Municipal Health Proposal Key As House Begins Budget Debate

Massachusetts House lawmakers kick off a busy week on Beacon Hill Monday with full chamber negotiations on the state budget.

Speaker Robert DeLeo sent the members a memo stating sessions on the $30.5 billion spending plan are scheduled for every day this week, and could very well run past the usual 9 p.m. cut-off, if the members suspend the rules.

The biggest point of contention in the budget is the DeLeo-backed provision giving cities and towns the ability to alter employee health plans without union approval. At least 50 Democrats have reportedly signed on to an amendment that would soften that provision, requiring some negotiations with unions before changes could be made.

On Monday, union officials at the State House pressed hard for the amendment. About two dozen union officials handed leaflets to House members as they entered a closed-door caucus to discuss the budget.

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes says unions will be on Beacon Hill all week to fight what they say are efforts in the budget to erode collective bargaining rights.

"These municipal unions, whether they be teachers or firefighters or police officers, are fine with having their co-pays and their deductibles increased or whatever, but not at the expense of giving away their collective bargaining rights," Haynes said.

Earlier, Tim Sullivan, a vice president for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, echoed Haynes' sentiment.

"This is all about our collective right to bargain," Sullivan said. "Collective bargaining rights to us are sacred. And we're asking our teachers to come in after work to let their voices be heard."

Municipal leaders argue that bargaining the details of insurance plans makes it difficult to save money on health care and is forcing cities and towns to choose between benefits and jobs.

"The very reason why we need those changes is to prevent layoffs and to prevent losing people in municipal and school workforces who deliver services," said Massachusetts Municipal Association President Geoff Beckwith.

With reporting from WBUR's Martha Bebinger and Steve Brown

This program aired on April 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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