UNIONS FIND HOUSE BACKERS, CALL HEALTH PLAN REFERENDUM ON BARGAINING
By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 20, 2011…..Fifty Democratic lawmakers, including six of Speaker Robert DeLeo's handpicked committee chairs, have lined up behind a union-backed alternative to a House leadership proposal that would permit cities and towns to unilaterally shift health care costs onto their workers, setting up a high-stakes policy battle during next week's budget debate.
The issue presents a math challenge for DeLeo and Democratic House leaders, who may be forced to rely on Republican votes to pass their plan, unless they can peel away support from a competing plan offered by Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester) and favored by unions.
The prospect of a gubernatorial veto - Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal on municipal health closely mirrors Walsh's plan - also further clouds the issue, which has divided legislators for years.
Walsh's plan, backed primarily by rank-and-file House members, including 10 freshmen, would restore some collective bargaining power for municipal unions, granting them a 45-day window to negotiate with administrators over health benefits, and sending the matter to arbitration if they fail to agree.
Under the plan offered by Walsh, who also works as secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council, workers would also share in at least 25 percent of the savings cities and towns realize by shifting health costs. Cities and towns would be guaranteed a quarter of the savings as well, and the remainder would be subject to negotiations. A nearly identical proposal narrowly passed the Senate last year.
The head of the Massachusetts Municipal Association told the News Service Wednesday that the Walsh plan included "ridiculous" provisions and would represent a "disaster for local taxpayers."
But union officials have made clear in letters to representatives that they consider the vote on Walsh's amendment a referendum on collective bargaining and will hold opponents accountable politically.
"You are either on the side of collective bargaining for the workers who have been willing to compromise on this issue, or you are against those collective bargaining rights and want to reward intractable, uncompromising management advocates like the MMA," Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes wrote in a letter soliciting support for Walsh's amendment. The letter included one bolded line: "All votes relating to the matters discussed in this letter may be considered Labor Votes and calculated into Labor Voting Records upon which endorsements and levels of support are determined."
Walsh's proposal would undo the plan endorsed by the House Ways and Means Committee that would sharply reduce municipal employee unions' influence over their health care costs. The Ways and Means plan - backed by mayors, business groups, education groups and municipal officials - would grant city and town managers the power to raise co-pays and deductibles, within certain constraints, without negotiating with unions.
Backers of the Ways and Means plan argue that the ever-increasing cost of municipal health care has deflated attempts to invest in education and public safety, tying the hands of city and town governments struggling to balance their budgets. The proposal, they note, preserves collective bargaining over premiums - a power state workers don't enjoy - and caps unilateral co-pay and premium increases at the level of the most popular plan to which state workers subscribe.
In addition, the proposal would permit cities and towns to enter the Group Insurance Commission --- the state employee health plan - without obtaining union support. In all, supporters say it would save $100 million across the state's 351 cities and towns.
"This has been a reform that's been a long time coming," Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said when the proposal was unveiled last week. "The time has finally come for us to give cities and towns a management tool that will help to save money for them and to preserve jobs and services at the local level. That's what it's all about."
Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told the News Service that the Walsh amendment is proof that House lawmakers agree on the need to reform the municipal health care system, despite differences in their approach.
"What we're doing is analyzing the amendment and will be identifying for the members some of the concerns about that particular amendment relative to the difficulty it presents for municipalities ability to go into GIC, as well as some of the other issues with that," he said. "I think it will certainly be a healthy debate."
Asked about the tenor of the debate between unions, municipalities and other groups, Dempsey said the House's proposal, in part, was the result of a failure of the groups to agree on a solution for years.
"Certainly it was, I think our hope that for the last few years some of these issues would've been resolved because folks have been at the table. Unfortunately, they haven't been resolved to a large degree, which has led us to our proposal. I think we're going to have a lengthy and healthy debate on this."
House leaders are also operating, they believe, with public imprimatur. A Suffolk University poll earlier this month showed that 51 percent of voters believe unions have too much power and just 34 percent believe that the employee-management balance is "just right." In that poll - a survey of 500 likely Massachusetts voters between April 3 and April 5 with a 4.4 percent margin of error - 54 percent of respondents said they believe that public employees receive higher pay and better benefits than private-sector workers doing similar jobs.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats who endorsed the Walsh proposal will continue to stand against leadership when it comes time to vote. However, if the numbers hold, Democratic leaders will be forced to count on Republican votes to ensure passage of their municipal health care plan, a rare dynamic in a reliably dark-blue Legislature.
"Whenever the possibility exists that Republican votes could impact the outcome of a vote, it's sort of a different day around here," said House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading).
Jones said his caucus, which has concerns about the cost of health care within cities and towns and the way existing law is structured, would take a serious look at the proposals on the table.
Another surprising fact: 13 of the 26 Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee signed onto Walsh's plan to undo the proposal that the committee endorsed last week, although none spoke against it on the day the budget was released and approved by the Ways and Means panel on a voice vote.
Ways and Means Committee members passed on a chance to amend the committee plan. Amendments during committee executive sessions, once a fairly common practice, have become rare over the years, especially given the increasing frequency of committee votes occurring via polling.
The split in the Democratic caucus over municipal workers' collective bargaining power has been fueled, in part, by union heads, who issued strongly worded rejections of the Ways and Means version of the plan, calling it a non-starter and threatening political retribution for lawmakers who support it.
The Walsh proposal drew support from six House committee chairs: Walsh, who chairs the Ethics Committee, and Reps. Frank Smizik, Alice Wolf, Antonio Cabral, Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, and Kay Khan (D-Newton). The rest are rank-and-file Democrats. The 10 freshmen who endorsed Walsh's plan represent more than half of the newest Democrats in the Legislature.
Members of the Ways and Means Committee who are seeking to undo the panel's municipal health provision include: Reps. Koczera, Christine Canavan, Timothy Toomey, Benjamin Swan, Colleen Garry, Geraldine Creedon, David Sullivan, Ruth Balser, John Fresolo, Joyce Spiliotis, Carl Sciortino, Michael Brady, and James Dwyer.
Municipal officials and education groups backing the Ways and Means proposal showcased their support Wednesday, holding a press conference in Revere.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the Walsh amendment "would represent no real reform" and would expand binding arbitration, which he called "a disaster for local taxpayers."
"It allows an independent, unaccountable outside person to make decisions affecting not only municipal health benefits but what taxpayers pay," he said. "That's totally unacceptable."
Beckwith also called provision requiring that 25 percent of the savings go to city and town coffers "ridiculous."
"The reason why it's ridiculous is that the whole purpose of municipal health insurance reform is to save taxpayers money and services and protect municipal jobs," he said.
Walsh on Wednesday declined to talk with the News Service about his amendment. The issue was the topic of discussions during a meeting of House leaders in DeLeo's office on Wednesday.