The Curious Case of House Bill 76

The 2015 legislative session has its share of contentious issues and extended wrangles (partisan and otherwise), but its single biggest mystery may be H. 76, a.k.a. the bill that would ban teacher strikes.

The latest turn came Friday, when the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee voted against the bill, three votes to five. All three Republicans voted in favor; the four Democrats and lone Progressive voted no. The bill had earlier passed the House Education Committee, but the Catchall Committee thought otherwise.

The bill goes on to the House floor in any case, but as committee vice-chair Tom Stevens says, his panel’s vote “raises flags, and people will want to listen to why one committee supported it and one committee didn’t.”

But to explore the full dimension of The Curious Case of House Bill 76, we must go back to its origin. It arose in a burst of deep concern over the putative plague of teacher strikes, which Vermont doesn’t have. We have very occasional teacher strikes. People with long memories, or who are looking for excuses to ban strikes, harken back to the Great Hinesburg Debacle of 1985, a truly disputatious strike with long ramifications.

But why did that suddenly provoke a torrent of urgency thirty years later? I haven’t heard a good explanation, especially considering the very full plate in front of the legislature already. When you’ve got Lake Champlain and health care and school funding and a huge budget gap to deal with, why put a stick into a hornet’s nest that isn’t bothering anyone?

Oh well. As originally outlined, the bill would have banned teacher strikes and the imposition of contract terms by school boards, and it would have sent unresolved disputes to binding arbitration. That was acceptable to the Vermont-NEA, and it’s a rare thing for a union to accept disarmament. Even bilateral disarmament. (Correction/redirect: The Vermont-NEA didn’t like the original bill much, but was willing to accept binding arbitration as part of the right deal. Last weekend its position hardened to complete opposition.)

But the school boards didn’t like binding arbitration as the endpoint. They wanted something softer. And the bill came before the House Education Committee with a suspiciously drawn-out process for resolving impasses — a process that could last as long as 18 months.

According to Stevens, the Education Committee took only three hours of testimony and made no amendments whatsoever before passing the bill on a very curious 8-3 vote. Some Democrats joined minority Republicans in the majority. Three Dems, including committee chair Dave Sharpe, voted no.

It’s not that often a bill passes a committee despite the opposition of its chair. It’s also not often that a bill passes with full support of the minority and only partial support from the majority.

The House General Etc. Committee then requested a whack at H. 76, and got it. This panel, which handles labor issues among other things, was looking to put binding arbitration back into the bill, making it equally punitive on both sides. That changed last weekend when the Vermont-NEA withdrew its support for a bill including binding arbitration. “The idea of trying to amend the bill ended right there,” Stevens says. He adds that the curious trajectory of H. 76 turned the union against the original idea:

[The Education Commitee bill] was not written with their input, and because you had no input, the comments that people would make like ‘This will make things better for school boards and unions’ don’t carry any weight because the unions didn’t participate in the conversation.

The union withdrawal also turned H. 76 from a bipartisan measure into a partisan one — and a partisan one with the backing of the minority party. It’s hard to see the full House adopting H. 76 over the Vermont-NEA’s objection, although stranger things have happened.

Which brings me to the central mysteries of H. 76:

— Why was there such a furor about teacher strikes in the first place?

— Why was H. 76 rewritten in haste and hustled through the Education Committee?

Here’s my two cents, and it’s nothing but a semi-informed guess. Legislative leadership knew they were going to pass a school funding and governance bill likely to displease the school boards. Ending teacher strikes was a convenient sop to the boards. But as the education bill evolved to include a fairly tight cap on school spending, the school boards could not have been pleased. Pehaps they wanted more.

This is where the H. 76 rewrite came in, according to me. The Education Committee giveth, and it taketh away. Or in this case, the take thing came first. I can envision backstage negotiations between the school boards and Democratic leaders: If we accept a spending cap, we get a strike ban without binding arbitration.

It’s purely speculative, but it explains a lot. It explains this year’s sudden angst over teacher strikes. It explains why Dave Sharpe allowed a rapidly rewritten bill to sail through his committee despite likely union opposition.

If true, it wasn’t much of a deal for the school boards. Union opposition almost certainly dooms the bill. Although, if you want to spin forward the conspiracy theory, maybe the boards traded away H. 76 in exchange for the substantially toothless spending cap that passed the full House this week.

Have I solved the mystery? I don’t know. A simpler explanation is that the bill just got tossed about in the turbulent seas of the current session, with leadership taking little notice and Sharpe too preoccupied with the big Education Bill to worry much about H. 76.

But my rococo version is a lot more fun.

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