Tag Archives: H.76

The Speaker did it… in the hallway… with a soft cushion.

The New Hampshire legislature has a fine old phrase I’ve never heard anywhere else: “Inexpedient to Legislate.” It’s the graveside pronouncement uttered just before a bill disappears from view, perhaps never to be seen again. At least not for a long time. If Vermont had such a phrase, it’d be time to invoke it solemnly over the moldering corpse of H.76, the bill to ban teacher strikes. Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau:

Democratic leaders are maneuvering to amend a bill slated to hit the House floor Wednesday by replacing language that calls for a ban on teacher strikes and the imposition of labor contracts by school boards with a study.

Ah, the study. The favorite murder weapon of backroom dealmaking. H.76’s primary sponsor, Burlington Republican Kurt Wright, sees the writing on the wall and is not happy.

“I think that it’s time for us to act. This bill has been around for a long time,” Wright said. “We either want to ban strikes and the imposition of contracts or not.”

The answer there is “not,” at least not on H.76’s terms. As outlined earlier, most Democrats see the bill as fundamentally flawed because it sets up a long, drawn-out process for resolving disputes. And the longer the process, the more it benefits the employer. I doubt that Mr. Wright is mollified by Deputy Assistant Majority Leader Tim Jerman’s assurances that the study would be “unfettered.” Hell, the study itself is the fetter, tying up the inexpedient legislation for as long as necessary.

The House vote on H.76, scheduled for Wednesday, could be interesting. Republicans vow to strongly back the bill as it stands, and they might be able to skim off enough Democrats to make things interesting. On the other hand, the Democratic leadership might be wielding soft cushions when lawmakers gather for a vote.

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.

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.

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.