I thought this would be my last legislative update of the session, but we are heading back. The parties are still negotiating the budget and we have a few other important bills to pass. As you may know the House passed a budget that didn't increase revenues or taxes, hence no increase to property taxes or any other tax. The Senate passed a budget that would increase property taxes. The Governor wants his plan for a statewide contract to move forward. We will be meeting Wednesday of this week and hope to conclude by the end of the week. This is still within our budgeted schedule.
As a freshman, last week was definitely interesting. Seeing firsthand how the process worked was great learning experience. A quick recap of the process - as bills pass the House they are sent to the Senate and vice versa. In keeping with the House started the process, the Senate would determine whether to take up the bill. If they do, they will hear testimony, potentially make changes, vote and pass the bill back to the House. The House may concur with any changes and the bill moves forward. If the House doesn't concur they can either try to reach an agreement with the Senate by working informally. If the differences are just too vast, then a committee of conference will be assigned. This committee is made up of three parties of each committee of jurisdiction. They meet and hopefully agree to a final bill. That bill then is presented to both chambers for a yes or no vote - no changes can be made by either body at that point.
I am proud of the work we've completed through the session and last week. I supported S135, a large economic development bill, that improves the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive Program (VEGI), expands the state's apprenticeship and internship programs, and creates a voluntary public retirement program - The Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan - to ensure Vermonters have a simple and affordable option to save for retirement.
I also supported S103 a toxic and hazardous substance bill that will further protect our children and H233 that amends the criteria and jurisdiction of the State land use law to protect forest resources in order to support the forest economy, water quality, and habitat.
S16 passed expanding patient access to the medical marijuana registry by adding Crohn's and Parkinson's disease. Post traumatic stress disorder is now also included as long as the person is also undergoing psychotherapy or counseling with a licensed mental health care provider.
There are many more bills that passed. A full listing can be found on the "vote" page.
I look forward to the coming days and will keep you posted.
There have been a lot of soundbites in the media regarding the savings of $26m if we move teachers healthcare to a statewide contract. Unfortunately things are not always as they initially appear.
A bit of background on this issue. The Governor's proposal relates to a change happening to teacher health plans throughout the State. This change is not dependent upon, nor due to the Governor in any way. It is a byproduct of the Affordable Care Act requiring that we move away from Cadillac plans. The four new healthcare plans (originally there were 26) being offered to teachers are already set. Teachers must pick a plan by mid-November. They are cheaper because they are less generous plans with lower premiums and higher out of pocket costs. The administration asked VEHI (the organization that administers the healthcare plans) to provide a few cost models that put potential cost savings at $75m. Then VEHI was asked to estimate the costs if districts provided out of pocket coverage that covered an average of $400 per person. The cost was estimated at $49m - leaving us with the potential statewide savings of $26m. The healthcare contracts begin on January 1, 2018. That means that only half the fiscal year would be included. In other words, the FY2018 potential savings is not $26 million but $13 million.
The Governor's plan, that was in front of the Senate and failed by a vote of 19 to 10, was to divide this potential savings into thirds. One third was to cover the teachers retirement fund, one third went to the general fund and one third went to property tax relief. The relief would be distributed evenly across all school districts no matter how much each individual school board saved.
The amendment in the House (referred to as the Beck amendment), which failed with a tie vote, was a bit better. It allocated all the savings to the education fund, but again, the savings would be evenly distributed across all school districts no matter how much each individual one saved. That is why I voted no.
What the House passed, and what I voted for, was a provision that makes no change in bargaining, but directs 100% of the savings that actually occur in teacher healthcare to be directly returned to the local community in the form of reduced property taxes. The money saved would be returned to the local community only after budgets were voted upon and approved. It can go to only one place, and that is to directly reduce Essex property taxes.
All of the savings, rather than just the 30% in the Governor’s plan would come back to your property taxes. And there will be savings but no one, not even the Governor, knows how much.
Personally, I believe the $26 million is inaccurate. Where do the “savings” come from? We have been told that because these plans are high deductible plans with HSAs or HRAs, teachers and their families will use fewer healthcare services. One could argue whether that is a good idea or bad idea, but the underlying question is whether data on this issue is generalizable to teachers. Here we have a highly educated group. The have been, and will continue to be, their own risk pool for pricing insurance plans. They are a low usage group for healthcare service, that is why their plans are already cheaper than exchange plans. I am extremely skeptical that there will actually be the decrease in utilization predicted.
I voted to keep the savings in Essex.
The leadership and Governor are now working on a path forward.