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State House Roundup: Bad Pennies

Pennies. One hundred twenty-three million, three hundred forty-eight thousand, two hundred pennies to be exact.

That's how AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes described the controversial five-figure payouts he and his fellow board members at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts received last year for their work on behalf of the non-profit, health insurance giant which is also, technically, a charity.

"Obviously, the cost of health insurance is not affected very much. It's about $1 million the board members get paid out of $13 billion in revenue. It's like pennies a year on the premium," Haynes told reporters this week, after attempting a quick get-a-way from a State House press conference only to be cornered by the lights of television cameras tracking his failed escape.

Haynes may have had a defensible point to make, but its delivery, timing and, well tone, did little to quiet the drumbeat this week that led to BCBS suspending pay for board members as it reconsiders its non-profit status, and other insurers like Harvard Pilgrim Health and Tufts announcing that they too would review their policies.

Mark that on your scorecards as an error for Gov. Deval Patrick, who skipped town without directly addressing he controversy, a complete game for the media who refused to be knocked off the story even by a visit to Dorchester by President Barack Obama, and an R.B.I. for Attorney General Martha Coakley who announced she would review executive compensation at the state's insurers and pressured them to drop pay for board members.

While Haynes was being hounded about his $72,700 check, former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was forced to watch as a co-defendant in his public corruption case on track for trial in late April took a plea deal for his role in an alleged scheme that reportedly netted the speaker $65,000 - yes, less than a Blue Cross board member.

Joseph Lally pled guilty in federal court to conspiracy and other charges for his role in concocting an alleged plot to steer a state contract to the software company Cognos in order to enrich himself and three others, including DiMasi, his accountant Richard Vitale, and lobbyist Richard McDonough.

Left unanswered this week was what Lally's plea deal and his agreement to cooperate with prosecutors would mean for DiMasi's defense and trial. Chief Judge Mark Wolf has asked prosecutors to disclose by Monday what Lally confessed to in statements, and is considering making witness and exhibit lists public as they are filed in advance of the April 26 trial-start date, undoubtedly making more than a few denizens of Beacon Hill a little nervous.

While the debate over health insurance took a bit of a detour more than a month after Patrick rolled out his plan to fundamentally change the way providers get paid in Massachusetts, the governor got a bit of a break from the day-to-day at the capitol as he busied himself laying the seeds for Bay State job growth in Israel.

Typically speaking, talk is cheap. But not so much when it requires a trans-Atlantic flight for 19 state employees.

In bureaucrat parlance, trade missions such as the one Patrick is currently on are often judged on the "deliverables," those often pre-arranged agreements with businesses, governments and universities that allow politicians to point to concrete achievements while traveling on the taxpayer dime.

Patrick's trip - now five days old - has been chock full of meetings, forums, symposiums and the like, but short on any firm agreements the administration can point to as a deals signed, sealed and delivered.

While in Tel Aviv, the governor asked El Al airlines to create a non-stop flight to Boston. He signed a memorandum of understanding to solidify "an already strong relationship" between the Massachusetts and Israeli life science and clean energy research and development communities, and announced a collaboration between UMass Lowell and an Israeli engineering college on ways to reduce airline maintenance costs.

Now, on to London. Cheerio.

The Legislature, meanwhile, sprang to life this week when Sen. Katherine Clark and Rep. John Scibak, co-chairs of the Committee on Public Service, hosted a seven-hour public hearing on legislation to reform the way unions can bargain over municipal employee health care benefits.

After years of proclamations from city and town managers that there is no more time to waste before health care costs cripple municipal government, the only thing clear about the debate this year is that the dueling sides are no closer to a deal than last year.

The governor put forward a plan to give unions and municipalities a chance to bargain cheaper benefits before he forces them into the state's group insurance plan, the apparent middle ground on a battlefield in which unions and municipalities have staked out familiar positions.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association wants complete authority to design health plans outside of bargaining. Unions say they will make concessions, but they want half the savings. And the Legislature can't agree on a plan.

With so much heavy legislative lifting to do in the next several months around health care, probation, parole and the budget, members of the Transportation Committee must have been thrilled that their first major task is to shepherd Patrick's $200 million Chapter 90 bond bill to fix crumbling local roads.

Referred to as the "last great non-partisan program" in state government by co-chairman Rep. William Straus, it appears the biggest decision the committee will have to make is whether to recommend Patrick's bill, or up the ante to $300 million and see if the administration will bite on more spending.

Because a bond authorization does not mean the money has to be spent, lawmakers could choose any number they want.

Why not $1 billion? "Why not more, let's do it all," Straus joked.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Pennies add up.

This program aired on March 11, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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