The Download: Seeking middle ground on public workers

Gov. Deval Patrick is struggling with how to rein in municipal health care costs. Those costs are eating up city and town budgets, and most voters think public sector union workers are living high on the hog. Many mayors are pressing for the authority to unilaterally cut the benefits of their workers.

But Patrick has been reluctant to force municipal workers to give up the benefits they’ve negotiated over the years. During his first term, he encouraged municipalities and their unions to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission, which provides health plans to state workers. But unions were given effective veto power over municipalities joining the GIC, and few have.

Now, as the governor prepares to trim $65 million in non-education local aid, he is giving the unions a harder nudge. His budget, unveiled on Wednesday, would give municipalities and their unions a short time to negotiate health care benefits. But if the cost of the end product doesn’t meet or beat the savings offered by the GIC, the employees would all be herded into the state insurance plan. No more union vetoes. “I’m done with that,” Patrick said.

But as Scot Lehigh points out in his Globe column today, Patrick’s proposal would allow unions to pocket some of the savings as their benefits are reduced. How that would be accomplished is unclear; Patrick’s proposal leaves those details to regulations that would be drafted after the measure becomes law. Lehigh, a hard-liner, thinks those details should be spelled out ahead of time.

Patrick is struggling for a middle ground on this issue at a time when a middle ground is increasingly hard to find. Sentiment is turning against public sector workers, particularly in this down economy. Stories abound about public employees who fatten their pensions, lap up lavish benefits, and enjoy the type of job protections that are rapidly disappearing in the private sector. Time magazine, for example, reports how teachers are nearly impossible to discipline. Nearly all of them, in fact, receive satisfactory evaluations each year, a point highlighted by CommonWealth’s Michael Jonas in a story last year.

Robert Reich, the former US labor secretary and one-time Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, takes a contrarian view on his blog. He says public servants are convenient scapegoats. It’s much easier to blame public employees for crippling state and federal budgets than it is to own up to tax cuts for the rich and tax credits for the well-connected, he says.

Reich also says many of the attacks on public employees are based on bad data. He says all too often critics compares apples and oranges – the average wage of public employees with the average wage of all private sector employees. But he says only 23 percent of private-sector employees have college degrees, while 48 percent of government workers do.

“Compare apples to apples and you’d see that over the last 15 years the pay of public sector workers has dropped relative to private-sector employees with the same level of education,” he writes. “Public sector workers now earn 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private sector, and local workers 12 percent less. Even if you include health and retirement benefits, government employees still earn less than their private sector counterparts with similar educations.”

                                                                                                                                                                            –BRUCE MOHL

BEACON HILL

The Eagle-Tribune reports that Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill is likely to replace Charles Murphy as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The Boston Phoenix adds more details, saying Murphy is moving up to assistant majority leader and Ron Mariano of Quincy is vacating that position to replace James Vallee of Franklin as majority leader.

CommonWealth’s Paul McMorrow, in his weekly Globe column, sees little evidence that Massachusetts pols are taking patronage scandals and a rash of political corruption cases to heart.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s $311 million midyear spending bill refunds spending cuts for nearly every county sheriff’s office, but docks Barnstable for the cost of new hire Jeff Perry’s salary.

The Supreme Judicial Court has ordered Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson to refund $750,000 in improper inmate fees.

Howie Carr has some advice for former House Speaker Sal DiMasi: Plead guilty, before it’s too late.

An expanded bottle bill: Trash-slayer or shameless money grab?

MUNICIPAL

The Haverhill School Committee gives a 23 percent raise to Superintendent James Scully, raising his pay from $150,000 to $185,000 a year, the Eagle-Tribune reports. The committee tied future pay hikes to increases in MCAS scores, with every 1 percent rise in scores triggering a 1 percent rise in his pay.

No more dial up: A Springfield Republican editorial gives kudos to WiredWest, a municipal co-operative that will bring broadband access to nearly 50 small towns in western Massachusetts.

Municipal officials in Berkshire County discuss cuts in local aid.

Big thinkers: Pittsfield officials consider the types of new leaders they are looking for after longtime Mayor James Ruberto and City Council President Gerald Lee announced their plans not to seek re-election.

ECONOMY

The housing market, with values in decline for a mind-boggling 50 months now, is the biggest threat to any sustained economic recovery according to every index and poll available, says US News & World Report.

The Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, the focus of several unsuccessful attempts to spring back to life in some form, has found some work to supplement its income for owner Dan Quirk – as a supporting actor in movies, according to Jon Chesto on his Mass Market blog.

HEALTH CARE


Jim Roosevelt
, the chief executive of Tufts Health Plan, and scion of one of the nation’s most distinguished political families, will need all his skills of diplomacy to helm the proposed merger of his company with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, says  this Globe profile.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Gov. Deval Patrick wants to shrink from 1,000 feet to 100 feet the drug-free school zones within which drug-related crimes are punishable by more severe sentences, saying the current law puts away too many non-violent offenders for too long.

The Globe calls Patrick’s plan to close two state prisons “vague” – and that seems to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. WBUR, however, says the governor is getting good reviews for his prison plan.

Shawn Drumgold, who who won a $14 million judgment in an earlier wrongful conviction case was arrested Wednesday on drug charges in Roxbury.

Cape Cod Times editorial blasts the decision by Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings to hire former state representative Jeff Perry, the Sandwich Republican, as a special sheriff after his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat.

Transportation

Commuter rail delays infuriate customers, the Lowell Sun reports.

EDUCATION

MetroWest Daily News editorial marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster with a tribute to Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher killed in the explosion.

WEATHER

Peter Sullivan of Beverly and Cesar Jimenez of Salem spent more than two hours trapped in a 1997 Honda Civic after heavy snow caved in the roof of a Lynn parking garage where they were parked. The two survivors tell their story to the Salem News.

The Lynn Item offers a more traditional story on the incident.

With more than five feet of snow on the ground already and more to come, school officials are beginning to get nervous about what to do if there are any more snow days beyond the five they usually allot. Athletic directors are in an even bigger quandary with canceled games and practices in hockey and basketball wreaking havoc with schedules and bottom lines. And health professionals caution that repeated snowstorms can trigger anxiety and depression in the recently shut-in. Ya think?

THE BLUES

Walter Russell Mead on his The American Interest blog says even though libertarians and conservatives dismiss Boston politics as “un-American”, the story of us is the story of the US. Via Hub Blog.

WASHINGTON

Some nonprofit activists are worried that community action programs will be decimated by budget cuts because that is the only area President Obama mentioned by name when he talked about trimming the deficit in his State of the Union speech.

The Senate vows to speed up business, but won’t scrap the filibuster.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is buttering up the House’s Republican leadership.

STATE OF THE STATES

Moody’s is the latest bond rating agency to consider states’ unfunded pension liabilities when calculating states’ total debt loads. Under that metric, Massachusetts has the third highest debt load per capita, and the fifth highest as a share of GDP.

ELECTION 2012

Outreach, please: Republican movers and shakers in key primary states say Mitt Romney isn’t working as hard for their support as he did the last time around. Via Political Wire.

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