Accord reached on state budget
Would limit collective bargaining
House and Senate negotiators reached agreement yesterday on a $30.6 billion state budget that will limit the collective bargaining rights of teachers, police officers, and firefighters in an effort to ease the cost of health insurance for cities and towns.
The budget deal followed 24 days of closed-door negotiations between six top House and Senate lawmakers, who were trying to iron out the differences between their chambers’ versions of the state budget.
Lawmakers plan to vote on the accord today and then send it to Governor Deval Patrick, who will have 10 days to review it and issue vetoes.
Perhaps the most contentious proposal targets unions in an attempt to save cities and towns at least $100 million annually in health insurance costs. “This is a very constructive compromise which appears to strike a balance between the best of the House and Senate plans,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog group. “Municipalities will save tens of millions of dollars, critical services and jobs will be protected, and municipal employees and retirees will continue to receive generous health benefits.’’
Unions, however, had no immediate comment.
Patrick has spoken favorably about the broad outlines of the proposal, but has not said whether he will sign this specific agreement.
He and lawmakers have described the entire state budget as among the most difficult in decades, because the state has been forced to close a $1.9 billion deficit that is mostly the result of the loss of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money.
The budget includes no new taxes and instead cuts deeply across a range of state services, hitting the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. Patrick agreed to many of the cuts in his budget proposal released in January.
■ A cut in direct benefits to poor people, which will reduce the clothing allowance given to children on welfare.
■ A $4 million cut in the Department of Developmental Services, which would reduce services to 1,000 people.
■ Significant cuts to the state’s Medicaid program that will require the poor and the elderly to pay more for prescription drugs and other medical services.
Lawmakers also agreed on a plan to hire 300 new public defenders, reducing the state’s reliance on private lawyers to perform criminal defense work for the poor.
Patrick, who wanted to hire 1,000 new public defenders, has argued that they can do the job at a lower cost. Stephen M. Brewer, the Senate budget chief, described the compromise as “a sea change from the status quo.’’
The budget jettisons a House plan that would have repealed the 2008 state law that banned drug and medical device companies from giving gifts to doctors in most cases. Some restaurant owners wanted the ban repealed, arguing that their businesses were suffering because they were no longer hosting lavish dinners sponsored by drug companies for doctors. But consumer groups countered that the ban helps to ensure that doctors are not unduly influenced by powerful special interests.
In approving a plan to limit public employee bargaining rights, lawmakers said they needed to help city and town managers negotiate health care agreements that will slow rising health insurance costs. Echoing the governor, they said their plan gives unions the right to discuss, but not veto, higher copayments and deductibles.
“We believe that the compromise we have reached will provide for a very fair and balanced approach that will allow for folks to have a voice, but will also allow for us to achieve the savings that I think we all want to achieve,’’ said Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The legislation allows local governments to move employees into the state’s health insurance program, the Group Insurance Commission, or make their own health plan changes, after a 30-day discussion period with unions. In the case of a deadlock, the dispute goes to a three-member review panel with one union representative, one management representative, and a crucial tie-breaking vote appointed by the governor’s budget chief.
If the panel determines that the changes proposed by management at least match the health benefits given to state workers, the review panel would be required to approve them. If not, the panel will be able to modify the proposal. In either case, the panel can give 25 percent of the savings from the changes back to union employees for one year.
Only cities and towns that want to use the new negotiating process will do so; the new rules will not be required statewide.