If awards for work shirking existed, Massachusetts would win in a walk. Last week, Governor Deval Patrick signed a budget that severely cuts funding to local governments but prohibits them from reforming one of the most costly aspects of their budget, namely health care plans for public employees.
Massachusetts state and local public employees receive generous health benefits. Currently, local government workers pay only $5 copayments when they visit a doctor. There is no question that such benefits put pressure on local government budgets. But only the state, not the local government, can modify employee health care plans through their Group Insurance Commission. In fact, local governments must get approval for all cost-saving steps by the municipal unions, who have incentives to maintain the benefits for their members rather than find savings for taxpayers. Allowing local government to modify their health benefits could ultimately save $100 million a year and help preserve the health care system, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Geoffrey Beckwith, the Executive Director of the MMA said, "The current [public employee health care benefits] system is unaffordable - it costs taxpayers too much, crowds out important services, and forces the elimination of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other workers."
Massachusetts' unwillingness to give local governments the ability to address the cost of health care gives the municipalities the mother of all unfunded mandates, namely providing the same health care plan to their employees, but with less money. The state has left the tough decisions to local government but has simultaneously tied their hands. Reforms of public employee health benefits are an important step in reducing government spending. Local governments in Massachusetts should have the same power as the state does to modify health benefits.