Gov. Deval Patrick urged both sides to “dial down the rhetoric” in an increasingly bitter debate over whether to sharply limit the collective bargaining power of public employees over their health insurance benefits.
Patrick said last week it’s important to pass legislation to ease the soaring health care burden on local city and town budgets while also guaranteeing union leaders a seat at the negotiating table.
Patrick’s comments came after the Massachusetts House voted 111-42 late last Tuesday to approve a measure to dramatically strengthen the power of cities and towns to change public employee health plans.
The Democratic governor praised the House for taking a difficult vote, but he wouldn’t say whether he’d support the measure as written, noting that the Massachusetts Senate still has to weigh in.
“The bill that comes to my desk will have both meaningful savings for cities and towns and a meaningful role for labor,” he said.
Union officials are furious at House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthop, who caught them off guard by pushing through the amendment to the House budget plan earlier than they expected. DeLeo said the move could save municipalities $100 million a year.
“By spending less on the health care costs of municipal employees, our cities and towns will be able to retain jobs and allot more funding to necessary services like education and public safety,” DeLeo said.
Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes said lawmakers passed the amendment “because the Speaker of the House made them.”
“It is inconceivable to me that the power of the Massachusetts speaker is such that duly elected state representatives would choose to take away peoples’ rights instead of stand up to one person’s will,” Haynes said.
Patrick urged both sides to keep cool heads.
“I think it’s very important, by the way, that we dial down the rhetoric,” Patrick said last Wednesday.
Patrick said that includes comparing the bill to legislation passed in Wisconsin designed to curb public sector unions.
Ray McGrath, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police and the National Association of Government Employee, is among those union officials who have called the House plan “Wisconsinesque.”
“We are not willing to give up our collective bargaining rights,” he said.
Patrick, who addressed a union rally on the steps of the Statehouse earlier in the year, said the amendment approved by the House can’t be compared to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s fight with public employee unions.
“I’m not going to sign a Wisconsin-type bill,” Patrick said. “We’re going to have a meaningful role for labor and we are going to deliver on the savings for municipalities.”
Although Patrick declined to say whether there are specific items in the House amendment that he would reject, he did say that his proposal mandated health savings while the House would only give communities the option to reduce costs.
Last Tuesday’s vote came after House leaders agreed to modify their original plan in the hopes of easing labor opposition.
The modified plan would add a 30-day negotiating window between city and town leaders and unions to work out disagreements. If no agreement is reached, municipalities would be allowed to impose changes in co-payments, deductibles and other aspects of health care plans.
In that case, however, municipalities would have to return 20 percent of savings to employees in the first year, instead of the 10 percent in the original plan.
Labor leaders have vowed to shift their fight to the Senate.
A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray said last week that the Senate may take up the measure as a budget amendment or as a separate piece of legislation, but it is committed to taking action this year.
Spokesman David Falcone also said Murray has been “consistent in her message that something has to be done, there has to be savings and everyone should have a seat at the table.”
Unions tried to keep up the pressure last Wednesday, gathering again at the Statehouse. On Thursday, hundreds of members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association were set to converge on Beacon Hill.
The fight over union health benefits continued as the House entered the third day of debate on its proposed $30.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Senate will take up the budget after the House completes its action.
Any differences between the two branches will be worked out by a House-Senate conference committee before the spending plan is sent to the governor for his signature.