Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why we need a two party system in MA - reason #527

Okay, in truth I have not been counting. But does anyone doubt I could come up with 526 other reasons?

Here is the latest, from today's Globe. The title is "As Legislature guards its own funds, communities reel." Why do communities reel? Because unlike the legislature's, their cuts are real.

The objection to this scheme, of course, is not that the Legislature holds back tens of millions of dollars in a reserve account (less charitable wags would call it a "slush fund"). At least in good times, an argument could easily be made that this is just prudent - a legislative savings account, to be tapped in bad times to pay for the various, necessary spending items that are the GCMD's responsibility (like upkeep of the State House and its grounds).

The objection is to the blatantly disingenuous claim made by various legislators - including leadership - that they are making "cuts," when in fact they are just drawing down from their slush fund. "Disingenuous claim" is too kind, actually. They are telling untruths. Fibbing. Lying. BS-ing. And they are doing that to get political credit for "sharing the pain" of the current budget mess and the resulting truly painful cuts to local aid. They are not in fact sharing that pain. As usual, they do this because they can - because even with a prominent article in the region's dominant newspaper, very few voters will internalize this information, much less remember it the next time they go to the polls.

The Governor's office has done a little bit better. After an initial round of "cuts" last October that was primarily smoke and mirrors, it appears that they have made actual reductions in staff and in funding for some of Patrick's ego projects (the DC office, the Commonwealth Corps paid "volunteerism" program). Of course Patrick still has significantly more staff on payroll than Governor Romney ever did, and those staff are paid salaries well above what Romney's staff was paid (for example, the guy doing for Patrick the job I did in the Romney Administration is making over $25,000 more than I made. I was paid slightly less than your average Pike toll-taker... he's paid slightly more).

Anyhow, broken record time: a viable two-party system would prevent this sort of shameless story-telling. Some day we'll have one again. Do your part by spreading the word about this nonsense.

Friday, February 27, 2009

"The court of mild dementia that is the Legislature’s collective consciousness"

This incredibly apt description comes from the keyboard (and the mind) of one Jim O'Sullivan, writer for the State House News Service and author of that (subscription) publication's "weekly round-up." Said column is syndicated in the small regional papers and usually runs over the weekend. Jim is someone to watch - he'll be writing for bigger publications as time goes by.

The highlight of this week's round-up, which contains the wonderful description above, concerns (of course) the Governor's gas-tax stickup and the ham-handed way the Turnpike toll hike vote was handled this week:
They want to tax gasoline, do the kings and queens of the Hill. The frame for this debate this week became, finally, the signed, sealed and delivered $100 million toll hike, assigned in two stages beginning next month, and set to double tunnel tolls by July. The choice foisted upon the House and Senate: Patrick’s 19-cent gas tax, or a variation thereof, or significant toll hikes. Or a better idea, if you’ve got it.

Patrick’s 141-page bill went bafflingly unfiled until 5:15 on Tuesday afternoon, three hours or so after the Pike vote. No one seemed to be able to explain this final delay in any detail, but it’s accurate to report that the few extra hours – after a vote conditional to the success of legislation that had not yet been fully authored – cost the administration something dear in the court of mild dementia that is the Legislature’s collective consciousness.
I think henceforth I'll refer to the General Court (which is the official designation for our legislature) as "the General Court of Mild Dementia" - GCMD for short.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Just an illustration

It occurs to me that most people probably don't appreciate the distinction between a "formal session" of our legislature (rare), and an "informal session" (much more common). Today's informal sessions of both chambers provide useful illustrations of the "informal session." Note that I am not cherry-picking to make a point - this is what our legislature (those few members who were around) did today. From the State House News Service:
HOUSE SESSION – THURSDAY, FEB. 26, 2009

CONVENES: The House convened at 11:00 am, Rep. Paul Donato presiding. Members and staff recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Reps. Kafka, deMacedo, Vallee, Basile, Provost, Kaufman, C. Murphy, Wolf, Cabral and Galvin were among those in attendance.

PATRICK TRANSPORTATION: At 11:10 am, with Rep. James Vallee presiding, the House referred to the Transportation Committee the governor’s message on transportation reform, which had been filed with the clerk on Tuesday at 5:15 pm

SURPLUS STATE PROPERTY: The House adopted Rep. Steven Walsh’s motion to reconsider the referral to the Bonding Committee of H 102 the governor’s message on surplus state real property based on smart growth land-use policies. The House adopted Walsh’s motion that the bill be referred to the Committee on State Administration.

SHERIFFS BILL: The House adopted Rep. Steven Walsh’s motion to recede from its reference of H 103 regarding sheriffs departments to the Judiciary Committee and concur with the Senate referral to the Committee on State Administration.

RESOLUTIONS: The House adopted resolutions filed by Reps. Haddad, Ehrlich, Ross and others.

ADJOURNS: The House adjourned at 11:18 am to meet next on Monday at 11 am in an informal session. Members applauded for Rep. Vallee.

SENATE SESSION – THURSDAY, FEB. 26, 2009

CONVENES: The Senate convened at 1:04 pm with Sen. Timilty presiding and Sen. Hart present.

PLEDGE: Members and guests rose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

RESOLUTIONS: The Senate adopted various resolutions, including a Sen. McGee resolution commemorating a volunteer in his district and a Sen. Moore resolution commemorating women’s history month.

TRANSPORTATION REFORM (S 13): The Senate referred to the Committee on Transportation a transportation financing package from Gov. Deval Patrick (S 13).

Reading from Patrick’s message to the Legislature, the clerk said the plan would reform, rebuild and renew the transportation system of the commonwealth. The Turnpike Authority and the MBTA have been saddled with Big Dig debt, putting those entities in financial peril. Road and bridge repairs are needed in every corner of the commonwealth. It is high time we address the challenges brought on by decades of neglect and willful blindness. The bill creates a consolidated, simplified office of transportation. The bill abolishes the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. This system will eliminate redundancy. The bill also creates a new dedicated transportation fund. It follows the lead of the Senate in authorizing public-private partnerships. The bill facilitates moving MassHighway employees of the capital budget. The bill will create an office of performance management. The bill is also environmentally responsible. It includes new buy-green and build-green requirements. The reforms are vital and therefore central to this bill. This bill includes a 19-cent increase in the gas tax, indexed to inflation. I urge your prompt and favorable action on this bill.

ALAN CHAMPAGNE: The Senate adopted an order to adjourn in member of Alan Champagne of Andover who died unexpectedly earlier this month. He was a member of St. Augustine Church in Andover. He was a 29-year employee of the Department of Housing and Community Development. Champagne was an avid sailor, Patriots fan, runner and hiker.

ADJOURNS: The Senate adjourned at 1:11 pm to return Monday at 11 am in an informal session.
Got that? The House was in session for 18 minutes, with 11 out of 160 members present, before adjourning until Monday, when some small group will gather for another, similar informal session. The Senate was in session for all of seven minutes, with TWO Senators present. The Senate at least managed to refer the Governor's transportation legislation to committee, which is legislative "progress" of a kind.

Again, I'm not cherry-picking for effect here. Members will - correctly - point out that much legislative work goes on in individual offices, in committee meetings, "in the district." Anyone who has spent time in the State House can tell you the difference in the level of activity in the building between a day that features a formal session and a day like today, though. I guarantee you that today the building is not exactly a hive of behind-the-scenes activity.

As I noted in my last post, I'm not necessarily complaining that our legislature is not cranking out new laws. God knows, this month I'd much prefer the pace here in MA to the frenetic orgy of spending going on in the Congress. I offer this post merely by way of illustration, to add color to the subject matter of today's Boston Globe article.


Breaking News: "No air of urgency at State House"

The Globe reports today on the snails pace at which our state legislature is moving this year:
Since Jan. 7, the start of the legislative session, the House has met 19 times, for a total of 18 hours, 47 minutes, an average of less than 3 hours per week, according to a Globe analysis of minutes kept by the State House News Service. Of that, nearly 7 hours were for ceremonial events where no actual work took place, honoring Abraham Lincoln, listening to the governor's State of the State address, and being sworn into office... The Senate has met even less often than the House, meeting 16 times for a total of 10 hours, 48 minutes, or about an hour and a half a week.
The article notes the budget crisis, pressing transportation, ethics and pension reform legislation, and the marked contrast with other state legislatures, like California's, which have been working around the clock to address their own budget problems.

The Globe blames our legislature's "slow start" on the leadership fight precipitated in the House by Speaker Dimasi's abrupt, um, departure. I think this misses the larger story. The legislature is a large, ponderous entity, peopled by individuals of varying degrees of personal motivation - ranging (with exceptions) from semi-unmotivated to corpse-like. What lends "urgency" to such a group? A sense of accountability. That, of course, is exactly what is missing in a state like ours, with the lowest percentage of contested elections in the country, cycle after cycle. Sure we have a budget crisis. But our legislators know that even if they do not deal with it effectively, the odds are pretty good for most of them that they will still be reelected in 2010, and in 2012, and so on.

Yesterday I attended a Boston Bar Association panel on the upcoming 2010 redistricting exercise, which is crucially important if ever we are going to shake up this institutionally lethargic bunch. I'll write more about that this weekend. In the meantime, I will note that so long as our legislature remains as it is presently constituted, I'm not entirely dissatisfied with its current pace. First do no harm and what-not.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lines in sand

Keeping up with the toll hike/gas tax hike story is such a roller-coaster! Good news seemed to come for taxpayers today when Governor Patrick drew a proverbial line in the sand, pledging to veto any legislation that comes to his desk that requires both a gas tax increase and a toll hike. From the State House News Service:
“There is no way – let me be unambiguous – there is no way that the citizens of Massachusetts are going to pay or I’m going to permit both a toll increase and a gas tax increase,” Patrick told reporters Wednesday morning.
I know, I know - I'm buying into his either/or framework in labeling this "good news," but everything in context, right? Either/or is "good news" as compared to "both," which is what I am convinced we're going to get.

Apparently, though, the Governor did not think to run that position by the new Speaker. Also from the State House News Service, a couple of hours after the item above:
House Speaker Robert DeLeo wants the state transportation system to dig its way out of a fiscal hole with increases to both the gas tax and Turnpike tolls, he said Wednesday. That’s a departure from Gov. Deval Patrick, who has called the revenue proposals mutually exclusive. “I think it has to be a combination of both,” DeLeo told reporters. “Whether that’s going to mean an increase, or whether that’s going to mean keeping tolls at their current level, with some sort of a gas tax, I think that’s what I’m really taking a look at.”
Back in the early days of the Patrick Administration, when this sort of insider kerfluffle was common, it would be written off as a rookie mistake. Now it's just inept. Back to the point, though, even assuming for a moment that this time the Governor really, truly means it... when is the last time the Governor won a fight with the Speaker of the House?

Toll hike round-up

Coverage of the latest phase of Governor Patrick's grand scheme to stick it to the Commonwealth's drivers varied in tone, predictably, based on the source.

The Globe is sanguine, noting in the very first sentence of its coverage that the toll hike approved by the Turnpike board yesterday "could be eliminated if the Legislature increases the state gas tax." I immediately checked the classifieds to see if they are also offering a bridge for sale.

On the other end of the spectrum, Howie Carr is apoplectic and - as usual - dead-on in his assessment:

I have considered all the options, Deval said Friday, in mock sadness. I have considered the commuters from the North Shore, East Boston and Metro West who are facing stiff imminent increases in tolls. He considered us. And then his appointees voted to rob us, yet again, at the tollbooths that were supposed to come down in 1987. Deval now holds us hostage to get himself the highest gas tax in America, and then he promises to rescind the tolls. I predict we end up like most hostages - dead.

The Herald also has an article suggesting that Patrick's blackmail move might backfire in the legislature, with even Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick), who last week cheered the Gov's gas tax proposal as a "win" for MetroWest, souring on the prospect (maybe he discovered one of his new chandeliers doesn't work?). Out in MetroWest, where the toll issue runs hot and hotter, the MetroWest Daily News quotes some (but not all) of the area delegation in sharp opposition to the move. (That Rep. Linsky sure is tortured on this issue, isn't he?)

And the Herald's editorial board points out a loophole in the Governor's assertion that a gas tax hike will mean the toll hike approved yesterday will not go into effect:

The measure reads, in part: “The Board shall take appropriate and prompt action prior to these effective dates to revise or rescind all or a portion of the toll increases upon the Commonwealth enacting legislation which provides dedicated alternative sources of revenue to the Authority.” In other words, if lawmakers approve a gas tax hike that is less than the 19 cents Patrick has demanded (but that still covers the Pike’s debt problems) the board may repeal only “a portion” of the toll hike. And in this case we can only imagine what “revise” means.

I'd go further than the Herald and note that there's nothing in this language that requires rescinding the entire toll hike even if the entire 19 cent gas tax increase the Governor is seeking is in fact passed. Absolutely nothing prevents him from, for instance, claiming new insight into the downturn, or citing steadily decreasing Turnpike traffic (which will continue to decrease with the hike), to justify leaving the toll increase in place. His steady evolution on the issue of tax and toll increases gives much cause for concern and none at all for confidence in his promises.

Thanks are in order to new GOP state chair Jenn Nassour and the two dozen or so folks who got up early and braved the cold to stand in front of the State House this morning, exhorting drivers to show their displeasure with the Governor. We'll know the issue has really taken hold then voters who aren't card-carrying Republican activists start to exhibit similar levels of displeasure. I for one have a feeling that Patrick may have overestimated the strength of his political teflon coating on this one. Either that, or...

UPDATE: And here you go! From the State House News Service:
Senate President Therese Murray said Beacon Hill’s focus on higher revenues had prompted impromptu lobbying from constituents. “I got backed into the corner of my grocery store Saturday, and couldn’t move, by people yelling at me,” she told the News Service.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cocking the gun

Turnpike Board Approves Toll Increases. That click you just heard was our mugger-in-chief cocking his gun.
Board members said both of the increases can be averted if the Legislature increases the gas tax before they take effect. If the Legislature raises the gas tax after tolls go up, the toll increases will be rolled back, they promised.
On a related note, if you happen upon Turnpike Board member Mary Connaughton, thank her. It takes a lot to be the lone remaining voice of reason in the viper pit that is our state's transportation bureaucracy. And she isn't shy about her tollpayer advocacy. This from the State House News Service account of today's board meeting:
The board meeting featured a series of testy exchanges between Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, a Patrick appointee who chairs the board, and Romney appointee and board member Mary Connaughton. “Don’t point at me,” Aloisi said at one point. “You’re out Matt Amorelloing Matt Amorello,” Connaughton told Aloisi after the meeting, referring to the former state senator and turnpike chief who came under fire for his oversight of the Big Dig and his management of turnpike affairs.
Michael Graham certainly appreciates her efforts.

Would you take this bet?

The Globe has an interesting piece today on the state of the gaming industry and how it relates to the prospects for a new push for casinos here in Massachusetts. If ever you were inclined to believe the Governor's predictions of money raining from the skies if only we'd license some casinos, you ought to take the time to read this article.

The upshot is this: the gaming industry has been hit hard by the recession. Massachusetts can no longer expect (if it ever could) developers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars merely for a license to build a resort casino in Massachusetts. They may not have the money to build such facilities at all.

There is some significant cause for concern in the subtext of the article, however. If developers are not willing or able to build destination resort casinos, we could always let them throw some slots in at our tracks, open "gambling halls," etc. Here's a chilling paragraph:
Instead of resorts, Loveman said, the Massachusetts Legislature should pursue an incremental approach to expanded gambling by legalizing slot machines at the racetracks, including Suffolk Downs. One model, he said, would be similar to Detroit, where state officials allowed for temporary casinos until developers could secure more funding and build bigger tourist destinations.
Anyone been to Detroit lately? This guy would be well-advised to find another model. Quite possibly he does not have one.

This is doubly chilling because Bob DeLeo, our new Speaker, has been an open and enthusiastic advocate for "slots at the tracks." But we need to look no further than our diminutive neighbor to the immediate south to see that this low-rent, "racino" option is not faring any better than the resort casinos in this downturn. Rhode Island's Twin Rivers racino, formerly known in its pre-slots days as the Lincoln Greyhound Park, is facing bankruptcy. In the spirit of the times, the State of Rhode Island is considering a buy-out.

To his credit, during last year's casino debate Governor Patrick was emphatic that he wanted "destination resort casinos," not slots parlors, racinos, or any of the dozens of other permutations of the gambling hall that tend to spring up as soon as a state legalizes gambling within its borders. More recently, though, he's indicated subtly that he'd be willing to lower his standards as part of a deal with DeLeo to get gambling legislation passed. Detroit and Rhode Island are just two of many examples that the Governor ought to be looking at if he thinks any form of gambling legalization is going to bail out the Commonwealth. There are many others.

UPDATE: A bit of related breaking news blows a big hole in one of Governor Patrick's primary arguments for his casino plan last year: namely that casinos in Massachusetts were "inevitable" and so the state might as well get a piece of the action. That argument was always arguably bogus; now it is indisputably so.

A prediction


Governor Patrick isn't going to run for a second term. Here's my thinking:

The rumors that have swirled for months that he'd bolt for a job in the Obama Administration came from somewhere. In all likelihood he was considered for one or more cabinet spots, and leaks of that nature don't happen if the candidate has turned down the proposition flat.

I imagine that, having harped so hard on the caricature of Republican Governors who "don't really want the job" during his campaign, Patrick could not quite bring himself to follow in their footsteps. That said, soon after taking office Patrick learned what those Republican Governors also found out: in Massachusetts, with the balance of power in the legislature, the Governor is not the top dog. Some cities and towns have what is known as a "weak mayor" system of governance, with a "strong council" calling the shots and the Mayor as more of a town administrator than a true head of government. There isn't any such thing as an official "weak Governor" system in the United States, but functionally that is what we have here in MA. So long as the Speaker of the House and the Senate President control absolute, veto-proof majorities in their respective chambers, they can and will oppose the Governor with impunity - and party has little to do with it. That state of affairs is not pleasant for any governor. The voters still see him as the top dog, and judge him harshly for his inability to advance his agenda. It is undoubtedly a frustrating state of affairs.

A planned bow-out would also explain why the Governor has lately felt himself liberated to throw political caution to the wind and embark upon an orgy of tax hiking. Yesterday, apparently not satisfied with his own latest tax heist proposal, he was in DC helping President Obama sell his own planned tax boost. These are not the actions of a man who plans to face the voters in a year and a half.

That's all theoretical though. I have no inside knowledge of the Patrick Administration. Here's something tangible: Lt. Governor Murray raised substantially more money in 2008 than did Patrick - $1 million plus as compared to $709,000. In ordinary circumstances, were Patrick planning to again top the ticket, that would be an embarrassment and it would not be allowed to happen. Patrick and Patrick's people control the state democratic party. They control the fundraisers. That "imbalance" could be rectified with a day of phone calls, if Patrick wanted it rectified. Keep in mind, too, that Patrick and Murray are not long-standing political allies. The primary voters paired them in '06, just weeks short of the general election.

One could generously assume that Patrick is just too high-minded to care about such things as fund raising totals. I'm skeptical. I think this is a very significant flag, signaling that Patrick will not be on the ballot here in MA next year. Do not be surprised at all if President Obama suddenly finds himself in need of "someone he can trust" in Washington, somewhere toward the beginning of 2010.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Back on the same page

Anyone worried by my earlier post pointing out the contradiction between President Obama's (tiny) tax cut and Governor Patrick's multiple tax hikes can relax. Having spent some time together today, the two pals are back on the same page. Unsurprisingly, that page reads: "Taxes are good." The topic of the article linked above is Obama's plan to raise taxes.

Here's the (ahem) money line:

Critics call it a tax increase that will hurt the economic recovery and is unfair to people already paying the lion's share of total taxes.

But asked about it on MSNBC, Patrick said Obama's plan would impose "a fair amount of taxes" on people who are relatively wealthy.

"Nobody is talking about taking that wealth away," Patrick, who is in Washington for a National Governors Association meeting, said from in front of the White House.

Whaaaa? I'm sitting here, trying to get inside the head of a guy who earnestly (Patrick is always earnest) believes that a tax increase does not "take wealth away" from the taxpayer. Here's the best I can come up with: taxes are often deducted - as from a paycheck - before the money is ever in the taxpayers' hands. By imposing higher taxes, the government isn't "taking that wealth away," it just isn't letting us have it in the first place. You can't miss what you never had, right Governor? Makes perfect sense.

Stimulus/Anti-stimulus

Governor Patrick is in DC today, attending a meeting of the National Governors Association. He is slated to meet with his friend President Obama today. Perhaps they can discuss this little contradiction in their approaches to the current recession:

A (small) part of that massive "stimulus" bill that Nancy Pelosi wrote and President Obama signed provides for a modest tax cut for the middle class. Proponents called this the "Making Work Pay" provision, though a more accurate name would be "Making Work Performed By Some People Pay Slightly More." On average, this provision will supposedly put $13 per week back into some workers' paychecks.

Assume for a moment - try, anyhow - that President Obama is correct to assume that this relatively small injection into personal bank accounts will have a stimulating effect on the lagging economy. What, then, is the inescapable conclusion about Governor Patrick's own proposals to take money away from those same taxpayers - at the gas pump, the liquor store, the grocery store, in hotels and restaurants (should I update this list daily)? If one accepts the proposition that $13 per week from the feds will stimulate the economy, then one must also accept the counter proposition that whatever portion of that $13 is snatched back by the state will dilute the "stimulus" by that amount. How does that make sense? Maybe the President can explain to the Governor.

On that topic, the Massachusetts state government is slated to receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 billion in "stimulus" funding. Governor Patrick wants to snatch some of our "stimulus." How much of the state's "stimulus" do you think the taxpayer will be able to snatch? None would be a safe bet.

Eric Fehrnstrom has a good piece on this general subject in today's Herald. I wonder how many voters in Massachusetts understand that for all his talk about cuts "to the bone," "sacrifice," "shared pain," etc., Governor Patrick in fact continues to increase state spending?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who is John Galt?

This guy.

Is it not fitting, too, that the Globe chose a fellow who looks vaguely like any of several Founding Fathers to represent the every-day American who has worked hard, played by the rules, paid his bills and now finds himself vaguely irked to see the government using his tax dollars to "bail out" millions of people (and, ahem, state governments) who over-extended themselves?

And now I must turn away to clean up the coffee I spat all over the table when I saw the Globe acknowledged that there's such a thing as moral hazard.

UPDATE: I should have held my coffee. Apparently the Globe's editorial page still does not believe in moral hazard, or thinks it is a figment of the imaginations of "resentful" denizens of the "talk radio" fever swamp. They should read their own business section.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Yer wallet or yer life...

A mugger walks up to you, pulls a gun and gives you an ultimatum: "Yer wallet or yer life."

Walking away with no wallet, should you thank the mugger for leaving you with your life?

That's the view that folks like Representative David Linsky of Natick would have Mass Pike tollpayers take with regard to Governor Patrick's proposed gas tax hike. Discussing the plan with the MetroWest Daily News, Linsky said, "Considering where we were a few months ago with doubling the Mass. Turnpike tolls, this is a big win for MetroWest."

Excuse me, Mr. Representative, but that's a bunch of baloney. Either this guy is a dupe, or he's complicit in the Governor's toll/tax bait-and-switch. [UPDATE: This might explain some of it. "Their wallets... or your chandeliers."]

Linsky is one of a handful of legislators, mostly from Metrowest, who have made a lot of political hay in recent years on the issue of "toll equity." What that means differs from legislator to legislator, but a common thread is the notion (in this great state of ours, somehow controversial) that it is unfair to toll one subset of commuters to pay for the Big Dig.

Now Rep. Linsky and his ilk would have us believe that having been threatened with a massive toll hike by our Mugger-in-Chief, a 19 cent gas tax hike is a "big win." We're still going to be tolled, mind you. And now we're going to be taxed as well. Some "win." Linsky isn't the only former toll hawk who will this month transform into a tax dove, either. He's being echoed across the region by legislators who know they don't need to worry about a contested election this year (or ever, in many cases).

What hope that exists on this issue, as I've mentioned, flows from the Senate, where leadership remains committed to the notion of "reform first." Note the remarks from Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), who can usually be counted on to support the Governor (again from the MetroWest DN):

Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said that the choice shouldn't be between a gas tax and a toll hike, as MetroWest drivers would still be paying a large amount of statewide debt.

"We need to find a solution that is fair and equitable," Spilka said. "This is a statewide issue, and we need statewide solutions. MetroWest has paid an unfair burden for far too long."

This is doubly encouraging, because it indicates that the Senate is going to stand fast - Spilka would not risk opposing Governor Patrick otherwise.

Meanwhile, Patrick is not being subtle about his stick-up:
"If the Legislature does not approve the gas tax, then a toll increase will have to go into effect," Patrick said. "I will ask the (transportation) secretary to ask for a conditional vote, so if the gas tax goes through, then there will be no toll increase."
"Yer wallet or yer life," in other words. Representative Linsky can't wait to hand over your wallet. "This puts pressure on us to move quickly," he said in response to the Governor's ultimatum.

Faced with a mugger holding a gun, you don't have many options. Faced with a Governor who lately proposes a tax hike a week, you do - in November 2010. Representative Linsky will be up for reelection too, as will every other legislator who shortly will vote to support the Governor's taxpayer mugging.


Friday, February 20, 2009

The Deval Geithner Transportation Plan

Apparently Governor Patrick and his people learned nothing from the disastrous reaction when, just a few weeks back, Treasury Secretary Geithner promised a detailed financial bailout plan and showed up at his press conference with nothing more than vague rhetoric.

Today, after promising for over two years to submit a detailed plan to reform the Commonwealth's transportation system, Governor Patrick held a press conference and passed out a press release - but failed to produce an actual plan (read: piece of legislation). Senate President Murray made a not-subtle jab at him on this point in her emailed response: "I look forward to the Governor filing a bill..."

According to Patrick, in addition to a 19 cent gas tax hike, his package - if it's ever filed - will also include some fundamental reforms including a long-overdue end to ridiculous MBTA pension benefits. We'll see. The protracted wait and anti-climactic roll out of a non-plan, though, don't give much reason for confidence. Of course if those reforms are coupled with (rather than preceding) the gas tax hike, those of us who think the government ought to stay out of our wallets until its own house is in order won't be too disappointed to see the Governor's plan go down in flames.

Predictable does not mean ineffective

Here we go. Having softened popular and political opposition by floating first a gargantuan toll increase and then a massive, 27 cent gas tax hike, Governor Patrick reportedly will today unveil a plan to raise our state gas tax by 19 cents. That move "may" allow a freeze on toll rates, according to "anonymous officials."

This progression was nothing if not predictable. I was hardly alone in reacting to the initial toll increase proposal by predicting that it was merely a political stalking horse for an eventual gas tax hike "compromise." Similar suspicions were voiced earlier this month when a trial balloon was sent up by Patrick to test reaction to a 27 cent gas tax increase. Nobody really believed the Governor, fond as he is of new taxes, would move to give us the highest gas tax in the nation. Plenty - including me - believed that he would ultimately raise the tax by some lesser amount, and stave off the toll hike until the furor over the gas tax hike dies down. That is quite obviously what he is in fact doing.

So why, when the true nature of their actions is so apparent, do politicians so routinely use this blatant bait-and-switch ploy? Because it works. People who spend a great deal of time watching state government (in addition to being slightly nuts) are few and far between. Some of us blog (indicating an even higher nut content), some of us holler and scream on talk radio. Still, the penetration of our observations into the voting population, particularly in non-election years, is extraordinarily shallow.

The vast majority of people out there are busy, and/or uninterested in or turned off by the every day machinations of our political actors. They might read a newspaper headline announcing the huge toll hike or the 27 cent trial balloon, and utter a few choice words under their breath. But that's it until the next headline - today's for instance: "Patrick set to propose 19 cent increase in gas tax." And their reaction is, well, "that's lower than what I heard before - good for Governor Patrick."

So long as he is announcing a gas tax hike, Patrick is baking in some nice social engineering too. According to the State House News Service,
The governor will also unveil a Registry of Motor Vehicles levy on vehicles deemed insufficiently energy efficient. A pilot program would impose fees based on miles traveled on state and intrastate highways, with rates varying across the Commonwealth, said sources familiar with the plan.
A proposed "carbon impact fee" on Massport parking would raise money for transportation projects.
SUV drivers who commute on the Pike may as well pack it up and start looking for jobs in North Carolina.

This thing could still fail, easily. As recently as last week, Senate President Murray stated firmly that she is not going to support a gas tax hike. "Reform first" is still her mantra. And we should not discount the very real recession factor. It is terrible economics to propose a tax hike in the midst of a recession. It is even worse politics. If I may be allowed to turn briefly to my broken record: in a state with a viable two-party system even a devout tax-hiker like Governor Patrick would not dare to propose what he'll propose today.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Yesterday Governor Patrick spoke to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. He had some things to say about his ever-pending transportation reform plan, set to be announced tomorrow. Amazingly, not 48 hours out from supposed publication of his "plan," the Governor claimed still to be selecting from a "menu" of options, and even took an informal poll - asking attendees to raise their hands to express a preference between toll hikes or a gas tax hike. For the record, the attendees chose a gas tax hike. "Option C," what some pols refer to as "reform first," and what might also have been phrased as "neither" was not polled. Michael Graham has a good column in the Herald today about the puzzling fact of the Governor's 11th hour "menu."

Here's another question, though: now that the federal stim bill has been passed and signed, and federal billions are set to pour into state coffers, should the Governor's "menu" not be altered? For months on end we've been told that our transportation infrastructure is crumbling, and to pay for essential maintenance, repair and new development a gas tax increase, toll hikes or both were just inevitable. It's a "public safety" issue, you see. Did I not read in one or two places, though, that many of the federal tax dollars headed our way are for infrastructure? I did! I'm sure of it.

So why then is our Governor set still to choose from his limited "menu" either a gas tax hike or a toll hike (he claims "both" is not an option, but we'll see)? Why not announce with great fanfare that President Obama has saved the Commonwealth from the specter of new taxes? Why not acknowledge that billions in unforeseen infrastructure investment changes the calculus?

The answer is in a much-quoted statement by Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. Discussing the economic meltdown with the Wall Street Journal on November 21, 2008, he said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

A gas tax hike is a tough political sell, even in Massachusetts. Having slowly built the case for a large increase over the course of two years, with recent arguments depending entirely on the economic crisis, Patrick is loathe to let perhaps his last, best chance to raise the tax "go to waste" - federal billions notwithstanding.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"State girds for sudden infusion of billions from Washington"

That's the headline on a State House News piece by Michael Norton and Jim O'Sullivan, published yesterday evening.

For whatever reason, the use of "gird" amuses here, calling to mind images of the usual suspects on Beacon Hill fairly quivering in anticipation of the federal Democrats' largess.

Setting aside the question of whether the federal stimulus package was a good idea, is this sudden influx of over a $11 billion in federal (taxpayer) dollars a good thing, long term, for Massachusetts? To the extent that the some of the dollars really do follow the rhetoric and go into necessary and overdue infrastructure maintenance and development, then sure. If past is prologue, though - and in Massachusetts it always is - then long-term this cash infusion will not make things in this state better, and may well make the situation worse.

We have a terrible record of managing what in budgeting terms are known as "one-time revenues." In theory, one-time revenues should never, ever, EVER be used to pay operating costs. The reason for that is obvious: dollars allocated to operating costs become part of the budget "baseline" for next year. Agency X that receives $100,000 this year will budget for $100,000 plus y next year - and will howl to the rafters about a "cut" if y does not materialize (never mind if that $100,000 is actually reduced). The fact that Governor Patrick baked hundreds of millions in anticipated stim funds into his budget for this year around the expectation of $11 billion in federal stimulus funds this year is very troubling. Every single recipient of one of those dollars will expect that dollar, plus y, next year. Next year, presumably, we will not get another federal infusion... although with President Obama and Speaker Pelosi running the spending show, I suppose I ought not make that assertion with too much confidence.

Anyhow, relying on one time revenues to pay operating costs (as we did with tobacco settlement funds a few years back, and with one-time cap gains revenue booms more recently) is like filling a pot-hole with sand. The problem is "solved," but only on a very temporary basis. And when the hole reappears, it tends to be worse.

Our state budget is a mess as a result of years of spending beyond our means and steadfast refusal on Beacon Hill to make serious reforms. This likeliest long-term consequence of this federal influx will be to once again allow our elected "leaders" to kick the reform can down the road.

This is at least marginally encouraging... although if I had a nickel for every time the rhetoric on this topic didn't end up consistent with the practice, I could... well, I could balance the state budget.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Breaking "News" from The Boston Globama

A "news" article published today on the stim bill begins:

The bankers are getting their bailouts. Now it's your turn. There's almost something for everyone in the $789 billion stimulus package that Congress could approve as soon as today.

Is this article from the Onion? No. This piece of almost satirical cheerleading appears in the pages of today's Boston Globe. Almost something for everyone! Who could oppose that? The article goes on to set out a laundry list of spending that makes it starkly clear, if it were not already, that Bill Clinton's declaration of the "end of big government" was at least a couple of decades premature. Big government is back, and today it's going to get stimulated.

The Globama leaves out one demographic that ought to be particularly excited to see passage of this monstrosity: tax-and-spend Governors who have put their political necks on the block by budgeting for next year based on the promise of billions in federal taxpayer dollars will be able to breathe a long sigh of relief this evening, if all goes to plan and the bill passes. No rest for the weary, though! Those unfortunate souls, like our Governor Patrick, who will have to write a couple more state budgets before their terms end with have to set themselves right away to figuring out how they are going to close their ever-expanding budget gaps in coming years, after state spending has adjusted upwards based on this one time federal bonanza. Didn't I hear that casinos have a better chance in MA now that Speaker DiMasi is gone...?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A little bit of Massachusetts on the Potomac

Human Events is reporting that the Republican stimulus conferees were shut out of the overnight "conference" negotiations on the stim bill, and that the bill being touted today as a result of these "negotiations" was cobbled together behind closed doors largely by Pelosi's and Reid's staffs - with some input from staffers to the three Republican Senators who signed on to the plan in that chamber. From H.E.:
Some Republicans reportedly were in the late-night conference. But -- at least from the Senate -- the official Republican conferees were excluded. HUMAN EVENTS has received e-mail confirmations from the staffs of both Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Ia) and John Thune (R-SD) saying that they had no participation in the conference.
This will sound familiar to observers of Massachusetts politics, where minority members of conference committees are routinely shut out of so-called conference negotiations. It seems it does not take long at all for the corrosive effects of total one-party control to take hold.

Contrast

From today's Globe: RI governor seeks cuts in corporate, estate taxes. "I'm firmly convinced that if we dramatically change our tax structure, our economy will produce jobs," [RI Governor] Carcieri said. "What Rhode Island needs now is more taxpayers, not more taxes."

Meanwhile, a short distance away in MA...

We've been losing employers, particularly in the financial sector, to Rhode Island for years. This is not going to help.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Governor Patrick believes in evolution

To celebrate Governor Patrick's new enthusiasm for a massive gas tax hike, the State House News Service this afternoon published a very helpful and informative "timeline" of Patrick's past statements on the subject, beginning in 2006 when he was candidate Patrick. This is the sort of thing that is usually left to and lost in the blogs, so it is refreshing to see it in a real media outlet (the State House News has a lot of material syndicated in local papers across the state, so there is at least a chance that a good number of people will see it).

I offer just a few highlights, excerpted from the SHNS article:
OCT. 9, 2006
...Asked if he would rule out gas tax and toll increases as governor, Patrick said "Yes, I do." [Kerry] Healey also rejected the idea of a gas tax that day.
Pretty unqualified, no? Once he was safely elected, though, it didn't take long for Patrick to begin his evolution:
DEC. 20, 2006
“So I want to look at the [Transportation Finance Commission] report before I express a point of view about whether I want to support that recommendation."
A month later, and he was in "never say never" mode:
JAN. 18, 2007
Asked by a reporter whether he planned to raise the gas tax, Patrick said, “Ever? It's not on my radar screen right now. That's all I've got to say.”
A year-plus further on, and Patrick apparently felt far enough away from the campaign to risk a flat-out (and flatly false) denial of his previous position:
MARCH 26, 2008
At a South Station press conference to encourage drivers to shop around for the best auto insurance deals, Patrick said, "I have never opposed raising the gas tax. What I have said is that it is not my first choice.”
And now 11 months later, we see a trial balloon floating up from the corner office that would give us the highest gas tax in the nation, and Governor Patrick falls back into his comfort zone: fuzzy, feel-good, unspecific rhetoric:
FEB. 10, 2009
Meeting with reporters in his office, Patrick said, “This is a bridge to tomorrow, but it’s not a permanent solution.” Patrick declined to discuss the size of the increase, only that he wanted it to be accompanied by “radical simplification” of the transportation system and other reforms. “Let’s not just talk about how much in a gas tax we would ask the people to pay to avoid one round of toll increases. Let’s not ask people to pay more money for the status quo. Let’s at least see what the range of options are that would support that radical simplification of our transportation network and some real solves to some of the challenges that we have.”
I wonder if that "bridge to tomorrow" will be tolled.

Monday, February 9, 2009

At least he's not expanding the "tolls"

The AP's Glen Johnson, who usually has good info, is reporting that Governor Patrick is considering a very significant gas tax hike. And as long as he's reversing his opposition to such a move, stated as recently as November, he's going for the gusto: a 27 cent bump that would more than double the current 23.5 cent tax and give us the highest gas tax in the nation to boot.

Good news, though! He is also going to propose taking down some of the Mass Pike tolls. Sounds like a good deal, at least to Pike drivers... until you read that he wants to install a chip in your car that will track and charge you for all of the miles you drive. That's right. If our governor has his way, Pike drivers will no longer be charged for driving on the Pike... they - and everyone else! - will be charged for driving on the Pike, and the expressway, and on Main Street, and on their own streets, and in their own driveways...

Having gotten over whatever internal (political) reservations he might have had about tax hike proposals in the midst of a recession, Governor Patrick is now like a tax hiking snowball rolling downhill.

UPDATE, 2/10/09: Don't worry - he's not "certain" yet. I smell another bait and switch coming. Having spooked us with the prospect of the highest gas tax in the nation, we'll get the third or fourth highest and thank him for it. I'm becoming more and more fond of Senate President Murray as this transportation debate proceeds. She is the only one who says "reform first" and seems to actually mean it.

All I need to know about the "stimulus" bill I learned in five sentences

Rarely does one find such concise and informative journalism as that which appears in this very brief Boston.com article, titled "Patrick enlists labor leaders to sell fed stimulus."

Sentence one: "Gov. Deval Patrick is enlisting state labor leaders to help him sell the federal stimulus bill." If this prompts you to ask, "Why does our governor feel compelled to 'sell the federal stimulus bill?' skip down to Sentence five.

Sentence two: "About 20 union chiefs filed into the governor's Statehouse office Monday while President Obama himself was en route to Elkhart, Ind., trying to sell the package." I did not realize we had that many union chiefs. They ought to start a union chiefs' union - but who would be chief? More seriously, do they expect this to overcome mounting public skepticism about the massive federal spending boondoggle Washington has labeled "stimulus?" How? By tapping into the inherent public trust of unions to responsibly steward taxpayer dollars?

Sentence three: "The governor is an ally of Obama and believes the roughly $800 billion plan will reinvigorate the national economy through a combination of tax cuts and public spending." It would be more accurate to say "The governor is an ally of Obama and desperately needs billions of federal tax dollars to bail him out of the budget mess he's helped to create here in Massachusetts."

Sentence four: "A share of that spending would be in infrastructure traditionally built by labor union members." Really? They aren't jumping on board in a selfless display of civic responsibility? "Traditionally" is generous - you can bet that if the unions do a good job "selling" this monstrosity, plenty of "that spending" will be earmarked for union labor.

Sentence five: "Patrick has another stake in the package's approval: He has proposed closing the state's current deficit and financing its 2010 budget with money from the stimulus package." That's a nice understatement. This isn't "another stake," it's Patrick's only stake. In the unlikely event that the stim bill goes down, or passes with significantly-decreased funding to the states, our governor is going to be in serious trouble with regard to his legal obligation to submit a balanced budget.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I thought we already had them

The Globe reports that new Speaker DeLeo is set to propose term limits for the Speakership of the Massachusetts House.

I'm confused. I thought we already *had* term limits for our Speakers. I believe the law reads:

"The Speaker shall serve until such time as a state or federal grand jury ends his term."

That's worked out ok for the last couple of decades.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lost in Space

For a capsule summary - or at least a high-impact illustration - of the ugly core of what is wrong with our state government, read this article. And be sure to look at the photos.

The problem is not so much the bare fact that some members have opulent offices and some spend their days in (literal) rat-holes. That is an unavoidable reality in a building where the quality of the space varies so radically from floor to floor and even from room to room.

The problem shows up in the middle of the article:

The struggles over office space are highly sensitive. DeLeo declined to be interviewed for this story, and he also refused to allow the House business manager, Patricia Foley, to speak about the process of handing out offices. In the coming weeks, Foley will use a chart to inform lawmakers where DeLeo has decided they will go.

Several lawmakers would not comment because they didn't want to jeopardize getting a spacious office, along with plenty of supplies and an ample staff. One legislator, who currently has an office he likes, would not allow the Globe to take photographs, for fear of appearing presumptuous and losing his current digs.

For all of his talk about opening up the government, burying the hatchet with those who opposed him, etc., it seems that where it counts, Speaker DeLeo is keeping the old system. An office allocation system bare of politics and intrigue, after all, would be an open system. A lottery, perhaps! What these two paragraphs reveal, though, in DeLeo's unwillingness to explain the process, his refusal to allow a subordinate to do so, and - more tellingly - the fear of ordinary members to even discuss the issue, is that the new boss is very much the same as the old boss in this most important of ways: his allies will end up with the windows, the doors, the fireplaces and the carpeting. Those who have crossed him, or who cross him in the future, will end up in the basement with the rodents or in the attic with the frequent water leaks.

Who wants to talk about the process for allocating committee assignments?

Monday, February 2, 2009

We'll pay for what we got

Take the common saying "you get what you pay for," and shake it up a little bit to get Governor Patrick's reaction to criticism that his budget proposal is nickel and dime taxing the Commonwealth to death. In the words of the AP's Glen Johnson, "Patrick also said voters knew what kind of financial philosophy they were getting when they hired him to be governor."

Did we, really? Seems to me that what voters were told they were getting when they "hired him to be governor" was a boatload of hope, optimism and fellow-feeling. To the extent that they knew any specifics about his "financial philosophy," it could only have been what he told them (us) repeatedly: he had "no plans to raise taxes," he was all about "finding efficiencies in government," and he was going to "focus like a laser beam on [reducing] the property tax."

Johnson's laundry list of just the Governor's most recent tax hike proposals is a useful counterpoint to what we thought we knew about Patrick's "financial philosophy":
Patrick’s plan would extend the 5 percent sales tax to alcohol sold in package stores, as well as candy and sweetened beverages like soda.

And extend the nickel-per-container bottle bill to virtually all other drinks, including plain and flavored water, coffee-based drinks, juices and sports drinks.

And make a 20-percent hike in the state’s meals tax, from 5 percent to 6 percent.

And make a 17 percent hike in the state’s hotel/motel occupancy tax, from 5.75 percent to 6.75 percent.

And allow cities and towns to create their own 1 percent meals and occupancy taxes.

And hike Registry of Motor fees both this spring and later this year. Registrar Rachel Kaprelian says the first round will increase the average driver’s bill by $6 per year. Patrick says the second round of hikes, still being formulated, will cost taxpayers $75 million.

On top of all that, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority recently voted to institute a $6 yearly fee for using Fast Lane transponders to pay tolls electronically. The agency is ending the $25.95 fee for a new or replacement transponder, but there is no service fee exemption for people who already have one.

The Turnpike also recently started charging Fast Lane users $2 a month ($5 if they are commercial operators) if they use mailed statements instead of e-mail.

And none of that gets into a proposed hike in the state’s gasoline tax that would be necessary to stave off a proposed doubling of some turnpike tolls within Route 128. There is talk of more than doubling the current 23.5 cents-per-gallon levy.
That's a long list, and it does not even include the billion or so dollars in business tax hikes that were imposed at the end of the last legislative session.

Meanwhile, today's Wall Street Journal reports that in other struggling states, Democrat and Republican governors alike are looking at tax incentives (cuts) to attract and retain employers and increase their tax bases.

Let's see... many of our competitor states in the battle for new jobs are looking to reduce taxes in order to attract and retain quality employers. Our Governor is hiking every tax he can find. I wonder... where are the dwindling number of employers still looking to expand more likely to focus?

Despite the Governor's campaign rhetoric about taxes, anyone paying attention to his spending proposals should have, in truth, known "
what kind of financial philosophy they were getting when they hired him to be governor." Any time he was challenged on this topic, though, he did a masterful job of pivoting and deflecting - usually by launching into a monologue about property taxes. A healthy majority of the voters fell for it.

Now we're all going to pay for what we got when we "hired him to be governor."