Gov. Phil Scott responds to the Senate's vote Friday afternoon.
In an attempt to appease Gov. Phil Scott and avert a veto showdown, the Vermont Senate voted 20-9 early Friday afternoon to mandate that school districts save a collective $13 million next fiscal year.
But Scott, who has said he would not sign a budget that doesn't cut teacher health care costs, soon made clear he wasn't satisfied. “It doesn’t meet some of the standards that I had put in place,” the Republican governor told reporters several hours after the vote. By the end of the day, even a short-lived agreement between the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate had broken down.
The extended impasse led legislative leaders to abandon — for the second week in a row — their plan to adjourn for the year.
Asked late Friday whether they could still reach an agreement with Scott, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said, "Of course we can." But by then, increasingly antsy rank-and-file members had already begun filtering out of the Statehouse — with plans to return next week on a to-be-determined day.
The standoff began three weeks ago when, after previously announcing support for the legislature's budget proposal, Scott began insisting that the money bill contain a mechanism to collect expected savings from a transition to new teacher health insurance plans.
After Democrats rejected his proposal to negotiate a statewide health contract with public school employees, Scott said he'd entertain alternative approaches to realize the same amount in savings. He claimed his plan would save up to $13 million in Fiscal Year 2018 and $26 million in subsequent years, though the legislature’s financial analysts later deemed those savings uncertain.
“We have to be realists,” Ashe said on the Senate floor Friday as he offered his amendment to mandate school spending cuts. “There is a veto threat that we need to save $13 million guaranteed in this year.”
Ashe argued that his amendment gave the governor what he had asked for. It would urge, but not force, districts to find the savings in health care negotiations. Districts could also reduce funding elsewhere, though the plan would prohibit cuts to "direct instructional services."
“It does not inject itself directly into the collective bargaining,” Ashe told his fellow senators. “We’re trying to steer people towards that health benefit plan.”
All but two Democrats — Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) — supported the Ashe amendment, but every Republican voted against it. Mazza, a longtime friend of the governor and an ally of the pro tem, has acted as a middleman throughout the budget negotiations.
Speaking to senators on the floor prior to the vote, Ashe emphasized that it would be irresponsible for the Senate to "rubber-stamp" the governor's proposal without a proper vetting. His amendment would create a commission to explore the possibility of a statewide teacher health insurance contract.
In a rebuttal speech, Minority Leader Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) applied the same argument to Ashe’s proposal, suggesting it was unreasonable to ask lawmakers to accept a plan that had been finalized at 9:40 a.m. that day.
On Friday afternoon, Scott said that he, too, found the Ashe amendment unacceptable because it wouldn't necessarily achieve savings after FY 2018, and it didn't achieve "uniformity" across districts, which the governor is now saying must be a part of any deal.
By the end of the day, support even among House Democrats had waned. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), who had embraced Ashe's amendment Thursday and unveiled it to her caucus that afternoon, expressed misgivings about subsequent changes. She said that there were "concerns about some of the language added today" and said that the House was "on the cusp" of coming up with a different proposal. She declined to elaborate on what it entailed and when it would be released.
The speaker also expressed frustration with the Senate, which has declined to finalize other legislation until the budget is resolved.
"It's incredibly frustrating that the Senate is dragging its feet on just closing those other bills," she told reporters late Friday afternoon as her colleagues left the building.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.