BOSTON, JUNE 16, 2010……Republican Charles Baker took fire from both sides over his 10-year performance as a health insurance executive during Wednesday morning’s debate, as both Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Independent Treasurer Timothy Cahill ripped his role in overseeing steep premium increases.
Baker sought to pin the industry-wide trend on his rivals because they had been in power on Beacon Hill.
In perhaps the sharpest exchange of the WRKO broadcast, Cahill zinged Baker for not following through on his philosophy of making publicly available health care price and performance information during his tenure atop Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
Baker replied, “I did lead on this issue,” and noted he had “been talking” about the issue.
“Talking? Talking? He’s talking,” Cahill said, speaking over Baker’s response.
“You guys who controlled the wheels of the machine were in a better position,” Baker replied.
The first debate of the gubernatorial campaign came as Patrick has enjoyed a consistent double-digit lead over Baker in public opinion surveys, with Cahill trailing Baker by double digits. Both Baker and Cahill have assailed Patrick as a classic tax-and-spend liberal, while the governor has defended his handling of state finances as prudent throughout the recession.
Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein was not invited to the debate. She receives single-digit support in the polls.
Cahill left with five minutes remaining in the hour-long session for a previously scheduled speech to the Lynn Business Partnership, which he had said for weeks might prevent him from appearing at all.
The trio also dueled over public benefits for illegal immigrants, Patrick claiming the state was not providing them, while both Baker and Cahill argued for stricter crackdowns.
“We can talk about the moral issue all we want, but we can’t afford to do it,” Cahill said.
Patrick went on defense over recent revelations that an administration official had strongly warned against the governor’s plan, unfurled in February, to block health insurance premium increases deemed excessive. The official, whom Patrick labeled a non-player in the process, warned the cap would lead to insolvency for insurers. Patrick has asked lawmakers to impose a similar limit on providers.
Baker hit Patrick over the state’s education system, noting his own role during the broadly praised education reform of the 1990s and questioning why the state failed earlier this year in its effort to secure hundreds of millions in additional federal education assistance funds.
“I think we are losing our edge a little bit on this stuff,” Baker said.
Patrick said the application for federal aid did not suffer because of weaknesses in state policy.
“We were asked to sign on to standards no one had even seen,” Patrick said in an oblique knock of the Obama administration, of which he is usually an ardent supporter. “And there was no way we were going to do that.”
Patrick and Baker also battled over the governor’s management of the state budget and Baker’s part in designing the Big Dig financing plan. Patrick told Baker the scheme had “your fingerprints all over” it.
Baker said, “I never actually worked on the Big Dig at all.”
Noting a structural deficit of over $2 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget, with an additional gap of nearly $700 million looming unless Washington agrees to authorize added Medicaid stimulus funding, Baker told Patrick, “The plan you’ve been executing is just kicking the can.”
Earlier in the debate, Cahill said he would impose across-the-board cuts to the state budget. Both Patrick and Baker, a former state finance chief, said they wanted a more tempered approach.
After the debate, seeking to deflect barbs from the governor about his oversight of the Big Dig, Baker, during a post-debate availability, pinned the project on Jim Aloisi, a longtime Beacon Hill insider who served as Patrick’s transportation secretary for a year. Baker noted that he was “two years out of college when the Big Dig was conceived and developed.” He noted that his stewardship of the project kept work going and was based on a financing model “used by most other states in the country.”
“It worked,” he said, adding, “We certainly weren’t going to raise taxes to deal with it.”
Baker nicked Patrick and Cahill for bringing up “stuff that happened a long time ago,” and he called it “hilarious” that they sought to pin the blame for high health care costs on him.
“I think it’s a hilarious that a private citizen is somehow the key guy on health care reform,” he said.
During a post-debate sit-down with reporters, Patrick said Baker questioned “the accuracy of [Baker’s] account of his own involvement” in the Big Dig. He called it “ironic” that Baker would question his fiscal management of state government. During the debate and afterward, Patrick repeatedly pointed to a month-old evaluation by bond-rating agencies affirming the state’s AA rating, a key grade to keep borrowing costs low.