Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A penny on the dollar

Apparently 'a penny on the dollar' can be either a lot or a little, depending on the point one is trying to make.

Back in April when Massachusetts Democrats first started their push for a 25% increase to the sales tax (which goes into effect next month), we were told that the increase would amount to just a "penny on the dollar." Such a piddling amount - the change that falls into the couch - who could object?

Now fast-forward to this month's budget imbroglio. To justify the fact that the budget passed by the Democratic Legislature and signed yesterday by our Democratic Governor contains over a billion dollars in tax increases we are told repeatedly that it represents a gut-wrenching exercise in tough choices and spending restraint. It is "without question an austere - and in some respects, painful - budget." (Governor Patrick). It is "perhaps one of the most difficult [budgets] in our state's history." (Speaker DeLeo). "The Senate and House made tough decisions." (Senate President Therese Murray).

Last week I did a little napkin math and was unable to come up with a level of spending reduction that would substantiate all of this heated rhetoric. And then Monday, in a story about Governor Patrick's budget signing ceremony, the State House News made this observation:
The budget's spending level cuts 3 percent from the one Patrick signed last year, a package reduced during this fiscal year as state revenues have tanked... If pending fiscal 2010 supplemental appropriations are factored in, spending in the fiscal year that starts Wednesday would rise to $27.316 billion, less than 1 percent below projected fiscal 2009 spending. Much of the supplemental request represents Patrick's insistence on spending that lawmakers have rejected.
Read that again. The Legislature's budget cuts spending by 3 percent (3 pennies on the dollar). Given his druthers, Governor Patrick would enact a budget that cuts spending by one percent. One percent! The proverbial "penny on the dollar."

This is the spending restraint that Governor Patrick would have you believe is "austere - and in some respects, painful." This is the budget that Speaker DeLeo says presented difficulties of historic proportions. High end, three percent. Low end, one percent. That is the net-net of Senate President Murray's "tough decisions."

Back to my initial point, though: one percent. The "penny on the dollar" that is no big deal when it comes out of your wallet suddenly represents privation beyond all belief when wrung from the Commonwealth's spend-heavy budget.

Remember this dissonance next year, when the Democrats set out to convince you that they had no choice but to raise taxes by billions of dollars while your family struggles through the current recession.

This man is not running for a second term

I know, I know. He's actively fund raising. He is meeting with his key supporters. President Obama sent his very own campaign manager to help out. But I am sticking to my earlier prediction: Governor Patrick is not going to run for a second term.

Here are a few headlines from today's papers:

Gov Patrick: Don't expect Mass sales tax holiday

Sales tax hike balances state budget

Patrick hints at hike in gas tax

That last one is the capper. A guy gearing up for a reelection bid, his approval ratings in the toilet, in the process of signing a 25 % sales tax increase does not - does not - "hint at" yet another broad based tax hike. Not with Obama's political magician calling his shots. Not when he knows that in a state grown used to the shaded meanings of Patrick parlance, a "hint" at yet another tax will necessarily be read as virtually an iron-clad guarantee.

No, this is not a guy preparing the ground for another run. This is a guy who has decided to heck with it, he's going to govern as he wanted to govern all along. He is going to finish out his one term by enacting "revenue measures" the likes of which no politician contemplating a future run could ever support, and then he is going to cut bait and head to Washington to join his friend the President.

Here's what bothers me most. Beyond the violence that the Patrick experiment is doing to the Commonwealth's fiscal situation, the worst damage he may end up doing is foreshadowed in another troubling headline today- Survey: Voters favor Mihos.

Dumbing down "equity"

"Toll equity." It's a buzz phrase in the communities running west of Boston, along the infamous Massachusetts Turnpike, most frequently heard emanating from the mouths of office holders and office seekers.

"Toll equity." The meaning of the phrase ought to be straightforward. Equity in tolling. "Equity," defined: "something that is fair and just." So "toll equity" as applied to, say, one Massachusetts citizen living in MetroWest as compared to another living on the North Shore ought to mean "fairness and justice in tolling."

More simply, it ought to mean that citizen A does not pay more than citizen B to use the Commonwealth's roadways. But apparently that is not what it means.

Exhibit A for the current accepted usage of the phrase "toll equity" is today's letter to the editor of the Salem News, penned by one Robert DeLeo, the currently un-indicted Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In the midst of a twisted and tortured happy-face justification of a budget that boosted taxes by over a billion dollars rests this little nugget:
On transportation reform, the House and Senate have passed a landmark bill that eliminates the Turnpike Authority, ensures toll equity and abolishes the "23 and out" rule at the MBTA...
According to our Governor and his co-conspirators in the legislature, transportation reform coupled with a 25% increase in the state sales tax allowed the Pike board to cancel (more likely postpone, but why quibble?) a scheduled toll hike on the Turnpike. That's all well and good, but in what conceivable sense does that "ensure toll equity"? Let's review:

Yesterday, a Mass Pike commuter was obliged to pay a toll on his way to and from work. Tomorrow, the next day, and for every foreseeable day after, that commuter will be obliged to pay that same toll. In addition, he'll pay 25% more in tax on anything he might stop and purchase along the way - and much more than that if gets a yearning for a bottle or wine or a six-pack to bring home.

Yesterday, a commuter on I-93 was not obliged to pay a toll on his way to and from work. Tomorrow, the next day, and for every foreseeable day after, that commuter will pay a 25% higher sales tax on purchases, and will get smacked in the wallet at the package store, but for him - no toll.

To Speaker DeLeo, and to the MetroWest legislative delegation that enthusiastically echoes his bogus characterization of the fruits of transportation reform, this constitutes "equity."

A decision not to make the tolls more unfair is claimed as a victory for absolute fairness. Perpetuation of an inherently inequitable situation is characterized as "equity."

Baloney.

Monday, June 29, 2009

This "watchdog" has a blind spot

I almost missed this one, from Saturday's Globe: "Patrick stresses upside of tax hikes."

In addition to the unintentionally hilarious headline, the article contains this gem:
“There’s no fiscal crisis of the last 50 years that hasn’t had both major spending cuts and a broad-based tax increase,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-funded fiscal watchdog group.
Oh really? Let's cast our minds way, waaaaay back - to the fiscal crisis of 2002-2003. Which "broad-based tax" did Governor Romney enact to pull us out of that one? That's right - none of them. Governor Romney held the line and balanced the budget with tough cuts in spending.

He also raised some targeted fees for state services. Romney took some flack for that later on from critics who objected to his claim that he never raised taxes. But fees, paid voluntarily in exchange for a service, are very different from compulsory taxation. And in any event they certainly are not "broad based taxes."

The Globe never fails to label Michael Widmer the president of a "business-funded" group. Presumably that should lend his pronouncements some conservative cred. The truth is that much more often than not he opposed Governor Romney, and much more often than not his 'analysis' supports Governor Patrick. In any event, his claim that "“There’s no fiscal crisis of the last 50 years that hasn’t had both major spending cuts and a broad-based tax increase,’’ is patently false. One might have expected the Globe's memory to cover at least the current decade, but no matter - they've been in the tank for broad-based tax increases all along.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Breaking news from the Land of Duh.

Globe headline this morning: Patrick hints he will sign tax hike.

Well knock me over with a feather!

This headline - or one much like it - became inevitable on election night 2006, when the voters decided to go with Patrick's gossamer promises and soaring rhetoric over common sense and basic math.

Throughout his campaign against Kerry Healey (my friend and former boss - biases right out here on my sleeve), Patrick pledged all things to all people, piling up hundreds of millions in proposed new spending. Pressed to reconcile his grandiose ambitions with his adamant denial of plans to raise taxes, Patrick unleashed his patented brow furrow, and blithely asserted that his plans would be funded through "efficiencies in government."

Once safely ensconced in office, Patrick dropped the subterfuge and became what he is: a tax-and-spender. The drapes and the Caddy were just the surface. Instead of "finding efficiencies" he added thousands to the state workforce. Instead of "making government do more with less," he increased his own staff and inflated their salaries by tens of thousands (each) over what his predecessor's staff was paid. Instead of "changing the culture on Beacon Hill" he embraced it - hiring a sketchy Big Dig lobbyist to run Transportation Department (and the Big Dig), and doling out patronage appointments like a 30 year legislator.

"I have no plans to raise taxes" quickly gave way to a billion dollars in new levies on the Commonwealth's businesses. His adamant campaign pledge to reduce property taxes morphed first into "openness" to a gas tax hike, and then into dogged advocacy for giving us the highest gas tax in the nation.

So no, it is not a surprise that this morning the Globe tells us that Governor Patrick is about to hit all of us with yet another cool billion in new taxes.

Patrick is fortunate to have the economic downturn to shield him from blame for his blatant reneging on crystal clear campaign promises, but that too is disingenuous. Patrick was inflating the state work force, signing budgets far in excess of reasonable revenue expectations and sliding comfortably into the "Beacon Hill culture" long before hard economic reality took a nosedive.

He had us firmly on the road back to Taxachusetts from day one. The downturn just pushed things along a little faster.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Attacking perceptions and ignoring reality

In a typically grandiose and self-congratulatory announcement yesterday evening of what state legislators are humbly calling a "historic" ethics reform package, Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Care to go for four in a row?) made a telling statement characterizing the ethical problems the bill supposedly addresses (from today's Globe): "The public has come to view people in public life as playing by a different set of rules than everyone else..."

Get that? The problem is how you and I have "come to view people in public life." And how, exactly, have we come to that view? The Speaker did not say.

Is it perhaps more the problem that "people in public life" have "come to view" themselves "as playing by a different set of rules than everyone else"?

Anyhow, it is this self-exonerating conception of the problem - one of perception - to which the highly-touted ethics reform package released yesterday addresses itself. Again from DeLeo: "By filing this bill, we will begin to restore the public’s confidence in government. This bill sends a very clear message to everyone..."

Ah yes, they have filed a bill. What a clear message! Here are a few other messages, arguably clearer:

(1) Senator Diane Wilkerson (D-Aisle 9, Ladies' Undergarments). In 1997 she was convicted of federal tax evasion and sentenced to house arrest. She kept her seat and positions on powerful committees, and enjoyed the continued support of her Democratic colleagues.

In 2001 she was fined by the State Ethics Commission for failing to report that a bank for which she carried water in the Senate was paying her $20K a year as a "consultant." She kept her seat and positions on powerful committees, and enjoyed the continued support of her Democratic colleagues.

In 2005 she paid $40K to settle a suit brought by the Attorney General over a number of sketchy campaign contributions and expenditures. She kept her seat... etc., etc., etc.

During primary season in 2008, with full knowledge of all of the above, Governor Patrick recorded this infamous robo-call endorsement of Wilkerson. Now there's a clear message!



It was not until federal corruption charges and widely-circulated photographs of the esteemed Senator stuffing wads of cash into her undergarments in a Beacon Hill eatery became public that she lost her long-standing support amongst Democratic leadership and was forced, finally, to resign.

(2) Senator James Marzilli (D-LoonyTunes). Last year this sitting Senator and champion of the left groped several women in downtown Lowell, led police on a footchase and then bizarrely gave the name of a Senate colleague to his captors. He was allowed by Democratic leadership to retain both his seat and his powerful committee assignments (and the salaries that went with both), until news broke that while under indictment he had purported to represent the state Senate at a conference in Germany. The cumulative effect of that revelation and the exploding Wilkerson scandal, not his colleagues, finally forced him from office. Now there's a clear message!

(3) Sal. In January, House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Sal Dimasi's reelection as Speaker of the House, despite the fact that a close friend and associate of Dimasi had recently been indicted by the state Attorney General, charged with peddling influence with the Speaker, and the fact that an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into DiMasi and his associates was well known. Now there's a clear message!

Months later, DiMasi was - as expected - indicted, leading directly to a final push for passage of the ethics reforms that are so much in the news today. In case you missed it, DiMasi is the third straight Speaker of the Massachusetts House to be indicted. Message!

But hey, our legislature has filed a bill. That bill will force a lot of people to fill out a lot more forms before seeking to influence their government. That bill will impose some enhanced penalties on public officials caught with their hands in the till. That bill will subject more municipal meetings to the state's open meetings law (though, as the Globe notes, "they [our elected representatives] made sure the Legislature would still be exempt.").

That is all wonderful. But...

Does anyone really think that Diane Wilkerson was passed wads of dirty cash because her crooked 'donors' were not legally obliged to fill out sufficient paperwork?

Does anyone really think that Jim Marzilli went off a-gropin' of a late summer's eve because the penalties for public groppage were too lax?

Does anyone really think that Sal decided to dip his beak into a state contract because he did not fear the consequences if he were caught?

Of course not. These people did these things because they were convinced that they could get away with it. More, based on recent and repeated precedent, they were convinced that if they did not get away with it, they would be protected by Beacon Hill's wagon-circling culture.

That cultural problem is endemic. It is most decidedly a problem of deep-rooted reality, not one of perception. It will not be solved by today's bill, or by any bill.

It will be solved, eventually, by the voters.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On gaming, a cautionary tale to our south

A few years back I sat on a Friday night having dinner with friends in a Mexican restaurant in DC, where at the time I lived the footloose and (mildly) fancy-free life of a post-college bachelor working on the Hill. One friend was struck with the bright idea of paying our check and loading into a car for an impromptu road trip to Atlantic City, where none of us had ever been. Because we could, we did.

Roughly 12 hours later, each of us thoroughly defeated by games we did not really understand, we lined up at the teller window in a cheesy Atlantic City casino to cash out what remained of our depleted cache of chips. We'd had a good time, none of us had done irrevocable damage to his finances; breakfast and then sleep before the long drive back to DC beckoned.

Then, a tap at my shoulder. (I should pause here to note that I am trying mightily not to over-dramatize this anecdote. Certain adjectives are necessary, though, to convey the reality of what happened.) I turned and looked into a pair of bleary, panicked eyes. These eyes should have been sitting in the face of a man about to ask me to call 9-1-1, his wife was having a heart attack. But they weren't. These eyes belonged to a man of about 40 years of age, his arm extended towards me and his hand pinching a wedding band between two fingers as he pushed it in my face for inspection.

"It's platinum. Give me two hundred dollars?"

I shook my head, startled. Then, to each of my friends, pleading. "It's platinum? One seventy? It's platinum."

He moved off down the line, readjusting his price to $200 for the next group of potential buyers. My friends and I cashed out and headed for breakfast. On the way back to DC we kept revisiting that guy and his panicked eyes. To my knowledge none of us is even a casual gambler today, and whenever gambling or Atlantic City comes up in conversation it is a sure bet that someone will speculate as to the fate of that man and his platinum ring.

I am reminded again of that unfortunate man as I read the Globe article this morning about the bankruptcy of the Twin Rivers 'racino' in Lincoln, Rhode Island. The parallels between my guy with his platinum band and the State of Rhode Island with its own gambling addiction are, again, probably overwrought and a little strained - but they are there.

Like the man in Atlantic City, Rhode Island has gambled itself into a hole. Twin River is, according to the Globe, "singlehandedly Rhode Island’s third-largest revenue stream, after income and sales taxes." Did I mention it is also bankrupt? Well, it is. And so like the guy in AC who gambled himself into a hole so deep that he was willing to sell the wedding ring off his finger, Rhode Island is desperate.

"To help the Lincoln, R.I., gaming emporium stay afloat, [Rhode Island Governor] Carcieri plans to allow Twin River to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week..."

"'I’m not a big fan of gambling, because I do not think it is economic development,’ the governor said. 'We have it; it’s here,' he said at the press conference. 'My job is to do the best we can to protect it and keep the taxpayers healthy.’"

It seems not to concern the Governor that the variety of "taxpayer" likely to be gambling in the wee hours of the morning on a weekday is anything but "healthy." To the contrary, many of them are likely to bear a striking resemblance - especially in the eyes - to the man who tried to sell me his wedding ring in Atlantic City over a decade ago.

Like Governor Carcieri, I'm 'not a big fan of gambling.' But I recognize that for many, many people it is a relatively harmless form of recreation. We also live in a free country, where we are entitled to spend our own money as we wish, even if how we spend it lands us in a cheesy casino in the middle of the night, literally hocking the family jewels.

My point here is not to proselytize. All I am saying is that the situation in Rhode Island, with its over-reliance on gambling revenues and the life-destroying desperation measures that over-reliance has prompted, might be a good object lesson to keep in mind later this year - when the usual suspects on Beacon Hill start to push state-sanctioned gambling as a budgetary cure-all.

UPDATE: Treasurer and gubernatorial hopeful Tim Cahill just released his analysis of the Twin River bankruptcy and what it means to prospects for gaming in the Commonwealth. From the State House News:
The reported bankruptcy of Twin River, a slot parlor in Rhode Island, is something Massachusetts may be able to “take advantage of” as the size of the region’s gaming industry changes, Treasurer Tim Cahill said Wednesday. Cahill said the bankruptcy filing is the result of a bad deal approved by the developer, guaranteeing that 61 percent of revenue would go back to the Rhode Island state government. “Governments get greedy and the folks that want to build these things will say almost anything just to get their foot in the door,” he said. “They’re paying the state too much and the credit markets have changed in the last year.” Cahill, who has outlined a plan to introduce slot parlors in Massachusetts and has previously suggested bringing in full-fledged casin, has said that a smaller take for the state would ensure that slot parlors are able to reinvest in themselves, make improvements, and stay solvent. The treasurer said that expanded gambling is the third largest revenue source for the Rhode Island government.
The Treasurer just fell several rungs in the estimation of at least one Massachusetts voter. What a knuckle-headed analysis. The Twin River bankruptcy, not 45 minutes drive from Boston, does not provide an opportunity for Massachusetts. It does lay bare two fatal flaws in the pro-casino argument:

(1) The regional market for gambling is not infinite. Far from it. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods (both "destination resort casinos" of the variety favored by Governor Patrick) are both hemorrhaging money in the current downturn. Twin River (a gaming parlor of the variety favored by Treasurer Cahill) cannot keep its head above water. From where, then are the gamblers to come to fill either the multiple Massachusetts destination resort casinos Patrick is seeking, or the slot parlors Cahill wants? And

(2) Gambling is not a budgetary panacea. To the contrary, as Rhode Island so starkly demonstrates, state-sanctioned gaming tends to have the same deleterious effects on state finances as gambling so often has on personal finances.

Okay... maybe now I am proselytizing just a little bit.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Capital is mobile. So are capitalists."

This useful reminder comes from a recent edition of National Review, in a blurb about the inevitable and yet somehow unexpected reaction of wealthy Maryland taxpayers to that state's attempt to balance its budget on their backs:
Maryland has discovered that you can try to soak the rich, but the rich know how to swim across the Potomac. Faced with a budget shortfall, Maryland’s state legislators enacted a higher tax bracket for millionaires — 6.25 percent on top of federal and local taxes. One-third of Maryland’s millionaires vanished from the tax rolls, many seeking haven in Virginia, Delaware, and Florida. The result: Even with the higher rate, Maryland is now collecting $100 million a year less from the guys in monocles and top hats. Capital is mobile. So are capitalists.
As is so often the case, a tax increase intended to (in liberal parlance) "raise revenue" ended up having the opposite effect. The state takes a larger share of a smaller pie, leaving it - and the taxpayers - with less pie.

Low, stable, predictable tax rates attract wealth, whether from wealthy individuals, from businesses or by encouraging investment. High taxes and politically-motivated tax-attacks on "the rich" (again, whether individuals or businesses) repel wealth.

Massachusetts, with its high cost of living and a political climate that was rated among the most unfriendly to business in the nation even before the current downturn, has been repelling business and individual investment for some time now.

Perhaps next year might be a good time to try a different approach?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Watch Governor Patrick on this one.

Last week I noted the surprising inclusion in the transportation reform bill of a provision eliminating the odious Massachusetts Turnpike Unions and their contracts - an absolute prerequisite for achieving any real dollar savings from the consolidation of the state's transportation bureaucracies.

As the bill was coming up for a hurried vote in both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature, the state AFL-CIO fired off an indignant letter threatening legislators with withheld endorsements should they support the bill. The threat fell flat and the bill passed both chambers easily, with only a few union stalwarts voicing protests during the brief debate.

Now the unions are turning to their last remaining champion with a variant of the same threat, in a final effort to save the egregious contracts that helped bury the Turnpike Authority under a mountain of bills and red tape. From the State House News:
UNIONS ASK PATRICK FOR PIKE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING HELP: The state’s largest union group is urging Gov. Deval Patrick to strike a section of the pending transportation overhaul that labor advocates say undermines bargaining rights of Turnpike Authority employees. The bill calls for the maintenance of current collective bargaining agreements until they lapse, then for the state’s personnel administrator to work with the new Mass. Department of Transportation to establish new state job titles for the former Pike employees. Under the language of Section 142, those employees would then receive wages and benefits consistent with the state’s bargaining unit contract applicable to their new titles. “We asked the governor to send back changes to Sect. 142 that protect the collective bargaining agreements of the workers of the Turnpike,” said Mass. AFL-CIO spokesman Timothy Sullivan.
Note what it is that the AFL-CIO is asking the Governor to do. The Turnpike is being absorbed into the state's larger transportation system (where it ought to have been all along). As part of that absorption, Turnpike employees will labor under their current contracts until those contracts expire. They will then "receive wages and benefits consistent with the state's bargaining unit contact applicable to their new titles." In English this means: 'they will then get the same wages and benefits as other state employees doing the same jobs.'

This is the concept - parity - that the union bigs find so offensive. One small aspect of the Pike's dysfunction was the fact that over generous management ceded routinely to union contract demands, resulting in pay disparities in favor of Pike employees as compared to comparably-employed workers elsewhere in the transportation system. A plow driver on the Pike makes more - as much as a third more - than a plow driver on I-93. A maintenance worker on the Pike makes more than a maintenance worker on I-95. A toll-taker on the Pike makes more than... well, more than just about anyone on the planet whose responsibilities consist mainly of standing at a cash register and making change.

I was troubled (though not surprised!) to find that this situation will apparently persist even after consolidation, at least until "current collective bargaining agreements... lapse." The unions are asking Patrick to perpetuate this situation, presumably forever. Under their formulation, two workers in the state transportation department doing the exact same job would be paid much differently, for the sole reason that one of them used to labor for the Turnpike Authority.

Think about the assumption that underlies this position. To the union bosses, a negotiated contract creates rights not only for the duration of the contract; those "rights," once negotiated, are supposed to last forever. They want the Governor to "protect the collective bargaining agreements of the workers of the Turnpike" - by which they mean their inflated salaries, their crippling overtime rules, their unsustainable benefits - forever.

If Governor Patrick rolls over on this one, he will have eviscerated transportation reform and negated much of the potential savings to be realized through agency consolidation.

Many tea leaves will be spread out for reading, especially concerning Patrick's own plans for the upcoming election cycle, based on how he responds to this union request/threat.

We'd rather keep our money, thanks.

In one of the most transparently political ploys for favorable press coverage that I can remember, Governor Patrick is threatening a veto of the state budget and its 25% sales tax hike unless the Legislature passes an ethics reform bill.

The veto threat is fine - it would be better if he meant it. But what in God's name does one have to do with the other?

Here's how the Governor explains the situation to the State House News:
"The fact that we have not been able to pass a strong ethics reform bill -- despite the clear need to restore the public's trust -- threatens all the progress we have made," Patrick said. "For the Legislature to enact a 25% increase in the sales tax without first passing a strong ethics bill goes against the pledge that the Legislative leaders and I made, and that the public expects us to keep, to deliver all three reforms before new revenue. We know what to do. The House passed a solid ethics bill. The Senate's bill contains a good new idea regarding campaign finance. Legislative leaders should quickly agree to final ethics legislation that includes the strongest provisions from the House, the Senate and my original bill -- including a gift ban and campaign finance reform. Without that, I will veto the sales tax."
The shameless hypocrisy oozing from this disingenuous rationale is striking even for Patrick. Consider:

Governor Patrick wants you to believe he is incensed at the sales tax hike because it "goes against the pledge... to deliver all three reforms before new revenue." Yet Patrick himself did everything but take hostages and threaten to off one every hour in his unsuccessful, months-long effort to force a massive gas tax increase.

He insists that the ethics reforms must include "a gift ban and campaign finance reform," while continuing to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions through his "Seventy-first Fund, which crassly exploits a loophole in the law and lets him pull in checks totaling up to 11 times the legal contribution limit.

Governor Patrick has no real problem with the sales tax hike, whether it comes before, after or along with his three reforms. He will sign the bill eventually. And he is certainly no champion of campaign finance reform. So why posture like this?

As is so often the case, this boils down to a simple, unfortunate truth: most people do not have the time or the inclination to pay much attention to their government. Patrick's threat to veto the sales tax hike unless the Legislature enacts a meaningless ethics reform bill gives him two political home runs in one. As busy voters go about their daily lives, they skim by headlines reading, "Patrick threatens veto of sales tax hike," and "Patrick pushes for ethics reform." Some percentage of voters will internalize one or both of these messages: Governor Patrick is against the sales tax increase. Governor Patrick is for cleaning up government.

Patrick will sign the sales tax hike (and the eight other tax increases embedded in the budget) into law, and he will continue to blatantly violate the spirit of the state's campaign finance laws. Many voters, however, will hang on to the subconscious mis-impressions that they get this week from Patrick's high-profile posturing.

The Governor's argument to the State House News relies on the assumption that voters are willing to trade a milquetoast ethics reform bill for a 25% hike in the state sales tax. I think I speak for many of my fellow citizens when I say I'd rather keep my money.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I've never been much good with math...

... so perhaps someone can explain this one to me:

Last year's state budget was $28.2 billion. The fiscal 2010 budget just passed by the Massachusetts State Legislature totals $27.4 billion.

According to the State House News Service, this new budget "includes nearly a billion dollars in new taxes, $1.5 billion in one-time federal stimulus funds and about $2.4 billion in spending cuts and other efforts to slow the growth of spending."

I have posted in the past about the folly of budget balancing with one-time revenues like the federal stimulus funds, so won't repeat that here. What has me puzzled this evening is that "$2.4 billion in spending cuts and other efforts to slow the growth of spending."

Ignore the weasel-worded "other efforts to slow the growth of spending," which sounds an awful lot like President Obama's "jobs created or saved" nonsense. Let's just look at math for a moment.

The difference between last year's budget and this year's is approximately -$800 million. Assume a generous inflation rate of 3%, and in present day dollars we can call last year's budget 'even-funded' at $29 billion. $27.4 billion is $1.6 billion less than $29 billion - so the fiscal 2010 budget is $1.6 billion dollars lower than this year's equivalent of a level-funded budget as compared to last year.

So how, exactly, do they get to the supposed $2.4 billion in cuts? I suspect (but do not know) that the other $800 million is accounted for by that squishy "other efforts to slow the growth of spending." $2.4 billion is a big, impressive number. It gifts heft to the claim that the legislature made the "tough choices," and it helps sell that billion dollars in new taxes (on top of the billion they levied last year, let's not forget).

I might well be missing something fundamental. If I am, can someone tell me what it is?

Legislators of the night

Why does it seem our Legislature never does anything important in daylight? Following weeks upon weeks during which neither chamber spends more than a few minutes in formal session and conference committees labor away (supposedly - but who can really know?) behind tightly sealed doors, the big-ticket items nearly always first 'see the light of day' in the dark of night.

The latest two examples are transportation reform (released near midnight on Wednesday) and the budget accord (released near midnight last night), but the practice of legislative nocturnal emission has been more rule than exception for years now.

The reasons are not difficult to identify. This is just a variant on the time-honored, non-partisan practice of holding bad news until 'after the news cycle.' In every day terms this means waiting to make an announcement until after 4pm, when the television and print reporters have already filed their stories for the next day. This tactic is most frequently deployed on Fridays.

There is something very different, however, about using a variant on this ploy where major pieces of significant legislation are concerned. On a practical level, releasing bills that often run to hundreds of pages at midnight, usually (as in the case of both the transportation bill and the budget this week) for votes the very next day, virtually guarantees that 99.9% of the public will have zero opportunity to learn anything about the legislation prior to the vote. Very few reporters will have a chance to review the bill. Those who do will not be able to get their analysis to the public in time to empower citizens to provide feedback to their elected representatives. Consequently, those reporters who are able to publish anything about the bill will necessarily rely on summaries provided by... Statehouse leadership.

Pressed for an explanation of this repeated last-minute legislating, the Democratic leaders are always armed with an excuse. In the case of this week's blockbuster bills, they cite July 1 - the latest effective date of the long-threatened Pike toll increase. They needed to get the bills to Governor Patrick by today, you see, to give him the full 10 days allocated him by the Constitution to review the bills prior to his sign or veto decision. This excuse ignores the five and a half months worth of days prior to today's artificial deadline. It also ignores the fact that the toll hikes have been pushed back multiple times already, and certainly could have been delayed another week to allow citizen review of a budget that will require them to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars in increased taxes from here on out.

This is all a variant on the attitude expressed so beautifully early this week by Senate President Terese Murray (D-Revenue before More Revenue) when she explained closed-door conference committee meetings with a citizen brush-off: "It would be like if we came and sat as you [did your work] and sat around and said, 'Why are you doing that?' or 'Why are you saying that?' "

Legislating by moonlight takes it a step further. Not only are voters unable to say "why are you doing that," we are unable even to ask "why DID you do that?" before they cast their hurried votes and it is too late to do anything about it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Transportation Bill looking better and better

The union bosses hate it and are urging no votes. All things being equal, that's good enough for me. I am getting downright enthusiastic.

At the end of the Romney Administration a proposal was floated to eliminate the Turnpike Authority. One rationale for elimination rather than reform was that only through wholesale elimination could the outrageous union contracts that have strangled its operations be invalidated. It is perhaps a good measure of my personal cynicism toward our current legislature that I never thought to wonder if that union defenestration provision would be included in this year's transportation reform. Apparently it has been. From the Boston.com article linked above:
"It eliminates all unions at the Turnpike Authority and takes no regard for collective bargaining," said Robert F. Cullinane, head of the teamsters local union 127, which represents toll-takers. "We thought we were voting for Democrats up here."
Note well: this is not about the workers. The workers will have the opportunity to join and be represented by any number of the existing unions that are peppered throughout the state transportation workforce. This is about the union bosses who will suddenly find themselves stripped of the ability to call the shots at the Pike, an ability that they have grown to cherish and have exercised in sometimes appallingly brazen ways (see, e.g., the infamous Easter Sunday sick-out just two months ago). The workers won't lose their voice - the union bosses will lose some of their power, and about time.

The State House News has a little more detail on a letter-borne threat fired off by the head of the AFL-CIO today to the legislature:
In a letter to senators, Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes said language in Section 142 of the bill "abandoned" protections for Mass. Turnpike Authority workers that had been included in the House and Senate bills. "This removes the voice of the workers' and the unions' they elected to join entirely from subjects that have been collectively bargained for decades," Haynes wrote, urging senators to reject the conference report. Haynes added in his letter: "There is no voice for workers on any board in the proposed MassDOT," the name given to the new transportation super-agency created under the bill. And he closed by saying: "All votes relating to these matters may be considered Labor Votes and calculated into Labor Voting Records upon which endorsements and levels of support are determined. Thank you."
'Vote against us and we won't be there for you next year,' in other words. Individual legislators will be forgiven a collective shrug. 'What are they going to do? Endorse a Republican?'

Republicans who are understandably tempted to criticize this bill's shortcomings and oppose it on that basis ought to ponder Ronald Reagan's admonition concerning the occasional efficacy of taking half a loaf when it is offered and coming back for the rest later. This bill constitutes at least half a loaf.

"We thought we were voting for Democrats up here." Priceless.

Glad to be wrong

Yesterday I predicted that the transportation conference committee would punt on the issue of MBTA benefits by pushing that controversial issue into a study commission. Apparently they did not. I'm glad to be wrong.

I have not read the bill that came out of committee last night. It is a good bet that many of the legislators who will be asked to vote for it today have not either, and will not before casting their votes. As the Globe notes, "The extensive plan, reached after weeks of closed-door negotiating, is expected to be voted on today by the House and Senate, giving rank-and-file lawmakers only hours to review complex legislation that their leaders have labeled historic." This rush-to-vote violates a new rule just implemented by Speaker DeLeo, according to which members are supposed to have at least a day to review legislation before a vote, but never mind. Rule number one in the Massachusetts Legislature has long been: 'rules are meant to be broken.'

Anyhow, from the limited coverage available so far, it looks like this bill is a big step in the right direction.

Even if abolishing the Turnpike Authority turns out to be purely symbolic, it is useful and important symbolism. Or perhaps more accurately, it is a useful and important to eliminate an agency that has become a symbol of government waste, patronage and inefficiency. Given the redundancy that currently exists between the Pike and Mass Highway, the costly Pike union contracts and skewed salaries paid at that agency, the consolidation is likely to result in significant actual savings. In any event, good riddance.

The significant adjustments to MBTA retiree benefits will realize real savings for that cash-strapped agency. And the Legislature's refusal to accede to Governor Patrick's insistence on a 19 cent gas tax increase is encouraging, if predictable in the wake of a politically unpopular vote to raise the state sales tax.

Of course consolidation and reform on paper are worth little more than said paper. The proof will be in the implementation of these reforms. If all that happens is a change in signage and some shuffling of office space, the state will find itself still sitting at the bottom of the same hole a few years from now. Credit where credit is due, though: this is the first positive, substantive measure to come out of that building in months.

Now about those tolls...

Does this guy have a fan club?

David Bernstein logs yet another excellent piece of State House commentary in the Boston Phoenix this week, accompanied by a fun sidebar on the history of public corruption in Massachusetts. He has been writing some of the most insightful - and incisive - stuff out there lately. I just added his blog to my blogroll at left. It is well worth your attention.

Back to today's piece, which is about how under Speakers both conservative and liberal, the basic paradigm of governance on Beacon Hill has remained the same: "an insular and out-of-touch legislature is lost in its own constricted and often petty perspectives."

You should take the time to read the whole thing. Nothing in it should surprise you, but Bernstein does a great job of distilling the dysfunction and describing its inevitable effects. Here are my favorite excerpts:
As the recent pattern has been, those in the current Speaker's good graces protect the status quo; the rest plot and wait for their chance to benefit from the system. Thus, the liberals who regularly decried Finneran's autocratic, centralized, secretive leadership were later found, under DiMasi, strutting imperiously through the sty of Beacon Hill, like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm...

...In retrospect, some say, nobody knows what DiMasi's motives might have been when acting on any number of laws or favors, because, for the most part, House members — including many progressive lawmakers from Boston and the immediate area — were willing to obey the Speaker's requests without demanding much in the way of explanations. Many of those lawmakers have since moved up in the power structure under DiMasi, and his chosen successor DeLeo. That silent obedience, critics charge, has been the great failing of the House liberals: they enabled DiMasi by accepting their roles as quiescent pawns, rubber-stamping the bills and amendments delivered from on high, and quashing any initiatives disapproved by the central office...

...Many local good-government advocates are now hoping that the stunning new allegations about DiMasi will awaken their favorite lawmakers to the need for systemic change — in the rules and in their own personal behavior. But they are not feeling optimistic. "The silence is deafening," says one Boston pol, who, like others, asked not to be identified when criticizing the local representatives. "I don't think any of them have changed their attitudes." "I don't think that any of them are saying there's a group culture problem," adds one consultant. "They get so used to the way things work, it's hard to see what needs to be changed." "What changes?" asks the pol. "They're just loyal to another Speaker."...

There is much more. Bernstein take a look at some of the small reform measures implemented by new Speaker DeLeo (like the rule requiring members to be briefed on bills the day before they are asked to cast a vote... which looks to be violated today with regard to the transportation bill released by conference committee late last night). But he is not particularly optimistic, noting the profound irony on display earlier this month as the ethics bill conference committee voted to close the public and the press out of its deliberations on a measure intended to bring more openness and transparency to government. He also discusses the troubling fact that many in the legislature have directed much more hostility toward the Governor than toward a Speaker who corrupted his office - with their overwhelming support.

Anyhow, read the piece today and keep an eye on this Bernstein fellow. It is always nice to see writing like this in a paper that gets in front of a lot of eyes that would not ordinarily be exposed to this perspective.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two more BHD observations

Both of these are prompted by a late-Bunker Hill-day dispatch from the State House News:

First, that big transportation reform package that was promised by Speaker DeLeo to be ready for a vote, er, yesterday is still bogged down in a conference committee (that did not meet today - holiday and all). According to conferee Senator Bob Hedlund (R-Weymouth), the group is stuck on two issues: "whether to allow the state's conservation agency to oversee parkways and issues related to health care of MBTA retirees."

The first issue is strictly highway bureaucracy insider baseball. Metro Boston parkways are currently outside of the state Highway Department, overseen by the Department of Conservation and Recreation - so in other words, overseen by a whole separate group of political patronage appointments. Think of them as mini-Pikes, without the tolls. It is not surprising that the patrons who have stowed their constituents in DCR jobs are loathe to see those parkways consolidated into the Highway Department, but that is the only rational option if the bill is truly to reform the way the state deals with transportation.

The second sticking point - "issues related to health care of MBTA retirees" is less difficult to interpret. MBTA retiree benefits are amongst the richest in the state. Coincidentally, MBTA retiree benefits are strangling the MBTA. The T has some powerful unions. They won't give up the 'bennies' without a fight. Don't be surprised to read later this week or next that the conferees decided to appoint a blue ribbon study commission to take a closer look at the issue.

The second item is more encouraging. A few weeks back I speculated that perhaps in the aftermath of the third Speaker indictment in a row, some Democrats would start to question where their ruling elite are taking their party. From the SHNS:
Blue Mass Group, a collection of left-leaning, political bloggers announced Wednesday it intends to form a political action committee to “support progressive candidates of integrity for election.” In a statement posted on its web site, Blue Mass Group co-founders said they will file with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to form the PAC. In the statement, co-founder Charley Blandy said the PAC would encourage candidates who would take aim at the status quo. “Hopefully we’ll make incumbents a little less comfortable and a little more responsive,” he said. A spokesman for OCPF said papers to form a PAC had not been filed yet.
Here's BMG's informal announcement. Good for them. That last bit above about making incumbents "a little less comfortable and a little more responsive" is particularly encouraging, if they follow up on the sentiment. I rarely agree with much that I read over at BMG, but they are thoughtful folks who do not hesitate to criticize their own. Let's hope this new PAC of theirs really does put some dollars up against a few of the fossilized professional office-holders currently clinging to their posts on Beacon Hill.

On a closely related and darkly humorous note, I received an email earlier this week informing me that "Speaker DeLeo" has "invited" me to the "kickoff of the Committee for a Democratic House PAC." Isn't that a hoot? The Committee for a Democratic House. In Massachusetts. One might as well donate to "the Committee for Regular Tides," or "the Committee for Green Grass." Still, all across the Commonwealth lobbyists, state contractors and many others received the same "invitation" and will feel compelled to shovel dollars into that gaping maw, lest they lose favor with the Democratic Machine. BMG's new PAC will have a hard time countering that.

Now see, I've gone and typed myself right out of my brief burst of optimism...

Bunker Hill Day miscellany

In honor of Bunker Hill Day, which I am celebrating by... working, like most of the rest of the world, I offer the following hodgepodge of miscellaneous observations:

He learned from the best. In a special election to replace indicted ex-Speaker Sal DiMasi, 9.59 percent of his former constituents got themselves out to vote and overwhelmingly elected one of Sal's former aides. Of course they did. This is Massachusetts, after all. And hey, maybe this Michlewitz kid is a good egg and managed somehow to remain unsullied by the rank corruption that apparently marked his former boss's tenure. It is a troubling sign, however, that he chose to cite "his work as DiMasi's aide" as key to his victory. He'd better stay out of the condo market for a while.

Lip service. Globe article today: State leaders vow Buker Hill will be a workday. Vow, sure. Vote? Not so much. I find myself in rare total agreement with a Globe editorial, reason enough for celebration.



This is a good idea. Being a cynic, however, I note how easy and how common it has been in the past for the Legislature to vote to cancel what were supposed to be "automatic" transfers into the state's rainy day fund, and the fact that said fund was spent down to pay for spending increases even before the current downturn began.

What's in a name? The Herald notes the sudden appearance of a rash of construction signs bearing Governor Patrick's name, and sees them as an, er, sign of his reelection ramp-up. I continue to think Patrick is going to bow out next year, and note that in the photo accompanying the Herald article, there is another name sitting right next to Patrick's. Think about this: when is the last time you saw the Lt. Governor's name on state signage, anywhere? The Herald also notes that Patrick's vanity tagging is a reversal of Romney policy, which banned the practice as a waste of money. That strikes me as a pretty good measure of a politician's true priorities; with Romney at one extreme, properly refusing to spend taxpayer dollars on gratuitous self aggrandizement, and Boston Mayor Menino (who has his name emblazoned on everything but the City Hall urinals) at the other. Patrick and Murray sit somewhere in the middle - though it takes particular chutzpah to reinstate such a purely wasteful practice in the midst of a deep recession.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Profiles in Courage

The tragedy this weekend involving a 4 year old girl killed by an 88 year old driver puts a knot in my stomach. Such a thing is horrible to think about, and politically dangerous - for a whole host of reasons - to talk about. Nobody wants to be crosswise with a grieving family who has suffered such an unfathomable loss. That is understandable. Perhaps it explains the response - or non-response, rather - to this WBZ email survey of our state legislators yesterday.

Every single member of the House and the Senate was sent an email with this straightforward question: "Are you in favor or opposed to legislation requiring road tests for all drivers 85 and older?"

The overwhelming response, by 33 (out of 40) Senators and 130 (out of 160) Representatives was... "Did Not Reply." That group includes both Transportation Committee chairs, and Senate President Murray. At least Speaker DeLeo had the courtesy to respond, albeit with a carefully-padded answer: "Looks forward to seeing recommendations."

Not a soul responded in opposition to road-testing legislation, but it is a good bet that significant opposition is in fact buried in that avalanche of 'did not reply.'

Some will oppose the bill on anti-government principle, arguing that mandatory road tests represent just another small encroachment by Beacon Hill into our lives and our rights. Others will oppose it based purely on political calculation. The senior lobby is powerful, and it views testing of senior drivers in the same way that unions view mandatory drug testing, or a Sox fan views Derek Jeter.

Set aside the debate for a moment (always holding out hope that this might be the rare issue that actually sees a "debate" on Beacon Hill, eventually). Turn away from the specific issue, with all of the emotion and tragedy and invective, and here is what we have:

A high-profile issue of great moment and a significant degree of public interest. A major media organization asks a simple, straightforward question of the elected representatives of the people. And the response of the overwhelming majority of those elected representatives is to ignore the question.

Is that not a problem?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Governor's Western MA office - a quarter million worth of symbolism

Last month as tensions between Governor Patrick and the Legislature escalated, the latter used the budget to hit the former where it hurts, nixing nearly $250,000 that the Governor had proposed to fund his Western Massachusetts office, currently located in Springfield.

Patrick made a big deal of reopening the office as part of his pledge to be "Governor of the whole state." His predecessor Mitt Romney had closed the Springfield office in 2003, one of many wide-ranging cuts that pulled the state out of the last big economic downturn. Faced with a slump even worse in scale, Patrick has been unwilling to close the office, arguing - as he does in this morning's Springfield Republican, that "It's incredibly important for [his] ability to govern the whole state."

Words like that - "incredibly important" - are deployed regularly to characterize the Governor's little piece of commercial real estate in Springfield. But why? Why is it "incredibly important" for Governor Patrick to have a name plate and one paid, full-time staffer sitting in a storefront out west? Beyond frequent and emphatic assertions of earth-shattering importance, he does not say.

The Springfield Republican notes that "The office provides a local contact for people dealing with state government. " Okay, but is it an "incredibly important" local contact?

How many people visit the Governor's western office every day? That is not in the talking points. Does Patrick ever shoot out there and spend a few hours governing from his western office? Not so far as anyone could tell from his schedule. In this electronic age, what is it, exactly, that a citizen in Springfield can achieve through the western office that he could not achieve via telephone or email? No idea.

Look at it another way. Does a resident of, say, Cambridge or Newton or even Boston who has an issue with some arm of the executive branch head down to the State House, pull a number and take a seat in the Governor's waiting room? No. He does the same thing a resident of Framingham or Gloucester or Scituate or Norfolk or Fall River does: he shoots off an email, calls his State Rep or calls the relevant office at the State House. Or all three. I do not know this for sure, but I'd bet big money that's the same thing most residents of Palmer, Holyoke, Sturbridge and even Springfield do too, whether or not there is a storefront with Governor Patrick's name on it sitting in downtown Springfield.

The truth, as the article linked above notes, is that '[t]he office also carries a lot of symbolic importance for a region often ignored on Beacon Hill."

That's fine. But in a time of deep budget deficits at every level of government, is political symbolism the best use of public funds?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Legislature to citizens: "go away kid, you bother me."

Thank you to my friend M, who points out this must-read from yesterday's Globe that I somehow missed. Given unlimited time and unfettered access to the State House I'm not sure I could write a purer distillation of what is wrong with our state government. Here are a few choice excerpts that convey the meat of the article (emphasis is mine):
House Democrats filed into a wood-paneled meeting room at the State House yesterday morning to get their first detailed look at pension overhaul legislation they were due to vote on several hours later. It was clear from a sign on the door, "members and staff," that the public was not welcome... Not long after, two floors above, the entire 40-member Senate filed into the Senate President's office for a private meeting on ethics legislation. Even as they spoke of changing the political culture on Beacon Hill, by pursuing legislation designed to restore the public trust, the people's representatives in the House and Senate continued their longstanding tradition of deliberating their most important decisions behind closed doors.

Rank-and-file lawmakers currently have little clue about what is going on or what they inevitably will be asked to vote on with little notice in the waning days of the session. "This is the pace a lot of people like, to be very active and very busy and getting things done, one thing after another," said Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat. But ask him - or almost any other lawmaker, for that matter - what is coming up next week, and the answer is the same: "I don't know."

Top lawmakers say that meeting in private allows for greater candor and that allowing the public to take part in the proceedings would only bog things down. "They can get their work done faster," Senate President Therese Murray said in a recent interview. "They can get a lot more done quickly. It would be like if we came and sat as you [did your work] and sat around and said, 'Why are you doing that?' or 'Why are you saying that?' "

I am not sure what bothers me most: the fact that the Senate President, one of the most powerful people in the state, treats the Commonwealth's citizens like so many gnats, to be swatted away or shut out; or the unfathomable arrogance reflected in her willingness to say these things to a reporter.

Here's a nice encapsulation of how this mindset translates into action that impacts all of us, every day (okay, every week - they do not meet anywhere near to every day):

After a piece of legislation is approved by the House and the Senate, a six-member conference committee is formed, consisting of four Democrats and two Republicans assigned by the House speaker or Senate president.

The conference committee is designed to hammer out differences between the two chambers and to draft legislation for final approval. But determining what has happened in conference committee is virtually impossible.

The first action taken by the conference committee is often a motion to restrict the meetings to legislators and staff members. Lawmakers assigned to the committees treat the deliberations like the Cuban missile crisis, afraid that any peep during the process will brand them a snitch.

Only when disagreements are ironed out does the legislation become public, and then it is often swiftly approved, with little discussion, by the House and Senate. The committee's compromise must be voted on, up or down, with no opportunity for amendment.

Our government, ladies and gentlemen. The one we reelect, cycle after cycle after cycle. 2010 approaches.

Speaking of which, State Senator Scott Brown (R-Wrentham) has been everywhere lately, not just raising his own profile (he is often mentioned as a potential statewide candidate), but encouraging every Republican he meets to run for the Legislature. According to Senator Brown, the response has been highly encouraging to say the least. Bravo for him. If he recruits a handful of candidates who go on to win next year, he'll have done more to revitalize the moribund state GOP than any of us carping from the sidelines.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Elevating form over substance

A snarky little article in today's Globe about Governor Patrick's clumsy but well-intentioned attempt to thank House Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray for passing pension reform with a box of cigars and a pricey flower arrangement provides a useful 'teaching moment.'

Someone - possibly but probably not Patrick himself - got the bright idea of taking a step toward reconciliation between Beacon Hill's Big Three by offering what was doubtless thought of as a token gesture of good will from the Governor to his two alienated colleagues. This kind of thing happens thousands of times a day in the real world, with no tortured examination of ulterior motives necessary.

In this respect, as in so many others, Beacon Hill is not 'the real world.' Once word of the gifts was out, taxpayer-funded staff had to spend the better part of the day addressing the important issues raised by a box of cigars and a flower arrangement. The gifts were "nice," the Globe noted... but:
They probably violated state ethics rules, which ban gifts of $50 or more to a public official in return for an official action. They certainly violated a key tenet of the proposed ethics overhaul Patrick is trying to push through the Legislature: an outright ban on gifts of any kind to public officials.
All true, but does it make sense?

Like the tax code, government campaign finance and ethics rules tend to build upon themselves. From a kernel of well-intentioned effort to limit corruption grows a massive, clumsy, nonsensical mass of regulation that inevitably detaches from common sense and logic.

Did Patrick's gesture to DeLeo and Murray violate the letter of the ethics rules? Sure. Does anyone on the planet think Speaker DeLeo pushed pension reform on the promise of a box of stogies? That Murray passed a note to Patrick last week suggesting her office could do with some floral enhancement? That the series of increasingly ludicrous statements, questions and defenses that flew back and forth between the Globe and the state's most powerful offices yesterday was anything but a waste of time for all involved?

The state's lobbying rules are similarly disjointed, relying for enforcement on an ugly combination of paper filings, online submissions and tangled laws, rules and regulations that nobody - including the professional staff in the Secretary of State's office - truly understands. Over the years, the rules have morphed from clear registration requirements for individuals paid money for their attempts to influence legislation on behalf of a specific client, to a morass of conflicting mandates that might (and might not) possibly apply to virtually anyone who comes into contact with an elected official. The registration and filing requirements are time-consuming, administratively burdensome and almost impossible to understand, even for experienced professionals. This has a doubly chilling effect: it discourages citizen petition of the government, and - perversely - it discourages registration by people who, under the original (common sense) rationale for lobbyist tracking, really should register.

Regulations - like bureaucracies and like weeds - tend to grow out of control shortly after taking firm root. Rather than continually pouring fresh fertilizer on the mess, from time to time these rule clusters ought to be torn out in their entirety and replaced by fresh plantings (how's that for a tortured metaphor?).

Governor Patrick gave a box of cigars and some flowers to his erstwhile adversaries down the hall. Folks opposed to the violence that these three are currently doing to our state will be sorely tempted to jump all over this 'violation' of the ethics rules. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, most voters will look at the situation and shrug. So what? They'll also view attacks based on this non-event as petty politics. The Big Three these days provide more than enough substantive fodder for legitimate criticism. We should focus on that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The sound of one hand clapping

That's what I hear when I read today's front page, banner headlined Globe article: "Lawmakers agree on pension reform."

Is this good news? Sure... sort of. The state's current pension system is a mess. It's deficiencies can be broadly separated into two categories:

The first is comprised of the myriad loopholes, sweetheart provisions and special categories that allow connected individuals to collect vast sums of post-retirement cash under highly questionable circumstances. This category, and the resulting abuses, justifiably drive the public to distraction and, to use an over-used phrase, 'undermine public confidence in government.' This is the category addressed by this week's pension reform agreement.

(2) The second category, left unaddressed in the current legislation, is arguably much more important to the Commonwealth's long and short-term fiscal health. These are the big money provisions: an MBTA pension system that allows workers to retire with a full pension after just 23 years of service; cities and towns saddled with unsustainable pension benefit obligations to growing numbers of municipal employees; baseline pension standards across the system that in many cases far surpass benefits that the private sector has long since abandoned as too costly.

Restoring confidence in government is important, but it is intangible. On a day-to-day basis, the 'confidence deficit' has little impact on our daily lives. The budget deficit, though, is a different story. That is very tangible, resulting in cuts to services, steadily increasing taxes and - yes - loss of confidence in government too.

Conventional wisdom among budget watchers holds that the Commonwealth cannot truly address its budget mess without tackling the second category above - the big ticket problems with the pension system that are slowly strangling the state and local budgets.

So what does this week's agreement, announced with great fanfare at a State House press conference that included Speaker DeLeo, Senate President Murray and Governor Patrick, do to address the second, more important category of necessary reforms? From the Globe:
State lawmakers characterized the pension legislation as a first step, one that largely addresses the symbolic abuses that resonate in the public, and they vowed to make further changes in the future that could save the state substantial money. The legislation calls for establishing a commission to review broader changes and issue a report by Sept. 1.
A study commission - the legislative equivalent of purgatory.

My concern, and my expectation, is that this half (quarter?) reform bill will allow DeLeo, Murray and Patrick to check the 'pension reform' box on their to-do lists and leave the issue behind. I hope events prove me wrong, but I would put the chances of the crucial, big dollar reforms coming out of 'study commission' and making it through to enactment at somewhere around 10 percent. Here's why:

The commission is due to "report" in September. Beacon Hill study commissions, when they report at all, almost never report on time. By September we'll be into the initial stages of political silly season - the run-up to next year's elections. The big money reforms are political Kryptonite, risking wholesale revolt by public employee whose support is crucial to anyone running for contested office with a 'D' after his or her name. Whether the commission report comes out in September or thereafter, no Democrat running for Rep, Senate or Governor is going to want to grab hold of that hot potato.

So here's what we've got: a pension reform bill that corrects the most egregious, but mostly symbolic, abuses in the system while kicking the reforms necessary to get the state budget under control an uncertain distance down the road. This semi-reform took over two years to arrive on the Governor's desk.

The more important reforms will take longer, and will require significant changes in our state government.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rules-schmules

By Joint Rule 11A of the Great and General Court (that's the far-too-prestigious-sounding official designation of the Massachusetts state legislature), at the time the members of a conference committee are appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate on a piece of legislation, a list of points of disagreement is to be provided to all 200 legislators.

The appointees to this year's budget conference committee were named on May 28. They are expected to resolve their differences by July 1.

If you are wondering where you can find a copy of the so-called 11A report for the budget, chances are you stumbled into this blog by mistake. Clearly you are not from Massachusetts.

Asked by the State House News Service why no 11A report for the budget has been released, and when one might be expected, a spokesman for Senate President Terese Murray (D-Reform before - never mind) said it will not be completed until... after the conference committee is done with its negotiations. Get that? They will identify the points of disagreement after they are done resolving their disagreements.

Surely House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Next on the US Attorney's dance card?) will step in and make sure the 11A report is generated, you say. After all, everyone and his brother these days is pointing out that DeLeo's three immediate predecessors were all indicted. And DeLeo ran for his post promising a new era of openness. But alas, his spokesman agreed with Murray's: "Following past practice, the report will be made available after conference committee is complete."

Why follow the rules when you can follow "past practice"?

But at least any citizen who is interested can sit in on the budget conference, right? Wrong. Like virtually everything else important on Beacon Hill, the budget conference deliberations are closed to the public and the press.

In an unintentionally ironic twist, the House Clerk - a guy named Steven James who ought to be apolitical but is not - told the State House News Service that "the full budget bills themselves serve as the matters of disagreement required under Joint Rule 11A."

See? All an interested legislator - or citizen! - needs to do is print him or herself out a copy of the House budget (311 pages), then a copy of the Senate budget (220 pages), and then spend, oh, about a bajillion years cross-referencing the two. It's the least that should be expected of a citizen with the temerity to ask questions about how the Great and General Court intends to spend our tax dollars.

As an internal rule, 11A is in a real sense self-imposed. So to violate it is, in the twisted mind of the legislature's Democratic leadership, apparently of no greater import than the decision of a dieter to reach for the super-sized Big Mac value meal.

At a time when there is increasing attention in the press (and, one hopes, the public) to the dozens of ways in which the Democratic supermajority freezes both the minority party and the voters out of the legislative process, this is just another example on a lengthy and growing list.

They say knowledge is power. That is just the point. Legislative leadership does not want you - or even the rank and file members - to have any power. You can have your stinkin' knowledge after they have already decided what to do with your money.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why are these people smiling?

Why is the couple in this Herald photo smiling? Because they are New Hampshire residents who run a small business near the Massachusetts border. According to the caption in the Herald, they are "posting a reminder" of the money Massachusetts citizens can save by doing their shopping across the border.

The Herald article is titled 'New Hampshire eyes big payday from our tax hike.'

These folks aren't politicos. They do not have an agenda, nor reason to give Massachusetts tax opponents talking points and ammunition. They are just rational actors operating in an open marketplace, who rationally and correctly expect our pending sales tax increase to send increased business their way.

If only our Legislature had just a tiny bit of the common sense that has these fine people grinning from ear to ear.

Egan channeling Carr

The Herald's Margery Egan, usually a reliable if sometimes critical voice of the left, is channeling her colleague Howie Carr today in a lengthy expectoration of anger and frustration at the Massachusetts Legislature and its enablers - the Massachusetts voters. Here are some particularly vitriolic excerpts:
The third House speaker in a row gets nabbed. Do humiliated legislators throw their sorry selves off the Golden Dome? No - they vote to keep two paid scam holidays that nobody else gets but we pay millions for. Their message: Nothin’ you can do about it, you pathetic voter, you.
Right before that, our fearless leaders passed a big fat sales tax on you, pathetic voter, without passing even a teeny-tiny reform on their own big fat pensions. Do you get a big fat pension, or any pension, or Cadillac health care, for life? Can you retire at 55?
Good stuff, no? A few days ago I speculated, "perhaps some Democrats might start to wonder if their party needs to be saved from the people running the machine." Egan falls into that category herself - and it seems she expects to have some company:
Alas, my fellow pathetic voters, this is our fault. Almost every legislator voted for the sales tax. That’s revenue before reform, said Senate President Terry Murray - who should never get another vote either. Chances are, pathetic voters, you voted for the thief who voted to shaft you, again....

Snap out of it! Pay attention! Have some self-respect! Get your blood up, sheeple! Storm the dome. If your state rep or senator voted for the sales tax, that’s it. Get rid of ’em. The next election’s November 2010. Not one more pathetic vote. NOT ONE!
Hear hear. Let's see if she can maintain this level of indignation through next November - and if she and others who think like her can convince fellow Democrats to stop being complicit in their own victimization.

Friday, June 5, 2009

How 'bout some change we can believe in?

State House News reporter Jim O'Sullivan sums up the sad state of our Legislature in the wake of the Sal DiMasi indictment in his usual, pithy style:
The Legislature’s got a bill-tracking system that doesn’t track bills, or even appear to exist at all. All the most important meetings up here take place in private, evinced this week by a pair of House caucuses, closed-door vote-counting and vote-manipulating over whether to preserve two Suffolk County holidays, a closed Senate caucus, and the ethics bill conference committee’s inevitable and hilarious decision Thursday to seal off from transparency and public confidence in government its discussions about transparency and public confidence in government.
Then when there are public meetings, like Wednesday’s hearing on health care financing legislation, when citizens have their say before policymakers, the legislators don’t go. Sen. Richard Moore, co-chair of the health care financing committee, rode solo on the Senate side during the first 50 minutes of a legislative hearing, which proceeded uninterrupted by the presence of any House Democrats, who were behind closed doors to discuss the DiMasi bombshell. State transportation officials were sent packing so lawmakers could attend the DiMasi caucus... The week was sad comedy. On Tuesday, the executive director of the state’s public pension system told reporters, “You have no right to record a meeting.” On Friday, top legislators voted, again without dissent, to wall off secret talks about new taxes and spending cuts.
I try to resist the impulse to hope that this DiMasi thing will, at long last, stir the voters to take action to clean up this mess. After all, the indictment of Speaker Flaherty didn't; nor the indictment of Speaker Finneran, nor the Senator Wilkerson bra-stuffing episode. Still... this one feels different.

I am noticing a sub-theme running through much of the press coverage, and lot of commentary on the blogs: instead of concentrating on the primary issue of Speaker DiMasi's corruption, people are taking a look at the state of affairs that led to that corruption - and the downfall of both of his immediate predecessors. All of this - and the day-to-day backroom shennanigans noted by O'Sullivan - happened in the context of total one-party domination of the government. More, it happened in the context of total domination by a small cadre of career politicians, most of whom long ago planted deep roots in the ground beneath Beacon Hill and settled in for the long haul.

Suddenly I read frequent observations about the New Hampshire state legislature, which is very much part-time gig, with annual stipends of a whopping $400 paid to the members. The fact that Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states with a full-time legislature keeps popping up in the DiMasi coverage. People are wondering: would we have these problems if so many members of our legislature were not making a career of their legislative service?

And suddenly, we're seeing proposals to do something about the problem: like this one floated in the Herald today, pushed by Citizens for Limited Taxation (those champions of Proposition 2-1/2), to switch our legislature to part-time service. Or this one, filed today by Republican Rep. Karyn Polito, to limit our legislators to 12 years of service.

Both of these proposals get at the same problem: too great a percentage of our legislature comes to Beacon Hill intending to make a career of it. Once ensconced, their primary imperative becomes holding onto office. This leads to any number of problems, from the impulse to vote with leadership to 'climb the ladder' (and land in posh office space), to the eventual urge - to which DiMasi apparently succumbed - to supplement the relatively meager legislative pay by less than lawful means. 'I've worked at this my whole career - I deserve it,' is the ironic self-justification oozing from the DiMasi indictment.

As between the two proposals above, synching Massachusetts with the vast majority of states that do just fine (and often much, much better) with a part-time legislature strikes me as the better alternative. I have never been much a fan of term limits. To my mind, the people get the representation they deserve, and every two years they have the opportunity to change course. Making the legislature part-time would eliminate the tendency of political careerists to stake their entire lives, and the economic well-being of their families, on winning the next election.

That alone would scrub a lot of the grime off of the golden dome.

Cognitive dissonance at the MBTA

Two Globe articles about the T today.

T warns fares may rise by up to 20%

and

Minority workers warn T on hirings, promotions

Read both, and then ask yourself: does one not go at least a little way towards explaining the other?

Meanwhile, in a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the left-er hand is doing, there are rumblings on the South Shore about the T shuttering the popular and cost-effective harbor commuter ferry service in deference to the under-utilized, money hemorrhaging Greenbush commuter rail line. This development was predicted by opponents of the costly Greenbush project several years back.

The boats reach downtown Boston in roughly half the time it takes the trains. In nice weather they afford riders the opportunity to sit outside, in the ocean breeze, and take a deep breath before and after a busy day in Boston. A friend of mine wrote his first novel, long-hand, primarily during his daily boat harbor commutes. No wonder then, that despite the cost of a ride (nearly double the price of the train), the South Shore 'boat people' show a devotion to the harbor ferries rivaling that of European football hooligans to local teams.

From the taxpayer's perspective, and that of the allegedly cost-cutting MBTA, the analysis has nothing to do with the relative aesthetic and sensory advantages of ferry over rail. As noted in the first column linked above, the commuter ferries have the lowest per-rider subsidy in the MBTA system. There is no track maintenance, the infrastructure is vastly less complex and less costly in comparison to the commuter rail. A boat-person friend emails, "no potholes to fill, no rails to maintain - it's a boat with a crew of 5! ARRRRRRGGGGG!"

Ironically, the relative simplicity of the system also makes it a much easier target for elimination. Stopping the boats and shuttering the rudimentary terminals is a neater and quicker undertaking than shutting down a (brand spanking new!) commuter rail line. It is also an easier political sell, since very few people know or understand the cost differential between the two systems.

If the imperative at the T is to save money, eliminating the ferries in deference to the train makes no sense.

But since when does anything make sense in Massachusetts?

If the Governor submits a 'do-over' budget and nobody reads it, did the Governor submit a do-over budget?

Going for lame-duck status even before officially bowing out of next year's gubernatorial race, Governor Patrick yesterday released a new budget plan, belatedly calling on the legislature to reduce spending. Not incidentally, he also doubles the ill-advised use of federal stimulus money to back fill gaps in the operating budget, a move that would only make matters worse down the line. And of course he reiterated his former call for a host of tax increases, all the while trying to maintain his new self-image as a tax hike opponent by refusing to jump aboard the Legislature's sales tax express.

But no matter. The Governor (or the Governor's staff, rather) 'released' this re-hashed budget plan instead of filing it as legislation because there's no legislative mechanism for the kind of do-over he's attempting. The Governor gets one chance to set the foundation of budget debate each year, by filing a bill known as "House 1" in January. This year, already knee deep in a worsening recession, our Governor chose to file a budget that actually increased spending over last year by a small percentage. That move instantaneously marginalized him in the months of budget debate that followed. This do-over is nothing but a politically-necessary attempt to reinsert himself into the process, requiring him to take the humiliating step of calling on the legislature to "adopt an order to consider his new spending plan" in their budget negotiations. He's the little squirt jumping around at the back of the room, waving his hand wildly and demanding to be called on. Not likely. As reported by the Republican's Dan Ring:
Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, said it's highly unlikely legislators will approve such an order.
"If there are pieces of the governor's recommendations that are acceptable, we'll take a look at it," said Brewer.
Talk about a brush off. Patrick had his shot, he directed it toward his own foot, and there's no chance the legislature is going to let him back in the game now.