Thursday, April 30, 2009

Read Mary Connaughton's blog today

She provides an excellent re-cap of the ongoing debacle that is "transportation reform" in Massachusetts. Must-read if you care about such things.

For anyone joining the Pike debate already in progress, Mary is a Turnpike Board member and the sole figure left in the mix who can claim the title "tollpayer advocate." She knows this stuff cold and is not afraid - obviously - to speak her mind and rock the boat.

UPDATE (November 2009): Mary is no longer a member of the Turnpike Board (which no longer exists). Oddly, Governor Patrick declined to appoint her to the state's new Transportation mega-board. Mary is no longer blogging about Pike and transportation issues. All of these sad developments are more than off-set, however, by the fact that Mary has thrown her hat into the ring and is running for state Auditor.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques come to the Massachusetts House

Recall that yesterday, in the wake of the House vote to raise the state sales tax by 25%, House Ways and Means Chair Charley Murphy took exception to Rep Karyn Polito's suggestion that Democratic arms had been twisted to secure Speaker DeLeo's desired veto-proof margin. “There were discussions,” said Murphy. “There was no arm-twisting or anything like that.”

How strange, then, to see this posting at Blue Mass Group, every Massachusetts liberal's favorite blog for "reality-based commentary on politics and policy in Massachusetts":
Freshman Rep. James Cantwell is a different man today than he was yesterday. The Marshfield double eagle switched his vote to help put Bobby DeLeo over the top with the sales tax increase. In return Cantwell got some goodies for Marshfield in the bond bill.
Does Cantwell realize that the Governor decides which projects in the bond bill get funded? Always more projects than bond money. In other words, does Cantwell know he switched his vote in return for nothing?
Will his vote be there for the veto?
Several people got things in the budget to switch. Mike Rodriques made some moves to make the best of it and start his long journey back to a winning team.
Carolyn Dykema succumbed to leadership after what some considered water boarding.

While I am mildly heartened to learn that my own Rep. apparently held out for at least a while, only succumbing after the legislative equivalent of the technique that broke Khalid Sheik Mohammed, that and 6.25 cents will get me... well, it will get me what a nickel got me before the House voted to increase the sales tax by 25 percent. In any event, I hope she at least traded that capitulation for some good, quality horses.

House leadership had better hope President Obama doesn't decide to prosecute whoever authorized Chairman Murphy's "discussions."

"Change Agenda" seems so.... 2008

Give him credit for chutzpah. Not a month removed from an no-holds-barred effort to cram a highest-in-the-nation gas tax down our collective throat, Governor Patrick has abruptly shifted back into campaign mode, resurrected his "change" rhetoric, and initiated a reform offensive against the Legislature. The reason for this about-face is hardly a mystery - lately Patrick is only marginally more popular than a pig with the sniffles.

Legislative leaders seem disinclined to let him get away with this about-face, though. There are a few choice passages in this morning's Globe that indicate a high level of consternation amongst Patrick's erstwhile compatriots.
"You can't govern by press release; that's what Romney used to do," [Senate President Terese] Murray said in an interview. "I'm surprised that a Democratic governor who has gotten nothing but full cooperation [has set] this tone. It sounds to me like his campaign people have taken over and the policy people have been put in the background. The campaign is full swing ahead. Maybe he's responding to bad poll numbers, I don't know.
Ouch. Playing the Romney card. Of course, 49% of voters recently told Rasmussen that Romney was a better Governor than Patrick, so maybe Patrick is onto something?

Speaker DeLeo, for his part, was more measured, preferring simply to remind voters of Patrick's oh-so-recent push for a series of tax increases.
"We decided to go a different way," DeLeo said. "We decided we didn't want a 19 cent gas tax [increase]. We decided we didn't want a sugar tax. We decided we didn't want an alcohol tax. We decided that the best and most fiscally prudent way to go was the sales tax we proposed."
Patrick seems more than a little desperate, mining his 2006 campaign talking points (or perhaps President Obama's 2008 campaign talking points? Same diff, as the kids say) for the lines that once won him ecstatic cheers, media adulation and "Yes We Can!" chants that must today still ring bitterly in his ears.

"The people want change, and they deserve it."
"It's going to take more than the usual jaw-boning to impress upon the Legislature that the public cares about this change agenda."
"Call your state rep and senator. Tell them you want real reform."
"Look, if we spent more time on making the Commonwealth better than we do on politics and political speculation we'd all be better off."

Yaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwn. Having seen now what actions Patrick had in mind when he exhorted his supporters to chant the maddeningly unspecific tag-line of his candidacy, is anyone buying this stuff any more?

"The public cares about this change agenda," Patrick claims. The problem is, now we know what he means by "change." He means higher taxes. He means higher tolls. He means patronage hires. He means Jim Aloisi and Diane Wilkerson and Marian Walsh.

The Governor saying 'the public wants a change agenda' is all well and good, in the abstract; like saying 'the public wants to see a great movie.' But if his idea of a great movie is a documentary about oral surgery, well, suddenly everyone stops chanting.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Baby Steps (and see if your Rep voted for a 25% sales tax hike)


I have been known on more than a few occasions to complain about the Massachusetts Legislature's habit of "debating" important matters of public concern - most significantly, the state budget - in Democratic caucus chambers, behind a closed door.

I am happy to read in a bulletin from the State House News Service this afternoon, then, that the House is making some progress toward the democratic ideal of transacting public business by way of open and public debate. Reporting on the ongoing jockeying over state spending, the SHNS observes:
Consolidated amendments this year are not being hashed out in a backroom off the House. Instead, amendments are being hashed out in private talks on the floor.
Baby steps, baby steps - but at least moving in the right direction. Maybe in a few years we'll have a functioning democracy again.

The graphic (if you are having a hard time reading it, double click and it should open slightly larger) is the roll call sheet for the 25 percent sales tax vote. Take a look and see if your Rep. voted to raise your taxes during a recession. It is a good bet he or she did.

Here's an interesting note: Of the 15 newly-elected House members (all Democrats), 13 voted for the tax hike. The only exceptions were Jim Arciero of Westford and Dennis Rosa of Leominster.

A junkie might wish for more free time to track the various pet projects being stuffed back in to what we have been told is a bare boned budget, to compare the sponsors of those projects with the votes that lined up to give Speaker DeLeo his 25 percent tax increase with a veto-proof majority.

Happily, Rep. Karyn Polito (R(no kidding)- Shrewsbury) is saving us the trouble. Also from SHNS:
Rep. Karyn Polito (R-Shrewsbury) intimated there might have been some horse-trading at work last night as DeLeo attempted to round up votes to veto-proof the sales tax hike, which Patrick suggested he'll sign if lawmakers send him "satisfactory" reform bills. “I will be watching closely to see what additions and special projects are added to the budget,” she said. “I’m interested to see how the speaker arrived at his final vote total.”
New House Ways and Mean Chair Charley Murphy took exception. “There were discussions,” he said. “There was no arm-twisting or anything like that.”

Uh-huh. That is even less credible than his attempts to characterize the no-tax-increases budget his committee floated a couple of weeks back as "real."

Laugh it up, Rep. Hecht

Are you a Republican living in Watertown? Or a one of the many Democrats or Independents who are fed up with the way things are done in this state? Do you know one? This item is for you.

The House passed its 25 percent sales tax boost last night, with a veto-proof margin. In other breaking news, Dunkin' Donuts served coffee this morning.

This bit from the State House News ought to get under your skin:
Members joked about the electoral risks in backing higher taxes. Endorsing the tax hike in his maiden speech, Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) said he had been elected last September without facing a Republican opponent.
“Perhaps that will change after this vote,” Hecht said, drawing laughs from colleagues.
Ho ho. Good one.

Of course Rep. Hecht can joke, and his colleagues can share a chuckle, because they know that - yet another tax increase notwithstanding - the chances that he will face a serious challenger next cycle (or ever in his career, however long he decides to remain in the House) are slim.

I continue to hope/think that even here in Massachusetts, there has to be a tipping point. If there is, then maybe little "jokes" like Rep. Hecht's push us just a little bit closer to the paradigm shift necessary to stifle all of this laughter at taxpayer expense once and for all.

Take a look at this clip from Boston.com. Dollars to doughnuts the second woman interviewed works at the State House...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Governor Patrick threatens veto of sales tax increase

Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems his abysmal poll numbers of late do in fact bother our Governor.

Today he responded to news that Speaker Bob DeLeo is pushing a 25 percent sales tax increase by issuing a letter threatening to veto the increase if it comes to his desk.

First reaction: Bravo. About time. I do not particularly care what political calculations inform this move - this sales tax nonsense needs a crib strangling. Word coming off the Hill this afternoon is that DeLeo's forces are 10 votes short of the 106 required for passage of the hike with a veto-proof majority. This fun note comes from the State House News Service: "Exchanges on the House floor are said to be feisty, with some members delivering expletive-laden rejections to members of DeLeo's leadership team trying to corral votes." The fact that the Governor's letter pushed them to this point is a good thing... right?

But then the cynic in me demands I give Patrick's letter a second, closer read. And, sigh, my enthusiasm is dampened.

First, the Governor's claim that a gas tax increase, which would hit everyone in the state who drives or rides in a motor vehicle, is "targeted" is quite a stretch. The claim that it would "create jobs and support economic growth" is just unfiltered hogwash.

Patrick's crocodile tears over supposed "broad-based" tax increases, then, are... less than credible.

This, like just about everything else, is political. By fighting back DeLeo's broad-based tax increase, Patrick simultaneously scores political points with voters who are not paying close attention (note his disingenuous cries of "reform first"), and vastly improves the chances of passage for his own preferred tax hike - the gas tax increase.

DeLeo would raise $900 million per year by increasing the sales tax by 25 percent, to one of the highest in the nation. Patrick would raise $500 million per year by nearly doubling the gas tax to - you guessed it! - the highest in the nation (or so the sticker on the pump at my local filling station reminds me roughly once a week). He would also nickel-and-dime us to death with an array of smaller tax increases on items that he, in his wisdom, deems bad for us (alcohol, tobacco, candy, soda).

Both plans would enact broad-based tax hikes in the midst of a recession. Both would lift Massachusetts to "highest in the nation" status at a time when the state is already bleeding employers and population. The difference is less in magnitude than approach - Patrick wants a number of "targeted" hikes, whereas the House is (for political reasons) drifting toward the "one and done" approach. Both are terrible ideas.

The fact that these two hikes are presented as alternatives speaks volumes, yet again, about the need to get ourselves a functioning two-party system. Legislative Republicans are doing their level best with limited manpower and resources (they corralled a good group of business representatives on short notice today to protest the sales tax plan), but there is only so much that can be expected of them with such diminished numbers.

Coincidence?

Days after sending consumers and the state's business community to red alert with a 40% sales tax hike trial balloon, this morning House Speaker DeLeo is settling back into what was likely his real plan all along - a 25% sales tax hike.

According to the Boston Globe:
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo today plans to push a 1.25 percent sales tax increase, which would bring the state's 5 percent sales tax to 6.25 percent, and bring in an estimated $900 million in new revenue.
On the same day, another Globe headline reads: "U.S. declares swine flu emergency."

Coincidence? It seems the pigs are coming to get us, one way or another.

Note the Globe's weasel words in the paragraph above: "a 1.25 percent sales tax increase." In fact, what DeLeo is to increase the sales tax by 1.25 percent, from 5.0 percent to 6.25 percent. That is a twenty-five percent increase in the state sales tax.

Meanwhile, Governor Patrick - who has very recently himself proposed a number of tax increases - is trying to reposition himself as voice of fiscal conservatism (remember, everything is relative) here. From the State House News Service: "Patrick on Friday said he was "very skeptical of a sales tax, which many see as regressive because it does not factor income levels."

Unlike, say a 19 cent per gallon gas tax increase and toll hikes, which do"factor income levels" by... um... never mind.

But hey, at least our new Speaker, who ran for his current post promising more openness and transparency in the budget process, is giving opponents plenty of time to weigh in on his plan. Or maybe not. Globe:
DeLeo and his leadership team began polling House lawmakers yesterday afternoon in an effort to gauge support. House Democrats plan to hold a caucus this morning to further lay out their strategy.
That "caucus" to "lay out their strategy" will be held in private. The State House News reports this morning that "the plan," which had it's first public airing today, "will likely see a vote Monday [today] during the House's first day debating its fiscal 2010 budget." Further, "An order adopted by the House precludes members from proposing tax amendments once the bill receives initial approval, which could come on Monday."

That order has two effects: it will lock the 25% sales tax hike, and it will provide House members with political cover by barring the chamber's flock of super-liberals from filing their own, additional tax hike proposals. Again from the SHNS:
Roughly five dozen amendments to the House blueprint would raise taxes, but many members would prefer to vote on a single tax package rather than taking a string of tax votes.
Saw that coming. SHNS: "Enthusiasm for a 25-percent sales tax hike marks a retreat for House leaders, who earlier this month published a no-new-taxes, $27.4 billion budget proposal..."

To say the initial House budget was a line in the sand gives it too much credit. That farce was a line carved in water.

Friday, April 24, 2009

That's 40%, for the record

Globe this morning:

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has begun to seriously consider a plan to increase the sales tax from 5 percent to 7 percent, which would give Massachusetts one of the highest sales taxes in the country, said a State House official who has been briefed on the speaker's deliberations.

This will be described as a mere "two cents on the dollar."

For the record, what they are contemplating is a forty percent increase in the state sales tax.

Of course in all likelihood this is just another bait-and-switch. There are several proposals "on the table" that would increase the sales tax to 6 cents. Having spooked the state with the prospect of a 40% increase, watch for the House to approve a "mere" 20% hike.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An oldie and a baddie

Now that Speaker DeLeo has declared open season on sales tax hike proposals at the State House, some of the House's most liberal members are blasting away with both barrels.

According to the State House News Service, sixty amendments to the House budget (that "realistic" document that did not propose a single tax increase) would "collectively raise the state's revenue collection by billions." Translation: they would raise taxes by billions. With a 'B.' The SHNS continues:
lawmakers have bandied about proposals to hike the state sales tax by 2 percentage points to 7 percent, increase the gas tax as much as 29 cents (about $26 million is generated with every penny increase), increase the income tax by a percentage point, tax junk food and alcohol, and give cities and towns the option to raise the sales tax on meals and hotels by up to 3 percentage points.
That does not include the real kicker of the day, though. Again, from the SHNS:
Call it the $8 billion conversation. That’s the size of the tax take Rep. Peter Kocot says the state could haul in should it expand the reach of the sales tax to cover hundreds of services state residents and businesses rely on every day – from haircuts and landscaping to legal services... He hopes the proposal will “start a discussion” on the various exemptions that tamp down the state’s revenue collections “in a year where the economy is suffering, middle class families are having a tough time making ends meet.”
Though generally I try to show the proper respect for points of view that differ from mine, this one is impossible to sugar-coat. This idea is moronic - almost unfathomably stupid.

Seasoned observers will recall that Governor Dukakis tried this move before. It is part of the reason he was, er, replaced by Governor Weld. Aside from the manifest idiocy of raising taxes by eight billion dollars (I was going to type "in the midst of a recession," but that qualifier is unnecessary - an $8B tax increase in the context of a $28B budget is sheer lunacy in any context), there are serious federal constitutional issues raised by the fact that the Kocot proposal would impose the state sales tax on, among other things, internet transactions (sales, travel bookings, email, postings on electronic bulletin boards... you name it, Kocot wants to tax it).

Even assuming legal hurdles could be cleared, this tax would make Massachusetts the only state to apply its sales tax to services in this way. How will the businesses that provide these services react? By joining the already steady parade of businesses that are pulling up stakes and moving to rational and stable economic environments.

Happily, even here in Massachusetts a proposal so radical as this one is unlikely to gain much traction (he types with more than a hint of misgiving). It is another good illustration of the insanity wending its way through the State House this year, though.

The State House News Service article quoted above has another fun passage:
Another amendment, filed by Revenue Committee vice-chair Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), would apply the sales tax to gasoline, which is currently exempt from the state’s 5 percent levy. Gasoline is taxed separately at a rate of 23.5 cents per gallon. “I filed it to keep open the options with respect to finding sufficient funds to address the funding of our transportation agencies,” Peisch said, adding she envisioned the proposal would be “in lieu of” a gas tax... Peisch said lawmakers may prefer a sales tax on gasoline instead of a gas tax hike because “it just makes it all part of the sales tax instead of having a separate type of tax for gasoline.”
Isn't she the tricky one? “I’m less interested in how we raise it than that we raise it,” she said.

That's a shocker.

Hardball leads to concessions at the Pike

Here's the beginning of an article in today's Boston Globe about a "rethinking of planned cost reductions at the Mass Pike in the wake of Easter Sunday's massive back-ups:
Backlash from Easter Sunday traffic snarls will delay or derail several cost-cutting measures, including planned layoffs, at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The authority and Governor Deval Patrick had previously pointed to the toll-taker layoffs as evidence that the oft-criticized agency would deal with fiscal troubles by cutting costs in addition to relying on toll increases. But after the traffic problems on Easter, when a lack of toll takers on duty backed cars up as far as 8 miles at some interchanges, Patrick and Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., who chairs the authority's board, said the agency must put more emphasis on customer service and rethink the planned cost reductions.

Golly. Let's see if we can track what happened, in the simplest possible terms:

1) The Pike announced plans for immediate cost-cutting measures, to include toll-taker layoffs.

2) On Easter Sunday, an inordinate number of toll takers called in sick, causing massive traffic jams and a political uproar.

3) The Pike has canceled the planned toll-taker layoffs.

My 18-month old could peg the cause-and-effect in that progression.

The Globe article is in itself extraordinary, in that it is at pains to avoid identifying the obvious toll-taker union ploy and its resounding success. No mention is made of the sick-out. The only allusion to this extortion-by-traffic-jam scheme is a brief mention of "the traffic problems on Easter, when a lack of toll takers on duty backed cars up as far as 8 miles at some interchanges". No reason is identified for that "lack of toll takers on duty." This is puzzling, since the sick-out has been well documented, even in the Globe itself. A cynic might wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the Globe's own unions are currently in a life-or-death struggle to save the publication from being shut down by its owners, the New York Times. This is no time for Globe reporters to be criticizing organized labor, even by implication.

Anyhow, the Pike's policy flop-over gets better. Instead of laying off toll-takers (who make more than twice as much as Assistant District Attorneys in the state court system, by the way), the Pike "soon begin hiring seasonal toll takers to work in the summer, a practice [Director Alan LeBovidge] had hoped to end."

LeBovidge's stated rationale is a gem: "The focus, clearly, by the chairman is . . . customer service," LeBovidge said after the meeting. "We can't have customer service if we get rid of a lot of toll takers."

The Herald's coverage describes LeBovidge as "contrite." That is a charitable description. "The chairman" he is referring to is, of course, Jim Aloisi, that master of "customer service" who recently compared toll hikes to a turkey sandwich and disparaged travelers who would like to park at the airport as clinging to their "comfy little worlds."

So after a transparent sick-out caused a whole lot of political feces to the Pike's fan, toll-takers are suddenly transformed from over-paid anachronisms to essential customer service agents. No word as to whether they will be required to wear a minimum number of pieces of flair, or even offer a polite smile to drivers as they collect ever-increasing toll payments.

To be clear, I do not blame the unions or the toll-takers in the least for this state of affairs. These people have an objective, and that objective is, very rationally, to preserve their jobs at all costs. Their tactics can be described as "hardball," and sure, they ruined a lot of Easters a couple of weeks back. But their motivation is eminently comprehensible.

It would be nice, however, if our elected leaders and their appointees could show just a little bit of spine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This is mildly encouraging

From the State House News Service:
PRO-TAX/SERVICES RALLY DRAWS 40: A rally to support new taxes and the restoration of government services drew only about 40 people to the front of the State House Wednesday morning. Protesters talked about the importance of funding for jobs programs for young people and, spinning the reform before revenue slogan that legislative leaders have adopted, called for "reform and revenue." No lawmakers attended.
Not much of a turnout for a rally several days in the planning. On the other hand, the fact that none of the legislators who have been agitating for a tax hike behind closed doors deigned to show up and put their arguments out in public does not bode well for the prospect of an open and transparent budget debate.

It was 1993.

The world was stunned and delighted by the realistic dinosaurs in the hit movie Jurassic Park.

The World Wide Web was born.

Bill Clinton began his first term as President of the United States.

The European Union was established with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

Beanie Babies hit toy store shelves for the first time.

Microsoft rolled out its Windows operating system / Intel introduced the Pentium chip.

The average movie ticket cost $4.14. The average new home - $113,200.

The Dow Jones closed the year at 3654.

And Tom Menino was elected Mayor of Boston.

Today, Menino will announce his run for an unprecedented fifth term as Mayor, running on the slogan: "Moving Boston Forward" (in Menino-speak, "movinbahstunfuwwud").

That's just silly.

"This is going to be a very, very interesting debate" - but will it be an open one?

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo's announcement that he is "open-minded" to a twenty percent sales tax increase comes as no surprise. As reported in the Globe this morning,
The speaker's refusal to rule out higher taxes was another indication that a tax vote is on the horizon. Lawmakers have filed a slew of proposed amendments to the House budget that would increase taxes. Liberal lawmakers and social-service advocates are pushing for tax increases, saying that the budget cuts unveiled by the House Ways and Means Committee are intolerably deep.
Liberal legislators, unions, mayors, and others have predictably spent the last week pushing hard for a whole slew of tax increases (they are having a rally at the State House today, in fact). I have no problem with that. I believe to the marrow of my bones that a tax increase of any kind in the midst of a deep recession is the pinnacle of fiscal stupidity, but opinions vary. I am okay with the knowledge that a declaration of "open-mindedness" is, here in Massachusetts, simply the penultimate step before outright support. The Speaker is entitled to his position. That is what makes our system work.

Or at least that is what is supposed to make our system work. Last year, the state budget that, as passed, began its life already at least a billion dollars out of balance was "debated" entirely behind closed doors. It was, in fact, debated behind closed doors intentionally, by the terms of the "Rule" (a piece of legislation passed at the outset of the process, to set the terms of 'debate') passed overwhelmingly by the House. That Rule called for amendments to be "debated" in Democratic caucus chambers - quite literally behind a closed door, with the public, the press, and the minority party excluded. In the best illustration I have yet seen of the hubris of the Democrats in this state, then Rules Committee Chair Rep. Antonio Scaccia told the State House News that "the Members like it that way."

Back to the topic at hand, discussing his "open-mindedness" to a sales tax increase, newly-minted Speaker DeLeo (who campaigned in part on a pledge of new openness) said, "There has not been any decisions made, but I am meeting constantly . . . to try to formulate some ideas of where the membership lies. This is going to be a very, very interesting debate." So far, those meetings have been held in private, and it is a good bet that nobody involved in them bears the Scarlet 'R.'

If our elected representatives are truly convinced that the over-taxed citizens of Massachusetts (70 percent of whom just told Rasmussen that they fear resurrection of the 'Taxachusetts' label) must be taxed further, then let them stand up on the floor of the House and the Senate and explain themselves.

In related news, as reported by the Boston Herald,

DeLeo’s bare-bones budget has had one predictable outcome, whetting the appetites of rank-and-file lawmakers for a broad-based tax hike. State Rep. Brian Wallace (D-South Boston) said there is a growing acceptance of some kind of tax increase in the Legislature, because it’s the only way to restore their pet projects. Said Wallace: “We’re going to have to do something with taxes, I think. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wow - Patrick down to 33%

Thirty-three percent. That is the percentage of voters who told Rasmussen that they would vote again for Governor Patrick (if he runs again, which he won't). His job approval rating is one percent better - at a Bush-level 34 percent.

Here's a fun finding: "Forty-nine percent (49%) say Patrick’s Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney, did a better job as governor, while 32% say Patrick is the better of the two." Ouch. Governor Romney was not exactly popular at the end of his term (largely because of the Patrick-campaign-fueled misperception that he was neglecting the state for his presidential run).

How to explain all this: Well:
70% of the state’s voters are afraid Massachusetts is once again becoming “Tax-achusetts.” Just 24% disagree. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of Republicans, 59% of Democrats and 74% of voters not affiliated with either party share this concern.
Whatever would give people that idea?

A pig just flew past my window

At least that is how I feel after reading this Boston Globe editorial and realizing that I agree with almost every word. There is a decided chill in Hades this morning.

Perhaps finally deciding, on the week of its "save us from the Times" rally, to go after the fiscally sane readers market, the Globe hits a laundry list of overdue, cost-saving reforms that reads like... well, like the campaign literature of any number of last cycle's failed Republican candidates (cough).

MBTA pensions, the Quinn Bill (they are a day late on that one), public employee health premiums, Municipal GIC, regionalization... they even go after "High Hack Holidays" (Patriots Day, Bunker Hill Day, Evacuation Day, when Beacon Hill loafs while the rest of the economy soldiers on) and the Governor's Council.

That last one is almost gratuitous, but I love it. Only a tiny percentage of our citizens know the first thing about how our state judges are selected, vetted and confirmed. A smaller percentage still has ever witnessed the slapstick comedy that is a Governor's Council hearing. They take place Wednesdays at noon in the Governor's conference room, and they are in theory open to the public. For two years it was part of my job to sit through each and every hearing, and afterwards I often commented come noontime on Wednesday that I felt deprived of my favorite sit-com.

I do not have the words to describe the dysfunction of even the average, uneventful meeting of this crew, say nothing of the frequent meetings that descend into shouting, conspiracy theories, name-calling and even tears. Oh, and I am typing about the elected Governor's Councillors, not the nominees (many of whom leave looking shell-shocked).

Happily, due to a recent controversial nomination, a group called the Fatherhood Coalition took it upon itself to record and post some hearing footage. I know nothing of this group or its agenda, but they have certainly done a public service here, via You Tube. Take a look and be appalled.

In the meantime, I am going to print and keep today's Globe editorial, as a reminder to myself that in this crazy old world, truly anything can happen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Something to do this Friday if my eye-gouging appointment falls through

From the State House News Service comes the following announcement:
GLOBE RALLY PLANNED FOR NEXT FRIDAY: "Political leaders" will be among those rallying to "save the Boston Globe," according to organizers of a rally Friday against the prospect of the newspaper's closing. Globe employees, readers, and labor leaders are also scheduled to attend the noon Faneuil Hall event, hosted by the Boston Newspaper Guild. "Tell the New York Times The Boston Globe Belongs to Boston," urges a press release from O'Neill and Associates, the public affairs firm hired by the union.
Families enjoying school vacation week will doubtless cancel preexisting plans and rush back to Boston to attend this historic event. After all, who could pass up the chance to see the state's "political leaders" fighting to save their imperiled PR arm?

The slogan that connected spinmeisters O'Neill and Associates have come up with to galvanize the public in support of the Globe is puzzling: "Tell the New York Times The Boston Globe belongs to Boston." The New York Times can be forgiven if it begs to differ. In point of fact, the Boston Globe currently belongs to the New York Times. I'll bet it even has some of those legal document type things to prove it.

The organizing of a rally to "save" the newspaper is also a curious move. Undoubtedly the intention is to demonstrate the strong support the Globe has in "the community." I am sure there will be a lot of people there, and voices will be adequately amplified as they rail against the tyranny of owners who would like their investment to stop hemorrhaging money. Most of the attendees, though, will be employees and/or associated union members instructed to be there. A better way for "the community" to show support for a newspaper would be to, you know, pay for the paper. But fewer and fewer people are doing that, here and elsewhere.

Last weekend over breakfast I opened my laptop and began to peruse the news of the day, from outlets both local and international. My wife put on her slippers, retrieved the Wall Street Journal from the driveway and spread it across the table. I mused at the strangeness of continuing to read "the paper" on actual paper, when everything currently covering our kitchen table is readily available in a convenient, interactive, and often free (though not in the case of the Journal) electronic package. There is something very last century about the notion of relegating news to daily delivery by way of a rolled up packet of flimsy paper. The Journal in front of my wife bears a closer relationship to medieval parchment than to the text scrolling down my computer screen.

Many in Massachusetts look at the Globe's troubles and do not bother to suppress a harumph of satisfaction. That is what they get for their predictably biased coverage, their refusal to use the word "terrorist," their very recent, intentional neglect of the home-grown Tax Day "tea party" phenomenon. I am sure there is something to this, but it is only part of the story. Plenty of people have given up on the Globe because of its flagrant ideology. Many more people - and advertisers - are giving up on newspapers because, perhaps, their time has come and gone.

I canceled my home subscription shortly after it published its infamous "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" editorial, one of the most appalling expectorations of gratuitous and idiotic moral relativism in history. For a time, I refused even to read the Globe's online output, on the rationale that each of my clicks feeds some small bit of advertising revenue into the paper's coffers.

Over time, though, I came to realize that even with its biases, the Globe's coverage of local politics and government is must reading for someone, like me, who cares about and follows such things. I compromised by adding the (free) online version to my daily reading. I link to it frequently from this blog. I did not, however, renew my subscription - not so much out of lingering disgust (though that is there) as a realization that there is no reason (other than a philanthropic impulse to "contribute" to the paper) to do so. The "hard copy" is often outdated by the time it is delivered. It is not as convenient to read. It is messy. It is profoundly "un-green" (in many quarters the worst thing to be these days).

I am not sure what to think about the potential death of the Boston Globe. I imagine that the ultimate outcome, eventually if not this year, will be transition to web-only publication. If that happens, I hope the inevitable down-sizing will preserve its local political coverage, one of the only elements of the paper that is not readily obtained elsewhere.

One thing I do know: I will probably have something else to do this Friday. I'm sure I'll be able to read all about the rally in the Globe.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"There is growing support for raising the sales tax."

Well, that certainly did not take long. Just two days after releasing its "decimation" budget and garnering wall-to-wall press coverage for omitting any tax increases, the Globe reports today that
Small-town mayors, liberal legislators, and deeply worried advocates for the poor launched impassioned campaigns yesterday to increase the Massachusetts sales tax to offset severe budget cuts...
and
[N]early three dozen House Democrats met behind closed doors yesterday to hammer out budget amendments, with consensus beginning to develop around pushing a sales tax hike and new local-option taxes.
"There is growing support for raising the sales tax," said Representative Ruth B. Balser, a Newton Democrat. "We can spend one more penny on the dollar when we purchase nonessential items and maintain our police force, fire, and teachers. Or we can hold onto that one penny and make those drastic cuts. That's a debate we're going to have."
Never fear! you think. Surely Senate President Therese ("Reform Before Revenue") Murray can be counted on to stop this tax madness? Not according to the Globe: "Senate President Therese Murray told reporters this week that she was still open to a sales tax hike..."

No need to worry! you say. Governor Patrick pledged repeatedly, emphatically (some might say self-righteously?) that he would not support broad-based tax increases. Uh-oh:
"I have ruled it out, but also I don't want to be a jerk with the Legislature," Patrick said earlier this month during a WTKK-FM radio appearance.
One senses that "ruled it out" means something different to Patrick than to most other English speakers. But we wouldn't want him to be "a jerk with the Legislature." Much better to be a jerk with the voters, blithely breaking yet another in a long march of shattered campaign pledges - especially since he is not going to run again.

The truth is, as it always is in here in the Commonwealth, that there is no bulwark against the tax hikes that are fast approaching and gaining momentum. Note the plural. Do not let the headline on this Globe piece (Sides dig in on sales tax hike) obscure the content. The article also makes casual mention of a litany of other looming hikes. Consensus is building around the sales tax boost "and new local-option taxes" (meals in restaurants, hotel stays, your cable, internet and phone service). And don't forget the gas tax. Globe: "The growing tax debate is sure to complicate the Legislature's consideration of another tax increase in coming weeks, a 19-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike proposed by Governor Deval Patrick." Complicate? Doubt it.

Again, Rep. Dan Bosley's recent admonition to his colleagues is ringing in my ears: "People can't feel like we're raising taxes on them every week. You need . . . to do this one time."

As I and many others suspected, the much-touted, fiscally conservative budget released earlier this week was nothing but a diversionary tactic - a feint to draw artillery fire from pro-tax advocates so that the Legislature could use the smoke and debris created by the resulting explosion of indignation to hustle into position and move on Bosley's advice. They are getting their ducks in a row, and then they will "do this one time." ALL at one time.

Experienced taxers like Rep. Balser are deploying the usual minimalist rhetoric to shame us into rolling over for this latest series of increases.

"We can spend one more penny on the dollar when we purchase nonessential items and maintain our police force, fire, and teachers," she says.

"Massachusetts has one of the lowest sales tax rates in the country," the Globe gamely observes.

One percent! What is all the fuss? these folks ask. And sure, in the grand scheme "one percent," or "one penny on the dollar" does not sound like a lot. But that "penny" represents a twenty percent increase in the state sales tax. If you get a twenty percent raise, that is a lot. If your mortgage servicer or credit card company sends you a letter tomorrow increasing your rate by twenty percent, that would be a lot.

And that penny will hardly be alone in its flight from your wallet to state coffers. "Just a penny" in sales tax. "The price of a cup of coffee" to pay Patrick's gas tax. "A turkey sandwich with a side of potato salad" at the tolls to satisfy Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi. A little more to keep your house wired to the 21st century, to eat at a restaurant, to stay in a motel.

This is the fundamental truth of living in Massachusetts: We don't kill ourselves fiscally with a gunshot to the head. We do ourselves in slowly, with a thousand tiny bites (I can't say "a thousand tiny cuts." We don't DO 'cuts' in Massachusetts).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Any Fool for Governor!

Earlier today I posted, tongue-sort-of-in-cheek, that as a result of the cuts proposed in the House Ways and Means budget, "Bodies will pile up in the streets. A plague of locusts will consume our fields, the Charles will run red with blood and the Wrath of God will crash down upon our greedy, tax-averse heads." Turns out my sarcasm was too restrained.

Check out this article from Boston.com, about a meeting held today in Boston of a number of the Commonwealth's mayors.

Here is the best part:
Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville said, “You’re going to see decimation.” William Scanlon of Beverly added that the cuts would “destroy the fabric of our entire civilization in this state.”
Fellas, take a breath. A 25 percent cut in local aid will hurt, no doubt. In a lot of communities it will hurt a lot. But "decimation"? Destruction of "the fabric of our entire civilization"? Someone needs to check his dosages.

"Any fool can cut budgets," proclaims North Adams Mayor John Barrett. Let me be the first to say it: Any Fool for Governor!

"Critics urge tax hike"

That's the utterly unsurprising sub-headline to the front page, above-the-fold article in today's Globe: House budget would make steep trims.

The first paragraph may as well have been drafted by the Patrick Administration:
Cities and towns would have less money to fight crime and plow streets. The working poor would lose assistance needed to stay in their homes. And fewer seniors would be able to afford home care.
Bodies will pile up in the streets. A plague of locusts will consume our fields, the Charles will run red with blood and the Wrath of God will crash down upon our greedy, tax-averse heads. And that's mild compared to some of the arguments we'll hear before this budget cycle is over.

"The House proposal includes no new taxes and avoids using any state reserves to balance the budget," the Globe observes, "although some lawmakers have started to make the case that tax increases need to be seriously considered, including a sales tax increase." You don't say.

"Patrick has proposed a range of new revenue possibilities, including sales taxes on alcohol and candy and raising the statewide tax on meals and hotel rooms, but the House has not acted," the Globe scolds. But don't worry. "House lawmakers have until Friday to file amendments, which could include broad-based tax proposals." Also, the sun could rise tomorrow, a jump in the river may get you wet, and Lindsay Lohan just might do another stint or two in rehab.

The most infuriating thing about all of this is not the transparency of the House budget ploy. It is the extent to which so much of this was avoidable. During last year's budget debate, House and Senate Republicans hollered to the rafters that the state budget, based as it was on utterly unrealistic economic assumptions, was at least a billion dollars out of whack from inception. nobody listened, preferring to ignore the economic storm clouds on the horizon and take their sunny 2006-esqe economic growth projections into the storm that became 2008-09 (and, not incidentally, into the November '08 election). The hole we are in is very much deeper for their irresponsibility.

On that note, this part of the Globe article is particularly galling:
DeLeo and Murphy have avoided any talk of tax hikes, but a group of lawmakers plans to meet today to discuss possible revenue options. All Democrats were invited to the meeting.
So the foxes will meet to discuss how to solve the overcrowding problem in the hen house. I wonder what solution they will propose?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A good illustration... but this is not a real budget

I was partly wrong in my earlier prediction about the House Budget, which was released earlier today. This budget makes some very serious cuts, as described generally in this Boston.com article:
House lawmakers are releasing a budget this afternoon that includes steep cuts in nearly every area -- from police grants and anti-gang programs to local aid and education grants – that are bound to be met with protests and calls for new taxes.
In fact (here I go again, venturing into paranoia-ville), these cuts appear to be almost too deep to be real. Note the final part of that excerpt: "...that are bound to be met with protests and calls for new taxes." The programs the House has chosen to cut seem carefully selected to provoke the strongest possible reaction. Local aid axed by 25 percent? Police training and education funding eliminated, along with anti-gang grants? These will bring out the teachers, the unions, the local officials, the police, the firefighters... There will be a steady stream of protests at the State House. Powerful unions will roll out radio and television ads. The Globe will launch an immediate series of op-eds, editorials and feature articles highlighting sympathetic programs and individuals impacted by these cuts. All to what end?

Well, consider this: there is not a single "revenue measure" in this House budget. In Massachusetts. This is the same House that has been perfectly willing to implement a series of under-the-radar tax increases over the past year, a House where the Speaker recently acknowledged there is an "appetite" for further increases, specifically on telecom companies doing business in Massachusetts. Last week the Joint Committee on Revenue took a day of testimony on no fewer than 27 tax hike bills. And yet, not a single one made it into the House budget?

Am I the only one whose Spidey sense is tingling? The only one who smells a set-up? Note House Ways and Means chair Charlie Murphy's comment on this budget (from Boston.com): “We’re trying to illustrate the fiscal reality.” Not, "we're trying to pass a realistic budget in lean times." Not, "government has to live within its means." They are creating an illustration, a demonstrative device to emphasize a point. And what point is that?

Recall a recent comment by Rep. Dan Bosley:
"You're not going to get people to vote on four or five different taxes. People can't feel like we're raising taxes on them every week. You need . . . to do this one time."
Now recall the Globe's own prediction about this budget, printed last week:
While a House budget next week with heavy cuts would provoke an uproar from social-service advocates and others, the budget calendar gives lawmakers time to change their minds. And waiting could provide them with more accurate revenue estimates before they commit.
Commenting on that Globe article, I asked at the time, "Could it be that they have recognized the political folly of 'raising taxes... every week,' and have resolved to first reap a political windfall by proposing a responsible budget, only later to 'change their minds' and pass a large tax increase in one fell swoop?"

Now consider Senate President Murray's off-the-cuff answer to a question posed to her just this morning about the budget situation: "It is going to be stark, which is why we need to raise revenue." And there you have your answer to the question "what is this budget intended to 'illustrate.'?

It is intended to illustrate Beacon Hill's secret, pre-determined conclusion: "we need to raise revenue." The hue and cry even now going up in response to these proposed cuts will provide plenty of additional illustration.

Call it triangulation, call it trickery, call it an iced cream sundae. This budget is not truly a budget at all. It is an accelerant, it is gasoline poured uphill from an open flame. It is deliberately calculated to touch off a firestorm of pro-tax hike advocacy, at the end of which the House will 'reluctantly' concede the necessity of raising taxes and will do so, per Bosley's sage advice, in one fell swoop. House members will have their cake and eat it, casting furrowed brow votes for the tax hike they have always wanted, while preserving the ability to tell their voters next year that the House tried valiantly to push a budget with no tax increases.

Maybe I am wrong. I do not think I am. We'll know soon enough.

Happy "Revenue Day"!!

"Revenue Day." Apparently that is how we in the Commonwealth are to refer to the unhappy annual occasion known everywhere else in the United States as "Tax Day" and, this year, known in many places (including Boston) as "Tea Party Day."

Today I have the pleasure of leaving the Commonwealth for, er, Revenue Day, but before I go I attended a Boston Chamber of Commerce political forum breakfast featuring Senate President Therese Murray. She is the originator and most steadfast champion of the "reform before revenue" mantra, and now adds "Revenue Day" to her rhetorical resume. "Here we are, a big important day - Revenue Day." That is how she began her meandering address. I waited for some indication that this was a stab at humor, but none came - not even a soft chuckle or a subtle smile.

"Revenue Day." Those two words speak volumes about how even the "fiscal conservatives" in our one-party legislature look at your tax dollars.

Beyond that pregnant linguistic revision, the substance of Murray's speech did not contain much... substance. She spoke of the dire economy. She hit shared sacrifice, stimulus dollars, "reform before revenue," and even managed in this context to insert liberal doses of self-congratulation for the Senate's "foresight" in positioning the Commonwealth of take full advantage of federal largess by passing medical records reform and incentives to the 'green economy.' I suspect this was a variation of her standard stump speech, which represents a bit of deviation from the norm for these Chamber events, where our political luminaries usually try to take advantage of the broad press coverage to make a little bit of news.

The Q&A was slightly more interesting, and more than slightly ominous. As I noted above, Murray has held the line - at least in word and more than once in deed - on the concept of "reform before revenue." Many observers, me included, have wondered just what that slogan means - how much "reform" will be required to satisfy Murray, and how much distance will fall between that reform and the first "revenue" measure.

Answering a question about the budget gap, Murray indirectly addressed these concerns, and not in a way that will please the taxpayers: "It [the budget] is going to be stark, which is why we need to raise revenue."

A candid, unscripted statement like this supports the growing suspicion that all of this reform talk is merely laying the foundation for a legislative epiphany in the coming months: having exhausted "reform" efforts, they will regretfully announce no choice but to turn aggressively to "revenue."

Happy Revenue Day!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting testy... and be sure to check out Toll Talk

Things are getting testy between Beacon Hill's 'Big Three,' as differences over transportation reform and resistance to Governor Patrick's repeated efforts to raise taxes on everything from gas to a Snickers bar threaten to bubble over to a degree not seen since the House killed Patrick's casino plan over a year ago.

Here is the Globe's coverage of the tiff. And here are some highlights from the State House News Service:
Gov. Deval Patrick charged Monday that the House and Senate have not lived up to their bargain to produce adequate reforms to the transportation system before voting on his proposals to draw new revenue from taxpayers... Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo reacted swiftly to the criticism, Murray deriding as “scare tactics” the administration’s discussions of deep MBTA service reductions, and DeLeo defending the House bill... “We would not frankly be in the situation we are in today, at least in part, if the Legislature had acted on some of the solves that we have proposed,” Patrick said... David Falcone, a spokesman for Murray, whose comments on the MBTA cutbacks were reported by the Associated Press, said in an email, “Solves” is code for taxes.
In different ways, both Patrick and DeLeo/Murray are right. Patrick's transportation reform bill contained, in addition to the headline-dominating gas tax jack, some common-sense reform measures that have disappeared from the Legislature's own bills. Among these are measures to wrap 'Troop E,' the much-derided arm of the Massachusetts State Police assigned exclusively to the Turnpike, back into the overall state force, and a measure to move MBTA workers and retirees into the Group Insurance Commission (GIC). Together, these reforms are estimated to save almost $20 million. How they fell off the table during House and Senate drafting is not hard to guess: both the State Police and the MBTA have two of the most influential unions in the Commonwealth.

On the other hand, based on his track record it is hard to believe that neglected reforms are what really have Governor Patrick's skivvies in a twist. As Falcione observed, "solves" is just the newest Devalism for "taxes."

It is also interesting to note that Patrick's broadside came immediately after his weekly, private meeting with DeLeo and Murray, and it apparently caught the latter two by surprise. From the Globe:

"I think they heard me loud and clear," Patrick said, referring to DeLeo and Murray. "We'll see." Murray sharply disagreed. "I think we probably have a difference of opinion on that," she said. "I'm a little confused. He just gave us a spreadsheet, and we said we'd go and look at it."

I thought this was the sort of thing that sweeping the Republicans out of the corner office was supposed to prevent...

In related news, Pike tollpayer champion and Turnpike Board member Mary Connaughton has started her own blog, Toll Talk, hosted by the Boston Herald. Few in the Commonwealth, either in government or out, understand the Pike and tolling issues better (which is presumably why Transpo Secretary Jim Aloisi recently shoved her off the Pike's audit subcommittee). If you are concerned about tolls and transportation reform, you should add Mary to your reading list.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Go ahead and raise those taxes, you're in Massachusetts!

That's the message sent to our state legislators in today's Globe column by Yvonne Abraham.

Adopting the Globe's official position on taxes (the budget gap is too large to be bridged by cuts and reforms / tax hikes represent the "courageous" move), Abraham seeks to reassure legislators who might hesitate to pull the trigger, fearing voter backlash:
That would have to be quite a backlash. After all, losing reelection in Massachusetts is only slightly more likely than Mayor Tom Menino inviting his opponents to debate. Unless you happen to be photographed shoving money in your underwear, or you hang around Lowell asking women if they're wearing any.
More disconcerting than the sentiment is this: she's probably right. Or at least every bit of recent Massachusetts history would suggest that she is right.

Still, politics swings on a pendulum. The Commonwealth's pendulum swings ponderously slow, but growing voter disgust with the nonsense emanating on a daily basis from Beacon Hill might just mean the pendulum is reaching its nadir, with a slow Republican climb back to political relevance on the way.

"The mess we're in is not of our making, but it belongs to all of us," Abraham declares. She is half right. The mess we're in does "belong to all of us." But it was in fact made by the Democratic machine that has controlled our government for decades on end.

Gradual recognition of that fact, hastened perhaps when the Legislature inevitably takes Abraham's advice and pulls the trigger on a series of tax hikes later this year, might be what finally starts the pendulum swinging back to a rational, functioning two-party system in this state.

"Not a bad outcome for Timmy Bassett"

Alternate title: "That's the way the statute is written."

Alternate title #2: "Reason 627 we need a two-party system in Massachusetts."

This is a fun Easter article in the Globe today, documenting how ex-State Rep. Tim Bassett has collected over $325K in pension benefits, all the while earning a full salary in yet another state job. He scored this bounty by way of a special insertion, authorized (ordered, it seems) by then Speaker Tom Finneran (from whom the "Not a bad outcome" quote comes), in the 1999 state budget.

One might be tempted to read this and think that since the Globe had to grasp back to 1999 to find this abuse, perhaps this sort of thing has been curtailed. One would be wrong. It must have been a fun day in the Bassett household when the phone trilled and the Globe reporter said he had a few questions about Bassett's pension. You can bet there are households all over Massachusetts where Easter is being sullied by the creeping fear that the next ring of the phone will bring news that some enterprising reporter is digging into yet another "special benefit" conferred by the Massachusetts Democratic Machine.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Things to watch for in next week's House budget

The Massachusetts House of Representatives rolls out its budget plan this coming Wednesday. According to the State House News News Service:
House leaders plan to unveil a fiscal 2010 budget Wednesday that lawmakers have warned will include steep spending cuts on top of cuts already implemented this year by Gov. Deval Patrick.
So we have been told. But in assessing the probability that the House budget will live up to the doomsday rhetoric employed to herald its arrival, a skeptical voter would be forgiven for pointing out a few things:

First, we have heard this kind of apocalyptic rhetoric before, with less than impressive results. Governor Patrick made much of executive branch cuts in the weeks leading up to the last election - but when all was said and done, he cut only a fraction of the spending he'd added since taking office. Similarly, it was recently revealed that the Legislature's own "cuts" earlier this year in fact consisted primarily of draw-downs from a spending slush fund rather than any true cuts.

Most recently, in a speech purportedly about tough budget choices, the only example newly-minted Speaker DeLeo offered of likely "spending cuts" was a pledge to "take a hard look at tax credits."

On that note, then, a few educated guesses/predictions about next week's House budget:

1. Per Mr. Speaker's forecast, there will be substantial reductions to existing tax credits. These will be called "budget cuts." Of course reduction or elimination of a tax credit is in no sense a "budget cut." A budget cut deprives some arm of the government of revenue. In contrast, elimination or reduction of a tax credit enhances government revenue. Far from "budget cuts," these are in fact tax increases.

2. It will count reduced spending increases as "cuts." Governor Patrick did this in his own "cut to the bone" budget, which in fact increased state spending by 5 percent. How, you ask, can a budget that increases spending over last year be characterized as a "cut" budget? Easy. Say this year you spent $50 per week on groceries. Next year you plan to spend $60 per week. In light of the lousy economy, you "cut" that spending to $55 per week. You've made a sacrifice in your plans, but you're still eating better cheese than you were last year. That is basically how legislatures nationwide (including Congress) routinely dress up spending increases as "cuts." I'd bet big money that Wednesday's budget will play this game.

3. It will over-rely on one-time revenues (specifically, federal stimulus spending). I wrote on this a few weeks back. When Governor Patrick leaned too heavily on stimulus funds to "balance" his budget proposal he caught some flak from the Legislature. Ultimately, though, it is a good bet that they will do the same thing. It is just easier - politically and otherwise - than making true cuts to state spending.

All of these predictions are, of course, variations on one theme: look for the much-vaunted "cuts" in the House budget to be much more smoke and mirrors than substance.

The least surprising story of last week

From the State House News Service comes this less-than-shocking bulletin:
OUTSIDE REDISTRICTING PANEL UNPOPULAR AT HEARING: Lawmakers were cool Wednesday toward proposals to amend the state constitution and establish an independent commission to handle legislative redistricting. Election Laws Committee members appeared reluctant to sign on with the idea, enshrined in several legislative proposals and backed by good-government advocates but already rejected by both branches this year in favor of a legislative redistricting committee...Most of the commission bills establish seven-member boards appointed by constitutional officers and legislative leaders. Rep. Bill Bowles said, “Unless you just pick seven people out of a hat, everyone’s got some political connection.”
I wrote a little bit on this topic some weeks back.

Rep. Bowles' objection ("everyone's got some political connection," so - the argument goes - an "independent" commission would be no better than the status quo) is one of several common red herrings thrown out by reform opponents whose only real imperative is preserving the Democrats' insurmountable electoral advantage, cycle after cycle. Another common refrain holds that redistricting is a legislative "responsibility" that ought not be pushed off to an outside commission.

Ironically, those who advance both of these disingenuous arguments often suggest that the responsibility for setting the boundaries of legislative districts needs to reside with elected officials, who can be "accountable" to the voters - when in fact the system is gamed over and over again specifically to ensure that as few members of the GCMD as possible are truly accountable to anyone.

Massachusetts' current legislative districts re-define the term 'gerrymandered.' To say the average district is shaped like an amoeba is to suggest too great a degree of uniformity. Advocates for an independent redistricting commission in Massachusetts, however, have about the same prospects for success as Charlie Brown when he lines up to kick a football balanced at the tip of Lucy's helpful finger. This is not because legislators legitimately share Rep. Bowles' worry that an independent commission would be no less political than the legislature. It has nothing to do with an institutional sense of constitutional responsibility. It has everything to do with the fear that fair, uniform districts would result in some turnover come Election Day.

And we can't have that. This is Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you...

That's what I keep telling myself as I read articles like this one from today's Globe, and I realize that my reaction is textbook paranoia.

This ought to be good news, right? "Mass legislators looking askance at tax hike plans." The lede is like a dream:
House and Senate leaders on Beacon Hill, in the throes of a budget crisis of historic proportions, are resisting Governor Deval Patrick's demand for new taxes and instead plan to impose deeper spending cuts, lawmakers said.
The article predicts massive cuts in state spending when the House and Senate budgets are released in the coming weeks. Even Jay Kaufman (D-taxes) says there has "been little discussion of any of the governor's tax-raising proposals" (this, I know from painful experience, is simply untrue - unless you call a seven hour gab-marathon "little discussion.").

Ah, but look closer, with a cynical eye... Kaufman's next observation is that "lawmakers could change their minds as the economic situation deteriorates in the coming months..."

Taxes are "a talk for another day," says Senator Panagiotakos, Senate Ways and Means Chair.

The Globe observes:
While a House budget next week with heavy cuts would provoke an uproar from social-service advocates and others, the budget calendar gives lawmakers time to change their minds. And waiting could provide them with more accurate revenue estimates before they commit.
You Republicans! you say. You damn them if they do, and damn them if they don't. If they were openly pushing tax hikes you would be climbing the walls. Now they are resisting tax hikes, fighting off their governor, and still you are dissatisfied. This is why people do not trust you to govern in this state.

All of this is fair enough. But I have more than a little experience in how Beacon Hill works. The legislators' comments above are fairly innocuous - and common-sense to a degree. Of course the legislature can "change its mind" as the budget situation develops. Here is the part that really gets my ears up, though:

One problem with the governor's proposal, lawmakers said, is that it incrementally increases taxes in a wide variety of places.

"You're not going to get people to vote on four or five different taxes," said Representative Daniel Bosley, a Democrat from North Adams. "People can't feel like we're raising taxes on them every week. You need . . . to do this one time."

He said something very similar during his testimony before the Joint Committee on Revenue earlier this week: "We'll only get one shot at this."

Could it be that the Massachusetts Legislature is biding its time, hoping to ride out the current wave of public indignation engendered by a rash of ethical scandals and Governor Patrick's inexplicable recent personnel moves? Could it be that they have recognized the political folly of "raising taxes... every week," and have resolved to first reap a political windfall by proposing a responsible budget, only later to "change their minds" and pass a large tax increase in one fell swoop?

As you ask yourself that question, ask yourself this one: Is that scenario more or less probable than the proposition that the Massachusetts Legislature has suddenly become institutionally opposed to taxes?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fishy statistics

Yesterday I commented on what sounded to me like a dubious claim, repeated several times during a Joint Committee on Revenue hearing by "public health advocates." The claim is that due to juvenile diabetes and an "epidemic of obesity," today's children will be the first generation in our nation's history whose life expectancy is lower than that of their parents. In the middle of a meandering missive about the interminable hearing, I speculated: "Setting aside the observation that candy and soda have been around for several generations now, and without knowing for sure, I'd bet big money that this is a bogus claim - the sort of thing that is asserted by some "expert" and spreads through the fever swamp to be parroted endlessly as 'fact' forevermore."

This suspicion has been poking at my brain since, and so at lunch I took a few moments for some quick research. I found this, this and this. Not definitive, certainly, but it seems to me that the U.N. and the CDC ought to be fairly widely-accepted authorities on this sort of thing.

The worst news I could find (meaning the item closest to the dubious proposition that piqued my curiosity) was this New York Times article from a year ago, which noted "'large and growing' disparities in life expectancy for richer and poorer Americans," but also reported that life expectancy for both demographics is growing - albeit at a differing pace.

I do not like to settle for lack of evidence to 'prove' a point, and so I took a few more minutes and dug a little deeper - finally hitting pay-dirt with this 2002 article from the Center for Consumer Freedom. Here's the first paragraph (the whole thing is worth reading):
In 2002, Dr. William Klish of Texas Children's Hospital told the Houston Chronicle: "If we don't get this epidemic [of childhood obesity] in check, for the first time in a century children will be looking forward to a shorter life expectancy than their parents." Since then, Klish's statement has entered the lexicon of obesity scaremongers, making its way into countless, and even -- all without so much as a shred of credible research to back it up. Klish himself has told the Center for Consumer Freedom that while he is the originator of this pessimistic prognostication, his claim does not come from "evidence-based research." Rather, he explained, "It's based on intuition."
I also found this interesting article (a book review, actually) on the more general phenomenon of how bogus statistical claims like this one insinuate themselves into the public discourse and become, as the author writes, "harder to kill than a vampire."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The thoughts that animate our state government

Today I had the distinctly dubious pleasure of sitting through seven - count 'em, SEVEN - unbroken hours of testimony offered before the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on Revenue. During such an ordeal, one naturally turns to people watching (which was in itself interesting) and then to deeper musings on what the endless droning revealed about the worldview of those - many of them legislators - who took to the podium to advocate in favor of a bevy of tax increases in the midst of the worst recession in many of our lifetimes.

As I noted yesterday, the JCR populated its lengthy agenda with no fewer than twenty-seven tax hiking bills. Alcohol, candy, hotel stays, dining out - these are but a sampling of the goods and services up for an increased Beacon Hill bite. This rare opportunity to speak in favor of a whole series of tax increases in one convenient forum naturally brought out a long line of the GCMD's most liberal members; people for whom support for a tax increase - any tax increase - is as natural and instinctive as drawing breath. Listening to their testimony (did I mention it lasted seven hours? And yes, I had a reason to be there - I'm not insane) I recorded the following themes, patterns, and amusing asides:

1) Liberals are fully cognizant and supportive of the impact that tax levels have on behavior, so long the result is something they deem desirable. Much testimony was offered in favor of increasing sales or excise taxes (or, in some cases, both!) on alcohol and "non-nutritious foods," expressly on the theory that increasing the price of these undesirable items would discourage their consumption and lead to public health benefits. Indeed, one of the largest contingents at the hearing was from the "public health community," there to testfy in support of these bills, on exactly that theory. They were easy to identify by their bright yellow stickers that read: "Tax alcohol. Support treatment." Acceptance of this obvious cause/effect relationship mysteriously disappears, however, when the result is undesirable. For instance, legislators who loudly clamor for increased taxes on candy to decrease consumption (fight the "epidemic" of childhood obesity!) stubbornly deny the equally obvious proposition that increased taxes on meals at restaurants will lead to a decrease in meals taken in restaurants; or that increased taxes on hotel room stays will discourage consumers from staying in hotels. The obvious and (to them) desirable cause/effect relationship is replaced by a mental white noise machine. Bzzzzzzzzzz.... I can't hear you...

2) There is no policy imperative that a liberal cannot tie to "the children." If they want it, it is for "the children." A tax increase on alcohol is necessary because too many kids start drinking too early, and they won't be able to afford marginally higher priced beer. Candy and soda? There are twin "epidemics" sweeping the Commonwealth - childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes. Several legislators claimed that today's youth represent the first generation in history with a lower life expectancy than their parents, due to the evils of candy and soda. (Setting aside the observation that candy and soda have been around for several generations now, and without knowing for sure, I'd bet big money that this is a bogus claim - the sort of thing that is asserted by some "expert" and spreads through the fever swamp to be parrotted endlessly as 'fact' forevermore. ) A companion to "for the children" is: "no less than the future is at stake." This one popped out of a lot of mouths too. What most amuses me about these oft-repeated lines is the earnestness with which they are invariably uttered. Having themselves sat through hours of "for the childrens" and "future at stakes," each new advocate stepped to the microphone, assumed the requisite furrowed brow, and uttered the same cliches with a breathless urgency that implied communication of an utterly unique and profound thought. My favorite variation came when some actual children got up to advance the "for the children" argument. "We are the future of tomorrow," a Boston Public School student solemnly intoned. Indeed.

3) Liberals who promise to be brief almost never are. Liberals who say they have a set number of points to make ("I'll make three more points") invariably add at least two points to their promised total. Sometimes three.

4) "We are not Taxachusetts." I learned this from Senator Marian Walsh (D-Am I Still Here?), who came out of her oh-so-brief public exile to testify in favor of increasing taxes on alcohol. Her unremarkable testimony was rewarded with rousing applause, indicating that at least among that sub-set of Massachusetts' voters who are inclined to spend an otherwise perfectly good day in the basement of the State House fighting for increased taxes, Marian is still a-ok.

5) Liberal tax policy is self-sustaining. This one loops back to point #1, above. At the outset of the hearing, Governor Patrick's chief economic aide, Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan, noted that increased cigarrette taxes have had the happy effect of decreasing the number of smokers (and, therefore, the number of people buying butts) in the Commonwealth. Apparently, smoking has decreased at such a rate that the promised windfall from the tobacco tax hike has been consumed by the concurrent fall-off in consumers. This led to the following remarkable question from House Committee Chair Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington): "Do you know how much we are short on the cigarrette tax and how much we need to make up elsewhere as a result of that?" According to this worldview, tax increases must necessarily build upon one another. A tax is raised in order to make up for a "revenue shortfall" (to plug a gap in the budget). As a result of that tax hike, economic activity (purchasing, investment, whatever) decreases, resulting in another shortfall that the legislature has to "make up elsewhere." This leads to another tax hike, and the cycle repeats.

I cannot get back the seven hours that I spent today in Gardner Auditorium at the Massachusetts State House. But I also cannot say that the time was not instructive. How Massachusetts ended up in the budget mess that it is in now is somewhat less of a mystery, now that I have had a forced immersion in the thoughts that animate our state government as presently constituted.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tax hikes on the agenda

Tomorrow the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Revenue (JCR) will hold a hearing to consider twenty-seven pending bills. By statute, "It shall be the duty of the committee on Revenue to consider all matters concerning Federal financial assistance, state fees, the raising of revenue for the Commonwealth by means of taxation, certain matters relating to the local property tax and such other matters as may be referred."

This week, under the stewardship of new Chairman Rep. Jay Kaufman (ultraLiberal D - Lexington), the Committee is concentrating hard on "the raising of revenue." Care to guess how many of the 27 bills on the agenda this Tuesday would raise taxes? That's right - twenty seven of them. Along with Governor Patrick's own omnibus cash-grab, which would raise taxes on everything from fizzy drinks to a romantic night at the Ramada Inn, there are twenty-six other legislative efforts to raise taxes across the Commonwealth, on candy and booze, on meals at restaurants, on newspaper sales, on telecom companies (which will pass through to your phone and cable bill) - the list goes on.

There has been plenty of attention lately paid to various Beacon Hill attempts to up taxes, tolls and fees related to how we get from place to place. Far less light is shining on the myriad efforts represented by these twenty-seven bills to reach into our wallets when we aren't driving a car or hopping a T trolley.

If you are of a mind to express your displeasure on this topic, there are some good folks planning a tax day gathering in Boston...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why the cloak and dagger, Governor?

First, I realize that with this post I'm treading dangerously close to 'black helicopter' territory. Although many aspects of Massachusetts politics drive me batty, I try very hard to avoid spinning off the rails entirely. Still, this item from the State House News Service late yesterday certainly lends itself to a degree of political paranoia:
PATRICK PICKING UP NYC CASH: Gov. Deval Patrick hit the Big Apple Thursday, headlining a fundraiser at an undisclosed New York hotel... A Patrick political spokesman would say only that the fundraiser was being hosted by “supporters of the governors in New York.” Asked why Patrick’s political operation would not disclose the hosts, the spokesman, Stephen Crawford, said, “The contributors are available when we file [state campaign finance] reports.” Asked why the identities could not be revealed Thursday, Crawford replied, “We want to be precise in providing all of the information in a timely way.”
It is strange, is it not, that a Governor in the midst of the worst political firestorm of his short career, with his approval ratings drifting into bottom-feeder territory, would risk additional damage by stiff-arming perfectly reasonable press queries about an out-of-state fundraiser. "Who is giving you money?" seems a must-answer for a "reformer" like Patrick. Without indulging in too much Republican self-pity, I am trying to imagine what the reaction would have been had Mitt Romney refused to answer a reasonable and straightforward question about his money men. The move just does not make sense, unless Patrick's people expect he'll incur more damage from the revelation than he will from the dodge.

How could that be? Well, it is no secret that prior to his Governorship, Patrick was well-ensconced in the world of the high-flying New York corporate elite. His association with Ameriquest was the cause of one of his frequent early-term missteps, in fact. And certainly New York CEO-types are not exactly at the top of anyone's popularity ratings these days, particularly in the fever swamps from which Patrick draws much of his remaining support.

If Patrick spent last night collecting checks from, say, executives of AIG, Bank of America, or any number of hedge fund types, I suppose there is an argument for trying to delay disclosure of that fact until he has to file his next campaign finance report. So far, coverage of this move seems thus to be limited to the SHNS, a subscription service with a readership limited to state political junkies and government officials, so perhaps the stiff-arm was a good move, short term. To my mind, though, this is yet another in a long run of political missteps for team Patrick, which in the long-term will end up costing him more than whatever the checks he collected are worth.

Today, Adrian Walker joins the growing parade of once-fawning Globe reporters and columnists to turn on Patrick. That is not a good sign for Patrick, to say the least - or for whoever carries the Patrick standard into next year's election battle. Patrick told the Herald this week that he is going to run again. I do not believe him.