Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker blamed the influence of unions Thursday for the Massachusetts Legislature's failure to address vital reforms he says could help alleviate some of its budget woes.
"The unions are really driving the debate here and not the people," Baker said.
The Republican said lawmakers should have passed a measure to allow municipalities to change their health care plans without union approval. That plan is one of 13 Baker has offered in a series of proposal he says would save the state $1 billion.
Unions vehemently oppose giving municipalities the power to unilaterally change health-plan premiums shares and co-payments for employees, arguing that public employees have often accepted lower wages in return for increased health care benefits. The Senate included an amendment in its budget that would have given municipalities some increased power to alter their health offerings, but the proposal was not included in the final budget.
"The unions really do control Beacon Hill," Baker told reporters.
The Republican said Gov. Deval Patrick has also failed to effectively stand up to union demands and move toward tackling the state's "structural fiscal deficit."
But Patrick's campaign said the governor has taken the necessary steps to address budget shortfalls.
"Once again, Republican Charles Baker wants to leave the facts behind," said campaign spokesman Alex Goldstein.
"Governor Patrick has managed through the global economic downturn with a responsible mix of deep budget cuts, layoffs, negotiated union concessions, strong reforms and new revenues while preserving funding for education, job creation and health care."
Other measures Baker has proposed include raising the retirement age for state employees from 55 to 60 and allowing private contractors to bid on public construction projects. Currently, the state signs agreements with unions to work on some construction projects without allowing private bids.
Baker said the unions have helped lead the push to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to the Bay State. He said if he were governor, he would veto a casino bill with three resort-style casinos and 3,000 slot machines at race tracks.
He believes the state should only license one casino to start out with and then evaluate the economic impact before deciding on future expanded gambling plans.
"Does anybody really believe Massachusetts has the capacity for five casinos?" Baker asked.
Baker lamented that legislators have pitched casinos as an economic development tool and spent so much time focused on one issue.
"This is not the long-term fix or the short-term fix for the economy," he said.
Baker's running mate, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, said he plans to vote against any casino compromise proposal. Tisei also supports beginning with one casino.
The Wakefield Republican called estimates that three casinos could generate 15,000 jobs and up to $350 million in revenues unrealistic. He said the legislators should have put their focus elsewhere.
"This is a result of a lack of leadership from the corner office," Tisei said.
Baker is running against Patrick, independent Timothy Cahill and Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein.