In typical end-of-session fashion, we worked several nights until midnight last week and were prepared to meet Saturday. Then the Speaker surprised us Friday evening with the announcement that budget negotiations had reached a stalemate.
We will return next Wednesday to allow a “cooling off” period before trying to wrap up the last few days of work. So instead of a session-end budget-and-tax-bill report, this update will follow up on some of the other issues that played out in the past week.
I reported on my previous objections to the provisions in a House bill on work accommodations for pregnancy, based on the way it was drafted. I know that sometimes there is a perception that opposition to the way a bill is constructed is just an excuse to oppose it. So I’m happy to report that the Senate sent us the bill back in almost exactly the way I suggested the bill should be structured, and I voted fully in support.
I did hear back from a number of folks after expressing my uncertainty about the family leave proposal; the response was almost 2-to-1 in opposition. I proposed an amendment in support of establishing the program as an “opt-in” model to start.
If the report that 70 percent of Vermonters want this insurance is accurate, that would be enough participation to sustain it. However my amendment was rejected, so I voted against it the underlying bill, which mandates participation (and a payroll tax to fund it) for everyone.
The bill did pass but is now in the Senate, so there will be no action on it before next year. It amounts to roughly a $17 million new tax on Vermonters, which makes it likely that if a bill does eventually pass, the governor will veto it.
After many postponements, the House narrowly (74-68) passed a bill to legalize possession and use of an ounce or less of marijuana (currently it’s a $200 fine) and cultivation of several plants (currently illegal.)
The Senate has sent a bill to the House several times to establish a “tax and regulate” open market for marijuana, an approach the House has soundly rejected every time.
The House bill was so different, it would have died for this year if the session had ended on Saturday. But on Friday, the Senate offered a compromise that would adopt the House plan, and create a Commission to study the tax and regulate option. With the extra days next week, there may be time for the House to decide to accept this compromise.
My own vote was dependent upon some key amendments that failed to pass – thus I voted “no.” I will share a separate update with the details.
This addition to Act 250 was problematic because it could add even more to the cumbersome and time-consuming process for getting development approvals in Vermont. (Most projects are eventually approved, but the administrative burdens are lengthy, expensive, and an economic development barrier.)
However, ensuring that our forestlands are protected is incredibly important, and can’t wait. I heard from several of you encouraging support, and none objecting, which helped influence my “yes” vote.
On the other hand, as much as protection against toxic chemicals in children’s products is also critically important, this bill – after changes were made to the original Senate bill by the House – went way, way overboard, ditching the use of a science base as the criteria for placing substances on a “banned” list.
It also turned total control of these decisions to a single person, removing the requirement for recommendations by a panel of experts.
Paul Poirier, a liberal Independent from Barre, offered an amendment that retained that recommendation, but it was rejected. Without that, I could not support the House version of this bill.
Teacher’s health care coverage
I heard from more constituents on the issue of a statewide contract for teacher’s health insurance than on any other issue this year. The majority of messages were from teachers, and almost all of them were in opposition. Everyone else who contacted me, including our district superintendent, supported the change.
Although the money at stake is important ($26 million a year), there is more to it. It also involves equity for educators statewide for health coverage, and relieving volunteer school boards of the complexity of negotiating health coverage packages.
There seemed to be misinformation about an effect of eliminating teacher bargaining, which it would not do. Salaries and other benefits would remain the subject of local negotiations; health coverage would be under a statewide contract, but still a union negotiation issue.
We’ve long eliminated local control over spending by creating a statewide pool of funding that means even if our district saves on costs, our taxes go up when others around the state do not. This was a huge opportunity to make a step forward in long term improvement in how we address school funding issues.
The $26 million in savings were estimated after putting aside all the resources needed to ensure educators had fully equivalent coverage and cost-sharing to the excellent coverage they have currently.
The reason it is a single window of opportunity which will not repeat is because of the fact that all healthcare policies for schools are being re-negotiated right now, at the same time, as a side effect of the affordable care act. We can’t give it more thought and come back next year to act on it.
A number of Democrats “crossed the aisle” to join Republicans and Independents in support of this eminently logical, fair, and cost-savings measure. It actually passed by a single vote, but rules allow the House Speaker (who is also a representative, after all) to vote in case of a tie – or if a vote will create a tie. The Speaker exercised that option, creating a tie, meaning that it was rejected by the House.
What remains to be seen is the impact on the state budget negotiations.
The Senate passed a budget that increased spending over the House proposal, and shifted $8 million in costs onto the Education Fund (in other words, onto property taxes.) However, like the House, the Senate rejected seeking the $26 million in Ed Fund savings through a teacher’s health contract change.
The governor wants to see that savings happen, and is using the budget discussion as his leverage. Thus… the stalemate, and our delayed adjournment.
Thank you for the honor of representing you. Please contact me with your questions and your opinions. You can reach me by message at 485-6431or at this email at firstname.lastname@example.org