Friday, July 8, 2011
State House Roundup: Finding Their Voice

THE STATE HOUSE — The voices in Gov. Deval Patrick’s head grew in number and intensity this week as the land-mine riddled search to find that one “meaningful” voice for labor in municipal health insurance negotiations bogged down the quest for a budget a week into the new fiscal year.
During an otherwise sleepy, summer week on the Hill, most of the action transpired behind closed doors as the governor struggled to find a comfort level with health care bargaining reforms that could coax his pen to paper.
The fact that the overdue fiscal 2012 state budget requires Patrick’s signature no later than Monday put added pressure on the governor and stakeholders to find common ground as national labor groups, curious about what President Obama’s biggest state-level cheerleader would do, began making inquiries on the issue.
Even CBS’s Bob Schieffer made reference to the governor’s conundrum on the Face the Nation, suggesting the budget Patrick was about to sign looked more like one coming out of a Republican state than deep blue Massachusetts.
The breakthrough came late Friday afternoon with an announcement that Patrick would return the budget to the Legislature on Monday with amendments to the municipal health care reform sections that the administration said would strengthen the role of labor in health care bargaining, particularly protecting retirees and the sick, without jeopardizing savings for cities and towns are eying in part by shifting more costs to employees.
The agreement, struck after conversations between the Patrick administration, House and Senate leaders, municipal officials and labor organizations, appeared to have resolved the signature issue of the fiscal 2012 budget.
The talks, at times, managed to obscure many of the other details of a budget that wiped $1.7 billion in federal stimulus support off the books, calls for scores of funding cuts to education, social service and health programs and inflates the bottom-line to more than $30 billion for the first time in state history.
After going through four iterations, including a bill filed by Patrick and separate proposals included in both the House and Senate budgets, this latest compromise requires two more votes in the House and Senate scheduled for Monday to put the final punctuation on a sticky chapter in relations between the Democratic governor, the Democrat-controlled Legislature, labor and municipal leaders.
Unions treaded cautiously as the deal was announced, withholding a full-throated endorsement until it could review the specifics, but all signs pointed to resignation, if not total agreement, from the involved parties on the plan to create a local option that would allow cities and towns to save as much as $100 million on health care by restricting collective bargaining rights over increases to co-payment and deductible levels.
The fact that nearly all of the finer points were resolved privately between leaders throughout the week, out of the view of the prying public eye, seemed to bother no one, not even Sen. Steven Tolman who took to the floor of the Senate last week to decry the muni-health plan sent to the governor as a cost shift that would bankrupt seniors.
“If there was anything in play, it’s the last thing to talk about it. If you’re trying to work something out, you work it out. You don’t talk about it,” Tolman said.
One group not afraid to air their issues publicly is the Governor’s Council, which met this week to vote on the controversial Patrick nomination of Rep. Christopher Speranzo (D-Pittsfield) to the position of clerk magistrate in the Pittsfield District Court.
Though lacking in the colorful fireworks on display a week earlier when two councilors laid their grievances with each other on the table, Speranzo’s confirmation required Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray to cast the tiebreaking ninth vote after four councilors expressed serious concerns about the state representative’s qualifications.
The outcome was made possible only by the administration delaying the vote one week to ensure that all four supporters of Speranzo on the Council were present, and the governor was available to step in for Murray and preside so he could vote.
Secretary of State William Galvin also quickly stamped out a potential controversy over the date of the highly anticipated 2012 state primary election, which has been scheduled for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
When asked about concerns raised publicly by Sen. Barry Finegold who said many Jewish residents would not be able to vote that day because their beliefs, Galvin said he was aware of the conflict and had every intention of moving the date.
Open and shut case, right? Almost.
“The issue of having an election on a religious holiday or religious beliefs have been covered as we have absentee ballots for people who have religious beliefs and cannot vote on the day of election,” Deerfield Town Clerk Mary Stokarski wrote in an email to the Roundup.
Though Galvin said he didn’t necessarily have a problem with Finegold’s suggestion that the election be bumped up a week to Sept. 11, the secretary said there could be issues with the availability of public buildings as polling locations. He said for now he can only commit to moving the election to a date earlier than Sept. 18, leaving open possibility of a Wednesday or Thursday vote instead of the traditional Tuesday.
As lawmakers with priorities not known as municipal health reform wait to hear how their initiatives fared in the eyes of the governor on Monday, one senator got his answer.
Though House and Senate budget negotiators scrapped a plan to heavily restrict the use of skin shock therapy in Massachusetts for severely disabled residents, the Patrick administration quietly moved ahead with regulations that would do what the Legislature decided not to after facing opposition within House leadership.
To Sen. Brian Joyce’s delight, and Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez’s frustration, the administration is plowing forward with a proposal that would eliminate the practice for all future patients and require annual reviews for patients already receiving the controversial treatment.