Fender bender

Last year, opponents thought they had killed auto-insurance reform for good. Its resurrection could be a headache for Deval Patrick.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 26, 2007

070727_politics_main

Crash test dummies
After their candidate, Kerry Healey, was defeated, Liberty Mutual quickly began buttering the other side of the bread: the company was one of nine “Platinum” $50,000 donors to the Patrick-Murray Inaugural Committee.
 
Another reform-boosting company, Worcester-based Hanover Insurance, has been particularly cozy with lieutenant governor and former Worcester mayor Timothy Murray, observers say. Hanover was also a Platinum donor for the inauguration, and bestowed a $2 million gift for a Murray pet project: restoration of Worcester’s Poli Palace Theatre. Hanover’s chairman, Michael Angelini, was a co-chair of Patrick’s transition committee.
Recent signs on Beacon Hill indicate to some that Deval Patrick is not quite the progressive, populist lefty that many of his supporters — and detractors — think he is. On issue after issue, Patrick’s instinct is to offer breaks and incentives to corporations and large nonprofits, and it’s beginning to diminish the support of an increasing number of legislators — including several state senators who are crucial to the success on his more ambitious agenda items.

Pushing several would-be allies over the edge was the announcement this past Monday that Patrick’s insurance commissioner, Nonnie Burnes, will end Massachusetts’s decades-long experiment with auto-insurance-rate regulation. Instead of a state commission setting those rates, insurance companies will now have the freedom to compete, within limits. Liberal legislators, who argue that the current system protects poor, young, and urban drivers, have expressed shock that Patrick will usher in this change; they fear that insurers will raise rates most on those who can least afford it, and will punish drivers based on location, credit history, and factors other than one’s driving record. Although Burnes says that she will protect against such outcomes, opponents still think this is a bad, anti-consumer idea that they believed had died when Mitt Romney left office.

This auto-insurance stunner, along with other perceived pro-business policies, has helped push progressive senators Joan Menard, Frederick Berry, Steven Panagiotakas, Marc Pacheco, Dianne Wilkerson, and Patricia Jehlen to sour on Patrick, to varying degrees. These are pols who supported Patrick’s candidacy, and should be solid allies now that he is in office. “There are a lot of unhappy people in the building right now,” says Wilkerson.

This dynamic is contrary to Patrick’s public reputation, which was forged by the high-profile fight over closing corporate-tax loopholes. That battle cast Patrick as the populist, and the legislature — House Speaker Sal DiMasi in particular — as the corporate shill.

But aside from that one issue — which Patrick pushed for the fiscally conservative purpose of balancing the budget without adding new taxes on residents — the governor has embraced a string of what some see as corporate-friendly policies.

Patrick has taken heat, for example, for alleged “corporate welfare” in pushing a $10 million grant to the developers of Boston’s Columbus Center. He enthusiastically supported, and this past week signed, new tax breaks for movie studios to film in the Commonwealth. He supports a sales-tax holiday, seen by some as a gift to retail chains with little benefit to the state. He has endorsed financial breaks to help those building the Boston University biotech lab and the Cape Cod wind farm. And in his bio-med/stem-cell bill, he intends to push a billion dollars of investment to companies and universities.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, Salvatore DiMasi,  More more >
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