savings occur.

What the House passed instead, the Webb amendment, was a provision that makes no change in bargaining, but directs 100% of the savings that actually occur in teacher healthcare to be returned directly to local communities in the form of reduced property taxes.  The money saved would be returned to a local school district only after a budget was voted upon and approved. It can go to only one place, and that is to directly reduce property taxes. All of the savings, rather than just the 30% in the Governor’s plan would come back to your property taxes. This is what property taxpayers want, and why I voted against the Beck amendment and for the Webb amendment.

The Word in the House 5/11/2017 - Teachers' Health Care Proposal

In the final week of the legislature bills move at a fairly rapid pace between the House and Senate as differences are resolved and agreement is reached. Some legislation, however, deals with highly controversial issues such as marijuana legalization, paid family leave, and education issues. These bills often generate much floor debate and take hours, if not days, to bring to completion. On two different days of the expected final week, legislators remained on the floor until nearly midnight before completing business.
One of the most contentious bills was the education financing bill, H.509. This bill was being amended to include the Governor's proposal that would create a statewide health insurance contract for teachers. While the proposal sounds like a good idea, it was offered so late in the session the legislature was not able to properly investigate the assumptions, tax implications and labor policy implications in the way the legislature conscientiously approaches all legislation. Issues like this are not black and white and require getting input from many sources and affected parties..

With that in mind, the House Ways & Means Committee did examine the proposal and determined that there may be up to $26M of savings to be realized, but only half of that in FY18. It is important to note also that the $26M figure is a “guesstimate” based on a presumed decreased use of health care services by teachers under the new plans. Furthermore, the Governor's proposal would direct much of the savings to be used for other purposes than reducing the property tax. Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne offered an alternative proposal as an amendment that would use the same expected savings from the lower premiums of the new teachers' health insurance plans to go to the Education Fund and be funneled back to the individual districts according to the savings realized by the district.

The right of employees to unionize and bargain collectively with their employer is a fundamental right of American workers that was hard fought for and won over the last century and a half. Without unions we would not have a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, safety standards, workers' compensation, a minimum wage, and other employee rights we take for granted. The Governor's proposal would take the negotiation of health care contracts out of the hands of local bargaining units and districts and give it to a statewide union and the Department of Education. Since teachers are employees of individual districts and not of the state, the proposed arrangement takes both the employees and the districts out of the process. And if negotiations broke down and teachers went on strike, it would affect the entire state instead of being localized to a single district. This would not be good for Vermonters.

The Webb amendment keeps the negotiations local and guarantees that the savings will come back to the local districts. As a practical matter, since about 25% of teachers’ compensation comes in the form of health insurance, removing that huge piece from the local negotiation of teachers’ contracts takes a big piece off the table as the negotiators balance pay increases against health insurance benefits.

As you probably have heard, the vote ended in a tie, 74 - 74, on the Beck amendment, and the Webb amendment was subsequently passed. The bill went to the Senate, which will have its own say. Our hope is that the Governor and the legislature will come to some compromise agreement that will accomplish the savings in a mutually satisfactory manner and avoid a potential veto session. The expected May 6th adjournment has been postponed as those negotiations take place and will resume the following Wednesday.

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).

Legislative Report 5/10/2017 - Laws & Sausage

By the time you read this, the Vermont legislature will be within days of adjournment. You've probably heard the saying that legislating is a lot like making sausage. This is never more true than in the last couple of weeks of Vermont's legislative session. An example of how this works can be illustrated by Senate bill S.52.

S.52 was originally crafted to make some changes to the Public Service Board process for conducting CPG (Certificate of Public Good) hearings. As you may remember from previous articles, most bills have to be passed out of the House or Senate by a certain date called “crossover”, usually a week or two after Town Meeting, to be considered by the other body. There are exceptions, but these are limited to certain types of bills like money bills and municipal charter bills. However, there are ways to get around this limitation, as S.52 demonstrates.

As it came over from the Senate, the bill gives municipal and regional planning commissions a little more control over the 45 day pre-application period when a developer notifies the local commission of its intention to site an energy generation project. It allows the commission to require the Department of Public Service to attend a local hearing and to hire an expert at the applicant's expense to evaluate the project. It also extends by a few days the time for the commission to make recommendations to the PSB regarding the project. In addition, the bill standardizes the comment periods for energy, meteorological stations, and telecommunication facilities CPG applications to 30 days from their current periods ranging from 21 to 30 days. It gives the Department of Public Service authority to investigate complaints regarding noncompliance with CPG terms and conditions and to issue administrative citations and penalties up to $5000 for violations. Finally, the bill would change the name of the Public Service Board to the Public Utility Commission, the name used by most other states. The last provision would help alleviate the public's confusion between the Department and the Board.

Here's where the art of legislative scheduling becomes creative. Since the Energy & Technology Committee passed a number of bills earlier in the session that were not yet acted upon by the Senate, we decided to add them to S.52. These bills included the telecommunication facility siting process renewal bill (H.50), the ten year telecommunication planning bill (H.347), and the appliance energy efficiency standards bill (H.411). If by the end of the session the Senate never got around to acting on them, their language would be included in S.52. Also, since we were unable to finish a bill to have the Department of Public Service study the feasibility and benefits of energy storage technology, e.g. batteries, on the electric grid, we added this language as well.

The House passed these amendments to S.52, which was then returned to the Senate. The Senate can accept the amendments, thereby enacting it and sending it to the Governor. Or, it can make further amendments and send it back to the House. Or, it can decide not to concur and ask for a Committee of Conference between the House and Senate to iron out the differences. In the meantime, if any of the bills that were added passed the Senate before S.52 was finalized, the language corresponding to the enacted bill could be removed from S.52. Thus, from a variety of ingredients, a final bill can emerge. This “sausage-making” process occurs frequently as the House and Senate work to come to a consensus on various pieces of legislation before time runs out. I hope the “sausage” will taste good, or at least be in good taste.

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).

The Word in the House 4/26/2017 - Help for First Responders

Vermont has seen its share of tragic automobile accidents and fatal fires over the years. Accidents like the one on I-89 in Williston caused by a wrong-way driver that killed 5 teens on their way home from a concert or the recent accident on Route 7 in Charlotte that killed a young man require first responders to confront pretty gruesome scenes that can leave a lasting traumatic impression on them, which can cause nightmares, depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While PTSD is recognized as a serious mental health condition, counseling and treatment is often not covered by private health insurance or workers compensation. Under current law, if a first responder breaks an ankle while responding to a vehicle collision they would have health care and wage replacement while they are unable to work through their workers compensation coverage. However, if they respond to a particularly horrific scene and suffer a PTSD injury, they would not be covered for mental health treatment or replacement wages while they recover. The current criterion for work-related PTSD requires a worker to show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in his or her occupation. Insurers often use this standard to argue that first responders commonly encounter such stressful situations, and it is therefore a normal hazard of the occupation and not covered. The House Health Care Committee recognized that this fundamental unfairness flies in the face of Vermont's mental health parity law and created legislation that corrects it.

House bill H.197 creates a presumption that PTSD suffered by a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter that was incurred during service in the line of duty will be covered by workers compensation. The presumption would apply to PTSD that is diagnosed by a mental health professional up to three years after the last date of employment as a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter. However, that presumption could be overcome by evidence showing that the injury was more likely caused by a risk factor or exposure outside of the line of duty.

H.197 provides that a mental condition resulting from a work-related event or work-related stress is compensable if the worker can show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average employee across all occupations. In other words, first responders are human and subject to the same emotional stresses as the rest of us. This provision still requires that an injured worker be able to demonstrate the injury came from work and not some other occurrence. In particular it would not permit a worker to receive compensation for a mental condition resulting from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, termination, or similar action taken in good faith by his or her employer.

This bill has been sent to the Senate Rules Committee which will decide whether to act on it in the remaining weeks of this session or to leave it rest until next January. First responders perform an invaluable service for our communities. They are there when we need them, and they are willing to put their own lives on the line when called to duty. The least we can do is make sure that they get help when they need it.

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).