Sunday, May 31, 2009

Government by cop-out

My home town's local news site occasionally publishes my posts from this blog. Interestingly, I get many more comments in that forum than this one, mostly from people who are irritated/riled up by what I've written.

My post-vacation round-up last week elicited several comments, a couple of which took issue with my characterization of Governor Patrick's return to his 'blah-blah-blah comfort zone.' One, posted by a fellow I know, chided me for "complaining" without offering constructive suggestions. Describing one of Governor Patrick's recent 'budget road-show' appearances, in Franklin, he wrote:
[Patrick] was there to describe and discuss the cuts the state budget faces -and the real impact that they were going to have on people dependent on state service. There was nothing comfortable about that appearance. But it involved the actual work of governing. There were people there who wanted to push back against the cuts to programs they relied upon. The Governor's respectful reply was -fine, then please tell me where you think we should cut instead -or where you think we can find the revenue to fund your program.
I was not at the Franklin road-show, but I have heard Patrick deliver this shtick before. To my commenter, Patrick's attempt to foist the tough decisions onto his citizen audience represents "the actual work of governing." To me, it's a cop-out - and one that comes straight out of the politicians' handbook, under the caption "turning the tables on a hostile questioner."

Governor Patrick and the Democrat-dominated legislature have not failed to get the state budget under control for lack of plausible options. Patrick does not need the engaged citizens who attend his town hall forums to serve as his budgetary brain trust - he has one of those. I know some of his team; they are very smart people. They understand the state budget (which runs into the thousands of pages) in minute detail. It is their job to pass that understanding to the Governor. Making sure that the budget he proposes is realistic in light of anticipated revenues is not only a big part of the job he was elected to do, in Massachusetts it is his legal obligation. Passing the buck to a citizen questioning specific budget line items is just a dodge.

Patrick has failed to get the budget under control because for all his brow-furrowed talk of tough decisions and deep cuts, he has refused to make tough decisions, and has repeatedly faked his way through supposed cuts. A few examples:
  • The budget Governor Patrick submitted at the beginning of this year, already deep into the economic downturn, increased state spending over last year. He reduced the growth rate as compared to the previous annual cycle, and pronounced that a "cut." That says all anyone needs to know about his notion of fiscal responsibility. Pause and think about that. Faced with a state budget already deep in the red, with no remotely realistic prospect that state revenues would increase this year over last year, the Governor submitted a budget proposal that increased state spending. Primarily for that reason, the Governor's budget was a dead letter from the moment of filing. Next week, for the first time in the Commonwealth's history, Patrick will submit a revised budget plan. Not a bill, mind you - and not anything that the legislature will pay any mind to whatsoever. Patrick will do this so that he can begin the work of erasing his prior, utterly unrealistic proposal from political memory.
  • Despite frequent reference to state level job cuts, specifically in the executive branch, the state workforce is still significantly larger than at the end of the Romney Administration. Patrick's own staff includes multiple additional positions - and these people are paid salaries that exceed those paid to Romney's staff in many cases by tens of thousands of dollars. A timely email from the invaluable Pioneer Institute puts some meat on these bones:

Since 2004, state government has increased unsustainably. Using data from the same period in each year to control for seasonal employees at environmental and higher education agencies, the Commonwealth's workforce increased by almost 10% — 7,500 additional employees — between 2004 and 2008. The state's workforce now totals 83,636 employees. Of the new hires, only 1,100 were in Health and Human Services, which we take as a proxy for ’safety net’ programs.

The Administration has pledged to cut state employment by 750 employees; however, it is not yet clear if this will be achieved through layoffs, attrition, or hiring freezes. Attrition is an ongoing process that will not achieve incremental savings alone. Similarly, a hiring freeze only holds open an already unfilled position; again, it achieves little in the way of savings. We believe cutting employment levels back to where they were in 2004, with the exception of the 1,100 safety net employees cited above, will allow the state to maintain core services while still reining in costs. At an average salary of more than $53,000, eliminating 6,400 workers from state payrolls would result in savings of $342 million. This does not include any savings achieved from benefits.

  • After months of making political hay over supposed cuts to the bloated Pike workforce, specifically to the ranks of the long since technologically-superseded toll takers, Patrick caved almost instantly to the tolltakers' union following their Easter Sunday sick-out and the resulting uproar over the resulting hours-long traffic jams. The workforce reductions have been canceled.
The list could go on.

Instead of again engaging in the fruitless exercise of picking and choosing cuts among literally thousands of line items, each with its own champions, beneficiaries and legislative advocates, the Governor should propose and then push an across the board spending cut calculated to bring spending in line with anticipated revenues. Of course some significant portions of the budget are not discretionary (or should not be, anyhow - if you missed it, catch this must-read by Peter Stergios in yesterday's Globe, on Governor Patrick's improper and possibly unconstitutional attempt to circumvent the state's legal obligation to fund public education by back-filling with one-time federal 'stimulus' dollars). But an across-the-board, apolitical cut to the remainder of the budget would go a long way to finally arresting the Commonwealth's unsustainable spending.

Nobody should suggest that Governor Patrick's job these days is either fun or easy. His options are ugly; but he and the Legislature have options. Unfortunately, the 'option' they inevitably choose is to turn yet again to the taxpayers, who have to balance their own budgets and do not have the luxury of passing responsibility for doing so to someone else.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A must-read from... the Boston Phoenix!

There are 7 words I never expected to type (six if you count 'must-read' as one word). But David Bernstein's piece, entitled "Roast Pork," is indeed a must-read. Lacking much in the way of new information, it is nonetheless a brilliantly concise rant against a group of people who the opening paragraph calls "our state's bumbling, craven, and inept elected officials," and who could more efficiently (and kindly?) be referred to as the Massachusetts Democrats.

The fact that not a single Republican comes in for criticism in an anti-government tirade published by one of the state's most left-leaning publications is, alas, reason more for sad frustration than smug satisfaction. We have insufficient influence to merit critique, even by the Phoenix.

Like a teenager with Dad's credit card

This passage from the State House News Service deserves lengthy quotation. In just a paragraph it provides marvelous insight into the mindset of our Legislature, which despite the economic slump, the yawning budget deficit, and the massive tax increases it is foisting upon all of us, continues to spend our money with all of the reckless abandon of a teenager with Dad's credit card and no expectation of ever having to pay the bill.
LEGISLATURE OKAYS $78.8 MILLION SPENDING BILL: The Legislature needed only 90 minutes to introduce, pass and send along to Gov. Deval Patrick a $78.7 million spending bill Thursday. The bill authorizes more spending even as the state's tax collection base erodes, approving $45.8 million for the state commission that administers state employee health insurance, $4.57 million for emergency shelters for the homeless, and $28.4 million for Medicaid. The bill also gives the Patrick administration the ability to transfer funds within the giant Medicaid program, which has accounts that are due to run out of money next week, about a month before the end of fiscal 2009. House aides say the bill was pushed through Thursday due to deadlines that fall before the Legislature's next scheduled sessions, which are Monday. Another supplemental budget is expected before the end of the fiscal year. The bill was introduced just after the 11 a.m. opening of the House session as a report from the House Ways and Means Committee. It was unclear whether the committee, which did not meet to act on the bill, actually voted on the bill.
Beyond the mere fact of a $78.7 million supplemental spending bill on the heels of votes in both chambers to raise over a billion dollars in taxes on the citizens and businesses of the Commonwealth, a few aspects of this latest episode stand out. First, the rush. 90 minutes to "introduce, pass and send along" this spending bill. It is a good bet that most of our legislators neither read it nor knew anything beyond the barest details of what they voted on. "House aides say the bill was pushed through Thursday due to deadlines..." As though these "deadlines" arose in a vacuum, suddenly and without warning, instead of arriving with utter predictability according to a legislative calendar established months ago.

"It was unclear whether the [House Ways and Means] committee, which did not meet to act on the bill, actually voted on the bill." The HW&M committee's bare-bones website sets forth its statutory mandate: "It shall be the duty of the committee on Ways and Means to consider all legislation affecting the finances of the Commonwealth and such other matters as may be referred thereto."

Apparently $78.7 million in spending will not, in the Democratic leadership's opinion, "affect the finances of the Commonwealth." A perfectly rational conclusion... The "finances of the Commonwealth" are already in such disarray, what's another $78.7 million?

The balance they've run up on Dad's credit card (we're all 'Dad,' by the way) is already so massive, what's a few more swipes at the mall?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Catching up

I have been away on vacation this week, blissfully removed from life's concerns - including the contortions and machinations of Massachusetts politics. So far as I can tell from my email and a perusal of the papers that piled up, here is what I missed:

"So's yer mama," she said congenially: Only days after telling a radio interviewer that Governor Patrick is "kind of making himself irrelevant at this point in the game" by threatening a veto of the legislature's sales tax increase, Senate President Murray claimed she, Patrick and Speaker DeLeo had a "congenial" meeting on Tuesday to discuss the budget deficit. Ominously, when asked about the sales tax hike Murray commented, “It’s not going to be enough for, really, anything going forward.”

More of the same change: For his part, Patrick seems hopeful that a retreat to his blah-blah-blah comfort zone can restore his standing with the voting public. Pulling talking points from his 2006 campaign, Patrick told the State House News Service, "I’m not here just to go along to get along. I’m here to make change. And I think that’s why the public sent me here, I think that’s what the public wants, more to the point, and I think there are very many people here in the Legislature – frankly, most of them, who know what the right thing is to do. Now we just have to do it." The opening this rhetoric provides to the observation that the only 'change' Patrick has delivered is a change in his own campaign pledge to oppose a gas tax increase seems to bother the Governor not at all. Howie Carr is his usual under-stated self on this topic today.

Institutions of Higher Revenue Generation: Not content with their efforts to drive college graduates out of state with the Commonwealth's ever-increasing cost of living, some legislators want to push our colleges and universities out with them. "Lawmakers take aim at property tax exemption for universities," reports the State House News. It is true that colleges and universities are exempt from local property taxes - exemptions granted gladly to attract the many economic benefits that come from hosting university facilities. Our institutions of higher learning can take comfort, though: these days, lawmakers are "taking aim" at anyone with two bucks to rub together.

Not so dark horse: Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley "has not ruled out running for governor next year if incumbent Deval Patrick changes his mind and decides not to seek reelection." As the Globe article linked above notes, Coakley has her eye on federal office. But she also has $700K in her state campaign account (which cannot be used for a federal run), and loads of ambition. If you were a smart, articulate, attractive and popular female statewide officeholder (the only one, by the way) with loads of political ambition, surveying a field of primary opponents comprised of LG Tim Murray (D-Who?) and Treasurer Tim Cahill (D-Gaming Money), would you not take a good, hard look at the corner office? Yeah, me too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why didn't we think of that?

This week my wife and I got away for a brief vacation in Tuscany, to attend a friend's wedding. While there, we several times witnessed a minor innovation that is tangentially relevant to the transportation funding/reform food fight that raged between Governor Patrick and Senate President Murray in our absence.

Recall that many moons ago, before jumping on the gas tax express, Governor Patrick wowed the punditry by going after that most sacred of Massachusetts sacred cows, the construction site police detail. The proposal touched off a mini-brouhaha, as police unions scrambled to preserve a perk that, for many officers, represents a very significant portion of their annual income. Police are better trained, officers "on the streets" (literally!) increase public safety and discourage crime, etc. etc. etc. Ultimately Patrick pushed a scaled down reform, replacing details with "civilian flaggers" at a carefully-delineated and limited number of construction sites. The resulting savings were, as could have been predicted, less than overwhelming.

So earlier this week, as we drove in our rented Euro-buggy between two of the many astoundingly beautiful medieval villages in the Chianti region of Tuscany, we came around a narrow, twisting curve to find traffic stopped dead by a portable traffic light erected in the road. It stood on a tripod no more involved than the one I use for my camera. After a few moments, the light turned from red to green and the line of cars, including ours, proceeded past a work crew laboring in what should have been our travel lane, while an identical portable traffic light - synchronized with the one we'd just passed - held oncoming traffic at bay.

In the following days we passed through no fewer than three more construction sites with the identical set-up. Each time I asked myself, "why didn't we think of that?" So simple, so effective, so - one imagines - cheap.

A rural road in Tuscany is different from Route 3 at rush hour (though if you have braved the winding roads and Kamikaze drivers of Italy you know the danger to life and limb is just as significant, though of a different variety). Two traffic lights on camera tripods likely would not cut it at many of the Commonwealth's construction sites. But try as I might, I cannot figure why the basic concept could not be employed to achieve very significant savings - far beyond what Governor Patrick's semi-reform realized this year.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

When he's right, he's right... even when he's full of [fertilizer]

Yesterday, Governor Patrick ratcheted up his recent attacks on the legislature yet another notch, lashing out at the Senate's move Tuesday night to increase a range of taxes. “To ask [the taxpayers] to dig deeper into their pockets for higher taxes without first adopting meaningful reforms is thumbing our nose at them,” the Herald quotes Patrick saying.

Huzzah! (I never pass up an opportunity to use that word).


Is this not the same Governor Deval Patrick who has been asking (demanding, threatening, brow-beating) taxpayers to "dig deeper into their pockets for higher [GAS] taxes" for several months now? The same guy who suspended a weighty toll hike over the heads of Pike commuters and declared his intention to let it drop unless the Legislature imposed the highest gas tax in the nation? Why yes, it is. As the State House News notes, immediately after reiterating the quote above, "Patrick two years ago asked for higher corporate and local options taxes and in January proposed a 19-cent per gallon gas tax, calling the revenue urgently needed, along with a passel of reforms."

So our Governor is hardly in a position to criticize others for nose-thumbing when it comes to tax hikes. But then nobody ever accused Patrick of being unpracticed in the art of disingenuous sanctimony.

Suddenly the voice of Mr. Regan, my ninth grade logic teacher, rings in my ears. I am committing the first fallacy, he reminds me. Ad Hominem - "consider the source." Whether Patrick is full of a malodorous substance or not means nothing to the question of whether, in this instance, he is right or wrong. And of course here he is right. Enacting a huge tax increase without achieving cost savings through long-delayed reform is a nose-thumb to the taxpayer. That is hardly a new phenomenon - Massachusetts legislative Democrats can be readily identified by the callouses on their noses and their thumbs. But Patrick is right, for once, even if for less-than-honest reasons, to call them on it.

And so I return to my Huzzah! (that's two in one post).

Here's the really fun part. GOP Senator Bruce Tarr shrewdly took advantage of the Senate Democrats' pique (maybe rage is better) at Patrick's nose-thumb comment to garner unanimous support for a budget amendment to (from the SHNS) "require Gov. Deval Patrick to report on 'all action undertaken by the Executive Branch' this fiscal year and 'those planned to be undertaken' next fiscal year 'to reduce the costs of employee compensation.'" Kapow! Then Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei piled on, calling Patrick "erratic" and "irrelevant." Smack! Biff!

Rather than come to the aid of her ally in the corner office, Senate President Terese Murray (D-Reform before... never mind) took off his head. Asked by the SHNS if the Senate was sending a message to Patrick in response to his broadside, she "smiled, then answered, 'Together we can... Together we must.'"


Yikes. Of course the Dems who voted for this loud-and-clear message amendment (message: back off, Mr. Governor) matched Patrick's hypocrisy with their own, as they continue to stiff-arm a Herald request for their staff salaries. Fun stuff though.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Foolish, cowardly, short-term thinking

To say that the Massachusetts state Senate Democrats' decision last night to raise a series of taxes in the teeth of a deep recession is 'penny wise and pound foolish' is to give it far too much credit. The move, prompted solely by short-term, political calculations, will do harm to the suffering state economy both immediately and down the road.

The 25 percent sales tax increase is getting the most attention, but as the State House News points out, what the Senate in fact did late last night (have you noticed these tricky votes always take place late at night?) was raise a series of taxes that will force Massachusetts taxpayers to "fork over an additional $1 billion a year to pay a series of new taxes... on commerce, meals, hotels and alcohol".

All of the disingenuous late night rhetoric aside, the sole positive thing that can be said about these tax hikes is also the sole true reason for their passage: they allow the Democrats, on paper (and only on paper) to plug some of the projected gap in next year's budget. Senate Democrats self-righteously proclaim that they are taking this courageous step to save various social welfare spending programs from "devastating cuts," but in truth even that is a mirage. At best, these tax hikes will delay those cuts until mid-year, when their dampening effects on the economy prove the revenue projections trumpeted all over the Senate last night to be wildly optimistic.

Consider this: At 5.0%, the Massachusetts sales tax contributed to tax revenues less than three years ago that were more than a billion dollars over budget projections. In lay terms, that means the state in fiscal 2006 took in over a billion more than the budget writers expected to take in. That was, of course, in the context of the final surge of the economic boom times, but it proves a point: in a healthy economy, 5.0 % is high enough. More than high enough.

Now consider this: Consumer activity - spending - fuels a healthy economy and is essential to recovery from an unhealthy one. That is the baseline kernel of reason from which grew the mutated monstrosity known as the federal "stimulus" bill. Anyone who has even gone shopping on a budget understands a simple, irrefutable truth: lower prices spur spending. Stores have sales to bring in customers and move merchandise. In brighter times, the state held an annual sales tax holiday to encourage purchasing and kick-start the economy. The converse, of course, is also true. Higher prices discourage spending.

Even Massachusetts legislative Democrats understand this - except when they don't. Last night, they set aside common sense, prudence and responsibility in favor of foolish political expediency. They increased prices on virtually everything, all across the State, in perpetuity. They discouraged spending, which will reduce revenues - exactly the opposite of their supposed intent. They have slowed the onset and pace of the state's eventual recovery, and taken another giant step to restoring our "Taxachusetts" reputation (which has very real, and very deleterious effects on economic development, business retention, and growth).

But they empowered themselves temporarily to re-fuel the reduced budget line items that brought hordes of Peter, Paul sans Mary listeners to the State House this week, thereby temporarily quieting the pro-tax forces, who so clearly fail to understand the simple truths above. Short-term, the move makes political sense.

Longer-term, Massachusetts Democrats would do well to take a look at what is currently going on in another "progressive," highly educated state with a Democrat-dominated government. California voters, who this week had the opportunity to weigh in at the ballot box on a series of tax hike proposals intended to forestall exactly the same species of budget cuts that we are told our tax hikes will avoid, voted overwhelmingly against raising their taxes.

We in Massachusetts do not have a chance to express our will at the ballot box... not this year, anyhow.

I also note that Senate President Terese Murray, who earlier in the year made much political hay with her "reform before revenue" mantra, defended her support of the tax increases to the State House News:
Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said the new taxes didn’t betray her “reform before revenue mantra” because the local option taxes were accompanied by proposals to tamp down health care costs and encourage regionalization of services. She said a proposal to restrain pension costs by stemming abuses of the existing laws was nearing release from a conference committee.
Here's a less tortured, and more accurate analysis: Yes they did.

But that's okay. Nobody really believed she meant it anyhow.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Don't count out an income tax hike

the interview below is worth watching: "progressive" interviewer Jim Braude talking with "progressive" freshman Senators Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Not Diane Wilkerson). The interview follows up on a Globe op-ed penned by this tax-loving twosome, arguing for an income tax increase as the "fairest" way to plug the state's massive budget hole.

Although he approves of it emphatically, Braude seems to think that the income tax increase sought by Eldridge and Chang-Diaz is a non-starter. Eldridge (as far left as they come, by the way) does not seem so sure. The legislature has become "more progressive," he notes, "and we have a progressive Governor." Both true facts. Mere months ago the notion of any broad-based tax increase was viewed as a non-starter, yet here we are today, with the Senate widely expected to join the House in passing a 25 percent increase to the state sales tax and the Governor indicating for the first time that he will be willing to sign the measure so long as the legislature votes on his ethics, pension and transportation edge-nibbler bills. The sales tax hike, Eldridge points out, will not come close to filling the state budget gap. A one percent income tax hike would, he claims, raise $2 billion.

Is there any informed observer of Massachusetts politics who could comfortably rule out the possibility that the House/Senate budget conference committee will put an income tax increase "on the table"? And should Republicans hope that Eldridge and Chang-Diaz succeed in their quest? Yesterday Citizens for Limited Taxation was passing out fliers at the State House, reminding legislators of the Republican gains in the election following the legislature's support of Governor Dukakis's tax-hike fest 1989. Chang-Diaz does not have anything to worry about. She is young, articulate and attrative, and represents a district that her predecessor proved will reelect an incumbent despite virtually any transgression.

Eldridge is another story. He represents a suburban district, including several towns that send Republican Reps to Beacon Hill. In his 2008 race to replace retiring Senator Pam Resor he won by a margin of just over 10,000 votes out of approximately 81,000 cast - a healthy margin, no doubt. But he lost several towns to a challenger, Steven Levy, who will likely try again. Eliminate the Obama bounce, which likely accounted for at least half of his margin, add in this active campaign he is waging for tax hikes, and an increased income tax might be just enough to make Senator Eldridge a one-termer.

MID-DAY Update
From the State House News Service, reporting on the ongoing Senate budget debate:
The Senate voted 28 to 11 against a proposed income tax hike from 5.3 percent to 5.95 percent, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, with all of the votes in favor coming from Democrats. Sens. Sonia Chang Diaz and James Eldridge said an income tax hike was less regressive than the sales tax hike. Republican opponents argued the increase would further stifle job creation and contradict a voter law calling for a 5 percent income tax rate.
Good news for now, but I still expect this item to find itself back on the table come conference committee time.

Monday, May 18, 2009

They're on a roll now...

I think it is beyond safe at this point to predict that, with somewhat less than the usual hand-wringing, the Senate will this week vote to support the House in its move to jack the Massachusetts sales tax by twenty-five percent. The House moved first, the skies did not fall, and - not incidentally - the phrase, "the House's sales tax increase" has sufficiently permeated the collective mind of those few of us paying close attention. The real question for this week is: what else will they increase?

Today's news roll from the State House News gives a sobering indication of the direction in which the Massachusetts Democratic parade is now marching, pretty much in unison:
(1) Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos last week said he expected the Senate to ratify new revenues to hoist the fiscal 2010 budget out of a deep hole, but that he was unsure of the details. Monday's caucus was aimed at consensus, but senators said they could emerge with no clear plan.
(2) STATE RAISING SLEW OF RECREATION FEES: A round of golf and a day at the ice rink are about to get pricier under a raft of fee increases at state-run facilities proposed by the state's recreation agency.
Eighteen holes at the Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton will cost $27, a 23 percent hike, according to new fees the Department of Conservation and Recreation expects will raise $1.95 million a year.
An hour of youth hockey at any of DCR's 40 ice rinks will rise 9 percent to $175 from $160.
Renting a motor boat to fish on the Quabbin Reservoir will cost $40 a day under a new fee, and parking at the reservoir will cost $6 per vehicle, up from $4.
Overall, 30 fees are on the increase and 19 new fees will be introduced, according to DCR regulations set to take effect early this summer - they will be promulgated on June 12 but may not take effect immediately.
And (3) BUDGET VICE CHAIR SEES SENATE ADOPTING LOCAL OPTION TAXES: The Senate will likely adopt a set of proposals permitting cities and towns to impose higher taxes on meals and lodging, Ways and Means Committee vice chair Stephen Brewer said Monday.
Before the week is out, someone will push a gas tax hike along the lines of Governor Patrick's favored 19 cent bump, and even an income tax increase.

At this point there is no telling how far the Senate (and after them, the conference committee and - finally - Governor Patrick) will go, now that the tax-and-fee snowball is picking up momentum.

This opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal ought to be required reading on Beacon Hill. Here's the (ahem) money quote:

Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts.

Did the greater prosperity in low-tax states happen by chance? Is it coincidence that the two highest tax-rate states in the nation, California and New York, have the biggest fiscal holes to repair? No. Dozens of academic studies -- old and new -- have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses.

Beyond parody

I do not know whether to laugh or cry at this bit from today:
Two-thirds of the 1960's folk group Peter, Paul and Mary -- Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey -- are planning to perform at a Statehouse rally Tuesday to protest cuts to programs for citizens living with disabilities.
I am leaning towards laughter. There is something almost touching in the fact that some (many, I'd guess) of the people descending on the Massachusetts State House this week to demonstrate in favor of higher taxes are so far down the road to self-parody that they would think it an excellent idea to bring in Peter, Paul and Mary - minus the Mary! - to entertain the gathered masses.

The public is invited, right?

From the State House News Service this morning:
SENATE DEMOCRATS IN PRE-BUDGET CAUCUS: Senate Democrats are again huddled up in Senate President Therese Murray's office plotting strategies for revenue and spending amendments to the $26.7 billion fiscal 2010 budget that will formally hit the floor on Tuesday morning.
Closed to the public, closed to the press, closed to the minority party... this "pre-budget caucus" is where all of the important decisions that will frame the Senate's budget are being made, right now, behind closed doors. Senate Democrats will emerge later today and, in response to media queries, will profess continued uncertainty as to what will happen when the "debate" begins tomorrow. Baloney.

In truth, by the end of this caucus every single Democratic Senator will know how he or she is going to vote on the sales tax increase, what he or she will get in return for that vote, and how the Democrats plan to beat back the various reform proposals that have been pre-publicized by Senate Republicans over the past week.

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A different definition of "resilience."

As the keynote speaker at four separate college commencement ceremonies this weekend, Governor Deval Patrick is drawing a parallel for his graduating listeners between their situation - entering the workforce at a time of deep recession and scant employment opportunities - and that of the state itself - using the economic crisis as a "platform for change."

Of the graduates, Patrick says, ""Like the state, they need to have resilience to carry them through."

We hear variations on this theme a lot lately. It is a twist on that old Clinton favorite, "I feel your pain." We're all in this together, we are told. State leaders understand what cash-strapped families are going through. To get through this recession, we all must tighten our belts, bear down, show "resilience."

I imagine it is a lot easier to show resilience with the ability to order up a quick dollar infusion, pretty much at will. And it is more than a little bit hypocritical for state officials like Patrick to claim empathy for what families are going through, while fighting to make things worse for those families by drawing even more of their dwindling financial resources to the state through increases in the sales and gas taxes and countless fees.

Mere citizens - most of them, anyhow - do not have the ability to supplement their own budgets by pulling cash forcibly from someone else. Families faced with a sudden drop in revenue, occasioned by loss of a job or some other calamity, must truly cut costs, tighten their belts, make 'tough choices,' and do all of the other things that state government talks about but never gets around to doing - usually right before they enact another tax increase.

"I feel your pain, these are tough times," says the mugger as he counts the cash in your wallet. "We all need to show some resilience."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Someone should file a bill to outlaw study commissions

During the recent budget debate, House Minority Leader Brad Jones proposed an amendment to freeze all hiring in state government (with a waiver process for hiring necessary to public health and safety). Rather than take a vote on the hiring freeze, the full House voted 139 to 16 to "study the economic impact of the freeze."

Republican Rep. Jeff Perry proposed an amendment to require the state to verify the citizenship of anyone over 18 who applies for state benefits. Rather than vote on the Perry amendment, the full House voted, 116 to 40, to create a study commission on the "cost-benefit of the services immigrants receive versus their contributions to the state's economy."

The Beacon Hill Roll Call, from which I pulled these votes, noted that "opponents of the study said it is simply a sneaky way for legislators to avoid a vote on the Perry amendment itself. They said the study would never be conducted and the Perry amendment would never be implemented."

"Opponents" are right about most of that... except for the "sneaky" part. Sending a piece of legislation 'to study' is a very open way of burying it, known and understood by everyone on Beacon Hill. "It was sent to a study commission" is, in the legislative vernacular, exactly the same as "it was killed."

These study commissions rarely meet - often their members are never appointed. They almost never conduct an actual "study" or issue a report. Instead, the issue sent to study is effectively stuffed in a drawer, at least for the duration of the two-year legislative session, and perhaps forever.

Let's be clear, though: there is more to the 'study commission' tactic than simply killing a bill. That could be achieved with a simple up or down vote. The study commission holds the added benefit to the members of allowing them to avoid taking that up or down vote. That is why it is so often deployed to deal with a proposal - like a state hiring freeze in the midst of a deep recession, requiring confirmation of citizenship to receive state benefits - that are popular with the public but verboten amongst Beacon Hill Democrats.

The Democrats who deep-sixed these proposals never actually voted against them, you see. If a constituent asks, the Reps can say in all honesty that they voted to "take a closer look" at the "important and complex issue." In a vacuum, absent knowledge of how these 'studies' actually work, that sounds like an eminently reasonable position. Consequently, every session dozens of bills are relegated to imaginary 'study commissions.' Watch: the same thing will happen during next week's Senate budget debate.

A Republican legislator ought to introduce a bill to ban this practice. If an outright ban on 'study commissions' seems like a tough sell to the public (who wants to be four-square against knowledge and understanding, after all?), the bill could carry conditions. For example: no further referrals to study commissions until every such commission created in the past __ years has met, deliberated in open hearing, and issued a report. Or maybe trickier is better: any future study commission must deliberate in open hearing and issue a report within one month of its creation; and the penalty for missing this deadline shall be sacrifice of the commission chair's legislative per diem for every day of delinquency. Make it a revenue generator.

Such a bill would never pass, of course. But it would be fun to see if leadership has the cojones to send a bill banning study commissions to a... study commission.

Related news: Scot Lehigh's column in the Globe today is a must-read.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A rare, profound insight

Discussing the Senate budget proposal yesterday, Senate Ways and Means Chair Steven Panagiotakos uttered this profound insight (from the State House News - and no, I am not using "profound" sarcastically):
Panagiotakos said, “I think we all know that the Commonwealth is at a crossroads. I think we’re at a crossroads here in the state, we’re also at a crossroads nationally, and that crossroads is whether the private sector can afford the public sector. We have to balance a lot of different things as we go forward. I think this economic crisis has only expedited us getting to that crossroads, but it is a crossroads we were headed to.”
"...whether the private sector can afford the public sector." That, right there, is the best encapsulation I've seen of the 'BIG QUESTION' at the core of government at all levels today. Can the private sector afford the public sector?

Here comes a generalization, but it is a fair one I think. Republicans look at the empirical evidence: markets, consumer confidence and spending, hiring, home prices, building and purchasing - all in the toilet. Business confidence down, unemployment way up. They look at all of this and draw the obvious conclusion. No, the private sector cannot afford the current public sector, say nothing of the monstrosity that President Obama & Co. are trying to create. The private sector is being crushed already. It cannot afford any more. The public sector needs to be cut, not expanded.

Democrats, in general, take a different approach. Rather than evaluate the empirical evidence all around them, they want to conduct their own experiment - an economy wide 'stress test,' if you will. Let's see how much the private sector can really take, they collectively decide, by continuing to dial up the pressure with steadily increasing taxes, fees and other burdens. This approach necessarily assumes that right now the private sector is essentially 'faking it,' crying crocodile tears to persuade government to let up for a while. Forced to contribute more, surely it will drop the pretense and get with the program.

I know which conclusion, and which approach, I think is right. The trouble, of course, is that right now everything in our state, and everything at the federal level, is controlled by people who subscribe to the second point of view.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Didn't we just see this movie?

Alternate title: Déjà vu all over again.

Alternate alternate title: Just how stupid do they think we are?

The Massachusetts State Senate initiated the run-up to next week's budget debate with a strikingly familiar set of announcements. Rather than re-do the analysis, I'll ask you to simply read the Globe article linked immediately above, and then re-read this post from Wednesday April 15, the day the House Ways and Means Committee released its own budget blueprint - except substitute "Senate" wherever you see "House," and "Steve Panagiotakos" for "Charley Murphy." With those minor tweaks, the analysis is exactly the same.

We have the same budget blueprint with deep spending cuts (to local aid, to health care, to... the Boys and Girls Clubs!!) and no tax increases. We have the same meaningless laments from the Ways and Means Committee Chairman: "it is an accurate assessment of the dismal revenue picture." You have the same foreshadowing by the Globe of the pro-tax advocacy this "assessment" is designed to trigger: "The budget contains no new tax revenues, but it is sure to fuel demands by human service advocates and unions for tax increases along the lines of a House-approved sales tax increase from 5 percent to 6.25 percent."

Senate leadership and rank-and-file are hardly angling for profile in courage awards as the budget debate looms next week. From the Globe:

An informal Globe poll this week of the 40 senators indicated that few are willing to take a strong stand for or against new taxes to repair the recession-ravaged budget. The Globe asked all senators to respond to an informal survey on whether they would support raising taxes at all and which specific ones they would support. Few responded at all, and several senators, who are known to discuss issues for hours on end, hedged in interviews.

Of course "few are willing to take a strong stand." Why should they? They are crouched in their bunkers, waiting for the air support that they know is coming. This so-called budget proposal is nothing but the S-O-S call to the unions, municipal groups, social service advocates and other liberal forces to re-load and re-deploy. It won't be hard - their battle skills are freshly honed following the House budget process just a couple of weeks back.

Most of the Senators who are unwilling to "take a strong stand" today know just as well as we do how this process ends - in a vote to raise the state sales tax by 25 percent. They are also making noise about other tax increases, but in all likelihood this talk is just part of the subterfuge; the requisite scare rhetoric designed to soften the blow of the final tax hike vote.

By following the House strategy so exactly, and so soon after it was employed by the House, it is like the Senate is re-making a movie that everyone just saw, simply plugging different actors into the key roles, and hoping that we, the viewers, have already forgotten the ending.

Like so many other things that the Democratic machine does on Beacon Hill, this carbon copied strategy presumes that the voters are stupid, or are not paying attention.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Now they're bringing out the heavy artillery

The circular firing squad I posted about this morning continued today, and got nastier.

This account of the escalating three-way tiff between Governor Patrick (and his sidekick, LG Murray), Treasurer and Governor wanna-be Tim Cahill, and the Democratic Legislature comes from the State House News Service:
ADMINISTRATION PRESSES CAHILL ON PENSIONS: Gov. Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray opened fire on Treasurer Timothy Cahill Tuesday over Cahill’s acknowledgment he had “backed down” in 2004 in the face of lawmakers’ resistance against his overtures at trimming their pension perks. The treasurer told the News Service that after meeting with top lawmakers that year he had decided to shelve a push to eliminate two measures that enhance pensions, one for lawmakers who retire early and another for those who claim a full year’s service after just a day of work. Patrick told reporters in Charlestown, “Tell that to the public, that we’re just going to look the other way when there are these kinds of games going on. I think all of us have had enough of looking the other way, and if something can be done then we should do it.” At a separate event in Boston, Murray told the News Service, “It’s easy to talk the talk. It’s harder to walk the walk.” When a reporter pointed out that Patrick has not filed pension reform legislation, Murray said Patrick had raised the issue with legislative leaders as far back as the transition period between his election and inauguration. The treasurer’s office replied that Cahill has filed pension reform bills the last two legislative sessions aimed at curbing the practice of including perks like per diems, office expenses, parking spots, and housing allowances into pension calculations. Cahill spokeswoman Francy Ronayne said in a prepared statement, “As far as we know, the governor has yet to propose any legislation.”
Responding to Lt. Governor Murray's "walk the walk" comment, Cahill reportedly snapped, "so's your momma."

Just kidding about that last part. But whew, aren't things getting testy? And is it not... interesting... that Murray is given the role of attack dog against Cahill, declared candidate for Governor in 2010? Now why would that be?

One of the few benefits of our one-party system

Occasionally, we get to watch a circular firing squad (warning: language). See if you can track this:

Governor Patrick, desperate to improve his abysmal poll numbers, is grasping for a high-profile issue that puts him on the right side of public opinion. He thinks he has found one in the Globe's recent expose on former legislators who retired with pensions enhanced by a fishy "termination" provision buried in the state pension law. The trouble, of course, is that in order to put himself in front of the issue, in this one-party state Patrick has to go after his own. The further we get into the Patrick era, the harder it is to blame everything on 16 years of Republican governors.

But hey! Look over there! It's Treasurer Tim Cahill, who earlier this year had the temerity to announce his intention to challenge Patrick in the Democratic primary next year (if Patrick runs, which he won't). And wouldn't you know it? The State Pension Board falls under the Treasurer's jurisdiction. So Patrick opens fire on Cahill, demanding that Cahill "recoup" the excess pension money that has been paid out to those retired legislator scofflaws. Cahill promptly fires back, accusing Patrick of "grandstanding," but he sustains some political damage.

So to both deflect criticism elsewhere and try to repair his own credibility on the issue, Cahill pivots and opens fire on the Democratic Legislature, claiming that his 2004 effort to reform the pension system and end termination pensions for retiring legislators was snuffed out by "a visit from Representative John Rogers, House Ways and Means chairman, who was sent by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi to tell him to abandon his quest to eliminate termination pensions for lawmakers."

Meanwhile, the Globe remembered how much fun it can be to dig into the Governor's schedule (six weeks vacation last year!), state Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork to see the House its 25% sales tax and raise it a gas and/or liquor tax hike, and the Herald has discovered a penchant amongst top Democratic lawmakers for doling out Amex gift cards purchased with campaign cash.

All-in-all I'd prefer my party to have a little bit of influence and authority, but occasionally it can be fun to just sit back and watch the carnage.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Another quiet signal Deval Patrick is not going to run for reelection

Lt. Governor Tim Murray is bulking up his political organization.

The State House News reports this afternoon that Murray has brought in the Wisconsin Democratic Party's former communications director to serve as his committee's "deputy communications staffer, working under Michael Cohen."

Ask yourself: does a Lt. Governor need a "deputy communications staffer" if he is expecting to play second fiddle in Governor Patrick's more-than-well-staffed campaign orchestra? And is a guy from clear across the country really going to make the move to Massachusetts to fill that heretofore nonexistent slot?

Just add this to the growing pile of indications that Patrick is in this thing for the short haul and, as I predicted in February, will bow out sometime before the 2010 campaign really gets rolling. Murray has out-raised Patrick consistently, Patrick has spun off the left-wing rails policy-wise. And - have you noticed? - Murray has been notably absent from the traditional sidekick position at the podium on the rare occasion when Patrick has deigned to defend his tax hike proposals. Finally, it is no secret that Governor Patrick's wife, by all accounts a wonderful person, has been no fan of the harsh public spotlight.

For any number of reasons, Patrick has to continue to keep up the appearance of a guy gunning for reelection. He will continue to raise money, he will continue to stage nakedly political events, and he will insist to anyone asking that he loves his job and intends to do it through two terms. He needs to do this for his loyal LG, who benefits from as long a period of uncertainty as Patrick is willing to provide. More importantly, though, he needs to do this to avoid becoming the lamest of lame ducks. In a real sense, by summarily discarding his signature initiatives and ignoring his policy directives (how did that sales tax veto threat go over, Governor?) the Legislature has already made a lame duck of Patrick. Were he to announce his intention to bow out after one term, they'd chop off his head, pluck his feathers, stuff him, roast him, and serve him at the next leadership fundraiser.

Look for Patrick to get an offer he can't refuse, probably from his pal the President, some time in the first three months of next year.

Either that, or Murray's new "deputy communications staffer" had reason to flee Wisconsin and heard Massachusetts is an asylum state...

Whining and weasel words

Last week the Massachusetts Retailers' Association rolled out a couple of radio ads opposing the Legislature's recent move to raise the state sales tax by a whopping 25 percent. I thought they were very effective, but I am naturally receptive to their argument. Listen to them here and decide for yourself.

This morning on the tail end of my commute I heard the pro-tax response ad running on WBZ. Unsurprisingly, it is paid for by a couple of unions: the Mass Teachers' Association (MTA) and the SEIU. I could not find this ad online, but if you have ever heard an ad sponsored by the MTA, you've basically heard this one.

It is always the same woman's voice. I have a vague picture of her in my head - her defining characteristic is her deeply and perpetually furrowed brow. This woman is always having a crisis. This woman is wracked by concern for - always - "the children."

This time, the danger stalking "the children" is our Legislature's failure to "raise new revenues." The woman's tone is likewise always the same. If you haven't heard her, try and conjure a little girl's voice, hectoring her mother for something desperately needed. It's a school night, there is a test tomorrow, but "Sally is having a SLEEEEEEP OVER," and "everyone ELSE is going."

That's the tone of these ads - whining. The state "NEEDS new REVENUES to support INVESTMENTS in the CHILDREN."

Always "investments," never "spending." Always "new revenues," never "higher taxes."

At the end of the ad, this constantly whining woman (who in my mind lives alone and in a miserable state of endless agitation) implores the listener to “Tell your state legislators, in this economic emergency, we need new revenues, to keep these hard times from getting even worse.”

Although I honestly cannot conceive of anyone responding to so annoying an ad by actually going out and doing what the simpering spokeswoman asks, I do wonder how many union members call their Senators and ask for "new revenues" without ever understanding they have been duped into pleading for a tax increase.

I doubt the phone lines are burning up on the senate side of Beacon Hill this Monday morning. Whining and weasel words do not make for effective advocacy, even in Massachusetts.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Instead of reading my lengthy last post...

You could just read this short passage from the State House News Service's inimitable Jim O'Sullivan. As usual, he says it better than I ever could:
It seems like a long time ago that the House passed its fiscal 2010 budget. On the calendar, it’s been a week. Monetarily speaking, somewhere on the order of $2 billion.
The odor of panic emitted Tuesday from Room 222 gave a strong sense of why the House last week chose the farcical over the fiscal, forwarding to the Senate a Kirstie Alley budget whose shelf life was under 24 hours. On Saturday, Senate Ways and Means chair Steven Panagiotakos pulled the fiscal 2010 revenue base down $1 billion, which in the context of the House’s blueprint is actually close to double that because of a sales tax hike that experts say will not produce the $625 million in operating budget funds the House said it would...
Gov. Deval Patrick moved to zip up the rest of the fiscal year Thursday, calling for nearly $900 million more in non-recurring revenues, a curious onetime payment from the Convention Center Authority, and another $174 million in late-year spending. The fixes prevent pain in the present, but set up bigger gaps in the future.
What he said.

Throwing in the towel

After months of insisting that they would tackle the tough economy responsibly, with spending cuts, limited tax increases and "realistic" budgeting, the Democrats this week threw in the towel and surrendered to their core impulses.

Here is the best example, from the State House News:
As state tax collection numbers continue south and a $1 billion deficit looms over the final 54 days of the fiscal year, Gov. Deval Patrick filed emergency budget bailout legislation Thursday that combines $461 million from state reserves, $412 million in federal stimulus aid, and a $50 million contribution from the state's convention center authority.
Here's the Globe's coverage. Plugging current operating budget holes with one-time revenues like the federal stimulus funds is the last and favorite resort of the gutless elected official. I wrote a bit on this a while back. The problem, in a nutshell, is that this tactic papers over the current problem, but guarantees a worse problem down the road. Patrick is front-loading our use of stimulus funds (your tax dollars, remember), which will not be available in future years. That means next year or the year after the hole will reemerge, larger.

The reason elected officials turn so predictably to this tactic is obvious. It is a handy way to kick a problem down the road. For someone like Patrick, who won't run for reelection, this can-kick is even more attractive. He won't be around when these chickens come home to roost.

Here are a couple of other indications that the Beacon Hill Democrats came this week to a collective decision to give up on the notion of responsible budgeting for this year (whether this was a conscious decision or an example of collective instinct, like a school of fish turning in unison, I have no idea):

On Thursday the Legislature's "Special Commission on Municipal Relief," a bicameral bunch that includes both the House and Senate's chief budget writers, issued a 27 page report and a 48-page piece of draft legislation that would raise scores of taxes and fees, to the tune of $409 million more pulled out of taxpayer wallets. I note the participation of House Budget chair Charley Murphy (D-fake budget) because this is the same Charley Murphy who less than a month ago released a proposed budget that slashed spending, raised no taxes, and left the state's reserve fund intact. At the time, he defended that budget as "real." In the intervening three weeks, he helped push through a final House budget that restored much of the cut spending ($600 million) and increased the state sales tax by 25%. Now he's fully on-board with a proposal to raise taxes and fees by another $409 million. That's quite a turnabout in under a month's time.

Earlier this very week, the House Information Minister called the House budget, passed last Friday, "balanced" and "a good budget." Just two days later, this appeared in the State House News:
State tax collections are expected to reach $17.989 billion next fiscal year under a new, jointly pegged estimate released by the Senate but carrying the patina of the Patrick administration and the House. The downgrade is nearly 8 percent and more than $1.5 billion below the original $19.53 billion fiscal 2010 estimate that Gov. Deval Patrick and the House used in their budget proposals... The numbers also confirm a steep imbalance in the $28 billion House budget, which passed last week relying on $19.53 billion and was defended as balanced Monday by a top House lawmaker.
Whoops. What was "balanced" and "good" on Monday was dog meat by Wednesday. How embarrassing. Here's our friend Chairman Charley: "These dramatic new numbers – unavailable to us during the budget process – reflect a dire fiscal reality, one to which we will adjust.”

Who could have seen this coming? Well (again, from SHNS):
Word of substantially lower revenue estimates began spreading through the State House during last week's House budget debate. House Republicans sought to put budget debate on hold until Monday but House Democrats rejected the idea and finished budget work Friday night.
What, other than the Democratic machine's knee-jerk impulse to reject anything floated by the small but hardy band of House Republicans, explains this rush to complete a wholly unrealistic budget that became a dead letter within a half week of its enactment? The explanation is simple: somewhere around the time they decided to jump in with both feet and boost the state sales tax by a whopping 25 percent, individual House members consciously decided to forgo responsible budgeting in favor of the usual reelection-focused pandering. Consequently, the House budget was larded with $600 million in spending promises tacked on to secure political support from unions, municipal groups, and so-forth.

That most of this spending is illusory does not matter. They do not care. They care only about shoring up their own reelection prospects - prospects that, for the first time in a very long time for most of these people, are starting to look just the tiniest bit uncertain.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A good idea, but color me skeptical

The Herald reports today that "State senators, chastised by Gov. Deval Patrick last week for dragging their feet on ethics reforms, plan to strike back by closing a gaping campaign finance loophole that allows Patrick to rake in thousands above the state limit."

If accurate, this is great news. Patrick's cynical (yes, I called Deval Patrick cynical) circumvention of campaign finance limits is one of the most egregious hypocrisies in a brief political career awash in hypocrisy. Perhaps a brief explanation is in order:

I run up a big credit card bill. You want to help me with that, but for whatever reason you cannot give money to me directly. So you give a whole lot of money to a mutual friend of ours, and that mutual friend pays off my credit card bill. Is there any possible read of that scenario in which you have not done me a huge favor? Of course not.

Campaign finance law in Massachusetts limits the amount of money that an individual can contribute to a candidate for Governor to $500 per year. Personally I think that limit is too low, and forces candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time at money-grubbing, but that is a side argument in this context. That is the law.

Governor Patrick, who ran for office as an "outsider" who was going to change the politics of Beacon Hill, reduce the influence of money and special interests, yadda-yadda-yadda, in effect ran up a massive credit card bill with his free-spending campaign. Finding it difficult to pay off that bill in $500 increments, Patrick's people took a clever short-cut. Campaign finance law allows an individual to contribute up to $5,500 per year to a political party. Patrick set up an entity known as "the Seventy-First Fund" (he's the seventy-first Governor of the Commonwealth) to raise money, ostensibly for the state Democratic Party. The Party then takes those funds and pays Patrick's campaign debts.

As the Herald notes, this allows contributors to effectively contribute 11 times the legal limit to Governor Patrick.

Patrick and his people counter occasional criticism of their scheme by arguing that they are only doing what the law allows, and they are correct. Laws that seek arbitrarily to limit political participation are always rife with loopholes waiting to be exploited - this is central to the argument for radical simplification of campaign finance laws. But when the politician exploiting the loophole in question ran explicitly as an untainted outsider seeking to remove the stain of big money from the state's politics, whether the law allows for the scheme is entirely beside the point. It is crassly hypocritical and ought not to be countenanced by voters who bought into Patrick's shtick.

All of that said, I am skeptical of the central premise of today's Herald piece, which claims that "senators" who were irritated by Patrick's recent tax grand-standing, "plan to strike back by closing a gaping campaign finance loophole that allows Patrick to rake in thousands above the state limit." The article goes on to describe a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield) that would reduce the amount that can be contributed to an entity like the Seventy-First Fund to $3,500.

Set aside the question of whether reducing the magnitude of Patrick's cynical windfall from 11 times the individual contribution limit to just 7 times the limit meaningfully addresses the problem. Where the Herald does not quote or even refer to a single Democratic supporter for the initiative, I wonder whether there is any basis for the paper's implied assertion that this legislation has a chance of going anywhere.

Patrick is the worst kind of political hypocrite, and so any legislative move to highlight his hypocrisy (and generate an article or two like the one in today's Herald) is to be encouraged and supported. I doubt this proposal will pass; and even if it does, its only effect will be to slightly reduce Patrick's (or his successor's) fundraising head start going into the 2010 cycle. But it is good to see Senate Republicans have their backs up and have assumed a fighting stance.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Big red flag at the Pike

Director Alan LeBovidge resigned today. Although the Globe bought the political spin ("“I laid myself off. That’s what I’ve been doing for 17 months here, looking at people and looking at processes and finding efficiencies," LeBovidge told a reporter), the State House News Service reported some not-so-coded criticism by LeBovidge of his Patrick Administration overlords:
In his resignation letter, posted on [Mary] Connaughton's blog on, LeBovidge said, "The last two months have made it clear to me that the basic operating premise has shifted. As you know, in keeping with my mandate, I approach everything at the MTA from a financial, not political or other, viewpoint. From my perspective, everything must pass a cost-benefit test. Given today’s circumstances, I cannot in good conscience say to the members of the Board, or more importantly our toll payers, that my daily contribution to this mandate is cost justified when measured against my compensation.”
How has the "basic operating premise" shifted? Here's a guess: immediately following the Easter Sunday sick-out, used by the tolltakers' union to very effectively stoke public rage against the Pike's managers, the Patrick Administration executed a dizzying about-face, canceling promised toll-taker layoffs and other cost-saving initiatives.

Note LeBovidge's reference to his "approach" to his job at the Pike: "I approach everything at the MTA from a financial, not political or other, viewpoint." It is not hard to guess who he thinks is now approaching the Pike from a "political or other" viewpoint.

LeBovidge was carried over by Patrick from the Romney Administration (where he was head of the Department of Revenue - apparently he gets off on being personally unpopular?), specifically to reform the Pike and cut costs. Apparently he gave his salary to charity, something I did not know before today and a fact that cannot fail to trigger some reevaluation of his motives. I do not know if his resignation will make any difference at the Pike. In my view, though, the reaction of at least one union chief, quoted in the Globe, should be seen as a giant red flag:
Karen Christie, president of Local 5696 of the United Steelworkers, which represents lower-level white-collar employees at the authority, said, "We couldn’t be any more excited because we hope we get somebody who makes decisions that are worthwhile instead of decisions that are saving 5,000 bucks for turning off the lights.”
The unions staged their sick-out to put the brakes on Pike reforms. They achieved that, and now have a scalp to nail to the wall as a bonus. No wonder they "couldn't be any more excited."

Three guys and a supervisor

Three guys and a supervisor. That's what I cannot get out of my head when I read an article like this one in today's (still alive!) Boston Globe. This is "the worst fiscal crisis in the state's history... a catastrophe," says Mass Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer.

"We decimate our human services and education systems, or we try to come to some kind of revenue [solution]. And even with additional revenue, how do you fill those numbers, how do you get to those numbers? It's very depressing," says Senate President Therese Murray (D-ReformBeforeRevenue?).

"The cuts are going to be real now," according to Senate Ways and Means Chair Panagiotakos, inadvertently revealing that the cuts we've heard so much about for the last year-plus have been so much smoke and mirrors. "We've been able to bandage a lot of it this fiscal year with one-time revenues. . . . That's not going to be the case in fiscal year 2010. There will be significant cuts everywhere."

Let me explain the 'three guys and a supervisor' thing.

On my first day in the state government, back in October 2005, I arrived at my office to find a desk facing the wall. I poked my head out of my office to ask the receptionist, a wonderful woman who had seen countless young attorneys just like me come and go over many years in that particular suite, if there were any reason I could not rotate the desk 45 degrees to face the window.

"We can have it moved, no problem, but you can't do it yourself," was her reply. "Liability issues."

I laughed and joked that I'd been working out, and said it would be an easy matter to slide the end of the mid-sized, metal desk around, guessing that it weighed no more than 60 pounds or so.

"No," she said much more seriously. "You aren't allowed to do it yourself. We have to call facilities."

I tried one more time to laugh it off. "How about I just close the door and move the desk, and you can forget I ever mentioned it."

Much more serious now: "Someone will notice and somebody will get in trouble. Union rules. We have to call facilities."

I gave up, and spent most of that first day staring at a wall. Toward the end of the day there came a knock at my door. I turned to find no fewer than four people - three maintenance men wearing the blue facilities uniform, and a female supervisor - standing at my door. One of the guys was elderly, and was winded already from the walk to my office. I apologized for bothering them with so simple a task as I indicated how I'd like the desk positioned. "You're not allowed to move it," the old-timer informed me gruffly. "Union rules."

I stepped back and, amused, watched at the four tried to work out how each of the three facilities workers could involve himself in a task more appropriate to one person of no more than moderate strength. Ultimately, the most seasoned member of the trio stepped back and helped the supervisor with her duties (supervising, that is) while the other two spent all of 0.75 second completing the task I should have done myself, hours before.

Nodding to the various pictures, diplomas and other office paraphernalia I had positioned along the perimeter of the office for after-hours hanging, the supervisor informed me that they could come back to mount my wall-hangings later, but I'd have to put in a request.

"Oh, that's fine - I brought a hammer and a handful of nails," I said.

By then I could have anticipated her response. She told me I was not allowed to hang pictures myself. Union rules. As soon as they left, I pounded my nails and hung my pictures, and so far as I know nobody ever suffered any negative consequence as a result of my small rebellion.

I think of this experience almost daily as I read the endless accounts of supposedly herculean efforts on Beacon Hill to deal with the state's budget woes. With all of the talk about cuts and reform, I know to an utter certainty that were tomorrow my first day in the State House, I would be forced by union rules to wait for three guys and a supervisor to move my desk for me.

This endemic inefficiency is a small symptom of a way of thinking and that permeates every aspect of state government. To be fair, this is a disease born of excess bureaucracy. It grows outside of government as well. The competitive marketplace of the private sector, though, seems to produce antibodies that government simply lacks. (Still, I am sure the phrase "union rules," and the fundamentally wasteful reality illustrated by my three guys and their supervisor would not be at all unfamiliar to any number of auto industry executives trying to restore some flexibility and dynamic mobility to an industry rendered sclerotic by years of operational concessions to unions concerned solely with job preservation.)

Of course there is always a rationale. I could not move my desk, it was explained to me, because of "liability issues." I might hurt myself and sue. Scratch the surface of that rationale, though, and it easily peels back. I was much less likely to injure myself moving that desk than was the elderly maintenance man who made up one third of the moving team assigned the task. I'd venture a guess that I was also far less likely to file a workers' compensation claim were the task to result in a sore back.

The "union rules" invoked to prevent me from pushing that desk were likely enacted in the name of workplace safety, but in truth they were and are all about job preservation. That no fewer than three facilities workers (and a supervisor, don't forget) were available to tromp down to my office together speaks volumes about staffing levels in the facilities department at the State House. I can only imagine how the task itself was described in the workers' time sheets - or what length of time was ultimately attributed to the assignment.

My point, arrived at slowly, is this: dig into the operations of any arm of the state government, and you will quickly find inefficiencies and inanities similar to - and much worse than - my experience with those three guys and their supervisor. The union rules governing toll-taker and snow plow operations at the Pike are a miasma of such impediments to common sense and cost-effectiveness.

If we acknowledge and begin to reverse the worldview that established and perpetuates the 'three guys and a supervisor' mode of operation, then perhaps we can start to turn this state around. Until then, we are slapping band-aids on a cancer patient and wondering why he keeps getting sicker.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The House Information Minister

Remember the Iraqi Information Minister? He was the guy who, as US troops swept across the country and into Bagdhad, had the thankless job of standing before the western media and declaring "There are no enemy troops in Bagdhad! Never!"

Well, apparently now the Massachusetts House of Representatives has its own Information Minister in Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein, with duties very similar to those of her Iraqi predecessor. Jumping right in with both feet, the Rep/Minister today declared the House budget "balanced" and "a good budget." No better rejoinder can be crafted than this one, posted this evening by the State House News Service:
The House, which built its budget on an estimated $19.5 billion fiscal 2010 tax take and a 25 percent increase in the sales tax, passed the plan Friday night after spending the week adding about $600 million to its original $27.4 billion bottom line. Falling tax collections have led fiscal observers to questions the $19.5 billion base that Gov. Deval Patrick and the House relied on for their budget proposals. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which estimated in December that tax receipts would top out at $18.5 billion in fiscal 2010, plans to revise its estimate downward by about $500 million this week. In a phone interview, MTF President Michael Widmer said, "It’s safe to say that the House budget’s about a billion and a half out of balance."
A billion and a half out of balance, give or take a few hundred million. Built on a baseline that has been discarded by Governor Patrick and the state Senate. Larded with $600 million and a 25 percent sales tax hike.

Aside from all of that, though, this "good budget" is "balanced."


Governor Patrick says "special pensions" awarded to legislators who left office of their own volition represent "exactly the kind of special favors, gamesmanship, and insider maneuvering that the public is fed up with." Problem is, so does this, and this, and this. Patrick is shooting fish in a barrel with this indignant opposition to typical Beacon Hill shenanigans. Trouble is, he owns some of those fish.

Speaking of those special pensions, Treasurer Cahill this weekend explained them like this: ""The intent of the statute is to provide a benefit to someone who was involuntarily removed from their position, through no fault of their own." A friend notes that only in Massachusetts can losing a reelection bid be deemed involuntary removal without fault. In defense of the drafters of this particular travesty, they probably figured that with the sky-high odds against losing a reelection bid in this state, the provision would rarely be invoked.

Governor Patrick does the pursed lips pose better than anyone else in the business. (Globe photo)

This Herald headline today defines irony - Christy Mihos: Vote out the clowns.

Reporting on the ongoing negotiations over the fate of the Boston Globe, the Boston Business Journal writes, "The fate of controversial lifetime job guarantees remained unclear." If the union saves its "lifetime job guarantees" but the paper goes out of business, does the union get to count that as a victory?

As the media-fueled hysteria over the swine flu shows signs of petering out, will the press finally start paying attention to the mysterious giant giraffe menace?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

You do the math (because the House didn't bother)

Last year's $28.3 billion budget was hopelessly, egregiously out of balance. It required mid-year cuts, end-of-year cuts, and monthly re-visitations to the tax revenue estimates, which routinely ended up far too optimistic. The state is taking in far less - billions less - than $28 million this year. With the economy contracting and no reasonable expectation of a miraculous turnaround in the next 14 months, it is safe to assume the state will take in even less money next year than it did this year.

In any other state, then, this morning's headline in the State House News would be surprising - shocking, even: "House approves $28 billion budget."

How in God's name can that be possible, you ask, with all of the rhetoric you have heard about sacrifice and "tough decisions" and "cutting to the bone," etc? A scan of the last week of State House News budget updates provides more than one clue. It all started, of course, late Monday night, with "House backs higher sales tax." Although we were told more than once that increasing the sales tax by 25% would not even close the current budget gap, House Democrats quickly moved back into their good-times spending comfort zone. Here's a partial run-down of headlines as the week progressed:
  • House turns to spending amendments;
  • House rejects DC office cut;
  • House adds $25M for elder services, historical preservation to budget;
  • House budget bottom line grows;
  • House adds $3.5 mil to budget through early ed;
  • New Speaker, similar process;
  • House adds $$$ to healthcare acccounts;
  • House tacks on $13M for higher ed programs;
  • House considers earmark for mentally ill homeless;
  • State doles out loans to life science start ups;
  • House additions to budget reach $311 mil;
  • Sales tax kitty fueling House spending spree;
  • House approves HHS spending additions;
  • Slipping revenues undermining House budget;
  • House adds $2M for veterans programs;
  • House requires long-horned beetle study;
  • With housing amendment, House adds $25 mil to bottom line;
  • House bumps public health account $24M;
  • House budget add-ons, $53o million and counting;
  • House passes $21.8 million public safety amendment.
All of this spending culminated, finally, in this:
HOUSE APPROVES $28 BILLION BUDGET: After adding about $600 million to its bottom line over five days, the House voted 137-19 Friday night to approve a $28 billion budget for fiscal 2010. Ways and Means Chairman Charley Murphy acknowledged that dismal economic projections will likely derail the House budget but said it reflected priorities that he would fight for in an eventual conference committee. Speaker Robert DeLeo said the budget reflected both compassion and fiscal restraint. He also touted investments, tacked onto the budget after Monday’s vote to raise the sales tax to 6.25 percent from 5 percent, of $275 million for transportation infrastructure and $205 million for local aid. House Republicans voted against the budget, with Minority Leader Brad Jones protesting the adoption of the $900 million sales tax increase and noting that April tax collections alone could fall below last April's take by an equal amount. Jones said the budget’s spending levels were “unsustainable” and predicted the spending plan would undergo major revisions. Reps. Jennifer Callahan, Colleen Garry and Tom Stanley were the lone Democrats to vote against the budget. The Senate budget plan is due out in mid-May. A final budget is due for the July 1 start to fiscal 2010.
Speaker DeLeo "said the budget reflected both compassion and fiscal restraint." "Compassion," in the Massachusetts Legislature, is defined as follows:

Compassion (n): Spending commitments, whether or not supported by actual revenues or a realistic expectation that the funds will actually materialize.

Telling various constituencies that they will receive state budget funds, knowing full well that these allocations will be cut - either by the Senate, through the reconciliation process, or - much worse - part way through next year... this is "compassion."

It is also called "political," or "CYA." Having passed this "compassionate" budget, all but a few Legislators - the 16 Republicans and three independent-minded Democrats - can now say to the unions and other powerful liberal groups who fuel their campaigns every two years, "Hey, we tried to maintain spending on ________. I voted for it. The [Senate/Governor/economy] is to blame for your cuts."

This is not compassion, and it is as far as one can be from responsible budgeting. Scanning down the list of headlines above, one reads "higher ed," "elder services," "veterans services," early education." All are worthy causes. A case can be made, and no doubt is made, for each spending item in this once-again bloated budget. But we cannot afford it.

The core problem with the legislative super-majority in this state is right there in that list. They do not care that we cannot afford it. We voters do not make them have to care.