Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Saw that coming - Walsh out (staying in Senate)

She almost made it past my prediction of a pre-Wednesday withdrawal. Almost. Senator Marian Walsh (D-am I still here?), with Governor Patrick at her side, late today announced that she will "withdraw" from consideration for that all-important HEFA assistant executive directorship and will remain in the Senate (which she's been "looking to leave for a while," according to Senate President Murray).

I suppose in light of the scathing coverage of this issue it was not much of a feat to predict that she'd withdraw before Wednesday of this week. But I'd like credit for calling this one: according to the State House News Service account of her announcement, the Senator said, "I don't want to be a distraction." See the parenthetical in paragraph five, here.

Of course predicting the words a politician will use when beating a hasty retreat from a controversial appointment is about as difficult as predicting the language of your standard post-game pro sports interview ("we showed a lot of heart out there," "this was a good win but we still have a lot of room for improvement," etc.). But still. I got it verbatim. [Self back-pat].

Note that she also could not help but toss out the word "cynicism" to describe the "public reaction" to her appointment (at the 2:20 mark in the interview below):



By the way, Walsh has (according to the SHNS) "pledged to serve out the remainder of her term."

Here's hoping there is a credible Republican candidate from Jamaica Plain, Dedham, Norwood or Westwood willing to go after this seat. Whether she vacates or decides to try and power through the whole "looking to leave" thing, this is a ripe opportunity.

"Cutting" to the core...?

At a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast I attended this morning, keynote speaker (Speaker) Bob DeLeo predicted cuts to the state budget that will "total in the billions," and "will cut to the very core of government's purpose and mission."

Startling stuff, no? Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), the Globe's recap of the speech missed the subtle but important meaning of DeLeo's very next utterances. After grandly promising to "leave no stone unturned" in the age-old quest for "efficiencies," the first example DeLeo came up with of potential fodder for these "billions" in promised cuts was... tax credits. They've "got to take a close look" at tax credits, you see, to make sure the state is "getting a bang for its buck."

The second example to make up those "billions" in cuts that DeLeo mentioned was... well... there was no second example.

This points up a fundamental disconnect in the way Beacon Hill thinks about taxes. In the real world, repeal or reduction of a tax credit is not a "cut" in government spending - certainly not one that "cuts to the very core" of government. If anything, it is what State Housers call a "revenue measure," meaning it increases the amount of "revenue" that Beacon Hill takes in. In common English, this is known as a "tax increase."

Perhaps some silver lining could be found in this sleight of hand, if one could plausibly deduce that Speaker DeLeo thinks the granting of tax credits comprises "the very core of government's purpose and mission," but that seems an unlikely read. After all, just a few years ago the Commonwealth had a sizeable budget surplus (it's true - you can look it up), yet then Ways and Means Chairman DeLeo was not exactly leading the charge for lower taxes. More likely the "very core" line was rhetorical flourish - as, in all likelihood, was use of the word "billions."

It would be nice if Beacon Hill could set aside the cutting imagery and actually look around for some of those elusive "efficiencies." Promises to cut "to the core," or "to the bone," or "into the muscle" of government abound, but we have yet to see even some abraded skin.

There was some marginally good news coming out of the Speaker's office this week, however. According to the State House News Service, DeLeo yesterday was "cool" towards Governor Patrick's proposal to increase taxes on meals and hotel stays in the Commonwealth. "I’m not going to say doubtful, but I don’t think it’s something that’s been brought to the forefront by the members," said DeLeo.

On the other hand, the Speaker thinks that repeal of a long-standing property tax exemption for telecom companies "has some legs to it."

This the the kind of tax hike that a politician can get behind. Imposing a property tax on telephone poles - who will be against that? Very few voters own a telecom company - or even a single telephone pole! So if the Legislature wants to help balance the budget by socking Big Telecom with a huge property tax bill, who aside from their paid lobbyists will protest?

It is not like the telecom companies control a service used - and paid for - by virtually every citizen. And certainly even if they did, they would never price a huge tax hike into their rates... would they?

Of course they will. This tax hike will hit Massachusetts consumers as surely as would a meals tax, only this one will come via the phone bill - without legislative fingerprints.

At least he's still "cool" to a meals tax. Cool.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Once more, with feeling

At some point this whole Marian Walsh story will die off, likely leaving her in the Senate where she will begin feverish repairs to her damaged reelection prospects. It sure has struck a nerve though, hasn't it? Two weeks ago, who would have believed that the appointment of an "assistant executive director" at the Health and Educational Facilities Authority would touch off such a durable firestorm?

Joe Fitzgerald's column in today's Herald is a good measure of the depth of rage engendered by this whole sordid affair. Fitzgerald is not a bomb-thrower. Ordinarily the picture of equanimity, his column today might easily be mistaken for the work of Howie Carr, Fitzgerald's much more bombastic colleague at the Herald.

Following an intro in which he all but calls the reluctant Senator Walsh an, er, 'lady of the night,' Fitzgerald really lets loose on Governor Patrick and Walsh:

Or is it possible he’s still deluding himself into assuming the superficial popularity that swept him into office will continue to sustain him, even as his ineptness is exposed? He and the senator are an absolute affront to the notion of public service, a perfect storm of arrogance and entitlement.

If we hit Wednesday of this week without an announcement that Senator Walsh has withdrawn her name from consideration for the HEFA post (for "family reasons," of course, or because she "does not want to be a distraction") I will be amazed. Of course, as Fitzgerald not-too-subtly points out, "once you get past conscience, the rest is easy." Patrick and Walsh may well decide that this thing cannot possibly hurt them more than it already has. I think they'd be wrong.

In any event, Jim Aloisi ought to be sending Walsh a thank you note right about now, for knocking his flailings off of the front page.

On a tangentially-related note, in the Herald's Monday Morning Briefing column Hillary Chabot points out Governor Patrick's interesting reluctance to enter into a new three-year lease on the gubernatorial automobile. Hmmmmmm.......

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Better keep your day job, Senator Walsh

Elected officials' handbook - Rule 1 for dealing with the press: do not ever lie to a reporter.

You can "spin" - they expect that. It is part of the game. You can refuse to answer. They find that annoying and will just chase you more doggedly, and you can be sure to read about your refusal in the paper, but that is part of the game too. You can shade meaning, you can prevaricate, obfuscate, duck, deflect and, when all else fails, you can scold. But you cannot lie. When they find out you've lied - and they will - it is payback time. Usually front page, above-the-fold payback time.

So it is with the front page of today's Globe, which announces: 'Patrick Aides Directed Hiring; set Walsh's salary, wrote job description.' The Globe's intrepid Frank Phillips levels both barrels in the first paragraph and blazes away from there:

Contradicting a series of steadfast denials, internal e-mails show that Governor Deval Patrick's top aides controlled the appointment of state Senator Marian Walsh to a high-paying job at a state authority, from setting her salary to crafting her job description.

They also provided the agency's talking points for the news media in an attempt to quell a public uproar.

"I'm going to send you a proposed job description from [Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin] soon," Patrick senior adviser Jay Gonzalez told the two top officials at the Massachusetts Health and Education Facilities Authority in a March 11 e-mail.

Ouch. The saying goes that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Apparently there are no reporters in Hell. Rule #1 above applies with additional emphasis to Frank Phillips, who has been around a long time and has an internal lie detector better than any polygraph.

More, he must feel personally scorned by Patrick. Phillips famously arrived to cover the Faneuil Hall gubernatorial debate in 2006 accompanied by his wife, who was prominently displaying pro-Patrick paraphernalia. This was a surprising move for Phillips, an old-school reporter who one would have expected to maintain at least an outward appearance of cool detachment. Phillips then opened the debate by indignantly (and unfairly) accusing Lt. Governor Kerry Healey of airing a racially-tinged television ad, a move that lifted Patrick to the moral high ground from which he never descended.

Seeing what his candidate has become in office, Phillips undoubtedly felt scorned well before Marian Walsh. And then someone lied to him.

The remainder of Phillips' front page offensive reads like a series of backhanded slaps to the Patrick Administration's glowing cheeks:

On the weekend before the Patrick-controlled HEFA board unanimously approved Walsh's appointment as assistant director, Larson asked Gonzalez to justify why the Democratic lawmaker should be paid more than $128,500. That was the amount that a Burlington-based consulting firm, The Survey Group, reported as the average market base pay for the position...

Another document shows Walsh's total salary package, which includes retirement benefits and healthcare coverage, would have totaled $242,442...

The records also reveal that Gonzalez needed clearance from the governor's senior staff on several of the major issues...

The day before the board meeting where Walsh was formally selected, Gonzalez told Caswell that Rubin would create the job description that would be presented to the board. Caswell had already written and sent to Gonzalez a two-page job description for an assistant executive director. But that job description outlined duties that included working to develop new projects and procure new financing, expertise that Walsh did not possess.

The revised description, which is one paragraph, focused her duties on government-relations work...

I do not expect we'll see another hastily-scheduled Sunday press conference for damage control, as we did last weekend after Patrick's "trivial" gaffe. Under this degree of barrage, the only thing our beleguered Governor can do is duck and cover.

As to Marian Walsh, the reluctant Senator at the center of this mess, this front page shellacking is likely the proverbial straw. The camel she was planning to ride out of the Senate has a broken back. She won't be joining HEFA, even at a reduced salary.

I, for one, am looking forward to hearing how she explains all of this to her voters, when she inevitably runs for reelection next year.

Of course, the State House News Service noted yesterday that the last time an incumbent Senator seeking reelection was defeated in Massachusetts was in... 1994.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A must-read if you care about education

Governor Patrick's sharp left turn has not been limited to the narrow issues of taxes and spending. Unfortunately, in ways that garner fewer headlines and less public attention, he has also veered left on education, handing the policy reins to his union allies and thereby endangering the remarkable progress Massachusetts has made over the past two decades.

This op-ed by Charlie Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the invaluable Pioneer Institute appeared in Monday's Lowell Sun. It is a must-read in its entirety for anyone concerned with education policy in Massachusetts. A couple of jarring excerpts:

Patrick proposed eliminating the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability in his first budget. Beginning in 2002, EQA conducted comprehensive audits of more than 175 school districts and made its findings public.

More than a year after EQA was scuttled, a new Advisory Council on District Accountability and Assistance was created. The new agency amounts to the fox guarding the accountability henhouse, replacing EQA's independent five-member board, with a 13-member panel made up of teachers unions, superintendents and school committees -- the very people the agency is supposed to audit...

The main target of a 2008 reorganization proposal was the Board of Education. The proposal, which gained legislative approval, packed the board with Patrick appointees. More importantly, it stripped away its independence and placed it firmly under the Governor's control by giving final say over budget requests and veto power over the board's selection of future state education commissioners to a newly created secretary of Education.

The Massachusetts Board of Education had been independent since it was founded in 1837 with Horace Mann at the helm. In the wake of education reform, it developed the MCAS exam, teacher testing, the commonwealth's curriculum frameworks and charter school approval process. All are national models put in place in the face of fierce special interest opposition that could only have been implemented by a board that was insulated from politics.

Read the whole thing.

That column put me in mind of an article I vaguely remembered reading almost a year ago in the Weekly Standard, on the same topic. Digging it up, I was unsurprised to find that it was authored by Charlie Chieppo, this time with Jim Stergios (also of Pioneer). It too is well worth a read. Coincidentally, it also deals with the degree to which Deval Patrick serves as a preview of Barack Obama, the topic of my musings just yesterday.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Meanwhile, back in the Legislature

The Massachusetts State Senate yesterday passed a transportation overhaul bill, championed by Senator Stephen Baddour (D-Methuen/R-anywhere-but-MA) that in fact does live up to the "reform before revenue" mantra that has been repeated by Senate President Therese Murray through these several months of wrangling over toll increases and gas tax hikes. It seems I may have been wrong here in concluding that this principle had been discarded like last year's iPod. If so, I am glad to have been wrong. Much more on this as the bill moves to the House, but for now - kudos to Baddour et. al, for passing a true "reform" bill and sticking to their guns in keeping "revenue measures" off the table.

For this post, though, I have saddled up one of my other favorite hobby horses: legislative transparency (or the lack thereof).

This transportation bill is a big deal, on an issue of extreme public concern. And yet, according to the State House News Service: "Senators spent most of Wednesday quickly voting up and down the majority of more than 60 amendments to the bill, the fate of most amendments having been determined prior to the session in private meetings."

Asked to comment on the fast pace (again from the SHNS): "Senate President Therese Murray said Senate lawmakers spent hours debating the bill outside of the Senate chamber, so 'less time' would be spent debating it on the Senate floor."

This is doubly offensive. First, this notion that the public's business, conducted by our elected representatives, should properly take place out of public view, thus presumably sparing our sensitive eyes from the mess of the proverbial 'sausage-making,' is offensive on its face. This is not how our democracy is intended to function, and yet it is the all-too-common way of doing things here in Massachusetts.

Second, the assumption that underlies President Murray's casual dismissal of the issue is offensive, perhaps more deeply so. In the mind of the person in charge of the upper chamber of the Massachusetts Legislature, it is apparently proper that things be "debated" behind closed doors, so as to minimize public (and media) exposure to the process. "Debate" thus becomes a charade - a rehearsed production piece choreographed and presented in summary form for agreeable public consumption.

Is Massachusetts a leading indicator?

Just over two years ago, following a campaign in which the rhetoric, the themes, even the fonts and color schemes of the signage and the rally audience chants of the winning candidate presaged Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency, Massachusetts elected Governor Deval Patrick. All was hope, optimism, renewal, vibrant youth and soaring oratory.

Flash forward to today, and the once post-political Patrick has taken a sharp left turn, too sharp even for Massachusetts' voters, embracing tax hike after tax hike, pushing unaffordable spending, and transforming inexplicably from the crusading reformer who ran for Governor to a connsumate, defensive and peevish Beacon Hill insider who arrogantly doles out patrongage positions to his supporters and dismisses voter protests as "trivial." As a direct consequence of his metamorphosis, he is spinning down the political toilet (finally I can stop linking to this!). A new Channel 7/Suffolk University Poll (reported by the Herald) has his "deserves reelection" number at an underwhelming thirty-four percent, while nearly half of respondents (forty-seven percent) say is it time to elect someone else. Given the heights at which he began his term in 2007, that is a plunge of Niagaran proportions.

The parallels between Deval Patrick and Barack Obama go way beyond the obvious ground-breaking facts of their candidacies and elections. The striking similarities between their campaigns are no accident. David Axelrod, the imagemeister behind President Obama's campaign (think Obama's Karl Rove or, if you prefer, his James Carville) gave the tactics that won Obama the White House a dress rehearsal right here in Massachusetts in 2006, working behind the scenes of Deval Patrick's up-from-behind campaign.

The parallels transcend the two campaigns (elevated but ultimately empty rhetoric, vague issue positions, an early and tenacious claim to the political high ground, crowds chanting "Yes We Can!") and now define each man's governing style. Both Patrick and Obama were elected as a new kind of chief executive, and both quickly pivoted to become a very familiar, old kind of pol (Mike Dukakis and Jimmy Carter, respectively). Both demonstrate a penchant for telling crowds what they want to hear, and then becoming angrily defensive when challenged on their failure to follow words with deeds. Both dismiss critics as "cynical," and accuse issue opponents of wanting to "do nothing" or "preserve the status quo." Both spend taxpayer money as though it comes flowing to them from a magical, bottomless well, and both treat the national and the state business communities like barely-tolerated party guests, invited only because they bring the beer.

In November 2006, having watched the "Yes We Can!" juggernaut power its way to the Corner Office, I thought Deval Patrick an unstoppable political force. Noticing the all-too-familiar script playing out in the early days of the Obama campaign, I knew he would be elected. I felt like I was watching the same movie over again, and I knew the ending.

Now, seeing the depths to which Deval Patrick has fallen in such a relatively short period of time, from "Together We Can!" to "don't let the door hit you in the behind," I am beginning to wonder if I am still watching the same movie... but perhaps I had the ending wrong.

Related reads:

The truth behind the triviality, Globe op-ed by the current vice chair and a former ED of HEFA, Sen. Marian Walsh's prospective new employer; and

Marian Walsh firestorm II, Herald editorial.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Discount triviality

So Governor Patrick's solution to the uproar over his decision to give a political supporter/reluctant member of the GCMD a $175,000 per year "assistant executive director" job at a quasi independent state authority is to... reduce the salary to $120,000 per year.

The terms 'tone deaf' and 'tin ear,' both used with some frequency of late to characterize Governor Patrick's recent political instincts, are losing salience with each new move.

Let's re-cap:

Months ago, in the midst of the first round of supposed "cuts" to the executive branch (since revealed to be somewhat less than the rhetoric promised), Patrick announced a "hiring freeze" in state government. Shortly thereafter he hired his neighbor and campaign contributor to fill the essential - though heretofore nonexistent - post of 'director of real estate services,' at $120,000 per year.
Then, earlier this month the politically-packed board of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority (HEFA) (surely you have heard of it?) voted unanimously to appoint Senator Marian Walsh (D-Getmeouttahere), one of Patrick's earliest political supporters, as "assistant executive director" of HEFA, a post that had been vacant since Bill Clinton's first term. I somehow missed this part of it, but according to this morning's Globe: "In addition to being vacant for more than a decade, the position had not been advertised and a search firm had not been hired to compile a list of candidates. It was also not listed on an agenda for the meeting where it was unanimously approved."

In his initial response to the public and media outcry over this blatant Beacon Hill hackery, Governor Patrick donned his cloak of righteous indignation (which somehow looked better on him in the good old days of the drapes and the caddy) and declared the matter "trivial."

In the meantime, incidentally, this happened.

Now, back-pedaling from his "trivial" comments, Patrick has really chomped down on the bullet and... reduced the pay on this political non-job to - $120,000. Note that this is the same salary given his neighbor. Apparently in Patrick's mind, $120K ought to be the threshold for public indignation.

"Cynics" will note that, should this deal go through (note that Walsh has not yet announced plans to give up her Senate seat. Her momma didn't raise no dummy), Walsh will still be costing roughly $50K more than she did in her Senate seat, where at least she was ostensibly representing a constituency.

"Cynics" may also be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the additional steps that Patrick is taking in response to what he last week called "trivial." From the State House News Service:
The governor said the public outcry over her appointment to a long vacant post and her salary had prompted him to question the compensation of all executives at quasi-public state authorities. Steven Crosby, budget chief under Gov. Jane Swift, has agreed to conduct a 90-day review and come back with recommendations, Patrick said. Crosby said he intended to examine all facets of compensation, including sick days. The governor also called for a freeze on any pay increases for employees at quasi-publics and has asked officials at those authorities not to hand out any new employment contracts until the Crosby review is completed.
So last week all of this was "trivial." This week he cries "Uncle!" (literally) and says the uproar is cause for a "90-day review" and - yes! - yet another "hiring freeze." Presumably this "freeze" won't take hold until after Senator Walsh is safely ensconced in her new position.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pick up those dimes!

Maybe we can balance the state budget with all of the dimes that are dropping these days on Beacon Hill...

State Treasurer Tim Cahill on Friday was asked by a reporter if he's decided to run for Governor next year. He answered with a "tentative yes." Not half a week later, the Globe's front page declares: Cahill facing ethics inquiry.

The details ought to sound familiar to anyone who followed Sal DiMasi's recent downfall. State contract, close friend who happened to be a lobbyist for the winning contractor, denials from the Treasurer that he knew anything about his friend's associations with the contractor. Of course in Sal's case the "friend" paid the Speaker's mortgage, and we have not seen anything quite that smarmy yet with regard to Cahill. But the contractor in question did do some fundraising for the Treasurer... All-in-all, it's just another in a long series of ethics entanglements at the highest levels of our state government.

To note that Cahill is a Democrat is, of course, entirely unnecessary; which is not to say that only Democrats have have ethical lapses, but simply an observation that everyone at the highest levels of our state government is a Democrat. Whether that fact has anything to do with the apparent practice of the ethics committee to open a new file on any high officeholder, just to be ready for the inevitable charges, I do not know. I suspect that it does.

Speaking of high office-holders in Massachusetts (another who wants to go higher), here's a fun news item that I missed yesterday. Apparently not content simply to be splashed by the muck spewing up from Governor Patrick's spinning tires lately, Lt. Governor and heir-apparent (when Patrick bows out) Tim Murray has decided to flop to the ground and roll around in it. From the Herald:
Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said he stands by Gov. Deval Patrick’s unpopular decisions to hire Sen. Marian Walsh for a long-vacant job and give a 27 percent raise to sheriffs overseeing placid tourist towns. “I support the governor’s decisions. She got a job and he expects her to do it,” Murray said last week about the $175,000 job handed to Walsh. Murray went on to say that the $26,000 a year raises for two sheriffs in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were politically necessary to get a sheriff consolidation bill passed.
"I support the governor's decisions" is par for the Lt Gov course, one of the many downsides of playing second fiddle to an unpopular Governor. He should not be expected to say anything different. He should stick to that script. By improvising the "politically necessary" line, he comes awfully close to describing what citizens of the real world might call a pay-off.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A shaky sense of "commitment"

There were always too many strings attached to Governor Patrick's pre-election announcement last fall that he was "committed" to taking down all of the Mass Pike tolls except for the ones at the state border. Nobody familiar with his definition of "committed" could have felt comfortable banking on his continued support for setting the bulldozers in motion on the Pike.

So it is no real surprise to read in today's Herald the headline: Patrick no longer pledges to remove W.Mass tolls. After Patrick's evolution on the gas tax hike, this development is about as shocking as the outcome of a Globetrotters' game.

Still, the language of the Herald article gives a nice sense of what our governor means when he says he is "committed."
Administration officials had said last fall the governor was committed to taking down all toll booths in western Massachusetts, except for two near the New York and Connecticut borders. But Patrick said today he can’t make that statement any longer because it’s part of the legislative negotiations over his transportation overhaul legislation.
Got that? He was "committed," until the legislature wanted to negotiate. And who could ever have guessed the legislature would want some say in the dismantling of Mass Pike tolls? It is all perfectly understandable.

I admit that I link back to this post at every opportunity. I just like it. But the fact of the matter is that Patrick's approval ratings have tanked not just because the voters do not approve of his recent policy decisions. They have tanked because, two years after he was elected largely on the basis of his way with words, voters are coming to understand that his words do not mean very much.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Necessity is the mother of... more of the same.

Boston Sunday Globe front page, above the fold today: Patrick Targets Pension Loopholes.

Because I am, admittedly, something of a cynic, my initial thought on catching the headline was, "so what's the catch?" But as I read the article I was heartened. Patrick is proposing elimination of the ludicrous pension loophole that gives members of the Legislature (most recently, Sal DiMasi) the ability to retire early in the year, but get pension credit for the entire year. He's going to eliminate the MBTA's '23 years to full pension' plan, the source of much of that agency's fiscal difficulty. No more pension boost for getting fired rather than resigning (yes, you read that right). The list goes on, and it is all good stuff.

Fantastic! I thought. Finally, all of these ideas that have been kicking around for years are going to actually be put in a piece of legislation, forcing our Reps and Senators to put their votes out there in public. Finally. It does not matter if this is a transparent effort by the Governor to claw back from the political precipice (Howie Carr is, as usual, deadly today in his assessment of the Governor's current reality). It does not matter if his tone-deaf "trivial" comment last week obviously triggered this awkward and unusual Sunday roll-out, indicating that someone (probably Lt. Governor Tim Murray and his team, who will have to carry all this Patrick baggage into next year's election) has hit the panic button - hard. (In this regard, I note also this hastily-scheduled "economic town meeting" to be held this coming Thursday. The word "trivial" will not pass Patrick's lips, you can be sure). It is enough, I thought, that Governor Patrick is finally stepping up to make good on a campaign promise for a change, and is putting all of these overdue reforms in a bill. Good for him. I even felt badly for Patrick's staff who, I imagined, had been working feverishly all weekend to whip his reform bill into shape for this expedited roll-out.

Ah, but then I checked in with the State House News Service, and it turns out... there is no bill. There is only, as seems always to be the case with Governor Patrick, rhetoric:
The administration does not intend to file a reform bill but the governor intends to push for inclusion of his priorities in a bill to be produced by the Legislature, where the drumbeat for pension reform has grown louder in the wake of a string of media reports concerning pension deals deemed excessive and resulting from special consideration.
"[T]he governor intends to push for inclusion of his priorities in a bill to be produced by the Legislature..." How has that worked out in the past? His casino plan, which he insisted was absolutely essential to last year's budget? Crushed. His local option tax plan? Squashed. Sales tax hike on sweets and booze? Canned. 19 cent gas tax increase? I am trying to think of a single time in the past two years when Governor Patrick has successfully "pushed" something through the Legislature that the Legislature did not want to enact... and I'm coming up empty.

Of course I was only too happy to see each of the items listed above tossed aside like Liz Taylor's latest husband, but the record does not exactly lend itself to confidence in the likelihood that the newly-unpopular Governor Patrick will be able to "push" pension reforms through the Legislature - especially when many of those reforms would hit legislators (and, in many cases, their extended families) in their wallets.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

This is "stimulus"?

I did not have to look hard or wait long to substantiate my suspicion that Massachusetts will squander its share of the federal "economic stimulus" outlay by using it to plug short-term gaps in the state's operating budget, instead of targeting those funds to projects realistically geared towards "stimulating" economic activity. The following blurb in today's Globe represents a perfect example of wrong-headed spending:
Massachusetts school districts will receive $280 million from the federal stimulus package during the next two years to help them pay the cost of special education. Governor Deval Patrick announced yesterday at Brockton High School that half the money will be distributed by the end of the month and the rest of it will be allocated this fall.
State spending on special education could (and probably will) be the subject of its own post later on. Growth in such spending has spiraled out of control for years, and now represents the lion's share of many local school budgets. It is, for obvious reasons, a highly emotional and therefore politically-volatile subject. Regardless of one's opinion of the relative merits of special ed spending, however, it would be extraordinarily difficult to shoe-horn such spending into anyone's (publicly-stated) rationale for the "economic stimulus" package.

As reported in the Globe, just yesterday, announcing "guidelines" to be followed by states in allocating federal stimulus funds, President Obama "told state legislators gathered at the White House that decisions about how money will be spent will be based on the merits of creating the most jobs and helping reverse the recession."

Is it "cynical" to suggest that this particular $280 million allocation has more to do with creating a fuzzy photo op for Governor Patrick than with "creating the most jobs and helping to reverse the recession"?

I suppose it could be argued that it will help save at least one job. And he certainly needs the help.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Attending the same charm school?

Governor Patrick has apparently decided to stick with the peevish approach that has earned him such public acclaim of late, standing by his "embattled" Transportation Secretary, Jim Aloisi, and defending him with language not un-reminiscent of Preisdent Bush's "heckuva job, Brownie" imbroglio. From the Globe: "'He's my guy,' Patrick said of Aloisi in a brief interview yesterday. 'And he's doing a good job - with a very, very tough assignment.' When asked whether he stood behind Aloisi, Patrick said, 'Of course. What kind of question is that?'"

With a dismissive flourish suggesting that perhaps Aloisi and Patrick are attending the same charm school, Patrick labeled "trivial" the controversies over Aloisi's very public recent eruptions and Patrick's decision to appoint political ally Senator Marian Walsh to a non-existent (yet crucial) $175,000 per year position in the midst of a supposed "hiring freeze." With a level of condescension to which mere mortals can only aspire, he continued, "One of the challenges in life is concentrating on the meaningful and letting the trivial take a back seat. And I sometimes feel like I'm in a profession now where that is completely upside down. We are trying to concentrate on what's meaningful."

Silly voters. Rank hypocrisy is "trivial." Anger over increased taxes, tolls and fees in the midst of a deep recession is "trivial." We ought all just to shut up and pay up. That, presumably, would be "meaningful."

Meanwhile, in a development that ought to send chills up the spine of anyone hoping for a Republican reoccupation of the corner office in 2010, Christy Mihos, the diminutive gadfly with the Big Dig sized ego (and the person who did as much as anyone to give us Governor Patrick in the first place) "is launching a radio ad blitz today blasting state government for its current fiscal woes and 'mismanagement.'"

Digging the hole deeper... using a federal shovel

For a very brief time following the announcement that Massachusetts would receive roughly $9 billion in federal taxpayer largess through Nancy Pelosi's economic stimulus plan, there was acknowledgment on Beacon Hill of the importance of spending that money wisely, on essential infrastructure and capital projects to "create jobs" and compensate for years of neglected maintenance. Governor Patrick, in testimony back at the beginning of March before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, signaled his understanding of the temptation that would exist to use the federal windfall to "plug gaps" in the state's annual operating budget. The stimulus funding is "not a panacea," he said. "It does not let any of us off the hook from making tough and sometimes painful choices, nor should it."

In a section of his prepared remarks that is italicized in the official version, presumably for emphasis, he stressed,
The further truth is that we have long-term structural problems both in our budget and throughout state government, and while the federal funds will provide a short-term bridge, we need to level with each other and the public about the need for budget cuts and real reform to fix them. If we are honest about the challenges and wise about the choices we make now, we will come out of this recession a stronger and more secure Commonwealth.
This point is well worth the emphasis the Governor gave it. The federal billions fall into a category of dollars known in budgeting terms as "one time revenues." Rational budgeting insists that one time revenues be used for one time spending projects, not baked into the operating budget (which funds programs that generally continue from year to year.

Think of it in terms of your own household budget. Say you buy a scratch ticket on a lucky day and find yourself with an unexpected windfall of $100 thousand. If you use that money to buy a car outright and renovate your kitchen, or you give your 16 year old daughter one of those too-obscene to-be-true birthday parties that my wife has been known, inexplicably, to watch on MTV, great. That might not be the wisest long-term use of the money, but you haven't turned your windfall into an ongoing problem for yourself (well, maybe you have with the birthday party, but it's a different kind of ongoing problem than the one I'm talking about).

If, however, you use that money to hire a butler, a maid, and a full-time groundskeeper, and you sign them all up with 10 year contracts, you are probably going to find yourself in a hole in short order, crouched and weeping in the parking lot of the nearest 7-eleven, with a pile of crumpled scratch tickets scattered on the pavement around you.

When state budgeteers take one-time revenues like the federal stimulus dollars and use them to plug gaps in the state's operating budget, they trade short term (political) relief for larger gaps and larger problems later. And not too much later. Next year, when the federal billions are not available, the gap re-opens - usually wider.

Patrick understands this, or at least the staffer who wrote his Ways and Means testimony does. Back to Patrick on March 3:
Stimulus is mainly intended to create or preserve jobs, not just plug budget holes. Moreover, one-time federal relief is not a solution to inherited structural budget deficits. These are part of the reason we face enormous gaps today, and will be the reason we face gaps even when the economy improves – unless we seize the moment to reshape government so it can more efficiently carry out its mission and identify new, responsible sources of recurring revenues.
I doubt I have ever so strongly agreed with so many words flowing from Deval Patrick's mouth.

Unfortunately, fast-forward just over two weeks, to yesterday, and you find this from the State House News Service:
At the outset of the first hearing of a legislative committee convened to oversee the federal stimulus spending, committee co-chair Sen. Marc Pacheco said he hoped to more accurately pinpoint the amount of money devoted to infrastructure projects, noting estimates range from $1 billion all the way up to $2 billion. Pacheco said he anticipated "the bulk" of stimulus funds would be expended through the "usual budgetary process."
The "usual budgetary process." "Budget cuts and real reform" have given way to an executive/legislative "compromise" involving higher taxes, higher tolls, higher fees, and promised negotiations to come up with new "revenue items" (that's lingo for more taxes).

In Massachusetts, the "usual budgetary process" involves the democrats retiring to their caucus chamber, closing the door to the public and the press, and - in the words of then-Rules Committee Chair Rep. Angelo Scaccia last year - "lining up before the Gentleman" (meaning the chair of Ways and Means) to tell him "their priorities."

It was this "usual budgetary process" that last year got us a $28.2 billion dollar budget that was unrealistic the day it was written and that today stands anywhere from $3 to $4 billion in deficit. The small band of Beacon Hill Republicans criticized that budget as excessive when it was first rolled out - they were more correct than they could have known.

If in fact the "usual budgetary process" is employed to divvy up the federal billions, we will be right back in the soup a year from now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ominous rumblings

On Tuesday the State House News reported a growing "consensus" on Beacon hill for both a gas tax increase and a reduced toll increase.

Today a report in the same outlet presages the inevitable coming together of Beacon Hill's big three in fulfillment of this wholly-predictable end:
PATRICK, LAWMAKERS ASKING PIKE TO DELAY TOLL HIKE, PLANNING REVENUE BILL Gov. Deval Patrick, with the backing of legislative leaders, plans Thursday to call on the Mass. Turnpike Authority board to vote to delay toll hikes planned for March 29 and to use a portion of authority reserve funds to address its immediate "financial crisis." Also, Senate President Therese Murray announced the full Senate will consider its transportation reform proposal next week. The House will take up the Senate plan the following week. "Leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives have agreed to determine the need for new revenues and to enact legislation that would provide adequate revenues to support the reform proposal and fund our long term transportation needs no later than July 1, 2009," Gov. Patrick, Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a joint statement released by DeLeo's office.
With Patrick, DeLeo and Murray jointly announcing an agreement to "determine the need for new revenues and to enact legislation that would provide adequate revenues to support the reform proposal," the game is fairly well over.

It seems "reform before revenue" will give way to "revenue to fund reform," a bogus mutation guaranteed to result in more of the same old, same old.

The Globe is unabashed in its cheer leading, with this the current headline on Boston.com:
"Beacon Hill leaders act to delay MassPike toll hikes until July." Get that? Our "leaders" have "acted" to avert (temporarily) a crisis entirely of their own making, designed to get us to exactly this point - Patrick, DeLeo and Murray shamelessly standing up to take credit and accept praise for a "compromise" that hits us up from two directions in the midst of a deep recession.

Go "leaders"!

They're so valuable, nobody knows what they do

The Globe is really on a tear this week. Apparently the story Tuesday on transpo chief Jim' Aloisi's sister and her $60K non-job triggered the dropping of some dimes. This is how it happens: someone defending Carol Aloisi tells an aggressive reporter that Carol "isn't the only one," and confidentially points to a closed office door. Behind the door...

Former DiMasi aides still on House payroll

It seems that eleven DiMasi staffers "have continued collecting state paychecks and health benefits even though DiMasi resigned under a cloud in January and they have no clearly defined responsibilities at the State House," according to "state officials."

Apparently these folks have been given an office by new Speaker DeLeo, but no defined responsibilities and no known end date.

The justifications are fun. First, the familiar "everyone does it." DeLeo's spokesman, Seth Gitell, explained to the Globe that "aides to other former House speakers remained on the payroll long after their bosses departed, providing termination letters for a handful of aides to Finneran." Gitell did not say whether staffers only get this sweet deal with their bosses are forced from office in disgrace...

Then there is the "valuable" trope: Rep. Dan Bosley (D-N.Adams) justifies the arrangement thusly: ""When there is a transition period, if you keep the staff on for a time certain, it gives you an opportunity to tap into the institutional knowledge of the group. If you were coming into a company, you would do the same thing. You would keep valuable staff on."

Makes sense... until you circle back to the beginning of the article and are reminded that the incoming Speaker's staff has no idea what these people are doing, or even whether they show up for work every day. "DeLeo's spokesman, Seth Gitell, could not say whether they show up on a daily basis or what they do when they are there."

So just how "valuable" could they be?

The pressure is mounting, and the Herald (the paper that usually ferrets out this kind of story) must have reporters crawling through the State House duct work by now. Look for Carol Aloisi to get together with the DiMasi Eleven, and any other no-job paycheck collectors who might be lurking in the bowels of Beacon Hill. Maybe they will form a union.

In related news, a Patrick supporter and member of the board of HEFA, where Patrick is attempting to install political ally and reluctant Senator Marian Walsh in a $175,000 per year job, is blasting the move. Globe: "Gordon, who is vice chairman and the longest-serving member of the board, said Walsh should not have been put in the 'nonexistent' position of assistant executive director."

There are an awful lot of people getting paid for "nonexistent" jobs on Beacon Hill these days, aren't there?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I love Jim Aloisi the way I love Terrell Owens

Everything about him is offensive, grating and repellent, yet somehow I cannot stop watching.

Today's installment - or, should I say, today's most recent installment - in the saga that is the Life and Times of Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi is a doozy: he has taken to the blogosphere to defend his beloved sister. Writing in the left-wing Blue Mass Group blog, Aloisi fulminates:
I didn't think that it was ever appropriate for the press or others to take shots at me through members of my family, but it seems that the rules of the game have changed. Today's Globe story about my sister was filled with misleading and inaccurate information. In short, she has worked for the House of Representatives with an unblemished record since 2003. She has been a leader in the state Democratic party for many years. She has never needed to call on me for help in getting a job or keeping a job. She is, on her own accord, an intelligent, motivated and competent woman who was unfairly characterized by a legislator with whom she had a personal falling out last year. I don't want to get into the details here, but I do want to say that my sister has a strong work ethic and, since she left that legislator's office, has repeatedly and in writing asked for a prompt re-assignment. The Globe story was unfair and inaccurate and clearly designed to take a shot at me through her. That story was disgraceful.
(read the whole post here). A couple of things:

First, the news that a chief of staff to nobody was paid a $60K state house salary for 6 months for doing literally nothing would have been a story if sister Carol's last name were Smith. The Aloisi tie-in is nice, but it's a bonus. This article was hardly a "shot" at Jim Aloisi.

Second, as the Globe notes today, "Aloisi and his sister turned down repeated requests on Monday to comment for the original story." If the article were "filled with misleading and inaccurate information," he certainly had the chance to pre-set the record straight.

Anyhow, this whole thing is beyond weird. I can say without the slightest reservation that a cabinet secretary - or a junior staffer, for that matter - in the Romney Administration who slagged the Globe on a partisan blog would be out on his tuckus in a matter of hours. Maybe minutes. When you serve at the pleasure of the Governor, you don't let yourself become the story. If you do become the story, you certainly do not escalate by going after the region's largest newspaper (and your boss's most reliable cheerleader).

Aloisi day after day embarasses the Governor and substantiates the public's worst suspicions about the nature of its government. Yet he keeps his job.

Is it too early to start wondering what Jim Aloisi has on his boss?

Timing is everything

Governor Patrick's long-standing scheme to hit up the citizenry for both a gas tax hike and yet another toll hike is finally coming to fruition. In a tasty bit of serendipitous timing, each day's newspapers are this week delivering a steady stream of stories about transportation-related corruption and abuse.

An inordinate number of these stories have to do with Patrick's Katrina-scale disaster of a Transportation Secretary, Jim Aloisi. As anyone familiar with Aloisi's history with the Big Dig could have predicted, hiring this particular individual to shepherd through Patrick's transportation reform plan was tantamount to using a steamroller to tend the garden. He has all the tact and subtlety of a professional wrestler. That is not to say that tact and subtelty are necessarily the sine qua non of a successful reformer. Often they are the opposite of what is needed. But Aloisi is not a fearless crusader either. He is - to use an over worked term that nonetheless could find no better a subject- a hack of the first order.

The latest Aloisi-related embarassment came in yesterday's Globe, with the revelation that his sister, one Carol Aloisi, has spent the last six months sitting in a vacant State House office, collecting a salary to serve as 'chief of staff' to a legislator, former-Rep Rachel Kaprelian, who left before Aloisi's arrival to become Registrar of Motor Vehicles. The editors of Globe purport today to be scandalized by this revelation, less because of the naked fact of it than because it imperils Patrick's effort to implement their long-sought gas tax increase. The plan is, the Globe gushes, "a genuine - and courageous - attempt to deal with years of underfunding of transportation in Massachusetts. " Gag. Patrick's cash grab is to courage what his Transportation Secretary is to reform.

Here's a question I've not seen asked: can nobody (a certain ambitious, camera-craving Attorney General, for example) come up with a charge to slap on Aloisi's sister? Is this whole 'six months pay for no work' thing not worthy of an investigation that might uncover what arm was twisted to put Ms. Aloisi in that vacant office, and who was doing the twisting (ahem, I wonder)?

Also yesterday, the Herald uncovered a pair of expensive new hires at the Pike, brought on in the midst of daily claims of pending calamity at that agency.

Today, tollpayer crusader and maverick (the term applies, really!) Turnpike board member Mary Connaughton uses a Globe Op-Ed to share her unique insight into Patrick's vaunted "reform" plan. Read it. Here's the part that bothers me most, in light of all of the above:
The governor's plan calls for toll receipts, fares, fees, and other revenue to be remitted to a newly established Massachusetts transportation fund, largely controlled by the secretary of transportation, conferring the secretary with unprecedented power. Fund proceeds are targeted to provide for transportation needs throughout the Commonwealth. The fear remains that despite claims of regional equity, toll payer funds could be diverted to projects beyond the Pike's reach and the toll payer will wind up subsidizing even more of the state's transportation burden.
Lest you have lost the thread, the secretary of transporation to whom this "unprecedented power" will be conferred is one Jim Aloisi, brother to Carol Aloisi, the guy who calls "reform before revenue" a "meaningless slogan" and thinks people who might like to park a car at Logan need to rethink their "cozy little worlds."

All of this is particularly unfortunate for the Governor, since his political anvil of a gas tax proposal has focused public and press attention on the Commonwealth's transportation bureaucracy, pulling stories into the water cooler conversation that otherwise would float harmlessly by the public conciousness.

I continue to believe (perhaps "have faith" is a better term) that eventually this constant litany of corruption and abuse will stir the voters from their decades-long stupor and trigger an electoral revolt. If the tag team of Governor Patrick and the Aloisi family cannot do it, though, I am not sure who can.

P.S. Read this piece from the Herald, too. It is a useful reminder that although the Turnpike Authority is, as an institution, rightfully the target of every bit of the public ire that has been directed at it, plenty of good, decent, blameless people work there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Higher gas tax and more tolls! Who could have predicted THIS?

State House News Service headline yesterday evening: "Lawmakers signal consensus forming for gas tax hike."

Great news! Our elected leaders are coming to a compromise. We'll be spared the 19 cent increase Governor Patrick proposed, and hit with an increase of "only" somewhere less than a dime. And that's not all!

We will also be "saved" from the massive, looming toll increase. Of course, this "compromise" will require a little give and take. We'll do the giving, the government will do the taking. But not as much! Here's the meat of the thing (again, from the State House News Service):
[Rep Joseph] Wagner (D-Chicopee) suggested the agency explore removing the “firewall” between Metropolitan Highway System and Western Turnpike finances, reinstating tolls on exits 1 through 6 and in Newton, boosting tolls west of Rte. 128, increased layoffs, toll-taker layoffs, and additional assistance from the state’s General Fund, which is already under duress from broader fiscal pressures. [Senator Steven] Baddour estimated those measures could net $50 million for the Pike.
So instead of a huge gas tax hike or a huge toll increase, we'll get a smaller gas tax hike and smaller toll increases (for now). And instead of tolls coming down, we'll get... more toll booths going up!

What an outcome! What a model of democracy! Who would have ever predicted that after several months of hard-nosed negotiation, the GCMD would come up with such an unexpected, ground-breaking result?

Um... anyone could have predicted this. Many did, more than once.

So much for "reform before revenue." We'll get the "revenue" measures, with aspirational targets for "reform" - like this notion in the paragraph above that "increased layoffs, toll-taker layoffs" will be part of the deal.

If that sounds familiar, that is because Governor Patrick and his Turnpike Director made much hay last September of an announcement that they would lay off "100 toll takers" to cut costs at the Pike. That was supposed to be the beginning of Patrick's reform, announced as the mid-term election approached to give Patrick's favored candidates some political cover on the toll issue.

Globe headline today, nearly half a year later: Turnpike Authority has yet to make layoffs.

Why the delay? Patrick's Turnpike Director blames collective bargaining rules.

Since I am so far batting 1000 on transportation-related predictions, here is another one: when they put up those new tolls on Pike exits 1 through 6 and in Newton, they will suddenly discover a need to keep those toll takers around.

So now the final push is on in this long-running scheme to hit you up at the pump and at the tolls. The language of "consensus" and "compromise" is being deployed. Watch for the self-congratulatory back-slapping to begin in earnest. The Globe today helpfully provides an online Gas Tax and Toll Calculator, so you can budget for these increased cash dumps into the toilet bowl that is our dysfunctional state transportation bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, in related news: Pike hires add to 'burden' - and - Transportation secretary's sister held no-work state job for 6 months.

Yes We Can!

Monday, March 16, 2009

"...looking to give up her seat..."

This Senator Marian Walsh thing has been nagging at me all weekend. The obvious scandal of this story has been the subject of considerable and understandable outrage: Governor Patrick blithely violated (again) his own supposed "hiring freeze" in the midst of massive cuts and proposed tax hikes to give "one of his earliest political supporters a $175,000-a-year job as an assistant director at a state bonding authority, a position that had sat vacant for more than a dozen years." (Globe's words). Sadly, this sort of thing is becoming par for the course for Governor "Yes We Can."

Here's the line in the Globe story from last week that has been bugging me: "The veteran lawmaker had been looking to give up her seat for a state job for several years."

Is there not an obvious and easy way for a legislator to "give up her seat"? Such as, perhaps, not running for reelection?

So I looked up Senator Marian Walsh, about whom I knew very little, and I learned the following pertinent and unsurprising facts:

She has been in the Massachusetts Legislature for twenty-one years, since 1988. She's been in the Senate for most of that time, since 1992.

Her husband is a state court judge, appointed by Governor Patrick.

Her last reelection was in 2006, which is puzzling given the "looking to give up her seat... for several years" thing.

Ah, but her job history... except for a short stint as a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Medical Association, it does not appear that she's ever had a job in what Howie Carr lovingly calls the 'Dreaded Private Sector.' That might explain a crucial part of that troubling sentence: "...for a state job." Marian Walsh did not want to just give up her comfy seat in the Massachusetts State Senate for the uncertainty of the job market. She needed a taxpayer-funded landing pad. This particular pad is plush - she'll almost triple her current take home in her new position.

I have more than once heard the comment that our legislature is full of people who are essentially unemployable in the private sector. That is not true of everyone there, of course.

But apparently Senator Marian Walsh thinks it is true of herself.

Here is what bothers me most: In 2006, the voters of West Roxbury, Dedham, Norwood and Westwood reelected this reluctant incumbent, a woman "looking to give up her seat," by 20,000 votes - a healthy 69 percent.

That is the power of incumbency in this one-party state. She won without even wanting the seat.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When the Taxman cometh, he brings his Nanny

You have to love Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson. The guy is so far left that he's achieved parody status. I click into his column to the same purpose that prompts my daily visit to the Onion: I'm seeking a chuckle.

He does not disappoint today with his column urging Governor Patrick to stick to his guns on his recent proposal to raise taxes on soda (and candy, and alcoholic beverages). To Jackson's chagrin, a similar proposal advanced by Accidental-Governor Paterson in New York was just shot down. The Massachusetts Legislature, reluctant for the time being to follow Patrick down Tax Hike Road (which leads, it seems, to Unpopularsville), has also poured cold water on the Patrick's 'vice tax' initiative.

This irritates Derrick Z., who sees the soda tax as not only a great way to raise revenue, but a wonderful opportunity for government to slip into its comfortable Nanny State shoes and tell people how they ought to be behaving.

"It would be cowardly for the Legislature to side with sugar water and candy bars, as kids keel over from diabetes," Derrick Z. pontificates. Who better than government to protect kids from Coca-Cola? Certainly not their parents, who do not figure into the Z-man's analysis.

In Jackson's conception, revenue from a tax hike "would probably allow the state to be able to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, help the poor access healthy foods at things like farmers markets and obesity prevention programs." This thinking (which permeates liberal tax policy) is at odds with itself. Jackson argues in the same column that: (a) the soda tax needs to be increased to decrease consumption; and (b) the soda tax needs to be increased to fund a whole bunch of "obesity prevention programs." This funding, of course, only comes with... consumption. The same logic can be found in the internally-conflicting argument in favor of a gas tax hike: we need it, you see, to provide more funds for transportation infrastructure maintenance. We need it, you see, to convince people to stop driving their cars to "save the planet." Achieving the latter undermines the former, but you'll never get Derrick Z. or Governor Patrick to acknowledge that fundamental inconsistency.

Interestingly, Jackson acknowledges that Patrick's proposal to eliminate the 5 percent sales tax exemption currently applied to soda (as "food") is "so modest that most public health advocates doubt its impact on actual consumption." In other words, Jackson's bloviations about kids, obsesity and diabetes are entirely beside the point - empty posturing to obscure the real agenda here, which is to pull money out of taxpayer pockets whenever and however the government possibly can.

That does not mean that Jackson (or Patrick, for that matter) is not genuinely committed to this notion - offensive to many people - that tax policy ought to be crafted to bend public behavior to the Nanny State's will. But that is not what they are really trying to do here. The moral justifications are window dressing. This year it is all about "revenue."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Rhetoric:
"We have a mandate to change the way we do business on Beacon Hill... Do not expect more of the same from me."
-- Governor-elect Deval Patrick, November 7, 2006
(Election Night victory speech)
Reality:
Governor Deval Patrick, who campaigned on a platform to fight business as usual on Beacon Hill, has given one of his earliest political supporters a $175,000-a-year job as an assistant director at a state bonding authority, a position that had sat vacant for more than a dozen years.
-- Boston Globe, March 13, 2009
As Gov. Deval Patrick grapples with layoffs and budget deficits, he has hired a close neighbor in Milton to be the state’s $120,000 director of real estate services, the Herald has learned.
-- Boston Herald, December 29, 2008

Rhetoric:
"In times such as these, people will turn to their government for help. While this is not a storm of our making, we must work together to solve the budget crisis, to live within our means, to reform bureaucracy and to do more with less at all levels of government."
-- (Former) House Speaker Sal DiMasi, January 7, 2009
(Reelection victory speech)
Reality:
On his second to last day in office in January, DiMasi boosted the pay of 10 House employees, including his driver, Daniel Petrigno, whom he made a court officer, one of a cadre of uniformed men and women whose primary responsibility is keeping order in the House.
-- Boston Globe, March 13, 2009
Rhetoric:
Following a caucus where House lawmakers listened to economists and other fiscal specialists outline a bleak fiscal future for the state, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who this week pegged the current budget deficit at $50 million to $500 million would not rule out a major tax hike to help balance next year's fiscal plan. He said lawmakers must first cut as much as they can from state programs.
-- Boston Globe, March 12, 2009

Reality:
...Representative Robert A. DeLeo, assumed office the same week and immediately gave his entire staff raises, some as high as 56 percent. In the following weeks, he hiked the pay of several staff members working for his new leadership team.
-- Boston Globe, March 13, 2009

REALITY

Massachusetts ranks dead last in contested elections

Massachusetts, once known for its raucous politics, now ranks last in the nation in the percentage of voters with a choice as to who represents them in the State House.
-- Commonwealth Unbound, October 1, 2008
I'm just saying.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How high the "reform" bar?

It is a disquieting feeling to open the Globe and find that my thoughts are tracking those of columnist Joan Vennochi. That happened to me this morning, though. Her column today concerns exactly the topic I was thinking about on my commute today.

For some time now, leadership in the Massachusetts State Senate has been repeating a "reform before revenue" mantra in rejecting proposals to increase gas taxes, tolls and other "revenue generators," at least until the state "reforms" its transportation system. That has been somewhat comforting to those of us on the anti-tax side of things, especially as the Senate has stuck to its guns in the face of an active campaign by Governor Patrick to increase the gas tax, and open contempt for the notion from Patrick's irascible Transportation Secretary, Jim Aloisi.

It occurred to me to wonder this morning, though: what do they mean by "reform"? In other words, how much (or how little) "reform" has to happen to satisfy Senate President Murray and her colleagues, such that they declare themselves satisfied and pivot to support "revenue" measures like the gas tax hike? As the economy worsens, will they seize on some symbolic act and declare the reform bar cleared? That would be all too typical of how things are usually done on Beacon Hill.

A few things ought to be minimum requirements for reform, if meaningful reform is truly to come before new taxes:

Eliminate the Turnpike Authority and take down the tolls. This one is decades over-due and is absolutely a requirement if the state's transportation system, how we fund it and how it compensates its employees is to be made rational and equitable. Right now, commuters from one region of the state pay for the entire debt obligation on the Big Dig. At the same time, this independent authority not only teems with patronage hires and redundant workers, but it pays those workers on a scale that is, on average, a third higher than pay for comparable work elsewhere in the state's transportation system. "Reform" that does not redress the inequity of the Pike tolls and correct the skew in employee pay cannot be considered a dedicated attempt at comprehensive reform.

End the MBTA's ridiculous employee retirement benefits system. Currently, T employees with just over two decades of employment are eligible for full retirement, with a pension and benefits for the rest of their lives and no restriction on subsequent employment. This means that T employees who hired on in their twenties can and do retire in their mid or even early forties, going on to years in a second career while all the while receiving what Howie Carr so lovingly calls "that kiss in the mail" every month. This system is suffocating the T (which just today revealed a $160 million operating deficit and started clamoring for - wait for it - federal stimulus funds).

Bring the state's share of health insurance premiums for its employees in line with private sector rates. It used to be the case that public sector jobs paid considerably less than comparable employment in the private sector. Generous benefits were the trade-off. The salary disparity no longer exists - and in many cases has skewed in the other direction. More to the point, the benefits as paid currently are not sustainable, and have not been for quite some time.

That is just three thoughts off the top of my head. There are plenty of other real reforms that ought to be "on the table" along with all of these "revenue" items Beacon Hill is buzzing about.

In the meantime, the State House News today provides some measure of comfort that perhaps Sentate President Murray and her gang are not setting the "reform" bar unreasonably low after all:
Senate President Therese Murray reiterated her insistence Thursday that the state wring cost-savings out of the transportation system before hitting up payers of taxes and tolls, brushing off Patrick administration criticism that “reform before revenue” is a “meaningless slogan.” During testimony before the Transportation Committee, she said, “It is not just a slogan or a sound-bite. It’s a principle.” Murray said, “As public officials, we should not be so careless or quick to throw tax-payer money into a broken system.” She called a rush to boost the state’s gas tax, which Gov. Deval Patrick has posited as the only way to avoid a March 29 turnpike toll increase, premature.

Bogus poll on gas tax hike

Sometime in the next couple of days you will start to hear and read the following refrain: "A majority of Massachusetts voters support an increase in the gas tax." Support for this contention, if it is offered, will be sought in an "advocates' poll" reported last evening by the State House News Service.

It seems "a coalition of interest groups advocating a higher fuel levy" paid polling firm Opinion Dynamics to conduct a poll. The purported result? "Fifty-four percent of voters surveyed said they would back the 20 cent per gallon increase to the 23.5 cent [current] rate..."

Any time you see a poll released by an advocacy group that just happens to support that group's position, you need to look a bit closer. When that result stands at stark variance to the reality you live in every day, look a lot closer. Here, the flaw in this poll is not hard to find. The tail end of that sentence above from the State House News Service is "... if the new revenue were certain to stimulate the economy."

"Certain to stimulate the economy." What kind of a qualifier is that? Would you pay an extra 20 cents per gallon of gas for a guarantee that your life will get better? That the news will stop telling you every morning that the economy is tanking? That the phone will stop ringing with bad news of jobless friends and family? Well heck, sure. Of course in life, say nothing of government, nothing is "certain." And the notion that higher taxes ever "stimulate the economy" is hogwash. Even Governor Patrick does not try to sell that snake oil.

So this poll is worthless, and anyone using it as a talking point has a transparent agenda. Governor Patrick's recent approval ratings plunge is a much more reliable barometer of the public mood on the gas tax. He is not in the low twenties because his voice is grating.

[Update, March 13] : Thought so. From the State House News Service:
Contradicting an early poll paid for and touted by a gas tax advocacy group, a new poll shows Massachusetts residents, by a two-to-one margin oppose Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed 19-cent increase to the state’s 23.5-cent gas tax. The Western New England College poll of 545 adults found that 66 percent oppose the governor’s plan, while only 30 percent support it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gimme Shelter

With apologies to Mick and the boys, it seems a political storm is threatening some pols' very lives today. At least that is the message from "progressive House member" Representative Matthew Patrick, who is begging "non-profit groups" to give his colleagues some "political cover" to pass a gas tax increase. From the State House News Service:
Lawmakers in some parts of the state need assistance from outside groups in order to back a gas tax increase, one progressive House member said today. Rep. Matthew Patrick (D-Falmouth) said non-profit groups should launch letter-writing campaigns in support of lifting the fuel levy. “We’re getting hammered,” Patrick said during a meeting with Transportation Secretary James Aloisi. “I don’t know about the city people, but Cape Cod, western Mass., we’re getting killed. Give us the political cover we need.”
I'm not sure how much "cover" Rep. Patrick (no relation to the gas-taxer-in-chief) thinks he will get from a few letters sent by non-profits. The voters who have sent Governor Patrick's approval rating below sea level are not likely to be swayed by entreaties from Boston-based special interest groups.

Maybe Rep. Patrick was referring to the Boston Globe, itself a non-profit these days, and a long-standing cheerleader for a gas tax hike. Apparently the editors of the Globe heeded the call in record time, and rushed to churn out today's editorial to convince, cajole, brow-beat and/or shame voters into supporting an increased levy. Then again, the drafting should not have taken much effort, since the arguments are pretty much verbatim what Governor Patrick's office has pumped out since releasing his proposal a couple of weeks back, right down to the "less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day" line.

That argument is such garbage. Sure, the direct cost to the "average driver" of a 19 cent gas tax hike, in isolation, would be "less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day." But I already buy a cup of coffee - I don't want to buy the state one too. More to the point, this additional cost does not stand in isolation - it will be piled on top of the countless other "relative pittances" (Globe's term) pulled out of our pockets every day by the Commonwealth. Sure, 19 cents a gallon is a "relative pittance" - relative to the entire state draw from our paychecks, that is.

The rest of the Globe's argument today is, if anything, less convincing (and more condescending):

A group of Boston-based political establishment figures posing as "the business lobby" last week floated their own 25 cent gas tax hike proposal. To the Globe, this ruse "underscored how reasonable the governor is being" with his 19 cent proposal. The voters, on the other hand, have proposed a ZERO cent increase, which by the Globe's logic must underscore that the Governor is being very unreasonable indeed... right? Come to think of it, the voters also "proposed" an income tax rollback a few years ago - but that is a whole different rant.

Then the Globe plays the civic duty card: "It's the least citizens can do for each other in difficult times to fill potholes, fortify bridges, and fulfill a vision of efficient, affordable public transportation." Know what, Globe? It's the least our elected officials can do for their constituents to wring every penny of savings out of a bloated, corrupt and patronage-laden system before they increase our taxes, especially in the midst of a recession.

They briefly detour into the nonsensical: "Commuters in congested areas are trying to get off the roads completely, as evidenced by the large numbers of people using rail, subway, and bus service." But but but, Globe!! If commuters "get off the roads completely," then who will pay the increased gas tax that, according to you, is so crucial to "fill potholes, fortify bridges, and fulfill a vision of efficient, affordable public transportation"?? It is such a conundrum.

They buy into the Governor's recent bait-and-switch (surprise): "The 19-cent rise would give Massachusetts the nation's highest gas tax, at 42 cents. But that is far less of a burden than the prospect of $7 tunnel tolls."

And they end with the obligatory finger wag at the ultimate villain of the roadways, the eco-rapist SUV driver: "And for those who find the gas tax a shock because they are driving a SUV, this might be just the stimulus they need to get them to park that vehicle, for good."

Are you convinced yet? Me neither. I am, however, even more irritated by the gas tax talk than I was before I clicked into this morning's Globe. This probably isn't the kind of shelter Rep. Patrick was seeking.

Gas tax hike, children. It's just a vote away.