Teachers' union: Loss of publicly financed health care system hurts bid to cut school costs



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MONTPELIER, Vermont — Efforts to trim school costs may have been set back by Gov. Peter Shumlin's decision to shelve his push for a universal, publicly financed health care system, the head of the statewide teachers' union said Tuesday.

Joel Cook, of the National Education Association, made the comment to the House Education Committee, adding later that the union had a plan to save between $35 million and $100 million in statewide property tax funds but it depended on a publicly financed health care system.

"We had produced a proposal that would have, in fact, under a publicly financed health care system, produced substantial savings in school spending as well as any number of other employment locations," said Cook, the state NEA unit's executive director.

The comments came during a hearing in which the Education Committee heard from the teachers' union, the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents' Association on ways to stem sharp increases in school property taxes seen in recent years.

Cook said he had raised the potential for reduced school spending in talks with Shumlin before the governor announced Dec. 17 that he was shelving his long-sought goal of covering all Vermont residents under a government-run health care system.

Shumlin, a Democrat, had long stated a key goal was to remove employee health care from costs borne by employers. But last month he dropped plans to ask the Legislature this year for a financing package, saying the 11.5 percent payroll tax and a new income tax levy of up to 9.5 percent were too steep for a still fragile state economy to absorb.

Vermont spends $975.4 million a year on salaries for public school employees, union and non-union combined, with school districts paying about $209 million as the employer's share of health coverage. If those health care costs were covered by a universal health care system, an 11.5 percent payroll tax would have districts paying about $112 million for health care.

But that would not mean $97 million in pure savings, said Cook and Robin Lunge, a top Shumlin health care adviser.

Cook said that, for teachers, the employee share of their health care premium would be replaced with the 9.5 percent income tax, under the plan shelved by Shumlin. That would mean a higher cost to teachers than they face for premiums now, one the union would want to see at least partially offset with higher teacher pay.

Lawmakers have said they heard loudly from voters during the 2014 campaigns that property taxes need to be reduced. Lunge said property taxes might go down if Vermont moves to a public health system but they would be replaced by the new payroll and income taxes.

"What you're really doing," she said, "is shifting the cost from one funding source to another."

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