Friday, April 29, 2011

Wisconsin, Here We Come? The Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige

With the Washington Post and other papers starting to pick up on the story, the Speaker's bash-the-teachers bill is finally catching national attention. The bill attempts to mask something almost universally detested -- ending collective bargaining -- under the guise of moving everyone on over to the GIC. The two issues, collective bargaining and the GIC, are not the same, and it's important for people to note that distinction.

The Globe drew on that distinction in its front-page story when news of the House's passage first broke, but unfortunately it was buried deep within. Here's the real meat-and-bones of the House bill -- or should I say hack saw?
Under the legislation, mayors and other local officials would be given unfettered authority to set copayments and deductibles for their employees, after the 30-day discussion period with unions. Only the share of premiums paid by employees would remain on the health care bargaining table.
Under the House bill, if your city or town wanted to create a $10,000 health care deductible for families, it could. And all unions could do is stamp their feet and complain bitterly for a few days. 

The key thing here is to ask why the Speaker & Co. want to move in this direction. It's not as if the unions aren't willing to do their part; they recognize the need for health care savings and have a proposal of their own, which would allow them to retain collective bargaining.
Unions proposed their own plan to cut health-care costs that did not hurt collective bargaining rights. “We’re willing to give the savings,” Haynes has said. “All we wanted was an arbitrator, some kind of neutral process that would determine what’s fair, and what was appropriate.”
Let's look at the details -- because it's good stuff, perhaps even better stuff than the House bill. It would save upwards of $120 million a year.
The union proposal would establish health care cost benchmarks that both municipalities and unions would have to meet at the end of the bargaining process. If an agreement can't be reached both sides would enter an expedited dispute-resolution process. 
While there has been a push to force municipal workers into the state's Group Insurance Commission to help rein in health spending, the union proposal would let municipalities and workers bargain either to enter the commission or make changes to existing health plans to lower costs as long as they meet the benchmark.
Only allowing the GIC (as opposed to giving the unions choice between collaboratives, the GIC or other ways of saving money), as the Speaker is trying to do, is a clear mistake -- and the motives are pretty obvious. But first, let's answer the question of why it's a mistake: There are other regional GIC-like entities and collaboratives in the state that consistently outperform the GIC, and there are cities and towns in Massachusetts that, for myriad reasons, don't want to be a part of the GIC -- some with Republican Mayors
Kennedy said she has been meeting with union leaders in the hopes of coming to an agreement on concessions that would put the brakes on a possible 8.5 percent increase and keep the city out of the state's healthcare program, the Group Insurance Commission. Kennedy said the unions do not want to join the GIC and neither does she. 
"I'm in the minority of Massachusetts mayors," she said. "I'm trying to stay out of the program."
If there are other options to save money, why not let unions and municipalities come to the table and bargain about how best to do it? This drives straight at the Speaker's motives. On what level does this make sense? While stripping collective bargaining rights on deductibles and co-pays is pure travesty, the Speaker's forced march on GIC, not giving unions and municipalities time enough to at least look at other options is, more than anything, illuminating.

Perhaps there's a much more logical explanation to all this? Right now, while state employees are in the GIC, the vast majority of municipal employees aren't -- and there are far more of the latter than there are the former. Why's that important? Well, the GIC can be changed, without union or employee consent, at the whim of the state.

Get everyone on the state's program, and suddenly you can change everyone's health insurance right from within the doors of Beacon Hill (and those doors are usually the closed ones). The state needs to ax a billion this year? Suddenly, if everyone's all-in, there's a very easy and rather convenient place to do it. The Speaker's bill could ultimately serve to be one of the biggest power grabs we've ever seen in this state, and could have disastrous longterm consequences for cities and towns and their employees. Moreover, if this isn't the real explanation, then it's pure spite -- because the House bill is neither the best nor the fairest solution to the problem.

[Update: The other motive I forgot to mention is this plan will be able to lock in the maximum savings on health care away from the actual employees -- so the savings goes to the state and towns, and isn't shared with employees trying to pay for their health care.]

It's looking more and more likely that while money may be the motivation to do something about municpal health insurance, it's not the real motivation for this particular bill. At the end of the day, the budget shortfall is the bait, and all we have left to do is wait and see if the Senate will allow the House's switch to stand. Or, maybe we can all take a step back and ask ourselves what the hell we're doing here.

As a bonus, Christopher Nolan eloquently explained what's going on right now on Beacon Hilll years ago in The Prestige

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".


Anonymous said...

Frankly Ryan if public employees weren't such obstructionists I might have some sympathy here, but I don't.

Dave W

Ryan said...

It's not about sympathy, it's about what works. As I said, this is neither the best nor fairest way of doing it. We're not going to attract the best public employees if they get lousy health insurance - and allowing no bargaining for them is a surefire way to make that happen. There are other ways to get at the savings.

Mark Belanger said...

Under the legislation, mayors and other local officials would be given unfettered authority to set copayments and deductibles for their employees, after the 30-day discussion period with unions. Only the share of premiums paid by employees would remain on the health care bargaining table

The only thing I see wrong with this is that employees shouldn't even have bargaining rights for the premium share.

Why do public employees need to have bargaining rights that most of us in the private sector don't have? If towns set benefits that are terrible the town employees can vote with their feet and go find other jobs with a compensation package that is more equitable for their skill set and value in the job market.

The current economics of public pay, benefits, pensions, and OEPB is fiscally unsupportable.

Unions did a lot to get the job conditions we enjoy today but they are an institution that has outlived their usefulness.

MiddleboroReview said...


What I'm seeing is a political sleight of hand intended to grandstand and distract.

Here, we have a Speaker mired in a Probation Dept. scandal in which he 'recommended' incompetents, no shows and campaign contributors for jobs, then lavished the crippled department with more funding than requested.

This Speaker has rewarded the loyal bobbleheads with chairmenships [translation: extra pay, bigger offices, more staff] rather than competence.

Those Bobble Heads have willingly allowed their own castration.

In the last session, the bobbleheads, appeasing the Speaker, opposed some pretty basic 'consumer protections' [intended to make a Bad Bill less bad] in the grossly flawed gambling legislation that was passed.

Rather than get mired in complex rhetoric of this flawed legislation, it is my understanding that the 'FIX' required was to change the state law that required ALL municipal unions needed to agree to collective bargaining changes.

It would seem that the none too bright Speaker believes he can wave the banner of what a great job he's done, knowing it will ultimately be overturned in the courts - blame them for his failures.

What the Speaker has accomplished is to whip up anti-union sentiment, when in fact, it's Beacon Hill incompetence that created the municipal burden.

It appears that the Speaker will achieve yet another non-productive legislative session.

Ryan said...

Mark, the problem isn't that the public sector has these rights, it's that the private sector doesn't (which, btw, isn't entirely true -- many unions in the private sector certainly have those rights).

This divide-and-conquer thing the business interests in our country is sad because it's been so effective. We're so busy shooting ourselves in the foot, we've failed to notice 80% of the country's new wealth in the last decade went to the top 1%. You need to get your eyes one the prize.

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