Gov. Phil Scott announces an agreement at the Statehouse Wednesday.
Updated, 1:15 p.m.
Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic leaders in the Vermont legislature have struck a deal that forces all school districts to collectively save $13 million during the next two fiscal years. They shared details of their plan for the first time at a press conference Wednesday morning, and the full legislature is expected to pass the proposal later on Wednesday.
The compromise plan closely resembles legislation that the Senate passed in an earlier attempt to appease the governor. Scott dismissed it at the time, advocating instead for a statewide teachers’ health insurance contract to capture savings.
But the specter of a government shutdown on July 1 — which arose because Scott vetoed the budget when lawmakers failed to adopt his proposal — made the idea more appealing.
The governor had previously insisted that savings come specifically from school employees’ health insurance plans. He’s now agreed to a plan that recommends that approach, but also allows school boards to make cuts elsewhere in their budgets. The state will use the $13 million to lower property taxes.
“In negotiations, everyone has to give something and that’s what we gave,” said Scott, when asked why he’d relented. He also acknowledged that he’d weakened his bargaining position by publicly declaring he wouldn’t let the dispute end in a government shutdown.
Fiscal analysts are still calculating the portion of the savings for which each district will be responsible. Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) emphasized that the property tax rate will decrease by 2.2 cents, as it would have under the legislature’s previous version of the property tax bill.
The agreement requires that new health insurance contracts expire in 2019, which will give lawmakers a chance to revisit Scott’s proposal for a statewide contract. School districts that have already settled on health insurance contracts are exempt from this deadline, but not from the mandate to find savings. And in the meantime, the agreement calls for a commission to study the benefits and drawbacks of a statewide contract.
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said the new plan is “most problematic for districts that have settled their contracts. They’re in a tough spot.” But Mace also noted that the savings mandate may give some districts greater leverage. “I do think for places that are still bargaining, it does provide boards with some more tools in their toolbox.”
Throughout the stalemate that lasted more than a month, the Republican governor and Democratic leaders accused one another of recalcitrance, but by Wednesday both sides were touting their civil approach and ability to compromise.
“We’ve distinguished ourselves from D.C.,” Scott said.
Others suggested the opposite. “Unfortunately this is the product of a backroom deal that was spurred by, in our view, a D.C.-style government shutdown threat,” said Vermont-National Education Association’s communications director, Darren Allen. “We think this deal is actually going to make it harder for local school boards to do what’s right for their schools … and we also think that it foments more chaos because it reopens all contracts on health care in two years so we’ll be right back here.”
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.