By Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman
In Vermont, we have a tradition of spending time reviewing complicated changes to our laws. The legislature you elect works collaboratively to ensure all ideas receive a thorough vetting to reduce the chance of unintended consequences. The governor’s proposal to mandate a statewide teachers’ healthcare contract is a major policy shift presented at the last minute of this legislative session. It would impact 40,000 Vermonters, so the legislature isn’t treating it lightly. Below are some of my concerns with the proposal.
First, this idea pits working families and community members against other working families and community members who happen to be teachers and other school employees. These workers are not making Vermont less affordable. We need to look at how we pay for education and strive to make this system more equitable for everyone. We should also assess how we provide social services in the schools; increase efficiency, reduce the costs and move those costs to the state and off the property tax. To go after teachers’ benefits isn’t the way to address affordability or strengthen our economy.
Second, women are close to 80 percent of all school workers. We should be closing the wage gap and providing more opportunities for women to succeed, not targeting them and demanding they pay more for health care. Many of these women are the primary earners for their families and rely on every penny of their compensation to meet basic needs. Instead of reducing compensation for Vermont women we should be exploring new approaches on a timeline that allows us to think through every ramification of the approach. The governor claims his plan will keep school employees “whole” so they won’t pay more for health care – we need to be sure that is the case.
Third, it seems many working Vermonters will suffer under this plan. While some school employees are close to the 80/20 insurance split the governor is aiming for, lower-income school employees, including custodians, para-educators and cafeteria workers, are not. With increased out-of-pocket contributions as high as $1,200 a year, this mandate will not be affordable for them. I fear the proposal would leave these hard-working Vermonters one accident away from economic disaster.
Instead of fighting to reduce compensation for thousands of Vermonters, we should find ways to grow our economy and increase benefit packages. Is the governor ready to work with the legislature to raise the minimum wage? An increase of 50 cents an hour means $1,000 more per year for a full-time worker. Studies show those additional earnings are spent in local communities and would be an economic boost. Such an increase in wages will have a far more beneficial impact on working Vermonters’ wallets than a $20 or $40 theoretical property tax savings.
The governor is correct, we need to address the financial struggles of working families. Unfortunately, his proposal sounds great, but does not actually meet the goal. When we attack one segment of our society we only become more fragmented. Now is the time to come together with some real economic initiatives that will benefit all Vermonters.
David Zuckerman is in his first term as Vermont’s lieutenant governor.