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Democratic hopefuls kowtow to SEIU

True to her transparency pledge, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Juliette Kayyem has been posting the campaign questionnaires she completes on her website. Reading through them, I found myself curious on one of the matters the Service Employees International Union asked about: The competition-stifling Pacheco law, or as it is hilariously titled, “The Taxpayer Protection Act.”

The SEIU wanted to know if the candidates would oppose any efforts to “weaken” (read: reform) the law, which has pretty much shut down state efforts to contract with private companies for functions currently done by state workers. The union also asked if candidates supported extending the Pacheco law principles to local governments.

I queried the other candidates on those same issues. Now, Pacheco presents a public-policy pickle for Democrats. It has largely closed the door on opportunities to stretch state-budget dollars by tapping private-sector efficiencies. But Democrats also know that the competition-stifling statute is a sacred cow for public-employee unions, which play a prominent role both in Democratic primaries and state elections. That tension between efficient government and appealing politics renders the issue an instructive test of a candidate’s reform instincts.


So how did the Democrats do? Alas, not so well.

Let’s start with biopharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone, who supports the current law and its extension to “larger projects” at the local level. The law, Avellone declared, “provides for an analysis of benefits and costs of outsourcing a service versus performing it with current state employees, validated by the auditor. This is common practice in the business world and leads to a better-quality decision.”

Yikes! The Pacheco process hardly returns an objective comparison of costs. Joe, let me introduce you to the devil in the details. The law sets up a hugely complicated process for making those cost evaluations — and then adds this hurdle: Privatization proposals must be compared not to the state’s actual cost but to the hypothetical expense if public employees did the work “in the most cost-efficient manner.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s stand was revealing for a different reason. She embraced Pacheco as state law, calling it “essential to preventing contractors from winning contracts by slashing wages and eliminating essential benefits for workers.” But though she said was “open” to extending it locally, Coakley cautioned that “we must be cognizant of the enormous strain already being placed on municipal budgets.”


Hmm. By worrying that Pacheco would increase the local budget burden, isn’t Coakley tacitly acknowledging that the law prevents budget-stretching savings? Meanwhile, how, exactly, would a firm retain its workforce if it slashed compensation to below market rates to chase state contracts?

Treasurer Steve Grossman called the law “successful for the Commonwealth,” but said he would leave the matter of extending it up to local officials. Although Kayyem (a former Globe columnist) pledged to protect the current law, she said she did not support applying it to localities out of respect for “home rule.”

Now, if the candidates truly believed the Pacheco law was good, cost-effective public policy, wouldn’t they support extending those benefits to cities and towns as well?

Don Berwick’s camp called his answer nuanced. I’d say “confusing” is the more apt adjective.

He backs “the principles behind the Pacheco Law,” meaning that “he supports ensuring that people who perform services or administer programs to the public — whether public or private sector employees — receive acceptable working conditions and fair pay.” But he doesn’t support Pacheco in its current form because “the public and private sectors should be able to compete on a level playing field.” His spokesman added that Berwick “is a firm believer that government should be held to the highest possible standards, and increased competition — as long as workers’ rights are protected — just makes sense.” He would support applying those (tough-to-untangle) standards to localities, if it could be done without a crush of new paperwork.


Republican Charlie Baker, for his part, answered with twin no’s: no to protecting the current law and no to extending it to localities. Ditto Mark Fisher, his GOP rival.

Now, as Republicans, Baker and Fisher have little chance with the SEIU. Still, they are right on the merits here. The Democrats, by contrast, seem all too willing to tolerate an ill-advised state law as the price of winning union support.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.