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Lawmakers punt controversial pension reform proposal for more study

Published: Apr. 2, 2021 at 6:19 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Democrats in the Vermont House are walking back a controversial plan to reform the state’s cash-strapped public pension system after strong objections from teachers and other union members.

“We are relieved now that we have a chance to slow down, take a look at it, hear from all of the voices,” said Mike Campbell, a veteran BFA St. Albans teacher.

The state’s pension funds are $5 billion in the hole and after years of inaction, lawmakers were considering a proposal to contribute $150 million, cut benefits, and ask employees to contribute more. But teachers like Campbell say a pension is a promise they agreed when they took their jobs. “We want to focus on students. We want them back in the classroom and we want to maximize their learning and not have to fight over these kinds of issues,” he said.

In a Friday press conference, House Speaker Jill Krowinski announced a task force will be formed this summer to look at possible ways to solve the pension crisis. She also wants to keep that $150-million one-time payment in reserve while the task force does its work.

“What’s really important is the speaker has listened to Vermont-NEA members as they have testified, as they have raised their voices in this debate,” said VT-NEA president Don Tinney.

Krowinski also called Governor Phil Scott out saying the Republican governor needs to be part of the decision-making process. Scott on Friday responded that he continues to be a willing partner, but that the Democratic majority in the Legislature needs to lead on the issue. “This is their moment to shine. This is their responsibility as a majority party to get something done,” he said. Scott added that he has sounded the alarm about the state’s underfunded pension program for years.

“I’m always worried, but I do think this is a much more respectful process,” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. He says the union wants to work with Scott. “It was unfair to put this on Speaker Krowinski. She is two months into this job, she is just starting and she’s not the governor. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.”

Campbell says the NEA and lawmakers have been fighting over the pension behind the scenes for about a month-and-a-half and that they will remain engaged. “We’re going to be staying very active and very aware. It’s a long process and now it’s all the way to next year, so we’re here and ready to give input when asked, or needed,” he said.

Rallies planned for Friday in Springfield and Saturday in Montpelier were originally meant to protest the Democrats’ reform plan, but officials say they will now celebrate lawmakers hitting the pause button and are being billed as a “thank you for the support” rallies.

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