One of the Vermont legislature's frequent set pieces was performed once again on Friday: A member of the minority proposed an inconvenient amendment, then the majority quickly derailed it and tossed it in the dustbin. Stop me if you've heard this before, but in its place the Senate approved — wait for it — a committee to study the idea.
Yeah, that's the stuff.
Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) played the role of the Determined But Doomed Underdog. Senate Democrats and Progressives were the Mustache-Twirling Majority.
The issue before the Senate was H.509, a bill to establish statewide education tax rates. Degree offered an amendment to include Gov. Phil Scott's recent proposal to negotiate teacher health care benefits on a statewide basis, which he said would save $26 million a year. In the Degree amendment, one-third of the savings would go to the state's general fund, one-third to the teachers' retirement fund, and one-third would reduce the residential and nonresidential property tax rates.
Oh, and one thing Degree didn't mention until after his amendment was defeated: It would have imposed a ban on teacher strikes.
Democrats raised various objections to the plan — it was introduced too late, it has broad implications, it would interfere with the tradition of local teacher negotiations. Degree echoed Scott's argument, that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity because all teacher health care plans are changing at the end of this year.
Then, Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Education Committee, introduced an amendment to Degree's amendment. Baruth's plan would gut the Degree plan and replace it with a committee — including one representative each from the Vermont-NEA, the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association — that would study Scott's proposal .
A little more than an hour of debate was followed by a roll-call vote on whether to kill Degree's amendment in favor of Baruth's. It passed 19-10, with Democrats Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans), John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) and Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) joining the seven Republicans in voting no. Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) was absent.
And that was the predictable end of the Degree amendment. There followed a voice vote on the bill as amended by Baruth, with only one voice crying "no." And then H.509 won final Senate passage on a 20-9 vote.
Afterward, Degree was less frustrated with the loss than with the procedural derailment. "They should be on-record voting against it," he said, "instead of substituting a study, which is what we do in Montpelier when we want to make things go away."
The House and Senate must now reach agreement on a uniform bill. The Senate version includes a shift of teacher pension fund obligations from the general fund to the education fund, a move that would result in a roughly $8 million increase in property taxes.
Degree refused to say if he would advise the governor to veto H.509, but he did say he expected Scott to do so if need be.
"I'm confident that the governor will veto a [bill] that raises taxes or fees," he said. "But this [bill is] going to conference. We'll wait and see what comes out of conference. But Phil Scott sticks to his word."
Corrected April 29 at 4:27 p.m.: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how the $26 million in savings would be allocated under the Degree amendment.