Category Archives: Labor

So Many Sad Crocodiles

I tried to watch Tuesday’s kabuki performance hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, but was repeatedly thwarted by a bad Internet connection. (Thanks, Consolidated Communications!) Still, I saw enough to realize what was going on. And enough to be completely fed up with all the expressions of dismay from Democratic officeholders.

The short version: The fix is in. The skids are greased. Following two days of dog-and-pony public hearings, the committee picked up on Tuesday exactly where it left off on Friday afternoon: Charging ahead with a reform plan that will substantially devalue pensions for teachers and state employees.

So, thanks to all those who testified. For your time and trouble, you get a lovely parting gift: our Pension Reform Home Game. Now you can play God with other people’s pensions, just like our legislative leaders!

One thing every committee member can agree on (well, except the three Republicans, they don’t seem to mind at all) is that these are difficult, painful conversations. In the brief statement she read at the beginning of the second public hearing Monday, committee chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas used the word “difficult” three times. “These are really difficult conversations,” “Everyone has had a tremendously difficult year,” “this conversation couldn’t have come at a more difficult time.” In her testimony on Tuesday, Treasurer Beth Pearce said “When we gave our recommendations, we did so with a great deal of reluctance… these are painful.” Other Dems chimed in with similar expressions of saditude throughout Tuesday’s hearing.

Pardon me if I can’t appreciate the self-pity parade. These conversations are waaaaay less “difficult” for elected officials than for the folks who’ll take it in the shorts if this plan (or something like it) takes effect.

Here’s another thing that’s cratering my sympathy for our poor hard-working betters: They’re lying about where we are in the process.

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Well, it’s not a flaming bag of poo

With no advance warning, the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday rolled out a reform plan for Vermont’s underfunded public sector pensions. And from the unions’ point of view, it could hardly be worse.

Before I get to the details, I’ll define “no advance warning.” On Wednesday morning, the committee first heard a proposal to restructure the pensions under a single Vermont Retirement Commission. That plan was posted to the committee’s website very shortly before the hearing began. Two lawmakers broadly hinted that they were reading it for the first time, with no chance to digest or formulate questions.

Ditto the pension reform plan. It was posted to the committee’s “Documents & Handouts” webpage only two minutes before its hearing was to begin.

For an issue as complicated as pension reform, this is unconscionable.

Well, it’d be fine if we were at the beginning of a normal legislative timeline with plenty of hearings and back-and-forth and rewrites of the legislation. But as far as I can see, we’re not going to get any of that. As I said in my previous post, legislative leaders are hellbent on enacting pension reform this year. If they’re going to hew to that ambitious timeline, Gov Ops would have to vote out an actual bill within days.

There were a few signs of exactly how rushed these proposals were. Rep. Bob Hooper asked if a cost analysis had been done on the new Retirement Commission. The answer was “No.” Later he noted that the reduction in benefits seemed out of proportion with projected savings; apparently a full fiscal analysis has yet to be done.

Whenever they want to slow-play an issue, legislative leaders usually claim that there’s not enough time to give the issue the scrutiny it deserves. If this pension plan gets fast-tracked, I don’t ever want to hear that excuse again.

After the jump: The grim details.

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Special Delivery

Now, I’m not saying the House Democrats are ready to deliver a flaming bag of poo regarding public sector pensions. It’s just that all the signs point in that direction.The teachers’ and state employees’ unions should take care with any packages they find on the doorstep.

Because, apparently, the behind-closed-doors work has just about wrapped up. And suddenly, the House Government Operations Committee’s schedule is packed with pension-related hearings — leading up to the oft-promised public hearing on the as-yet-unreleased plan at the Traditional Newsdump Hour of Friday afternoon.

You know how rare it is for the Legislature to do anything substantive after 4:00 pm on a Friday? The only time it usually happens is during the last-ditch rush to adjournment.

And now, with a mere three days’ notice, the House Dems have scheduled a public hearing from 4:00 to 6:00 Friday. On a proposal that, as I might have already noted, hasn’t been made public as of this writing.

Friday’s dog-and-pony-show hearing will feature a parade of speakers who will each get three minutes to say their piece. Up to, presumably, the 120-minute time limit. That means, let me see, a total of 40 speaking slots. Forty! On an issue that touches the retirement security of thousands of Vermonters! You can register here; I suggest you do it fast.

It’s possible that the Dems have crafted a pension reform plan acceptable to all parties. But every sign points in the opposite direction. Secrecy? Check. Sudden effusion of hearings? Check. Little notice before a public hearing? Check. Public hearing scheduled for the Friday afternoon dead zone?

Check and double-check.

Did I mention there’s no actual bill yet? At least not one that’s publicly available.

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A Canard Comes Home to Roost

Vermont’s “business leaders” scored a rare double last week. Their complaints resulted in stories published on the same day by Seven Days and VTDigger. Congratulations.

The articles trod the same well-worn path: The Usual Suspects in the business community are raising fears that proposed state unemployment benefits will hurt their efforts to attract workers. Both stories are replete with quotes from worried business owners and their paid lobbyists.

Because, as we all know, workers are inherently lazy. And the lower they are on the totem pole, the lazier they become — all the way down to the mythical creature known as the Welfare Queen.

In these stories, you won’t read any quotes from actual workers. Nor will you see anything from business groups that aren’t cut from the Chamber cloth. It’d be nice to know how Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Main Street Alliance see things before deciding whether we should consider “business leaders” as united on the moral hazard of unemployment insurance.

It’s true that many unemployed people have gotten more in Covid-enhanced UI than they could expect to earn in their line of work, and that would again be the case under S.10. I’d argue this says more about the overabundance of low-paying jobs than about the excessive generosity of pandemic benefits. And there’s plenty of research that shows that the “business leaders'” fears are unfounded; that the effect of temporarily sweetened UI on the supply of available workers is negligible at most.

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Gloves Off, Let’s Go

Says here Vermont’s public sector unions are feeling anxious about closed-door talks on how to fix their pension plans. Can’t say I blame them. The 2021 session is more than halfway done, Speaker Jill Krowinski is determined to get something done by then, and there’s been not a peep about what a fix might look like. And since Treasurer Beth Pearce has outlined exactly how drastically pensions might change, the teachers’ and state employees’ union have every right to be concerned.

And this is the time to show their concern through hardball, sharp-elbow politics. Give ’em hell. Threaten a cutoff of union support for any lawmaker who supports a major cut in pension benefits or a major increase in employee pay-in. Get in there and throw some elbows.

Mind you, I’m not talking right and wrong here. I’m talking the timely application of leverage.

The VSEA and VT-NEA are two of the most powerful forces in the Vermont Democratic Party. They provide financial support, volunteers, and lots of voters. They have earned a great deal of influence in party circles. That influence should be brought to bear, right now if not sooner.

You’d think this wouldn’t be necessary. You’d think the Legislature’s Demo/Prog majority would be working with the unions to resolve this crisis. But union lobbyists say otherwise.

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Three Mulligans and Counting

Lookin’ a little sweaty there, bud.

Submitted for your consideration: Michael Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Labor, and three-time offender against good government.

The latest offense is a massive cockup in printing IRS Forms 1099 for Vermonters who collected unemployment benefits in 2020. Tens of thousands of people received forms that contained other people’s personal information instead of their own, which is a low-tech kind of privacy breach in our age of digital hacking.

This will require a costly fix. DOL will reprint all 180,000 forms and mail them all out, plus it will provide prepaid envelopes to those who got bad 1099s so they can return the faulty forms at no cost. Harrington also said his department has contacted the Attorney General’s office as required by state law, in case there are legal repercussions.

VTDigger reports that this is DOL’s second data breach since the pandemic began. The first, back in March, saw DOL send nearly six thousand Vermonters’ Social Security numbers to employers not connected with their cases.

But while it was the second data breach, it was the third major administrative failure by DOL during the pandemic.

Deets after the jump.

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Pearce Makes Her Case

Well, we didn’t get our first public face-off between State Treasurer Beth Pearce and the public sector unions on Thursday. But we did get a better sense of Pearce’s argument for cutting benefits in the face of growing unfunded liabilities in the state’s pension funds.

The Senate Government Operations Committee had set aside an hour and 45 minutes to hear from Pearce and the teachers’ and state employees’ unions. But Pearce’s presentation lasted almost an hour and a half. At that point, GovOps chair Jeanette White declared that there was “no time today to hear from the unions.” They’ll be back in the virtual witness chair as soon as next week.

That should be interesting. The unions haven’t exactly welcomed pension cuts in their public reactions, but they’d be well advised to come to the committee with some ideas of their own. Because the state of the pension funds — especially the teachers’ fund — is not good.

(Pearce’s PowerPoint presentation to the committee, and her full report on the state of the pensions, can be found on the GovOps website.)

And the unions ought to be prepared for this. According to Pearce, she’s been meeting with them “at least weekly since mid-December” to discuss what to do. She also held virtual town meetings with roughly 1,000 members of the Vermont-National Education Association and around 350 members of the Vermont State Employees Association. She told the committee she wanted the unions to be involved throughout the process.

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Pearce’s Pivot

Still proud of her, @vtdemocrats?

At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.

This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.

The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.

Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.

I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political shitstorm.

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The Democrats’ Union Problem

Four Democratic/Progressive candidates for the House, including two incumbents, have declined endorsements from the Vermont State Employees’ Union, citing “harmful inconsistencies in the organization’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.” (The four are Reps. Mari Cordes and Selene Colburn, and Democratic candidates Emmy Mulvaney-Stanak and Taylor Small.)

Or, to put it another way, the VSEA’s kneejerk support for its members — even the rotten apples threatening to spoil the bushel.

Protecting its members is a core mission for every union. But there can and should be exceptions to the rule. It’s really in the best interest of the union (and the labor movement) to ensure that the bad apples are removed before they harm the reputation of all its members. Kind of like when the Major League Baseball Players’ Association blocked meaningful action to address baseball’s rampant steroid problem. Was it really in the best interest of non-using MLBPA members to allow the cheaters to go on damaging the game?

No, but the PA acted on first instinct. And when the VSEA staunchly claims that all the problems in Vermont’s corrections system are on management, and asserts that its members are blameless? They’re doing the same thing. And it must be said, DOC members wield a lot of power in VSEA. So much so, that if I were a VSEA member in some other state agency, I’d be upset over the union’s inaction when scandalous behavior is unearthed at state prisons.

This creates a dilemma for Democratic officeholders.

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The Cromulent Bureaucrat

The official responsible for the Scott administration’s biggest clusterf*ck to date has been … rewarded with a promotion?

You can tell the Gov had no qualms about removing the “interim” tag from Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington’s business cards because he [checks notes] announced the news at 4:56 p.m. last Friday.

Yeah, the classic weekend newsdump.

Harrington, voted the administration official most likely to be featured in the Lands’ End fall catalogue in an imaginary poll, was named interim DOL chief last September in a Falling of the Cabinet Dominos — old-school hardass Tom Anderson stepped down as public safety chief, Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling replaced him, then-labor commissioner Lindsay Kurrle slid into Schirling’s seat, and then-deputy labor commish Harrington moved up the ladder.

His interimship has featured the failure of a long-overdue upgrade of unemployment insurance software, and the UI system’s collapse under the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither can be fully blamed on Harrington; in many ways he was dealt a really bad hand at the worst possible time.

But still. When a team performs poorly, the coach gets the zig. You might say Harrington is the Hue Jackson of Team Scott. It wasn’t entirely Jackson’s fault that the Cleveland Browns had a 3-36-1 record — the front office was a disaster, and Jimmy Haslam may be the worst owner in the NFL. But the coach bore the brunt.

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