Daily Archives: March 22, 2015

Teacher strike ban in line for a rework — at least

Among all the contentious issues facing this year’s legislature, one has made a surprising, and enduring, appearance near the top of the list. Everyone seems to have suddenly decided that teacher strikes are a scourge of our system, and must be put to an end.

This, in spite of the fact that teacher strikes are only a little bit more common than hen’s teeth in Vermont. We would seem to have much bigger fish to fry, but apparently not.

Last week, the House Education Committee approved a bill that appeared even-handed at first glance: H.76 would ban teacher strikes, and would also bar school boards from unilaterally imposing contract terms. The bill sped through the committee without so much as a single amendment, passing on an 8-3 vote.

(The four Democrats who voted “yes” along with all four Republicans, for those keeping score, were Sarah Buxton, Kevin “Coach” Christie, Emily Long, and Ann Manwaring. All four hail from districts on or near the Connecticut River, if that means anything.)

The bill is now pending before the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, which is responsible for labor-related legislation. And members of that committee are not at all happy with H.76 in its current form. They believe the bill is weighted heavily toward the school boards and against the teachers, and they want significant changes.

H.76 was a subject of conversation at Saturday’s Democratic State Committee meeting. Speaker Shap Smith, as I reported previously, said the bill “will not pass the House in its present form.” And Rep. Tom Stevens of Waterbury, a member of the General Etc. Committee, said H.76 is “not a labor-friendly bill,” and that it “has a million problems.”

I caught up with Rep. Stevens afterward, and asked him what’s wrong with H.76.

This bill says that we will get rid of the right to strike and we will get rid of the right to impose a contract by the school boards, and we will replace it with this somewhat drawn-out process, and it could take eighteen months rather than what we have now.

And there’s the rub. Eighteen months is as good as forever in contract talks. Teachers couldn’t be saddled with an imposed contract, but they might have to work for a year or more under a continuation of their old deal.

…if the teachers can’t strike, they go back to work and they don’t get a pay increase, they don’t get a step increase, their health benefits will remain the same. … So they’re taking a very serious financial hit, and yet the school boards are not penalized equally.

As originally introduced, the bill created an even-handedly draconian process for resolving impasses: mandatory binding arbitration. But that language was struck somewhere along the way, and replaced with a potentially lengthy process of fact-finding and mediation.

The bill’s path through the Education Committee, according to Stevens, was awfully quick: “They only took three hours of testimony, and they passed the bill as it stands.” And it moved at warp speed despite the opposition of committee chair David Sharpe, who was one of three “no” votes on the bill. You’d think he could have done more about this if he cared. To be fair, he’s had an awful lot on his plate this session; he might have let this go through to avoid a fight, secure in the knowledge that it could be amended later on.

The General Etc. Committee had already taken up an earlier version of H.76, but now they’ve taken it back. Stevens:

…we had a reintroduction to the bill because it was way different. We took testimony Friday, we’ll probably take more testimony Tuesday, and then we’ll try to figure out from there what we’re going to do. We have several options, but I would say our committee is not disposed to support it as written.

The committee has several options, but not much time; it needs to act by the middle of this week. It could refuse to take up the bill; it could send it through without recommendation, it could vote the bill down — but that wouldn’t necessarily kill the bill, or at least the concept.

It’s possible we could not have a recommendation, and that’s where we would work with leadership to decide what to do with the bill, because we’re pretty certain that if this particular bill doesn’t come out, that this bill will become an amendment on the floor from another party, and then it will be discussed anyway. So spiking it isn’t really a viable option.

If Speaker Smith’s words to the DSC are taken at face value, the Education Committee’s version of H.76 will not pass the House. It could pass in amended form. That seems the most likely outcome; if the original concept was restored — no strikes, no imposition, binding arbitration — then the bill would most likely win House approval. The school boards don’t like that; as one lawmaker put it, “they’d rather have Ebola than binding arbitration.”

But if the bill sets up a dead end for the teachers and a long and winding road for school boards, it would fundamentally alter the power dynamic between unions and boards. And for what? Teacher strikes are rare in Vermont, and almost always brief. Why upset the applecart — and alienate a core Democratic constituency — to fix such a minor problem?

Thankfully, according to Smith and Stevens, it isn’t likely to come to that.

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Shap addresses the faithful

If the Democratic State Committee meeting was short of drama on the wind energy front, there were still a couple of interesting developments to report. I’lll write about one of them — some news about the future of H.76, the bill to ban teacher strikes — in my next post.

My subject this time: House Speaker Shap Smith addressed the gathering. That’s more noteworthy than it seems; the top elected Democrats rarely attend the DSC meetings, especially when it’s not a campaign year.

But Smith had a prominent place on the agenda, and he delivered an effective speech with two purposes: to buck up the party faithful, and to present himself as a person and leader.

Which immediately raises the question, yet again: is he running for Governor?

My own view is that he is not — yet. But he is ticking off the items on the Running For Governor To-Do List, and this was one more check box filled in.

In style, he was reasoned, earnest, articulate, and straightforward. Well, he plausibly appeared so, which is the most you can say for sure about a politician. In substance, he pointed out areas of significant accomplishment for the Democratic regime — things “not reported very much in the media.” They include:

— An improving economy with a low unemployment rate and (finally) some growth in wages.

— On health care, Vermont now has the second-lowest uninsured rate in the country at 3.7%. It was 7% before the Obama/Shumlin reforms took effect. The national rate is still 12%. “We are close to universal coverage in Vermont,” he said. “That’s a good story, and it gets lost in the problems with Vermont Health Connect.”

— Vermont has one of the healthiest populations in the country.

— Our public education system is in the top three nationally. “In the conversation around property tax, we lose sight of the fact that that money is spent for the next generation, and spent successfully.”

— The state has kept its promise to fully fund public-sector pensions and, in fact, “we’re making up for the sins of the past.”

— The Legislature has “kept our commitments” on a range of other issues, in spite of intense budget pressures.

The Speaker then moved to personal narrative, recalling that his parents moved to Vermont in 1970 as part of the “Back to the land” movement, in search of “the promise of Vermont.” As an adult he himself, after working in New York City, moved back to Vermont in search of that same promise. He concluded by saying “I’m proud to be in the House; I’m proud to be a Democrat; most of all, I’m proud to be a Vermonter.”

If he’s testing out a future stump speech, he’s definitely on the right track.

He took some unfriendly questions, especially on the administration’s fractious relationship (in both tone and substance) with labor. The two areas of concern were Gov. Shumlin’s desire to reopen the state workers’ contract, and legislation aimed at barring teacher strikes, usually accompanied by blasts of anti-teacher and anti-union language. One questioner complained about the “barrage of abuse from my leaders” toward teachers and local school boards.

On the former, Smith stood his ground, saying that given the budget situation, “we have to make some adjustments. We’re having ongoing conversations with the VSEA, trying to work things out, but we aren’t going to be able to make everybody happy.”

On the latter, he offered some news on H.76, the bill that would ban teacher strikes and bar the imposition of contract terms by school boards. The bill is seen by many as being much harder on the unions than on the boards. Smith said that “it will not pass the House in its present form.”

All in all, an impressive performance. I haven’t changed my view; it’s too soon to say whether he will run for Governor in 2016 or ever. Heck, we’re less than a year removed from the guy actively considering an exit from the Legislature. But is he positioning himself as a credible candidate for the corner office?

He sure is.

The wind fizzle

There were some rumblings of possible excitement at today’s Democratic State Committee meeting. Word was, the anti-wind energy crowd would push the Committee to adopt a resolution opposing ridgeline wind. And, to add impetus to the push, they might attend the meeting in force.

Well, not so much. There was a resolution on the agenda, courtesy of the Caledonia County Democratic Committee. But attendance was moderate. No busloads from the shadow of Grandpa’s Knob. There was brief and polite discussion, after which the resolution was defeated on a 26-7 vote. Arguments against the resolution mostly cited procedural grounds, arguing that the State Committee is a party-organizing operation, not a place for policy debates and decisions.

And that was it. No confrontations, no immediate blowback; the meeting went on without incident. The after-meeting chatter was no more or less heated than usual.

The resolution was crafted to downplay its anti-wind origins, but its clear intent was to put the Democratic Party on record opposing ridgeline wind.

The Caledonia County Democratic Committee proposes the following resolution that the State Democratic Committee call on the Vermont Legislature and Governor Shumlin to: 

Reassess Vermont’s energy policy to include appropriate changes to Statute 248 to account for high-elevation industrial-scale power projects that are attentive and accountable on issues of environmental destruction, wildlife habitat and human health impacts.

Propose a transparent, sustainable energy policy that preserves the irreplaceable ecosystems of Vermont’s highest elevations.

Okay, well. Aside from the fact that the second paragraph isn’t really a coherent sentence, here’s the problem. The resolution’s purpose is to effectively ban ridgeline wind under the guise of permitting reform. The language is highly inflammatory, written from an extreme anti-wind viewpoint and accepting the anti-wind arguments as fact.

And there’s the rub. If you believe that wind turbines cause unique harm to human health, wildlife and ecosystems and that they somehow cause irreparable and permanent damage to mountaintops, then ridgeline wind is unacceptable.

The rest of us, of course, don’t agree. We see wind power as part of the solution to climate change, and we see the preponderance of scientific evidence as supporting wind energy. Anti-wind people, like anti-vaxxers, are so convinced of their rightness that they unquestioningly accept any evidence that seems to support them (no matter how thin, anecdotal, or unscientific), and instantly dismiss any evidence that undercuts their views.

That’s the faulty foundation of this resolution. I am relieved that it was quickly sent packing by the DSC, even if it used the convenient dodge of a process argument to do so. The Committee, I’m sure, was even more relieved to avoid a public confrontation with one of the party’s extreme elements.