DeLeo's budget would curb labor
Localities could set health payments
By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
April 14, 2011
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, setting up a major fight
with unions, proposed yesterday to strip local public
employees of most of their rights to bargain over health
care, as part of a $30.5 billion annual state budget
that imposes the largest year-to-year spending cut in
The proposal to restrict collective bargaining rights,
once unthinkable in heavily Democratic Massachusetts,
touched off a firestorm, with labor leaders denouncing
it as an assault on public workers and local officials
calling it a long overdue step to control soaring health
costs. DeLeo's plan follows tougher efforts in
Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states to broadly deny union
workers such bargaining rights.
The House plan gives local officials, such as mayors and
town councils, unfettered authority to set copayments
and deductibles for local public employees without
having to negotiate with unions. Only the share of
premiums paid by employees would be on the health care
Ten percent of the savings from the changes would be
given back to union workers for one year. House leaders
said the plan would save cities and towns $100 million
in the budget year that begins in July.
"It's the most significant reform we can make this
year,'' said Brian S. Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat and
chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which
controls the budget process.
Outraged union leaders said they would work to oust
legislators who vote for the plan.
"The only thing that this budget does is silence the
voice of working families,'' said Edward Kelly,
president of the Professional Fire Fighters of
Massachusetts. "But those voices won't be silent in
The House plan would not raise taxes or fees, but it
would cut $94 million more than the proposal Governor
Deval Patrick unveiled in January. State leaders are
grappling with the loss of $1.5 billion in federal
stimulus money and a shaky economic recovery.
House leaders said their plan would close a $1.9 billion
state budget gap, in part by matching the governor's
proposal to withdraw $200 million from the state's rainy
The House plan also matches the governor's proposal to
boost school aid by $119 million and to slash local aid
by $65 million, or 7 percent, a reduction that will hit
police officers, firefighters, senior centers, and other
local services. Local aid has already been cut by 32
percent, or $416 million, over the last three years,
according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Municipal officials said they could tolerate this year's
cut, but only if DeLeo succeeds in giving them greater
power to rein in rising health costs.
"You need this reform now; otherwise you're going to
[continue] to lay off employees to pay for benefits,''
said Mayor Scott W. Lang of New Bedford, president of
the Massachusetts Mayors' Association.
Local officials have been fighting over the issue for
years, frustrated that municipalities pay higher costs
for their employees than the state does for its workers
through the state's health insurance program. Local
officials have complained that their unions can
effectively block any attempts to change their health
care, unlike state employees, who have no power to
bargain over their copayments and deductibles. Mayor
Thomas M. Menino of Boston said health care will cost
his city over $300 million next year and will continue
to rise unless there is serious change.
"This plan provides the tools municipalities across the
Commonwealth need to keep teachers in classrooms, police
on the streets, and our neighborhoods clean and
vibrant,'' Menino said in a statement.
Public employee benefits have become a national
flashpoint, sparking protests nationwide. While
Massachusetts remains a relative haven for organized
labor and the House plan falls far short of proposals in
other states, it nonetheless illustrates how the
movement to curb union power has made inroads in this
Labor leaders promised yesterday to fight the plan by
DeLeo, a longtime union ally who has pushed their
campaign to legalize casinos.
"This is going to wake up the sleeping giant,'' said
Raymond F. McGrath, lobbyist for the International
Brotherhood of Police Officers.
Patrick has sought a middle ground between unions and
local officials. His plan preserves some power for
unions to negotiate by giving them a brief window to
bargain before local officials would be allowed to
impose their own terms unilaterally. In addition,
Patrick has held out the possibility of union members
keeping more than 10 percent of the savings.
Union leaders are now looking to him and to Senate
President Therese Murray to stand in DeLeo's way. Murray
declined to comment yesterday. At the Greater Boston
Chamber of Commerce last week, she said the Senate will
give local officials greater power to control health
costs, but she added: "I emphatically agree with the
governor that labor has to be at the table.''
Jay Gonzalez, Patrick's budget chief, called DeLeo's
union proposal "largely good,'' but reiterated that
unions must have a role.
"They need to have a voice in the process,'' he said.
"They don't have a veto in getting to the result, and
the governor's been clear about that.''
The House budget would also make painful cuts to social
services. Medicaid spending next year would be
restrained by about $800 million, by forcing the poor to
pay more for prescription drugs and other medical
services. House leaders said the state can save $350
million simply by renegotiating contracts with health
In addition, most of the 11,500 elderly and disabled
residents who receive adult day care because they cannot
live independently will lose their services because of a
$55 million cut. Dempsey said he did not know what would
happen to these people, many of whom are frail and
suffer neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's.
"That's the question and that's the concern,'' he said.
The House plan also eliminates Medicaid coverage for
19,000 legal immigrants, on top of 14,000 who have
previously seen their benefits cut.
One hundred and forty-five of the state's 626 mental
health beds would be eliminated under the House plan,
slightly fewer than the 160 beds the governor proposed
Patrick issued a statement saying he was pleased that
the House budget is balanced, but concerned that some of
his priorities -- such as Shannon grants and other
program to combat youth violence and health care for
legal immigrants -- were not funded.
The House budget waters down Patrick's sweeping proposal
to create a new public defender agency by hiring 1,000
lawyers and 500 support staff. Instead the plan calls
for hiring 200 state public defenders and establishing a
system to screen out defendants who can afford to pay
for their own lawyers.
(c) Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.
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