At his weekly press conference Wednesday, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott made it plainer than he ever has before: He wants uniformity in health care benefits for public school teachers throughout the state. He insisted such a standard is the only way to maximize savings for taxpayers, which he continues to identify as $26 million.
“I don’t know how you [ensure maximum] savings by ignoring the fact that everyone’s getting something different,” he said. “I just think that having all of the uniformity, of having the health care plans the same … that’s essential.”
Scott formally proposed centralizing negotiations for teacher health insurance in late April. The majority-Democrat legislature objected to removing health care from local bargaining between school boards and teachers, and proposed a number of mechanisms designed to save money without changing the collective bargaining process. The Vermont-National Education Association has lobbied strongly against any restrictions on bargaining.
The standoff remained unresolved after more than two weeks of discussions between administration and legislature. In the end, lawmakers passed their own budget and teacher health care plans. On Wednesday, the Republican governor repeated his promise to veto both bills when they reach his desk.
Scott claimed to have an open mind on the subject. “Maybe there’s a different approach. I’m willing to listen to anything,” he said. But whatever that approach might be, he insists that it achieve uniformity in teacher health care.
“We don’t have to have government to do this,” he said. “What we need is the NEA and the school boards association to get together and determine what they would put in place. If they could agree on a solution that had the same plan, we could do this without legislative approval.”
And if wishes and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a wonderful Christmas. The chance of the Vermont-NEA agreeing to negotiate statewide health care benefits with the Vermont School Boards Association is precisely zero, and Scott has to know that. He's just trying to make himself appear reasonable.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) isn’t buying it. “If you’re going to ask for statewide uniformity, it’s dictating the terms of local agreements,” she said.
From all appearances, no ground has been given since the legislature adjourned on May 19. The two sides are even telling different stories about efforts to return to the table.
“They did, I think it was about 4:30 on Friday afternoon, they reached out,” Scott said. “We’re going to respond to them in writing and set some guidelines as to how I think this negotiation should work.”
Not so fast, said Johnson.
“We were supposed to have a meeting yesterday afternoon, which they canceled,” she said. “And we were in the process of scheduling one for tomorrow afternoon when I started getting information about [the governor’s] press conference.
“We’re willing to sit down and talk to try to work something out,” Johnson continued. “The fact that he canceled a discussion with us and instead chose to have a press conference is pretty frustrating.”
In fairness to the governor, this was a scheduled weekly press conference, not one specifically convened to discuss the health care issue. However, in fairness to Johnson, the governor did choose to address the issue at length on Wednesday, and made it clear that he sees the legislature as responsible for injecting politics into the situation.
If anything, Scott's performance showed that he is equally responsible for the political nature of the debate.