The Legislature ended the session passing a budget with no increase in taxes or fees. We still found the room in our finances to fund a $35 million bond that will build several hundred low- and middle-income housing units. We also created a number of economic development policies that, if successful, will help our small- and medium-size businesses grow and allow several more communities to take advantage of special tax districts if they meet certain criteria in development.
We were also able to reduce the average residential property tax. We believe that there will be health care savings statewide that will show up in next year’s school budgets.
Several of you have asked why I voted the way I did on the teacher negotiations and health care, a discussion that consumed the last month of the session.
The short answer is I followed the money. At first, I thought the governor's idea was a good one because how can one argue with an 80-20 split on health care costs with the teachers, which would return $26 million to taxpayers. I even co-sponsored the GOP Beck amendment when it came to the floor that was an endorsement of this idea.
However, as the month wore on and more facts came out, I realized Gov. Scott was only going to return one-third of the so-called $26 million to taxpayers. (In fact, it was only $13 million because it was spread out over two fiscal years… have to be careful of those great soundbites that are the basics of politics, I found: keep it short and simple and catchy).
Under Scott's demands, a home valued at $200,000 would bring Vermont families savings of less than $22 each year, less than a tank of gas. I don't believe that is worth the veto that will roll back the investments we made and throw our state into weeks of uncertainty.
When it came time for a vote, I voted against the amendment I co-sponsored because the Democratic amendment would give all the money back to the taxpayers in the district. After going door to door in the campaign, all I heard about was LOCAL control and bringing the money back home for tax relief. Letting the teachers negotiate with the state, which takes it out of local control/negotiations, and taxpayers not getting all the money just seemed wrong for Weathersfield and Cavendish.
(Just as an aside and to dig a little deeper on the issue): The press and the governor continue to refer to the savings in "teachers'" health care. But to even approach the quantity of savings the governor thinks is possible, it must include ALL public school employees covered by the Vermont Education Health Initiative plan, from groundskeepers to superintendents. It is easier to talk about teachers, as their current premium splits and overall coverage are pretty equal statewide and close to what is proposed.
For other staff, however, it is very problematic. Some districts cover only the employee, but, because of low hourly wages, have a 97-3 split in premiums. Other districts cover the family but have a 60-40 split. Magically moving these disparate agreements to a standard as proposed without having to make big changes in salaries seems very challenging, and, in the case of moving employees from a 60-40 split to an 80-20 split or covering a family rather than just an employee could actually cost more. Regardless of one's stand on this, it is far more complicated than just "teachers' health care.”
So, I really did my due diligence for the taxpayers. And, by the way, I worked very hard on the Act 46 amendment and got provisions in the bill to give us a longer timeline that works and more flexibility in what we come up with without being penalized.
No one will disagree in either party that the education funding formula needs to be fixed. We have just added patches on patches to a complicated formula that is not working.
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