A tough day for Coakley
Attorney General Martha Coakley is the frontrunner in all the gubernatorial polls, but on Tuesday she took a beating on two issues that are likely to figure prominently in the leadup to the November election.
First, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that an initiative petition repealing the state’s gaming law should go before voters in November, saying Coakley’s decision to bar the ballot question defied common sense. Then she quietly filed her long-awaited consent judgment with Partners Healthcare System that allows the health care giant to absorb South Shore Hospital and two other community hospitals. Critics say the deal undercuts her own pioneering work showcasing the perils posed by Partners’ domination of the health care market.
The SJC’s casino ruling was universally recognized as bad news for Coakley. Globe political columnist Scot Lehigh called the decision embarrassing for her. Globe business columnist Shirley Leung said the SJC chopped her head off. (“Could this also be the fateful turning point in an otherwise sleepy gubernatorial race?” Leung asked.) Globe political analyst Jim O’Sullivan suggested the decision casts doubt on her competence as AG. The Herald’s columnist/reporter Joe Battenfeld blasted Coakley’s “bad political and legal judgment.”
I think Coakley’s heart was in the right place, but she couldn’t figure out a legal way to keep it there. Think about it. The Legislature passes a law allowing three casinos and a slots parlor in Massachusetts and invites companies to bid on the four licenses. The companies come into Massachusetts, spend millions of dollars making their case, and start winning licenses. Then along comes a ballot question that wipes it all out. Does it seem fair to yank the rug out from under the casino companies without compensating them for the money they’ve spent? It’s like the state passing a law promising homeowners a 50 percent cut in their income taxes for five years if they spend at least $40,000 installing solar panels on their roof. What do you think would happen if homeowners spent the money on the solar panels and then voters repealed the law, eliminating the tax cut?
While her main legal argument to the SJC was viewed as pro-casino, Coakley sided with anti-casino forces on other issues raised to block the question from appearing on the ballot. So there’s some room for her to argue that she was just calling the legal issues as she saw them.
The AG couldn’t control the beating she took from the SJC, but she did do a nifty job of short-term damage control on the Partners issue. While most of the media were focused on the casino question, she filed her agreement with Partners at Suffolk Superior Court and fed the story to the Globe, which published it on its business pages. The terms of the deal appear largely unchanged from what was released in draft form in May, except that Partners agreed to pay $3.3 million to cover the cost of the state’s five-year investigation into its market power.
As she did before, Coakley argued to the Globe that a lawsuit blocking the Partners acquisitions would have maintained the status quo while her agreement restricts what the health care network can charge and limits future expansion. She told the Globe she requested a court hearing on the agreement for next week, giving the rest of the health care industry some time to file their objections with the court.
Paul Levy , the former CEO of Beth Israel Deaconness Hospital and a critic of Partners, estimated the $3.3 million represents .55 percent of Partners’ revenue in excess of expenditures last year. In his blog, he restated his belief that the agreement is disastrous for Massachusetts.
“The issue is big enough, in terms of the impact on the state economy for decades to come, to cost the AG the election,” he said.
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