Tag Archives: Tom Stevens

A little backdoor action at the Statehouse

We’re in the late stages of the legislative session, a time when everyone wants to hear the final gavel come down and get out of Dodge. And when a whole bunch of bills are flying from chamber to chamber, from committee to committee, providing plenty of opportunities for lawmaking legerdemain. Or, as one observer put it, “the time of year when stuff is going to be slid through the cracks.”

I hear of two provisions designed to open the door to expanded gambling in Vermont. Both are attached to seemingly unrelated bills. In both cases, gambling opponents are trying to keep their eye on the bouncing ball.

The culprit, it’s safe to say, is Sen. Kevin Mullin, Republican chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, a staunch supporter of, and crafty finagler on behalf of, expanded gambling in Vermont. For a number of years, Mullin has been pushing to expand the definition of state-sanctioned gambling, by hook or by crook.

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theVPO Media Crossover Event!

Hey, WDEV’s Mark Johnson is on his annual summer vacation, and I’ll be sitting in for Mark during some of those days. This week, Tuesday the 16th and Wednesday the 17th. I’ll also be in the big chair the 25th, 26th, and 29th. (Please note: When I’m hosting the show, I set my politics aside as much as possible, and give my guests the chance to share their views and ideas. Don’t expect any polemics. That’s not my role on WDEV.)

Guests for the next two days:

9:00 am Tuesday: State Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury. He recently became president of Downstreet Housing ahd Community Development. We’ll talk about his new gig, the housing issues facing Vermont, and probably touch on some other issues as well.

10:00 am Tuesday: Erica Heilman, creator/host of Rumble Strip Vermont, a podcast that tells Vermonters’ real life stories and explores aspects of Vermont life.

9:00 am Wednesday: Doug Racine, former Lieutenant Governor, State Senator, and Human Services Secretary. He’ll talk about his service in the Shumlin administration, his views on the political scene, and his own thoughts about running for Governor.

10:00 am Wednesday: Ben T. Matchstick and Pete Talbot of the Cardboard Teck Instantute (sic). They’ve invented a working pinball machine made out of cardboard; they hope to develop a gaming platform from their simple base. They just got back from Washington, D.C., where they showcased their invention at a national Maker Faire.

WDEV broadcasts out of Waterbury and can be heard in most of northern and central Vermont on 96.1 FM and 550 AM. The show can be livestreamed online at wdevradio.com. Hope you can join me!

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.