Gov. Scott talks healthcare, pot in Colchester

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Gov. Phil Scott joined NBC 5’s Stewart Ledbetter at the PBS studio in Colchester last Wednesday for an hour-long, live Ask the Governor segment. (Photo by Tom Marble)

At Vermont PBS’ Colchester studio last week, Gov. Phil Scott sat down live with moderator Stewart Ledbetter of NBC5 to discuss prominent State House issues.

Much of the hour-long “Ask the Governor” conversation centered on the Scott’s embattled healthcare reform initiative and S.22, a bill that hit the governor’s desk last Thursday that would legalize the possession of a limited amount of marijuana for adults over 21 if signed into law.

At the time of the May 17 segment, the governor had not yet read the bill, he said; his deadline to act was May 24, after the Sun’s press deadline.

Residents across the state could call, email or post questions on social media for the governor to address throughout the live segment.

Ledbetter began by asking Scott about some of the strife recently unfolded in the State House surrounding the governor’s push to have teachers’ unions negotiate healthcare benefits and costs with the state instead of local school boards.

Currently, the benefit costs shouldered by teachers varies across the state. Per their contract, which expires June 30, Colchester teachers pay 20 percent of their healthcare costs.

Scott’s plan would establish “uniformity and predictability” with districts across the state, the governor said, because every teacher would pay 20 percent of their healthcare benefits. It would also allow the state to capture $26 million in savings, he said.

“I’ve just found that we have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where were able to save $75 million and be able to make teachers whole by putting $50 million back into their pockets, and come away with about $26 million in savings,” Scott said. “It comes down to property tax relief, which is something we’ve all heard about this year.”

Scott also said that while school board members often have kids in the district they work in, they did not sign up to negotiate healthcare benefits. His proposed changes would prevent them from being in an “even more difficult position,” he said.

Vermont Democrats led by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe have starkly objected to the governor’s proposed change, arguing the plan is an attempt to stifle collective bargaining and that money can be saved without undermining the protected process.

Ashe has largely spearheaded the structuring of three or four alternative plans over the past few weeks, all of which have been rejected by the governor.

“There is a point when a negotiation becomes a dictation,” Ashe said last week.

In the studio last Wednesday evening, Ledbetter asked Scott to respond to Ashe’s comments, specifically regarding the latest plan Ashe put forth that would preserve the typical collective bargaining process this year.

“It’s certainly a way to accumulate $13 million in the first half year, but almost imposing a penalty on districts in order for them to come up with the $13 million,” Scott said. “So you’re saying, ‘you figure it out.’”

The National Education Association has also strongly condemned Scott’s proposal.

“We would like to have things just as they are now,” NEA president Martha Allen said. “This is just another form of restricting collective bargaining.”

Last Friday, the state legislature adjourned their extended session after declaring an impasse with Scott over teacher healthcare. Scott has vowed to veto the state budget if it doesn’t include the $26 million in savings, but said he hopes to continue negotiating during adjournment.

The first caller of the night asked Scott if signing the marijuana legalization bill into law would set a bad precedent in Vermont.

Though he hadn’t read the bill yet, Scott said he is not “philosophically opposed” to legalization, but pointed to the state’s obligation to ensure safety is a priority – specifically regarding edibles.

“I believe that we should be working on some ways to detect impairment on our highways,” he said. “We haven’t done so.”

He also stressed the need for Vermont to “learn” from other states that have legalized marijuana. If Scott signs the bill, Vermont would be the first state to legalize marijuana through legislation rather than referendum.

Scott said he had contacted other governors across the region to try and reach a consensus about the best way to test impairment levels and to review legalization efforts as a coalition.

Despite his reservations, Scott alluded to what he called his “Yankee independence” as a driving force behind his belief that Vermonters have a right to make their own decisions.

“I have this libertarian streak in me that believes what you do in your own home is your own business,” he said. “I want to allow people to do – as long as they’re not harming others – to do what they want in their own homes.”

Conversation turned back to healthcare when a viewer emailed a question about Scott’s position on universal primary insurance. Scott said he wants to do whatever he can to provide access to healthcare, but expressed concerned about the federal budget’s impact on Vermont.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes a $800 billion slash to Medicaid, despite his campaign pledge not to cut funding from the program.

“We rely heavily on federal funds. Almost half of our overall budget is through federal funds. A lot of that is for human services, and Medicaid is probably a third of our budget,” Scott said.

Scott also addressed the president’s recent behavior regarding former FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal and the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, now headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, also a former FBI director.

“I’m concerned for our democracy. I’m concerned about what could be obstruction of justice,” Scott said. “I think we’re going to need something more or broaden this counsel’s purview given some of the allegations that were made.”

If there isn’t any merit to the charges, Scott said, the country needs to be able to move on.

The governor’s final question was posed on Facebook: What is Scott’s main goal moving forward?

“It would be to address the challenges we face with the demographics,” he said. “We’re losing this category from 25-45. That’s our workforce. So, if we don’t have them, and we have less people working, then we’re heading the wrong direction.”

Watch PBS’ full “Ask the Governor” segment online at www.pbs.org/video/3000956182.