State House News Service

State House Roundup: ‘It’s Not A Website’

BOSTON — A beardless Barack Obama (blame Michelle!) came to Boston to champion health reform this week as Boston mayoral candidates fought for last-minute undecideds in an environment where Big Papi could conceivably have staked his own claim to be the next mayor of Boston.

David Ortiz led the Boston Red Sox to their eighth World Series championship on Wednesday night, the team’s third title in a decade and the first won on the home dirt and grass of Fenway Park in 95 years.

The baseball jubilation that enveloped the town coincided with a decided swing in the polls toward Rep. Marty Walsh’s candidacy for mayor, now appearing to lead City Councilor John Connolly with days left in a tight race being defined by outside spending, Walsh’s union ties and Connolly’s play to be the City Hall outsider.

Two new polls – one by Suffolk University and the other by UMass – showed Walsh leading by three to seven points with their final debate, sandwiched between Games 5 and 6 of the World Series, behind them.

Before all talk turned to baseball, Obama brought the incendiary debate over health care reform to Massachusetts, touching down in a state where residents have not had to deal with the “glitchy” federal enrollment website and only 2 percent actually lack insurance, the mandatory nature of it notwithstanding.

Obama wanted to highlight how the Affordable Care Act, modeled on the 2006 law signed by Mitt Romney, had worked in Massachusetts and will work nationally. The two laws bear a strong resemblance to each other with their individual mandates, online insurance marketplaces, and subsidized coverage options for low-income citizens.

Massachusetts officials, however, had to worry about a far smaller population of unenrolled when it embarked on the health care reform experiment in 2007, delegating the complicated task of eligibility determination to the already established Medicaid program and relying on a Democratic supermajority in the House and Senate to fairly easily make changes to the expansive overhaul as it was implemented.

So it’s not exactly the same, but still. “If they put as much energy into making this law work as they do in attacking the law, Americans would be better off,” Obama said at Faneuil Hall, the “they” being Congressional Republicans and governors resisting Medicaid expansion.

The president and a handful of surrogates recruited by the White House, including former Massachusetts Health Connector director, insurance executive and Romney appointee Jon Kingsdale, sought to manage expectations by highlighting slow early enrollment in Massachusetts, initial web hurdles to overcome and eventual success through increased private competition. It will work, the refrain went. Just give it time.

The president had a friend in Gov. Patrick, or “Deval” as he calls him: “Health reform in Massachusetts, like the Affordable Care Act, is not a website. It’s a value statement,” Patrick said.

The White House’s decision to visit Faneuil Hall underscored the Obama team’s reluctance to give Romney any peace in defeat. Weeks ago during the fight over the budget and debt ceiling, Obama reminded everyone that it was he, not Romney, who won the 2012 election and should be afforded the deference that comes with that.

Now that the focus has shifted to Obamacare, Obama descended on the very location where Romney signed the 2006 state law to metaphorically (because Romney wasn’t invited) wrap his arms around the former governor. Even Romney was able to work with Democrats like Ted Kennedy to achieve universal health insurance, Obama said.

Romney was not willing to let his name get bandied so liberally without a response, bemoaning the ACA as a national law based on a model built for Massachusetts that should not be “grafted onto the entire country.”

Romney actually found himself in the news a lot this week, and not just for Romneycare, or the secret room he’s building behind a bookcase in his new Utah manse. Settling into his private life, Romney told the Herald that he not only supports a bid to bring the 2024 summer Olympics to Boston, but has spoken extensively with developer John Fish and the U.S. Olympic Committee about the idea. “I think it’s very intriguing,” said the Salt Lake City savior.

Patrick signed a Sen. Eileen Donoghue proposal this week setting up an 11-member commission to study the costs and infrastructure needs that would be required for Boston to submit a bid for the Olympics.

The House and Senate quickened the pace this week Wednesday, making progress on four of the fall’s pressing agenda items with one day of artfully scheduled formal sessions in both branches that allowed for a full post-World Series hangover to settle on the capitol by week’s end.

While the House plowed through its Veterans Day benefit package, known as the VALOR II Act, and teed up a Ways and Means rewrite of the Senate’s welfare reform bill for next week, the Senate made quick work of compounding pharmacy oversight improvements.

Both branches also rubber-stamped a long-awaited $1.4 billion bond bill for public housing that finally emerged from conference negotiations after two months, and shuttled a simulcasting extension for horse racing at Suffolk Downs through on Thursday.

With the pages of the calendar flipping to November and less than three full weeks to go before the Legislature recesses until January, House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not project much urgency on two other topics simmering under the surface: minimum wage and paid sick leave.

DeLeo mentioned speaking with his chairman Rep. Thomas Conroy about packaging a minimum wage hike with unemployment reforms and, possibly, paid sick leave to create an “employer-dash-employee piece of legislation that can be beneficial to both.”

But on the heels of a challenging tax debate this summer, elections on the horizon and stubborn unemployment numbers, many lawmakers, including the speaker, could be willing to let their inner laissez-faire inclinations win out. The minimum wage, after all, is Senate President Therese Murray’s pet project, and she has been slow to set the wheels in motion.

“Whether right now we’re going to be there or not, I don’t know,” DeLeo said.

Still unclear, where will Gov. Patrick’s retiree health reform bill fit into Speaker DeLeo’s desire for labor equilibrium? Patrick’s bill to change eligibility requirements for retirement health care got a cold reception from unions and public employees on Beacon Hill this week. Administration officials said something must be done to address an unsustainable system with liabilities in the double-digit billions.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Sports (Red Sox) clashed with politics (Obama) and Boston won.

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