Last-Minute Budget Deal Limits Muni-Health Union Power

By Sarah Birnbaum

Jul 1, 2011

BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers finally have a budget deal. Filed at the last minute, just before the new fiscal year began Friday, it contains a major policy change that would let cities and towns set co-payments and deductibles for their employees without approval from unions. 

With just hours left in the fiscal year, legislative leaders emerged from a closed door meeting to announce a budget deal. Senator Stephen Brewer, a Democrat from Barre, co-chaired the conference committee:

"We’ve met nonstop quite honestly for 24 straight days. We’ve arrived at a budget that we think will be responsible and fair to the citizens of Massachusetts," Brewer said.

The most contentious part of the agreement would end the ability of municipal employees to bargain over their health care benefits. It comes in the wake of more severe anti union measures in Wisconsin and Ohio. But unlike those measures, which stripped public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, the Massachusetts proposal would only end collective bargaining for some aspects of health care benefits like copayments and deductibles. 

In unveiling the agreement, House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey, a Democrat from Haverhill, said the plan would help cities and towns save $100 million per year on health-care costs while preserving some bargaining power for unions.

"We believe that the compromise that 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 we all want to achieve," Dempsey said.

Overall, the bottom line for the budget is $30.6 billion. It contains no new taxes and it does not reduce state aid to cities and towns. But it would slash millions of dollars in spending for children, the sick and the elderly.

Both chambers of the legislature have scheduled final votes on the budget agreement later Friday. Gov. Deval Patrick will have 10 days to review it and issue any vetoes.

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