Globe Editorial

From Patrick, a bracing cut, but a welcome change of heart

January 22, 2011

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GOVERNOR PATRICK threw cold water on the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Association yesterday when he announced that his state budget proposal will call for a

7 percent reduction in non-school aid to cities and towns. That’s not entirely a surprise, and is necessary with the state facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall. But it also makes four years running that mayors, selectmen, and town managers will need to find ways to keep their communities afloat despite cuts in local aid.

Patrick told the local officials that they could more than make up for the loss of $65 million in local aid by embracing measures to reduce the health care costs of municipal employees. No shock there. For years, municipal managers have been begging lawmakers and the governor to give them the same flexibility the state enjoys when designing health plans for public employees. But rarely could they get their points across, even in a state where rising health care costs for school employees routinely gobble up all new state dollars for education.

Until yesterday, Patrick had been a big part of the problem by insisting that municipal unions have veto power over any decision to place their members in the more affordable and high quality health plan for state workers. But Patrick finally acknowledged that the unions aren’t going to come along willingly. He proposed a bill that would allow municipal managers — after attempts to negotiate with the unions — to place workers into the state medical plan or one equally as good designed by the cities and towns. This is a big step forward, but there is still concern that Patrick’s plan would give the unions too much room to plow the savings back into other benefit enhancements. The Massachusetts Municipal Association goes one better with a bill allowing cities and towns to design plans comparable to the state’s, but free of union interference.

More than $100 million annually washes down the municipal drains because state elected officials have allowed themselves to be pushed around by municipal unions. It’s maddening for taxpayers whose health benefits aren’t nearly as generous. And now they face cuts in basic city services unless the governor and Legislature untie the hands of their local officials. They should do so as quickly as possible.