Gov. Phil Scott’s effort to force the Legislature into accepting his proposal for the state to seize a share of teachers’ health care savings is a weirdly disproportionate use of a governor’s veto threat on an issue that didn’t seem to call for it. Scott must have grabbed onto this issue because he had something else in mind.
That something else is an attack on labor and the middle-class standing of Vermont workers. He’s doing it in the name of taxpayers, but taxpayers are workers, too, and workers in all professions ought to see that their own economic standing is endangered when powerful interests seek to divide worker group from worker group, persuading some that others are getting more than their fair share. That’s what Scott is doing.
He says he is out to protect property taxpayers, and he has tossed around the number $26 million as the amount that will be saved if the state takes control of negotiating teachers’ health care benefits. The savings will occur when new health care packages take effect next January in response to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Those savings are a given for school districts around the state, even without state interference. Scott has inserted the state into the process because he wants to get the hands of state government on that money.
Distrust of local school districts animates this effort. Scott is taken with the notion that it is his job to force voters to spend less on their schools.
The health care savings that are in store next year are a sum that could well be eliminated from school budgets around the state, even without interference from the state. It would seem, however, that Scott is worried that school boards will not return that money to the taxpayers. They might use it to bolster their educational programs. In other words, he does not trust them to make the judgment that is properly theirs.
The Vermont School Boards Association supports Scott’s plan. It would be more convenient for the numerous school boards around the state if they didn’t have to negotiate health care packages. And for the state to enter into contract negotiations with teachers might allow the school boards extra clout in dealing with their employees.
Scott has leverage against the teachers because in the boss vs. employee dynamic, the boss has an interest in paying out as little as possible, and in the case of public employees the boss ultimately is the people who pay taxes. It is easy to whip up anti-teacher sentiment among hard-pressed taxpayers who believe teachers are overpaid. Indeed, many teachers have health care packages more generous than the average, which can be used to promote resentment among taxpayers.
But a downward spiral of wages and benefits hurts everyone. Teachers are trying to maintain ordinary middle-class lives. They are hard-working professionals who don’t enjoy deluxe salaries and benefits. Their health care packages are going to be reduced next year whether the state steps in or not. What Scott’s proposal represents is an initial grab onto the teachers’ contracts, based on the mistaken notion that it is the state’s job to get school spending under control.
That job belongs to voters at town meeting who vote on school budgets. They have been doing a pretty good job. Upward pressure on property taxes continues, as does upward pressure on everything, but it is not disproportionate with the state’s economic growth. That Scott would hold up the Legislature’s entire budget process because he wants to insert the state into teachers’ contract negotiations is evidence of a surprising anti-labor fervor on the part of the mild-mannered governor.
Sen. Tim Ashe, trying to rescue the session and the budget process, has proposed a compromise that would require schools to save a specified amount next year. It is hard to justify why Montpelier must lay down such an edict, but Ashe is trying to find a way out of the budget impasse created by the governor. Attacking the schools is a poor way for Scott to begin his first term. Ashe and other legislators ought to continue to work with him to help him find a compromise that looks like a victory.