As state budget reforms work their way through legislatures and courts around the country, a new front in the fight has opened up in an unlikely location: Massachusetts. Last night, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 111 to 42 to curb the bargaining power of state employees in an effort to control spiraling health care costs.
As Massachusetts House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey (D) explained, the bill was necessary to ensure that essential state programs could continue to receive adequate funding. “The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it’s unfortunately not going to textbooks. It’s not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it’s going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance.”
As Dempsey noted, rising costs are not the fault of unions, but faced with budgetary realities, cuts have to be made. And House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has suggested that the plan would save $100 million for the state while avoiding layoffs.
This news is especially encouraging given the political makeup of the Massachusetts State House. While similar reform in other states has often begun over the strong objections of state Democrats, this new reform effort is being led by Democrats. And with a 128-32 majority in the House and a 36-4 majority in the Senate, any meaningful reform will have to have significant support from Democrats to succeed.
And conservatives aren’t the only ones surprised by the political composition of this new effort. As the Boston Globe reports, union leaders across the state are furious:
“It’s pretty stunning,’’ said Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “These are the same Democrats that all these labor unions elected. The same Democrats who we contributed to in their campaigns. The same Democrats who tell us over and over again that they’re with us, that they believe in collective bargaining, that they believe in unions. . . . It’s a done deal for our relationship with the people inside that chamber.’’
“We are going to fight this thing to the bitter end,’’ he added. “Massachusetts is not the place that takes collective bargaining away from public employees.’’
After last night’s vote, the legislation moves on to the Senate and an uncertain future. If the battles in Wisconsin and other states were any indication, this is a fight that is just beginning.