Patrick Term II Starts Strong by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog. Check it out.

Good news coming out of this morning’s speech by Deval Patrick to the Mass. Municipal Association. He will be filing legislation to require cities and towns to provide public employee health insurance either by joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) or devising a similar plan on their own. This was something Republican Charlie Baker had urged during the gubernatorial campaign that the Governor had flirted with, but danced around, perhaps concerned about alienating labor support.

Now he’s doing the right thing. City and town workers’ health insurance takes a huge bite out of city budgets, in some cases over 20 percent. That comes right out of property taxes and, hence, out of taxpayer’s pocketbooks. In some cases, those same taxpayers are underwriting a level of health benefits for public employees that those taxpayers don’t even enjoy themselves. The Boston Foundation found that “these health benefits are among the most generous offered by any employer in the Commonwealth, including the state and federal governments, as well as private employers!”

That same report noted that Boston alone could save more than 17% or $45 million if its workers got coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission. Statewide, there would be tens of millions of dollars saved. That’s crucial since the state’s need to lop $1.5 billion off next year’s budget means that everything will be on the table, including local aid.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino is trying to rationalize health insurance by home rule petition, but that, too, needs legislative approval. Let’s hope that such sanity prevails. If local communities can’t achieve savings in their health insurance, that will mean laying off police, firefighters, and teachers, some of the unions who are fighting to preserve their laughable $5 co-pays and scant 20% share of premiums. The Governor’s proposal recognizes the fairness of linking what city and town workers get for health insurance to the level of benefits that state workers enjoy!

Patrick is also moving ahead significantly on other fronts, notably, pension reform and parole and probation overhaul. On pension reform, he’d require future state and local workers to work longer before collecting retirement pay. It’s about time, though it would only affect new hires. So your 55-year-old neighbor who retires this year from the state will still be off on the golf course or sipping a cold beer on his porch on a sunny afternoon while you’re dragging yourself off to work every day till you’re 65 or 66. And the 35-year-old worker already in the state’s employ will still get to retire when he or she turns 55.

The Globe’s Steve Syre says Patrick could still go much farther in pension reform. Alicia Munnell of Boston College, who chaired Patrick’s commission on state pensions, said on WBUR that she doesn’t see how you can change retirement terms for someone already on the payroll. She makes a compelling case that the Governor has taken made a serious step forward.

Also impressive was the Governor’s action overhauling the state’s parole board and probation department. He was criticized by an angry public for not taking immediate action right after the slaying of Officer Jack McGuire by parolee Domenic Cinelli, who should never have been out on the streets. But the Governor kept cool and called for a study of the system. When the study was complete, he acted on it. The result is that the parole board members who voted to free Cinelli are looking for new ways to spend their time. Folks tainted by scandal in probation department hiring politics are out, and we have a chance for a dramatic reform of how we deal with prisoners, many of whom may one day be back on the streets.

About the worst news for the Governor these days is the departure of Evergreen Solar for China and the loss of 800 jobs at Fort Devens, despite the tens of millions in state subsidies provided to support the green energy. From a journalist’s perspective, this story is the gift that keeps on giving, and well it should, until we learn exactly all that went wrong in that deal and how the state can learn from it. Otherwise, term II is off to a good start.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.