A Less Gutsy Speaker Might Have 'Protected' His Members from This Difficult Vote

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Massachusetts House of Representatives was a profile in courage last week when it bucked the unions and voted, 111 to 42, in favor of a measure giving cities and towns the power to make some unilateral changes in employee health plans.

But many of the reps who voted for this change in collective bargaining law are now asking themselves: Was it worth it?

The measure is hardly a favorite in the Senate, where the onus will be on getting it introduced and voted on later this month. The Governor is signaling that he has problems with it, too.

So that stout-hearted stand by 111 House members on Tuesday night, April 26, taken in the hope of saving the state's 351 cities and towns a total of $100 million next year, may produce at the end of the day nothing more than a grudge in every union hall and a bunch of banged-up Democratic reps.

Robert DeLeo, the House Speaker, and Brian Dempsey, the first-year Chairman of House Ways & Means, should be praised, first, for making this proposal part of the House budget, and second, for going all out to secure the impressive majority that blessed it.

They had to know that Robert Haynes, Massachusetts President of the AFL-CIO, would be shouting about "union busting," and complaining how the Democrats, of all people, are trying to turn Massachusetts into another Wisconsin! And they had to know that Ed Kelly, the tough, new President of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, would be saying things like, "There's a class war going on in this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class." But they did it anyway because they heard the cries of the middle class folks who pay the taxes that fund municipal employee benefits, folks who do not have the option of bargaining at all with their bosses on changes to their health plans, if they work in the private sector.

"By spending less on the healthcare costs of municipal employees, our cities and towns will be able to retain jobs and allot more funding to necessary services like education and public safety," DeLeo pointed out.

"What we've recognized," said Dempsey, "is that, unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, a very large percentage of the monies we commit (to local aid) are unfortunately going to fund municipal health insurance. Now, that's not anyone's fault. We're not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it's a fact...The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it's not going to textbooks. It's not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it's going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance."

These valid reasons for making a tough vote have not prevented some House members from grumbling that the Speaker should have "protected the members" better than he did.

"Protecting the members" is a State House term that can describe a variety of actions, or stances, that the leadership may take in order to make their underlings look good to their constituents. In this instance, it suggests that the Speaker should not have let the issue come up for a vote once he saw how forceful the union opposition was and how shaky the prospects are that it will pass in the Senate and not be vetoed by the Governor.

Undoubtedly, the Speaker knew he was risking this kind of back-biting, but took that risk in the interest of the taxpayers. Life and politics being what they are, the taxpayers will soon forget he did so. But not the unions.

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