Weekly Roundup — A Full Courseload

View of the State House
View of the State House

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 4, 2015….Kids went back to school this week, but it was the adults with the heavy reading assignments.

There was the sober assessment of health care spending in 2014 from the Center for Health Information and Analysis; a solar energy tally and comparison for Massachusetts; and the Baker administration’s post-mortem on the Department of Children and Families’ handling of a child abuse case in Hardwick.

Attorney General Maura Healey rendered her verdict on the legality of 35 proposed initiative petitions and constitutional amendments, greenlighting 20 petitions and two constitutional amendments to proceed to the signature-gathering stage of qualifying for the 2016 or 2018 ballots, while disqualifying 10 more.

And, of course, Judge Richard Berman provided some thoroughly enjoyable material in his Tom Brady emancipation proclamation, finally “freeing” the Patriots QB from the all-thumbs grasp of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

While the AG review process is purely a legal exercise and not a statement of support or opposition, former Rep. Richard Bastein was disappointed to learn that his effort to legalize fireworks, which started during his days in the House, will not be proceeding. Nor will the efforts by others to subject the Legislature to the open meeting law or begin to roll back the Citizens United ruling.

Those celebrating clearance of the first hurdle to the ballot included groups looking to legalize recreational marijuana, expand access to charter schools, repeal the Common Core education standards, protect whales from fishing nets and animals from tight cages, and tax millionaires to help pay for education and transportation.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was making the rounds this week, raised a couple eyebrows when she told The Boston Globe’s Josh Miller during a “Political Happy Hour” event that she is now “open” to the idea of legalizing pot. The rest of the news made by the light beer-loving senator had more to do with what she didn’t say: namely her reluctance to “pledge” to serve out her term, declare her intention to seek re-election or disavow speculation that she might join a presidential ticket next year.

But as the inhabitants of Beacon Hill sleep-walked their way through the final days of summer ahead of the long Labor Day weekend, the lull at least allowed plenty of opportunity to Google the meaning of “Repetitive Degraded Cornerstone.” Hint: It’s not good.

The aforementioned RDC label is what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tagged the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth with after it raised concerns about Entergy’s response to a faulty safety release valve, as well as unplanned shutdowns. The downgraded classification puts Pilgrim, whose continued operation has been the subject of much controversy and concern, under increased federal oversight.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in the hours after the news broke, appeared content to defer to the NRC, telling reporters that he recently toured the facility and had proclaimed it “safe.” But the next day he wrote a letter to Entergy imploring them to take corrective action and to work with his administration as well to keep the public informed about the safety steps being taken at the plant.

Attorney General Maura Health and Sen. Edward Markey seized on the news about Pilgrim to express grave concerns about Entergy’s continued operation of the plant, and around the same time Sen. Dan Wolf, of Harwich, blasted the governor in a letter for abdicating responsibility to the feds.

Baker’s week started in Canada, included a pit-stop in Springfield, and concluded behind a podium at the State House addressing the latest findings in the case of a 7-year-old boy under DCF supervision who was neglected and starved by his father. The report, which Baker expedited after another tragedy involving a family working with DCF, found that the Worcester office in particular suffers from policy gaps and an overburdened staff that neglected to look into the father’s own history of being neglected and his suitability to be a parent.

In Newfoundland, Baker talked with his fellow New England governors and Eastern Canada premiers about the region’s energy needs, including how to bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.

Once back in Massachusetts, he travelled west to Springfield where China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation broke ground on a new railcar manufacturing facility where it plans to assemble the 284 Red and Orange Line MBTA cars purchased by the state.

As Associated Industries of Massachusetts blamed the financial turmoil in China for a downturn in business confidence this week, CRRC officials said economic woes in their country will not impact their ability to deliver for the MBTA in Massachusetts.

As Baker was heading out to Springfield for the celebratory event, U.S. District Court Judge Berman, in New York City, was taking the reputational handcuffs off Brady, invalidating the NFL’s four-game suspension of the star quarterback for “Deflategate” and freeing him up to play in the defending Super Bowl champ’s home opener next week against Pittsburgh.

Baker, who had already declared September “Apple Month,” joked that he might make Sept. 3 Tom Brady Day. While he wasn’t wearing his “Free Brady” T-shirt, he did say he was pleased with the decision. “Like a lot of fans and as a private citizen, I read a bunch of the reports. I watched a lot of the news stuff, and came to the conclusion that I don’t think there’s much there there,” Baker said.

There was plenty of “there” in CHIA annual survey health care costs, a type of report card for the state to measure its progress towards the goals laid out by a 2012 cost containment law. The report provided a troubling, if somewhat inconclusive, assessment.

Health care costs grew by 4.8 percent to $54 billion in 2014, easily eclipsing the 3.6 percent growth goal set last year. While overall commercial spending came in under benchmark, CHIA reported 23 percent enrollment growth and 19 percent spending growth at MassHealth.

While the blame for missing the target seemed to land squarely at the feet of the state’s Medicaid program, and with it the technology failures at the Connector Authority that forced more than 300,000 people into temporary MassHealth plans, CHIA Director Aron Boros accurately described the year as so “chaotic” that it’s difficult to draw conclusions.

While the struggles at the Connector contributed to MassHealth enrollment growth, it’s not clear how much health care that population actually accessed, or what might have happened had those people been on private plans.

Baker suggested that it really should come as no surprise that MassHealth spending exploded after thousands who may or may not have been eligible for the publicly subsidized health coverage were forced on the Medicaid rolls because of government failures.

“It is my hope and my expectation that we will have a much better year in ’15 as a result of that,” Baker said.

Evan Falchuk, who lost his entre to the daily public dialogue when Boston’s Olympic bid died, came back firing at Baker over what he considered to be Baker’s simplistic willingness to push the state’s health care cost growth onto the failing of his predecessor at the Connector.

“It’s absurd for Governor Baker to say that his biggest takeaway from this week’s report on runaway health care costs is that the broken Connector is the problem. The Connector’s woes have to do with whether people are covered by MassHealth or commercial insurance, which when it comes to overall spending, is not much more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said the one-time (and future?) gubernatorial candidate.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Pretending for a moment that Tom Brady’s court victory didn’t blot out all other news this week, a dissection of soaring health care costs and the debate over energy – and Pilgrim’s place in the conversation – filled the late summer days.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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