Don't pay any attention to Big Labor's whining about Massachusetts going the way of Wisconsin with its attempt to get a handle on the amount cities and towns pay for their employees' health care.
The plan unveiled by the House leadership last Wednesday as part of its $30.45 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is by no means extreme. Nor should it have come as a surprise to union leaders who have spent the last several years fighting efforts to reform the very expensive status quo.
All that municipal officials are asking — and the House is proposing to give them — is the same right the state has now to determine the scope of the health insurance policies offered its employees. Known as "plan design," this flexibility figures to save cities and towns an estimated $100 million in the first year and $2 billion over the next 10, allowing them to save jobs and services.
We have all been hearing about the financial problems our local cities and towns face. Amesbury, Newburyport, the Triton and Pentucket regional school system towns all have been warning that schools and services face cuts. Some are expecting layoffs. The leaders of our local communities need lawmakers on Beacon Hill to take tough stands and provide them some relief by passing health care reforms that will save them money.
If anything, the House bill, aimed at helping municipalities cope with a fourth consecutive decline in unrestricted local aid, doesn't go far enough. It would require individual cities and towns to accept the legislation — allowing unions to raise another ruckus when the matter comes before the city council or town meeting; mandate that 10 percent of any "savings" be set aside to reimburse employees for their additional health care expenses; and require continued negotiation with the unions regarding employees' share of premiums and any co-pays or deductibles that exceed those of the state's Group Insurance Commission plan.
But at least it's a start, and one that deserves the support of all members of the North Shore's legislative delegation. The fight over this will be contentious, as was evident yesterday when several House members unveiled a union-sponsored plan that undermines the House leadership's plan. Six members of the House leadership team went with the union plan; we were pleased to see that state Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, was not among them.
"Faced with a $1.9 billion deficit and no assistance from the federal government, this budget was crafted to protect essential services, provide tools to cash-strapped municipalities and implement reforms that generate real savings," House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, declared.
Implementing plan design is critical to the overall goal of allowing cities and towns money to manage their finances while at the same time keeping a lid on property taxes.