Mayors Go For Ballot Cudgel

Sean Murphy reports something in the Globe today that could be a big important thing for municipal government in Massachusetts: a plan by a group of mayors to file a ballot initiative to expand local government's power to reduce employee benefits without collective bargaining.

Here's the immediate issue at stake, as the Phoenix described it in an editorial two weeks ago:

[Deval Patrick's] Municipal Relief Act, for instance, would allow cities and towns to reduce health-care-premium costs by negotiating the design of their insurance plans — something currently enforced through collective bargaining. That would save Boston $1 million per month, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which estimates total savings across the state of $75 to $100 million per year.

But municipal-employee unions don't like the idea, so the legislature removed that provision before advancing the bill on Tuesday. The bill is a joke without it — which makes it a perfect piece of legislation for our laughable state government.

Just in case we someday find that insurance design-negotiation and other legislation has passed, tipping the balance of power from public employees to municipalities, mark the date and place (March 5, Boston City Hall) of the meeting where this ballot-initiative idea was hashed out. Meanwhile, let me tell you two stories.

The first is about providing health care coverage for all Massachusetts citizens. Funny thing: enormous percentages of the state's residents wanted it, but their elected representatives never seemed to find a way to get it done. In fact, some of the legislators' wisest and most trusted sources of campaign contributions advisors from the business, insurance, and health-care industries insisted that it couldn't be done.

Then, a group of folks, including the Greater Boston Interfaith Oraganization, formed MassACT! and drew up plans to put universal health care on a ballot initiative. In fact, if my memory serves, GBIO went out and got the 80,000 or so signatures they needed in one weekend, and polls showed the measure heading to a 2-to-1 margin of victory.

And lo! Suddenly all those business, insurance, and health-care leaders got motivated to reform health-care coverage in a way that they could live with, before the people mandated it in a way they would really, really hate. MassACT! held the ballot-initiative cudgel over them right up to the very end, and there is little question that without that threat, the legislation never would have happened.

The second tale involves the education-reform legislation passed earlier this year. Again, lawmakers seemed unable for years to find a path to expanding charter schools (and other reforms), what with their friends in the teachers unions warning them of the resulting horrors to public education, and, more importantly, their political careers.

Then in December '09, signatures were turned in to qualify a ballot initiative for 2010, that would essentially lift all caps on the number of charter schools, and on the amount of state money diverted from public schools to those charters. Hallelujah! The MTA found a charter-expansion plan they could live with -- at least, in comparison with all-charters, all-the-time -- and we have a law. Yes, the Race-To-The-Top deadline was also a big motivator, but there's no question that the success and ultimate strength of the bill was also largely due to the threat of the ballot initiative.

Now, I'm not taking any position here about which side is right and wrong on any of these issues, including the current one about public employee health-care benefits. Nor am I particularly a fan of legislating via ballot initiative.
But I know an effective political tool when I've seen it in action a few times, and this is a good one. My guess is, the over-under on an initiative pitting millions of taxpayer dollars against the bargaining rights of government unions starts at, oh, about 70%-30% in favor maybe? (And yes, those public employees vote, but Menino's no dummy -- he's aiming for the 2012 ballot, when the whole state will be at the polls for the Presidential election.)
So, I'm thinking that the public-employee unions, and the legislators they own lobby, will find themselves with new, intense interest in finding ways to reduce health-care costs for municipalities on their own terms, rather than have this all-or-nothing measure put to the voters.
In fact, if I was advising the mayors, I'd tell them to Go Big with the initiative. Don't make it too wide-ranging -- don't try to throw every grievance you have with your unions in there -- but don't be shy about drawing a strong line, and setting a high bar. Remember, your end goal isn't to have this as an actual law, it's to use the threat of this being a law to scare the other guys into a compromise. And there's nothing wrong with a threat; that's just good politics.
| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Talking Politics Archives