Monday, August 31, 2009

Get ready for Interim Senator ____________

They are going to do it. Apparently gaining confidence from the outpouring of public grief last week and over the weekend for the late Senator Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democratic cabal is today clearly signaling that it is prepared to overcome its initial misgivings and vote to grant the Senator's 'last wish.'

According to the Globe and other outlets, a bill that would change the state's election laws to grant Governor Patrick the power to appoint an interim Senator has been given an expedited hearing date - September 9. The Globe calls this "a signal that Beacon Hill is moving to accommodate Kennedy's request that Massachusetts maintain two voices in the Senate." More than a "signal," though, this move is pretty much confirmation that the bill will pass. In the tightly-controlled semi-dictatorship that is the Massachusetts Legislature, bills are not expedited that Leadership does not intend to pass.

So we will have an interim Senator Dukakis. Or an interim Senator Vicki Kennedy. Or an interim Senator Random-guy-who-raises-a-lot-of-money-for-Dems-and-thinks-it-would-be-cool-to-be-a-Senator-for-a-few-months. Whoever lands in the spot will not matter much for Massachusetts in specific; this is and always has been primarily about maintaining the Democrats' 60-vote Senate supermajority for pending votes on health care and eco-nanny statism.

Since we lack the ability to stop this political power play, the challenge for Republicans is to react appropriately, to best harness and leverage reaction to the move. We should not throw tantrums that only serve to highlight our impotence.

What we should do it put this episode squarely in its proper context, and make sure it remains a prominent part of our talking points going forward. Considered in a political vacuum, it is not a facially bad thing for the Commonwealth to maintain its two votes in the Senate. That is why, the last time this issue came up, Republicans were squarely in favor of giving then-Governor Romney the power to make an interim appointment. In isolation, what the Democrats will do within the next couple of weeks emits no particular odor. It is only when it is combined with the change they made to the law just five years ago, to strip a Republican Governor of the power they will now re-grant to one with a 'D' after his name, that it begins to stink like week-old garbage in a summertime garage.

The laws governing how we elect our representatives to the U.S. Congress are not far removed from the Constitution - they are of that degree of importance, and ought to enjoy a level of stability commensurate to their importance. This semi-annual tinkering is crass and unseemly, regardless of the merits of any particular change.

Hardly a month goes by without a new example of our home state's own arrogant legislative super-majority abusing its power and taking its own perpetual reelection for granted. This episode will be just the most recent example. Here's hoping the growing number of Republicans eying a legislative run next year use it appropriately.

UPDATE: This just came through from the State House News:
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones said his 16-member caucus generally agrees that it is “wholly inappropriate” to change U.S. Senate succession laws to apply to an already-vacant seat. Jones said he supports the idea of an interim appointment – as he did when Democrats stripped the governor of appointment power in 2004 – in advance of a special election, but said a new law shouldn’t affect the now-vacant seat of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who passed away last week.
Excellent move. It will be ignored, but this is just exactly how Republicans ought to be positioning for this non-debate. It takes care of counter-hypocrisy charges based on the arguments Republicans made five years ago, and highlights the true motive behind the Democrats' power grab. As Governor Patrick might put it, the GOP's position is "eminently reasonable." Well done!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

You do the math

President Obama has been in Massachusetts, albeit on an island, for the entire last week.

Governor Patrick, ostensibly up for reelection next year, has a surprisingly underwhelming campaign fund compared to, for instance, Treasurer Tim Cahill who plans to run as an Independent (he's sitting on a $3 million war chest). Patrick's stash - approximately half a million dollars - is even dwarfed by that of his own Lt. Governor (who has more than a million in the bank).

Governor Patrick held a fundraiser yesterday on Martha's Vineyard, the very same island on which his friend and political doppelganger, who happens to be the biggest fundraising draw in the universe right now, was wrapping up his vacation.

And yet, no appearance by the President at Patrick's fundraiser.

One could chalk that up to sensitivity to the fact of the Kennedy wake/funeral going on this weekend, except that there is no indication whatsoever that Obama ever planned to make an appearance at the Patrick event, despite being within a few miles of the venue.

Instead, the two apparently planned to meet for a private dinner afterwards.

So: Patrick passed up an obvious opportunity for a huge cash haul in favor of a private dinner conversation with the guy best situated to give him a comfy 'place to land' next year...

You do the math.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Beyond Parody

OK, I admit it. I saw the Globe editorial this morning titled "Legislature must act quickly on interim Senate appointment," and I read no further than the title. Just was not in the mood to spoil a perfectly good Friday morning. It took a mention in the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web online column this afternoon to bring my attention to a real howler embedded in the middle of the Globe piece:
Surely the governor can find a temporary replacement whose views are consistent with those of Kennedy and the Massachusetts voters who kept faith with him since 1962. Michael Dukakis, an elder statesman of Massachusetts politics, would be one good choice to uphold the Kennedy legacy for the few critical months before a special election. The former governor’s career speaks of a politician whose explicit promise not to seek the office could be trusted, even if no law can be cited to enforce the pledge.
As a Republican who sincerely hopes that Governor Patrick is defeated next year (if indeed he seeks reelection, of which proposition I may have mentioned I am dubious), I must say: have at it, Governor! Go Duke! I cannot think of any move better calculated to cement Patrick's legacy as the second coming of Michael Dukakis than to cap his failed first term by resurrecting Dukakis's political career, albeit temporarily.

As a proud citizen of Massachusetts and of these United States of America, however, there is only one appropriate response to the Globe's suggestion.
(if you're reading on a handheld, that last link is to a screaming montage that someone put up on YouTube.)

KennedyCare

Republican agita over Democratic proposals to rename pending health care legislation after the late Senator Kennedy seems, to me, misplaced. (Leave aside for a moment the puzzle as to which of the six or more bills floating out there would have the honor of bearing the Kennedy name).

Agree with him or disagree, as I generally did; health reform was Ted Kennedy's baby. It seems entirely appropriate and fitting to name whatever bill emerges from the current mess in his honor.

"Pass it in his honor," though... that is a whole different matter. Call it ObamaCare, call it KennedyCare, call it SupercalifrajilisticexbyalidociousCare - if it was a lousy piece of legislation at the beginning of the week, it is still a lousy piece(s) of legislation here at week's end.

We Republicans should quit protesting the Democrats' efforts to sentimentalize health care debate, and get back to the merits - where we were winning. Call it KennedyCare - and vote it down.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A show that does not need re-making

They've re-made Knight Rider, Beverly Hills 90210, Battlestar Galactica and even the Bionic Woman.

Now it appears that we in Massachusetts might be in for a local re-make of Dynasty this fall and winter. Some time in the next few weeks we'll find out if either Joe or Vicki Kennedy will seek to keep the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat 'in the family.' Here's hoping they do not - as bad as the show was the first time around, such is the fondness of the Massachusetts electorate for the surname 'Kennedy' that it might well succumb to emotion and vote to keep the Dynasty going.

Note this passage from the Globe today:
The senator’s death marks only the second time since 1947 that a Kennedy has not represented the state on Capitol Hill. The other occasion was two years - 1961 and 1962 - when a family friend held the seat vacated by John F. Kennedy, newly elected as president, until his younger brother claimed it in a 1962 election.
We like to think that our politics have evolved beyond the point where a favored family can place a 'reserved' card on a U.S. Senate seat, but in truth they probably have not. Nothing so crass as a move to hold the seat with the butt of a 'family friend' will be attempted this time... but that is, essentially, what is being floated around Beacon Hill in the form of the probably-unconstitutional proposal to let the Governor appoint a place-holder for the period between now and a special election, subject to the figurehead's agreement to forgo running for the seat in the future. (Of course there will also be another, unspoken agreement: no individual will be appointed who refuses a blood-oath to vote 'the right way' on health care and climate change. But I digress...)

A Kennedy has occupied one of the Commonwealth's two Senate seats since two years after the end of World War II. Put another way, a Kennedy has occupied that seat for fully a quarter of the existence of the US Senate. Most citizens of Massachusetts have never known a time without a Senator Kennedy. The word "dynasty" does not quite do it.

Unfortunately, the influence wielded by a Kennedy goes beyond simple voter affection for the name. As the Globe correctly observes:
The presence of a Kennedy could overshadow the other competitors and would probably thin the Democratic field. Much of the state’s Democratic establishment - political operatives, activists, and consultants - would be at their disposal. The formidable local Democratic fund-raising operation, which can tap into donors nationally, is likely to be with either one.
Is it possible that the best person available to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate is named Kennedy? Sure. Is it likely? Not at all.

Nobody can or should question the contributions the Kennedy family has made to our nation, nor the unfathomable tragedies that family has endured.

Likewise, nobody can or should question the proposition that family entitlement to a seat in the U.S. Senate offends every virtually every principle upon which our country was built.

Dynasty was a bad show on first run. Let's not re-make it in Massachusetts. It is time for a new name in the Senate.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RIP, Senator Kennedy

I have quite a number of friends and former colleagues who knew Senator Ted Kennedy well, worked for or with him, or both. Each gives an overwhelmingly positive assessment of the man who, whatever else he was, was a loyal friend, a committed advocate and a dedicated Senator.

That is worth more to me than the ruminations of pundits who knew nothing beyond the political caricature.

R.I.P.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

3 Profiles in Courage

The political brouhaha touched off by that letter from Senator Kennedy requesting a change (re-change) in state election law last week has been front page news across the country for the better part of a week now. It has been covered by every major and minor news outlet. TV, online, radio. It's been the subject of countless editorials, pro and con, from coast to coast. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the Liberal Lion's Last Big Power Play.

Everyone, that is, except the three people empowered to actually do something about it.

Here's how the State House News puts it this evening:
[Speaker Robert] DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick have stayed silent on the issue for six days, even as a national debate on the issue has raged. The New York Times editorial board weighed in on Monday, arguing that gubernatorial appointments are undemocratic and that changing the law “would look like an unseemly amount of partisanship in setting the rules for who goes to Congress.”
They "have stayed silent" on the issue in public. Because, after all, what right do mere voters, a group sometimes known as 'constituents,' have to know their thinking? But we can be sure that plenty is being said behind Beacon Hill's perpetually-closed doors. Again from the State House News:
The lead sponsor of a bill empowering the governor to appoint an interim U.S. senator said Tuesday he believes it will pass and will garner support from House and Senate leaders.

“I believe that the legislative leaders are attuned to the period of time that Massachusetts would be without its full representation in the United States Senate,” said Rep. Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat. “And they would be open and receptive to an interim appointee provided that that appointee is not a candidate in the special election.”
And from where stems Rep. Koczera's confidence? Well, "Koczera said he had met with the officials in Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office on the matter. "

One imagines the aforementioned New York Times editorial came up in that meeting. This seemingly sticky political situation could have been resolved by simple adherence to the most basic of plays in the Massachusetts Democratic playbook (the one called: 'do what you want - the voters will forget by next November'), if not for that unexpected curve ball from the aging Gray Lady. Now the Commonwealth's Triumvirate of Deciders has opposition coming from the right and the left. They need to go deeper into the playbook.

Here's an educated guess. With Labor Day weekend approaching, look for them to turn to that old stand-by: 'slam it through late on Friday before the holiday weekend.'

Monday, August 24, 2009

This game is rigged

Front page of the Globe today discusses the swirl of activity around Massachusetts in preparation for expected passage this year of a bill legalizing some form of casino gaming in the state. Whether it will be full 'destination resort casinos,' somewhat seedier 'slots parlors,' slots at existing racetracks or some combination of the above nobody seems to know, but it seems a sure bet that legalized gaming is coming to the Commonwealth. Globe:
“I know there’s enough votes to do gaming this year,’’ said state Representative Brian Wallace, a South Boston Democrat and strong casino advocate. “I just don’t know what form it will be.’’
Rep. Wallace knows "there's enough votes to do gaming." That is quite a thing, given the tally the last time a gaming bill came up for a vote in the Massachusetts House, a mere 17 months ago: by an overwhelming vote of 108 to 46, Wallace's colleagues rejected casinos. Since then, only a tiny handful of House seats have changed hands. The group that Wallace "knows" will vote for gaming this year is, for all intents and purposes, the very same group of people who voted against it by a 2 to 1 margin less than a year and a half ago.

What a difference a Speaker makes. Back then, a casino proponent groused to the press, "It was a one-vote margin - the Speaker's vote." Said Speaker, of course, was now-indicted Sal DiMasi, a dogged opponent of legalized gaming. Now we have Speaker Bob DeLeo, a vocal proponent at least of slots at the tracks and likely of the whole she-bang.

Whatever your opinion of casino gaming (I've already written at length about mine), this state of affairs ought to bother you. Right now across the state our elected representatives are at pains to make a great public show of intense deliberation over this "important issue." They are "looking at the numbers." They are "gathering new information." They have staff who are doing the same. Their brows are furrowed, their eyes are squinted and they want to know your opinion.

Except... they don't. And they aren't. What they (and by they I mean the great mass of Democratic back-benchers who comprise the majority of our Legislature) are doing is reading the tea leaves, listening carefully to every word out of the new Speaker's mouth, and trying to figure out how to rationalize a 180 degree flip on such an "important issue" with any explanation other than the true one:

'we have a new Speaker, and he wants me to vote for gaming.'

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Kennedy letter has little to do with Massachusetts... and everything to do with Washington

The Globe's Scott Lehigh gets all misty today over reports of a letter, apparently dated July 2 but not delivered until recently, from ailing Senator Ted Kennedy to Governor Patrick, Senate President Murray and House Speaker DeLeo. In the letter, Kennedy asks the three state leaders to push for a change in state law that would allow Governor Patrick to appoint an interim replacement, should Kennedy be unable to serve out his term.

"It’s possible he plans to resign the seat he has held since January 1963 as things progress," Lehigh writes. "Or perhaps he feels the end is drawing near. Still, this much is clear. In the twilight of his life, the senior senator is thinking of the best interest of the state he loves."

There is something undeniably poignant about the mere fact of this letter, ostensibly penned by a man staring down the barrel of his own mortality at extremely close range. Whatever one thinks of Senator Kennedy, a lot of the vitriol hurled his way today in the blogosphere and elsewhere is ugly and unseemly to say the least.

Still, we ought to be clear on the motivation here before buying into the notion of changing a law most recently changed just a half decade ago, in a nakedly-political move by the Democratic Legislature to deprive Republican Governor Mitt Romney of the ability to appoint a successor to Senator Kerry, had Kerry won the Presidency in 2004. This has little to do with "the best interest of the state [Kennedy] loves," and everything to do with Washington, DC power politics.

The fact that the letter appears to have been drafted in the first week of July but remained undelivered until this week is significant. It has been at the ready, to be deployed in a very specific circumstance that has now come to pass: the possibility that Kennedy's cherished health care reform bill will require a party-line-slam-through for passage, combined with the probability that Kennedy will not be around to see the vote - or in any event will not be able to make it to DC to participate. Kennedy's staff insists that delivery of the letter does not mean the end is imminent for the Senator; the fact that he was unable to attend his sister's funeral last week, though, probably counts for more than staff reassurances.

In any event, what concerns Senator Kennedy is not that Massachusetts might be deprived of its full voice in the Senate for a few months in the run-up to a special election. That bothered him not at all in 2003-04 when Senator Kerry missed the vast majority of votes as he campaigned for president. Kennedy is worried that health care reform might fail with 59 Democratic votes - one shy of the 60 vote supermajority required to overcome a Republican fillibuster, if every single Senator hews to the party line.

Now think about that. Kennedy's concern is only relevant if a bill that will fundamentally re-shape a huge part of the American economy comes down to a party-line vote. Is that how legislation with such a massive impact should be passed?

Much of the knee-jerk reaction from Republicans this morning to news of the Kennedy letter revealed a lack of full understanding of just what it is the Senator is proposing. Rhetoric about 'stealing the people's right to vote' or vesting sole authority to appoint Kennedy's successor in one person misses the point. Kennedy's proposal, if adopted, would only allow the Governor to appoint a place-holder - a figurehead Senator, as it were - to serve for the few months between creation of the vacancy and a special election. The people would still get to vote. Further, Kennedy shrewdly anticipated the argument that appointment power vests in the appointee the advantage of incumbency. He urged Patrick to obtain from any potential appointee a commitment not to run for the seat in the special election.

This move is not about depriving Massachusetts voters of the right to elect their next Senator. It is about preserving the Democrats' supermajority in Washington, and maintaining their ability to slam an increasingly unpopular health care socialization bill through the Senate.

We Rs need to keep our eye on the ball.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A hot day in Boston... but it must be freezing in Hades

Hell is freezing over. It has to be.

I find it troubling enough on the rare occasion when I am in four-square agreement with one item produced by the editors of the Boston Globe. But two in one day? Surely Lucifer must be reaching for his leg warmers.

First the editors take aim at my favorite recent target, state Secretary of Transportation Jim "Churchill" Aloisi. Or they take aim at his inflated ego, more accurately. In an editorial sarcastically titled, 'Aloisi: It's Danvers, not Danzig,' they write:
Transportation Secretary James Aloisi set a new state record for self-aggrandizement as he prepared last month to do battle with Daniel Grabauskas, the former head of the MBTA. “If this is our 1939, I sure as heck am not going to allow myself to be Poland,’’ wrote Aloisi in an e-mail obtained this week by the Globe. A deputy secretary, perhaps better described as an aide-de-camp, advised Aloisi in turn to be “more Churchill than Chamberlain.’’ What the heck is going on at transportation headquarters?
Not for the first (or second, or third or even fourth) time I find myself wondering how this guy Aloisi manages to embarrass his boss, Governor Patrick, time and time again and still keep his job. Perhaps he'll tell us in his inevitable multi-volume memoir?

Then, in a separate piece, the Globe's editors light into the Legislature for their refusal to fix the bone-headed law prohibiting state retailers from attracting customers by offering to pay the newly-enhanced state sales tax:

Problem: A murky state statute prevents store owners from advertising that they will pick up the sales tax for their patrons.

But that should be simple enough to rectify, right? After all, we in Massachusetts are, um, blessed with a full-time Legislature, one that should be forever at the ready when public-policy problems loom.

Yet despite a push by assistant minority leader Bruce Tarr, the Senate recessed for August without taking action. Meanwhile, the best efforts of Representative John Quinn, Democrat of Dartmouth, got hung up in the House over worries that a business-financed rebate would benefit deep-pocketed retailers over smaller stores.

That’s a strange concern, notes Jon Hurst, president of the retailers association, since it was mostly small stores that were advertising they would pay customers’ sales tax in the first place.

Of course neither of these issues are ones on which my agreement with the Globe triggers any kind of critical self-evaluation; it is good to see the region's struggling paper of record tapping in to some genuine voter disenchantment for a change.

Still, I will rush to my computer tomorrow morning and head straight to the Globe's editorials. If they are advocating repeal of the sales tax increase, or roll-back of the income tax to 5.0%, I am going to start unpacking my family's winter clothes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Astonishing."

Close on the heels of a knock-down, drag-out between the Governor and the Legislature over $1.5 million in funding for the two state-sponsored zoos, we get this from today's Globe: $10 million for veterans go unused.

From the outset let me make one thing clear: on the spectrum of possible uses of tax dollars, bonuses for returning war veterans - monetary expressions of the Commonwealth's deep appreciation for our service men and women - have to rank near the "good" terminus. But the $10 million in question is not money that has been in any way held back from deserving vets. It just has not been claimed.

And not for lack of effort on the state's part. According to the Globe, a pamphlet containing information about the "Welcome Home" bonuses ($1,000 for vets returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan, $500 for others) is provided to all returning vets. Massachusetts National Guard units are informed of the money in their demobilization briefings. Local veterans' services agents are sent lists and required to individually contact returned vets to inquire as to whether they have applied, and to offer application assistance if they have not. And common sense tells us that if the government is giving out checks, there is probably significant about the program. Still, roughly a third of the 30,000 veterans eligible for the program have not applied for their bonuses.

This, according to the Globe, has state officials "vexed."

“It’s astonishing how few people sign up for some free money,’’ says state Senator Stephen Brewer (D-Barre). (Take note of that phraseology - "free money.").

Bureaucrats wonder if the two-page application is too much to ask of our soldiers (who, by the way, volunteered to go risk their lives on the other side of the planet). Officials speculate that, in the rush to be reunited with family, some returning vets simply cannot be bothered to apply.

Buried underneath all of this condescension is a kernel of likely truth uttered by Coleman Nee of the Department of Veterans' Services: “There’s no one standard set of reasons,’’ Nee said. “It ranges from, ‘Yeah, someday I’m going to do that,’ to, ‘Well, I don’t need a handout.’ ’’

Could it be that some significant portion of the ten thousand veterans who have not claimed their bonuses, people who volunteered to join our armed forces and fight for freedom in some of the most impoverished parts of the world, return to the Commonwealth to find a state economy in shambles, a budget deep in the red, tax hikes and service cuts coming from all sides, and decide "well, I don't need a handout?" Is such a reaction not perfectly consonant with the character one sees every day in our strong, proud and independent fighting men and women? Contra the liberal stereotype (see, e.g., John Kerry) of the poor, uneducated recruit who lands in the armed forces for lack of any other options, a great many of our veterans are educated, accomplished individuals with unlimited potential who return to supportive families and substantial professional opportunities. They do not need - and apparently do not want - the Commonwealth's largess. This need not be viewed as a stiff-arm to our collective generosity; in many cases it is likely more akin to a polite "no, thank you."

Giving a leg up to a returning vet who needs one is among the best and highest uses of tax dollars, especially compared to the many bottomless sinkholes into which our money is poured every day on Beacon Hill. But providing that opportunity to those who wish to avail themselves of it, and widely publicizing that opportunity, is enough. We do not need to chase down every last veteran and shove a check into his pocket.

There are many, many things that are "astonishing" about the members of our armed services. That some significant percentage of them have no interest in a handout from the Commonwealth's bare coffers is the least of those things.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Get your stinkin' hands off our economy

Not content with the stick they put in our business community's collective eye with the 25% sales tax increase that went into effect this month; or the salt they rubbed in that festering wound with their preemptive announcement that there will be no sales tax holiday this year (breaking a tradition that has pumped energy into retail sales every year since 2003); now the meddling bureaucrats who run the Massachusetts State Legislature are telling the Commonwealth's business that it is illegal for them to offer sale prices to offset the sales tax hike.

This article in today's Globe is so profoundly offensive. Read the whole thing, but here is the gist of it:

Many retailers, who have traditionally drawn big crowds for the yearly mid-August event, took matters into their own hands this year and began advertising that they would pay customers’ sales tax, which rose from 5 to 6.25 percent on Aug. 1.

But startled store owners have been scrambling to change their plans after learning that state law makes their gesture illegal.

“We will not be conducting mall-to-mall searches, but if we see people advertising, we will talk to them,’’ said Department of Revenue spokesman Bob Bliss.

State tax law reads, in part, that “it is unlawful for any vendor to advertise or hold out or state to the public or any customer, directly or indirectly, that the tax or any part therefore will be assumed or absorbed by the vendor.’’

Let's be clear here: a retailer offering to cover the sales tax increase is not depriving the Commonwealth's greedy money-grubbers of a single penny. The sales tax is paid - by the retailer. This is simply a way for businesses to try and counter the economically depressing effects of the tax hike - to say to potential customers: "We know those knuckleheads on Beacon Hill have you concerned about higher prices; but don't sweat it - we have you covered this weekend."

It is interesting to note that the retailers - those with the most to win or lose here - are apparently convinced that by taking the sales tax hit themselves, they will generate enough additional sales to cover their loss and, one assumes, make additional profit. Oh, but we'd best not look to hard at the meaning of that, lest we trip over the obvious implications for the impact the sales tax hike is actually going to have on state revenues...

You might wonder, since these sales tax sales will not have any effect whatsoever on state revenues, why the Legislature feels they ought to have a say here. Let Kay Kaufman, chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue, explain. He has put the kibosh on a bill that would have reversed this bone-headed policy in time for this weekend (from the Globe again):
In an e-mailed statement, Kaufman said the bill, “while laudable in its attempt to stimulate retail sales, concerns me because it could disproportionately favor big business retailers over small business ‘Mom & Pop’ stores. These big-box retailers have the balance sheets to absorb the tax, which small business retailers do not. In this economy, this is hardly the time to put small businesses at such a distinct disadvantage.’’
This kind of anti-market, anti-competitive baloney should hardly be surprising, when one of the most liberal members of the Massachusetts Legislature (which is a bit like saying one of the tallest trees in Sequoia National Forest) is put in charge of tax policy. Still, the vacuity of Kaufman's thinking here is staggering.

First and most obviously, by seeking to dictate to businesses how they can and cannot characterize a sale, our Legislature is not only managing to simultaneously screw the businesses and their customers, but it is also treading uncomfortably close to violating their Constitutional right to free speech. After all, the issue here is not the sale, per se - it is how the sale is characterized. There is no question that these businesses can run a '6.25% off' sale - they just cannot say it is to cover the state sales tax.

Second, the notion that a business running a sale - a comparatively minor one at that - is "unfair" to competitors is (hyperbole alert) just gosh-darned unAmerican. Businesses of all sizes run sales every day. 10 percent off, 30 percent off, 50 percent off and more. That is not "unfair" to competitors - it is exactly what makes the competitive marketplace work.

Maybe the Democrats who run our legislature are looking to Washington and feeling a little envy as they see the Obama Administration wrapping its tentacles around the auto, financial services, and health insurance industries. Maybe they are saying, hey, if we're about killing competition nationally, why not do some market-squashing right here in Massachusetts?

But they have already done plenty this year to depress economic activity in the Commonwealth. It is time for Jay Kaufman and the rest of the gang on Beacon Hill to get their hands off our stinkin' economy and let the market get to work pulling us out of this downturn.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Breaking news: Massachusetts is real good at spending

This item just in from the State House News: MASS. AMONG TOP 10 STATES IN STIMULUS SPENDING; JOB NUMBERS ELUSIVE
The state, local governments and private entities in Massachusetts have received $4.44 billion and spent more than $2.02 billion, 45 percent, through the federal stimulus law, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That percentage of spending puts Massachusetts seventh among states in the rate of putting stimulus funds into the economy, Executive Office of Administration and Finance officials said Thursday.
So now we have hard proof: Massachusetts is really, really good at spending money. Sure, according to the article, "[m]uch of the funding has been used in the state budget," but why quibble? That's Beacon Hill's favorite way to spend taxpayer money, whether it flows down to Washington and then back to Boston, or just straight from your bank account to Beacon Hill.

The second part of the headline is even more fun: "Job numbers elusive." This refers to the President's promise that the stim bill would "create or retain" millions of jobs. As a condition of receiving stimulus billions, states must commit to quantify and report job numbers. The problem is, quantification of jobs "created" is a squishy directive - never mind trying to count jobs "retained." Again from the article:
Administration officials said they were struggling to quantify the number of jobs created by ARRA funds because of “evolving” guidance for how to calculate job gains and job retention.

“We’re on version three now of directives from [the federal Office of Management and Budget],” Simon said. Simon pointed to an October 10 deadline for reporting such numbers, when the state hopes to have clearer guidance.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, who co-chairs the stimulus oversight committee, said he expected “a good news story” when those job numbers were available.
You bet your bottom stimulus dollar there will be "a good news story" when those numbers are finally settled upon! The final "guidance" will absObamalutely guarantee it.

Look for the final report to be light in the "jobs created" column, and heavy in the "jobs retained" column - since calculations on that side of the ledger will necessarily rely on huge amounts of speculation, guess work and estimation, all informed by the absolute imperative of arriving at an impressive number for that "good news story."

But anyhow, I digress - congratulations Massachusetts! Way to spend!

Spend 'em if you got 'em!

Taxpayer dollars, that is.

That's the thought that popped into my head as I read the Herald's latest bad-government cover story this morning. Here is the meat of it:

The state Parole Board splurged on hundreds of embroidered golf shirts and morale-boosting gold pins as well as BlackBerrys, office furnishings and other swag in an end-of-the-fiscal-year shopping spree - even as other law enforcement agencies cut their budgets to the bone.

Donald Giancioppo, the Parole Board’s executive director, authorized more than $12,000 alone on T-shirts and pins for all 200-plus employees, along with “recognition coins” and a catered lunch for an annual event recognizing the Parole Officers of the Year.

Blackberrys and "office furnishing" (which the article later identifies as things like desks and chairs) - okay. But pins and "recognition coins"? $3,300 worth? What the *@&%! does one do with a "recognition coin"? The Parole Board's executive director "said the navy blue T-shirts and pin giveaways were part of an annual event honoring hardworking parole officers." This as part of "Parole Officer Week."

I am all for appropriate expressions of gratitude to public servants. And having spent some time working in the court system, I know from personal experience that parole officers deal with a lot of unpleasantness every day in exchange for relatively modest pay. Still, in this economy perhaps a thank you email from the Attorney General or even the Governor might have sufficed?

Anyhow, whether appreciation gifts are appropriate during a recession is tangential to the point I was trying to get to. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, this smacks of a phenomenon that I saw all too often when I was in the State House - "spend 'em if you got 'em."

Here is the problem: the absolute worst thing an agency (or office, or program, or any organization that receives state funding) can do is end a fiscal year with leftover cash from the annual appropriation. They might as well put a header on each page of their next financing request: "we don't need as much money as you gave us last time." Perversely, this is doubly true during a fiscal crisis, when budget officials scour the books for potential cost savings. To end the year with cash in the bank is to call for budget cutting attention.

So officials at these agencies literally look for ways to spend money. Usually the expenditures are not so blatantly wasteful as shirts, pins and "recognition coins." But the phenomenon occurs every year, at all levels of government. In the aggregate I imagine the dollar figure involved in this 'cya' spending is enormous.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This MBTA mess merits a re-cap

Governor Patrick and Transpo secretary Jim Aloisi are furiously trying to spin their way out of the huge mess they made this week with their ill-advised and ill-timed T power play. Previous installments here and here.

Because the Governor and - to an even greater extent - the Secretary are shameless in their willingness to twist the facts to slip blame, a re-cap is in order:

For reasons that were initially a mystery but subsequently became clear, Patrick and Aloisi decided they wanted to 'own' the T. To do so, they needed to get rid of Dan Grabauskas, the Romney appointee who had stubbornly insisted on serving out the term for which he was hired. They therefore initiated a very public smear campaign, blaming Grabauskas for recent trolley accidents, service delays and - the capper - an alleged plan to hike fares later this year. Patrick and Aloisi twisted arms on the Patrick-appointee-dominated MBTA board, and late last week engineered a buy-out of Grabauskas's contract.

So far so good. The public did not like the notion of paying Grabauskas over $300K for not coming to work, but the political fallout of that decision by itself would have been limited. Then Aloisi - as is his inclination - kept talking, explicitly pointing to Grabauskas as the source of a highly unpopular decision to go forward with public hearings on a proposed fare increase.

Jim Aloisi seems to exist in a parallel universe, where a long-time Beacon Hill gutter fighter with Big Dig dirt smeared all over him is nonetheless blessed with unlimited public credibility and even popularity, empowering him to routinely fly off the handle and issue blatantly false pronouncements without consequence. He's a very odd man.

Back here in reality, Grabauskas was having none of it. Not only did he emphatically deny that the fare increase was his idea, he released an email exchange with Aloisi (read it it you have not yet done so) that makes it undeniably clear that in fact Grabauskas recommended strongly against a fare increase - and it was Aloisi who was pushing it through.

All of this put Governor Patrick in an ugly position, made exponentially worse when he denied that his Administration had anything to do with the fare increase proposal:
When asked where the push for a fare increase was coming from, [Patrick] said, “You should ask the T that. It didn’t come from me.” When asked again whether his administration was pushing for it, he said, “No.”
So there we have it. The Secretary of Transportation lied publicly, about an issue of great public interest. Then the Governor lied about it too. The Governor will probably skate - the public, after all, has no idea how much the Governor knows about what goes on at the agencies. And Aloisi has shown himself to be just enough of a corkscrew that a forgiving public might assume he was freelancing on this one. Aloisi's however, were first-person lies. He ought to be toast. As in the past when he has embarassed the Governor, however, it appears he'll hold onto his position. From the Globe:
Patrick’s spokesman Joe Landolfi brushed off calls for Aloisi’s resignation. “Secretary Aloisi is responsible for implementing the comprehensive transportation reform that will reverse decades of neglect and mismanagement by previous administrations, and he maintains the governor’s full support,’’ Landolfi said.
So a bald-faced, conniving, underhanded liar is responsible for reversal of "decades of neglect and mismanagement." That's comforting - ought to bring those approval ratings right up.

Patrick, for his part, is trying to deploy his patented brush-off. "I’m not going to get into a tit for tat with a discredited former manager," Patrick said. Well of course he isn't. In order to go tit for tat, at a minimum one needs some 'tat'.

As for who has been 'discredited' in this whole affair, well, that would be the guy who Patrick has put in charge of transportation reform - if not Patrick himself. Nobody is buying the pair's spin. Here's just a sampling of reaction:

Howie Carr : Jim Aloisi's lies a tangled web.
How can you tell if Gov. Deval Patrick and his top coatholders are lying? Their lips are moving. Once again, Jim Aloisi, the career hack and Transportation secretary, is caught speaking with forked tongue.
But that's Howie Carr - a reliable critic of all thing Patrick. Okay, how about...

The Globe's Scott Lehigh: On T fare issue, the truth is left stranded.

HAS ANYONE else noticed that the Patrick administration’s nose seems to be growing? Now, I’m loath to say that the administration is fibbing to us, so let me put this as diplomatically as possible. The available evidence could easily lead a skeptic to suspect we are being asked to believe things that don’t necessarily comport with the truth. Actually, maybe Sir Walter Scott said it better: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.’’

Or the Herald's editorial board: Truth about the T.
The Patrick administration’s clumsy effort to rewrite MBTA history yesterday blew up right in its face. And responsibility for a future fare hike now rests, appropriately, with the team that publicly stated the need for it.
And finally, "the people" - placing blame for this whole mess squarely where it belongs: Riders outraged after Gov. Patrick suspends T hearings.

Since his hiring, Jim Aloisi has presided over a series of very public embarassments for his boss, broken only by periods of relative silence. He has done far more damage to Patrick politically than did the low-key professional he was brought in to replace. And yet he holds onto his position. A mystery.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Someone get an extinguisher!

The Governor's pants are on fire.

Following up on my post yesterday about his ill-advised decision to force out Dan Grabauskas, former GM of the MBTA: Governor Patrick awoke today to find this on the front page of the Globe: "Ex-T chief urged fare hike delay."

Oh, but it is so much worse than that. From the Globe (my emphasis, obviously):

Weeks before he was ousted, MBTA general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas questioned the need for near-term fare increases on the T but was rebuffed by Governor Deval Patrick’s transportation secretary, e-mails obtained by the Globe show - directly contradicting the administration’s portrayal of Grabauskas as the one pushing for higher fares.

In a July 6 e-mail to Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., Grabauskas detailed a plan to delay a fare increase until January 2011, writing that that there would probably be enough new state sales tax revenue and federal stimulus money to “spare our customers, many of whom are poor and transit dependent, a fare increase for an additional year, during the worst economic climate in 80 years.’’

Aloisi wrote back the same day and advocated a more immediate fare increase, for January 2010.

“Thanks Dan,’’ Aloisi wrote. “My reaction is that there are too many ‘ifs’ or other risks in the scenario you outline - too many things have to go right . . . My objective here is to set the MBTA on a much stronger financial footing, and moving forward on the fare increase now seems to me to be the best and most certain way to accomplish that for the next three fiscal years.’’

Publicly, Aloisi and even Patrick have told a different story, seeking to cast Grabauskas, whom they forced to resign last week, as the one pushing a boost in fares. The governor, asked yesterday who was arguing for the increase, said, “You should ask the T that. It didn’t come from me.’’ Asked directly whether his administration had been advocating for it, Patrick said, “No.’’

Aloisi, at a July 29 State House hearing, told a legislative committee: “We have not proposed a fare increase. . . . No, no, no - the Patrick administration has not proposed any fare increase. The MBTA has proposed a fare increase.’’

Take the time to read the whole article. It is pretty darned appalling. The directly contradicted denials speak for themselves. The observation that Patrick has completed his evolution from "outsider" to back-biting, conniving, Beacon Hill pol hardly needs to be made (though there I go making it).

Most voters have no context through which to truly understand the insider baseball that characterizes most news stories about the bureaucratic morass that is the MBTA. But everyone understands getting caught in a bald-faced lie.

When that bald-faced lie concerns an effort to raise fares on the T? Well, folks are bound to take notice.

UPDATE: Heh.

Monday, August 10, 2009

From the "be careful what you wish for" file

Last week Governor Patrick and his smarmy pit viper of a transportation secretary managed to oust long-time General Manager of the MBTA, Dan Grabauskas, thereby gaining full control over the troubled mass transit authority (Grabauskas was a Romney appointee, and frequently clashed with the Governor and the Secretary). [Bias disclosure: I worked with Dan and think highly of him.]

A pair of articles today suggest that Governor Patrick might have cause already to re-think whether forcing out his favorite blame repository was a good idea.

First, we have "Lawmakers blast T fare hike proposal." It begins:

A group of House and Senate lawmakers today blasted a proposed MBTA fare increase, saying it was "unjustified," "unfair," and "ill-advised."

They also said they felt hoodwinked by Patrick administration and T officials, who had earlier said they needed $160 million to close a projected deficit this year. The Legislature provided that amount through a sales tax increase, thinking that it would be enough to offset fare hikes.

In case you are wondering, no; that "group of... lawmakers" is not comprised of the tiny Republican caucus. It's the Democrats who are feeling "hoodwinked" - duped into a politically dangerous vote for a sales tax hike in part based on promised that the revenue would forestall the need for T fare increases. "“We agreed to the sales tax, many of us, because part of it was supposed to take care of… the debt service that we can’t repay right now for the T,” groused Rep. Marie St. Fluer (who you may recall enjoyed the briefest candidacy in history as Tom Reilly's running mate for a day back in 2005).

No, the politicians are not happy - because the people are not happy. Nothing gets T-riders so worked up as fare increases amid steadily-declining service.


No wonder the Administration is already back-pedaling. "Transportation Secretary James Aloisi Jr., who now has much more control over the authority, suggested that a fare increase may not go into effect, depending on the results of a review of the MBTA’s finances," says the Globe.

Ah yes, the proposed fare increase that "may not go into effect." Because, you know, the Governor just likes getting his constituents and his legislative allies all hot under the collar.

And then there's this: "Ex-T chief blasts gov over 'character assassination'":

Ousted MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said today the proposed 20 percent fare hike isn’t even needed this year and to blame him for the added burden is political “character assassination.”

Grabauskas, breaking his silence since Gov. Deval Patrick's administration agreed to shell out $330,000 to push him out the door, refused to take the blame for his former boss.

“(Transportation Secretary) Jim Aloisi and the Patrick administration would be making a policy call if they raised the fares. It’s not a necessity to balance this year’s budget, and I made that clear to (Aloisi),” said Grabauskas.

Whoops. Looks like they should have gotten Dan to sign a confidentiality agreement. I mentioned above that I know and like Dan. It does not surprise me at all that he is blazing away with both barrels - and good for him. He ought to be. The personal characteristics so vividly on display in this ugly episode are exactly the reason he was good for the position from which he was just unceremoniously removed. He is tough, he speaks his mind, he does not roll over and he does not take crap. In the political hornet's nest that is the MBTA, where encounters with swarming unions, craven political appointees, opportunistic legislators and understandably indignant patrons are the order of every day, it helped to have a guy like Dan at the helm.

So now Dan is out, and Patrick and his lackey own the T. They have lost the ability to blame its many problems on the "Romney holdover," who they disingenuously fingered for everything from the deep deficit caused by union contracts that he fought, to the deadly and tragic accident caused by a text-messaging train driver. Now there is no question as to where the buck stops.

Perhaps more importantly, as today's events so amply illustrate they have set Dan Grabauskas free - free to speak his mind. Free to use his unparalleled knowledge of the T's operations (and its twisted politics) to evaluate every move Patrick and Aloisi make. Free to seek political payback against those who made him the scapegoat for the failed system that he tried to save.

And, the final, rich irony: he'll be paid handsomely for the privilege.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Well that's an interesting strategy, Christy

Fascinating interview of political consultant Dick Morris published in the State House News yesterday. The interview was conducted by Jim O'Sullivan, who at a young age is about as good as they come.

You may know that Christy Mihos has retained Morris in his quest to best his 7 percent showing at the polls in 2006. The fact that Mihos's recent campaign finance report indicates $0 paid to Morris, and Morris "refused to say how much Mihos is paying him" is only one intriguing aspect of the pairing.

Having labored for everyone from Jesse Helms to Bill Clinton, Morris is the ultimate political chameleon (others might use a different term, associated with prostitution, but this is a family blog). Christy's actions in 2005 and 2006, first running as a Republican, then as a Kerry Healey-bashing Independent, might earn him the chameleon label as well (though again, other less charitable terms rush to mind).

Here's the most interesting part of the interview, on the topic of Christy's strategy for a Republican primary against Charlie Baker:
Morris, though, estimates that the primary against Baker will pivot on how the state’s independents, who likely won’t be distracted by a Democratic primary, break. Morris predicted about two-thirds of the GOP primary vote would come from independents, voters to whom Mihos's unenrolled status in 2006 would appeal. Morris said that Mihos, despite his poor showing in 2006 and despite squaring off with a GOP candidate far more highly regarded by party insiders, will benefit from the unenrolled support.
So if I am getting this right, Christy's strategy for winning the Republican gubernatorial nomination is to... pull enough unenrolled voters into the primary to overcome actual Republican votes. It is unclear why Morris believes that "Mihos's unenrolled status in 2006 would appeal" to enough of those voters in 2010 to overcome Baker when it appealed to such an emasculatingly small percentage of them in 2006, but leave that aside. Does this slippery pair of political shape-shifters really think that is a winning strategy? And even if they do, what sense does it make to say so out loud?

Those of you who sit on Republican town committees and have been treated to Christy's make-nice/try to buy you off shtick for the past few months, take note: yours aren't the votes he is looking for. He tried the independent route, and was routed. Now he's going to try again, this time as a nominal "Republican." But he has no more respect for that label than he did in '06 - when he did his level best to put Deval Patrick in the office he occupies today.

As for you unenrolled voters who may be thinking of casting a vote in the Republican primary (and by the way, come on in - the more the merrier!), you should take note as well: Christy is no more an Independent than he is a Republican.

He is an unscrupulous opportunist - just like his hired (but purportedly unpaid) gun, Dick Morris.

Exhibit A, from WBUR: Read this, and decide for yourself.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Someone ate his Wheaties this morning

Massachusetts House Minority Leader Brad Jones went on a rip earlier today, managing in the course of just a few lines to skewer the Governor, the Speaker, the Secretary of Transportation and a certain state senator who was much in the news a few months back. From the State House News:
Hours before the board of the MBTA meets to discuss the fate of General Manager Dan Grabauskas, House Minority Leader Bradley Jones called Patrick administration efforts to force out the embattled GM “a disgrace.” “I realize that the administration is probably trying to find a job for Marian Walsh or maybe the secretary’s sister,” Jones said in a simultaneous needling of the governor and Secretary of Transportation James Aloisi.
In case you've been tuned out for much of the year, the Walsh crack referred to this, and the sister reference to this. Both mentions also served to tag Governor Patrick by extension, but just in case that was unclear, "Jones said that if mismanagement was a reason to put Grabauskas, a Republican appointee, on administrative leave, then 'the governor should probably be put on administrative leave.'"

Asked about widely-criticized comments made yesterday by House Speaker Bob DeLeo (in an appearance on Fox Morning News, the Speaker said, "We were really never in competition with New Hampshire relative to the sales tax... In terms of losing business to New Hampshire, I don't think that was ever a concern") Jones fired back, "That's scary as hell... Apparently you've never visited the border communities of the commonwealth at all."

Brad Jones is, in my humble opinion, an excellent Minority Leader who does a great job with scant resources. To the extent that some in his party have criticized him in the recent past, they have usually accused him of being too friendly with the Democratic majority, and particularly its leadership. Whether his broadsides today are meant to address those criticisms, or simply represent the boiling over of a budget process worth of frustrations, they are well placed and well said.

Bravo, Mr. Leader!

Dumb, even by the Globe's standards

The Globe sent reporter Vivian Nereim to the mall this week. There, apparently to her surprise, she found shoppers. This is front page news.

"Massachusetts consumers have for weeks bemoaned the possibility of an increase in the state sales tax," writes Nereim. "But this week, the first under the higher tax, it was hardly keeping them away from the malls, where blithe shoppers swung bags fat with purchases."

Oh, snap! Gotcha, you crazy bemoaners!

From an addled fellow complaining about the recent sales tax hike while - can you believe it? - waiting in line to purchase a Tommy Hilfiger comforter, to the stereotypical well-heeled suburbanite admiring her new diamond impulse purchase in the parking lot of a jewelry store, the Globe discovered that despite widespread opposition to the sale tax increase, people are still buying stuff. Not everyone, it turns out, is driving to New Hampshire to avoid our newly bulked up sales tax.

Well, no kidding. Thanks for the news flash, Globe. Talk about a survey with a pre-determined outcome. People at the mall are shopping! In other breaking news, people at the beach are swimming, and people at McDonald's have been observed eating.

Of course the argument against a sales tax increase was never that it would lead to empty malls and a mass exodus to our northern neighbor. The impact of a twenty-five percent increase happens at the margins: the restaurant that downgrades its bulk purchases of liquor; the bride and groom who curtail spending on a grand wedding; the mother and daughter who postpone a shopping outing as the family budget slips that much closer to critical. And yes, the residents who live close to the New Hampshire border and decide that a trip across the line for a six pack is now a practical detour. Thousands of little decisions that, together, have a significant impact over time.

A billion dollars sucked out of the private sector, not in large increments from the patrons at the Natick Collection this Tuesday morning, but in small increments, every day, on thousands upon thousands of individual transactions.

That may not have an impact on the day-to-day of a person with the wherewithal to swing by Belden's to pick up a diamond ring on a whim. But, the Globe's sarcastic 'news' coverage notwithstanding, it will have an impact on overall spending, over time. Of course by extension of the Globe's logic, any tax increase, no matter how large, would be perfectly fine so long the result is something less than a total cessation in economic activity across the state.

I look forward to the Globe's spin in a few months on revenue figures that come in lower, despite the increased tax rate. Here's a guess: 'Continued revenue slide suggests need for long-delayed gas tax increase.'

UPDATE: A friend notes: "Also, it's a mall... mostly clothing, which is tax free. Duh." Exactly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thinking about ballot initiatives

This is the week when various groups hoping to get a citizens' initiative on next year's ballot have to file their petitions for certification with the Attorney General. The certification process is relatively apolitical - the AG simply determines whether an initiative passes constitutional muster, and then gives the go-ahead to the group to start collecting the tens of thousands of signatures necessary to gain a ballot spot.

This year we are seeing more than the usual allotment of 'we're mad as hell and we're not taking it any more' initiative proposals, for obvious reasons. One proposal would eliminate all existing roadway tolls in the Commonwealth, and prohibit new ones. Another would roll back the just-implemented sales tax increase. Yet another would alter the Constitution to mandate secret ballots in the Legislature's internal elections.

The genesis of all of this is not hard to peg. Massachusetts commuters have been frustrated with the tolls, particularly on the Pike, since the statutory date for their removal came and went decades ago. This year's attempt by Governor Patrick to use a threatened, massive toll hike to blackmail the voters into acceptance of a gas tax increase simply brought the issue to a head. The recent 25 percent sales tax hike is deeply unpopular. And the unseemly spectacle of overwhelming support in the House Democratic caucus for soon-to-be-indicted Speaker Sal DiMasi last January strongly suggested a need to reform the Legislature's internal processes. People are fed up. Kudos to so many of them for trying to do something about it.

I should be clear on that point, right up front. It is far better for aggrieved citizens to take proactive action, through the Constitutional process, than to resign themselves to sideline grumbling. Whether or not I agree with the specific positions underlying a ballot initiative, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the willingness of so many people to give of their time and their resources to an effort to make a difference - just as I have nothing but respect and admiration for those willing to put their own names on a ballot. None of the misgivings explained below should be read to lessen or detract from that.

Still, I cannot help but note that in the rare case when citizen initiatives disfavored by our ruling Democratic elite have actually passed, they have almost invariably been struck down, overturned, or simply ignored by our supposed 'representatives' on Beacon Hill. The income tax roll-back, clean elections, a toll-removal effort back in 1998... all meet with the same fate. To my mind, the only way to change that end result is to shake up the state's power structure. As state GOP chair Jennifer Nassour said at a packed event just last night (paraphrasing): more than new laws, we need new law-makers.

It is still early. The next election is 15 months away. But if initial impressions can be trusted, against all odds the Republican Party in Massachusetts could be looking at its best election cycle since Bill Weld was first elected Governor, bringing with him enough new Senators to sustain a veto. We have a deeply unpopular Democrat incumbent, a Weld-esque presumptive nominee with huge bipartisan appeal, and a Legislature rife with corruption and seemingly determined to add "Taxachusetts" to the official state flag. I have spoken personally with multiple young, smart and determined Republicans who have decided to make or are seriously considering a run for the Legislature (one of whom filed papers just this week). A Republican tsunami in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is probably too much to expect. A measurable turning of the tide, though, with a new cadre of Legislators sweeping into office with a mandate, riding the coattails of a fiscally conservative new Governor? That could happen. Given the way the stars seem to be aligning, if ever it is to happen it will be next year.

While on the one hand, having some high-profile ballot initiatives pushing conservative policies can create energy and spur turn-out, in another sense they have the potential to do more harm than good in a cycle like this one. Ballot initiatives require a campaign - a statewide campaign at that. They require serious financial resources, and endless volunteer hours. Unfortunately, especially here in Massachusetts, conservatively-oriented resources and volunteers are hardly in unlimited supply. Every hour spent on a ballot initiative campaign is an hour not spent supporting a promising local legislative candidate or working to replace Governor Patrick.

More, as I found out first hand in my own run, high-profile ballot initiatives allow reporters and debate moderators to take a policy shortcut. Instead of exploring a candidate's own policy perspectives and proposals, questions are distilled to: "Question One - for or against?" In the closing days of a close campaign, air time sucked up by a controversial initiative can make the difference.

Were our existing power structure more balanced, this analysis would be entirely different. As I noodled over this issue, though, I kept coming back to one, over-riding factor: unless and until we get some party balance back on Beacon Hill, even those ballot initiatives that pass will never appear on the books. We have an opportunity to significantly alter our state government next year, by electing Charlie Baker Governor and giving him an infusion of new Republican Legislators to support his agenda - which will undoubtedly include many of the policy preferences of those gearing up to push the various ballot initiatives in the news this week. One step at a time - and this should be the first step.

Perhaps the good folks currently staring down the barrel of a 15 month, statewide campaign for a ballot initiative might consider throwing their own hats into the ring and running for the Legislature?

Then, who knows? In 2011 they might be able to file their Legislation from the inside.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A 'teachable moment.'

No, not that one. This one.
Congress scrambled yesterday to rescue the government’s “cash for clunkers’’ program, with the House voting to inject $2 billion into the week-old promotion, which may have run out of money as consumers raced to trade in old gas-guzzlers.
Get that? "May have." They don't know for sure. So just to be safe they'd better triple the original allocation of taxpayer money. And why is it that they don't know for sure if the billion dollars already devoted to the week-old program - intended to last months - have run out? From the Globe:
Officials don’t know for sure because of a backlog of sales that need to be processed, a problem that dealers have complained about all week... The program was supposed to start on July 1 but got delayed until July 24. The rules were complicated, and the list of qualifying vehicles and other requirements changed repeatedly, several dealers said. The program involved mountains of paperwork, and the government website that collected the submissions kept crashing, creating a backlog, they said.

At Ciccolo’s Nissan dealership in North Attleborough, where about 20 vehicles have been sold under the program, Ciccolo said one manager was in the office until 2 a.m. Thursday, trying to submit reimbursement paperwork. “The computers just wouldn’t accept it,’’ he said.

The same thing happened to Chris Lemley, president of Sentry Auto Group in Medford, Dorchester, and Shrewsbury, who said that his salespeople struggled to enter deals until midnight on a system that kept crashing.

“The government has not at all been prepared to handle the administrative side of it,’’ Lemley said.

"The people like it," said Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) yesterday, pushing for a rapid tripling of funding for the program.

Well gee - no kidding? "People like it" when the government hands them $4500 toward the purchase of a new car? Who would'a thunk?

The people also "like it" when the government lets them keep more of the money they earn, but somehow the argument is never as persuasive when it comes to taxes. When the government "gives" people money by lowering their taxes, the money does not flow through the politicians - they do not get the credit, and they cannot engineer spending to their preferred objectives.

And make no mistake. At base, that's what this 'cash for clunkers' program is: social engineering. Having failed to convince, shame or browbeat us into giving up our SUVs, they've turned to the next best thing - paying us off.

See the Ford F-150 to the right? Looks in good shape - you might think it worth a couple of thousand bucks, maybe as a first car for a teenager with a summer painting job. But you'd be wrong. This, you see, is a "clunker" - and once it's traded in the dealer must, as a condition of participating in the program, "kill" the engine and scrap the body. If the Disney movie "Cars" were made today, Fred, Luigi and most of the rest of the gang would have to spend all their time fleeing agents of the Obama Administration, lest they be captured, "killed" and crushed in deference to the government's desire to get us all into Priuses and 'Smart Cars,' ASAP. In service to that goal, the Democrats are willing to "kill" - to erase, to wipe off the books - whatever residual value remains in the car. They are literally destroying wealth.

So don't let anyone tell you this is primarily about getting cash into the hands of consumers.

What it is, in fact, is a perfect distillation of the Democrats' governing philosophy: A massive spending program, enacted hastily, funded exorbitantly, administered poorly and growing inevitably and exponentially. An incentive quickly becomes an entitlement, as those slow to jump on the wagon ask "where's MY new car?" and dealers who hesitated to participate initially scramble to sign up as they watch cars move off of their competitors' lots and government dollars flow into their competitors' wallets.

According to the Globe and other sources, many auto dealers are worried that the government will not make good on its promise to reimburse them for the "clunkers" that are now stacking up in their lots. Some are discontinuing the program until the situation clarifies. Others are making buyers sign a contingency agreement, pledging to make good on the $4500 if the government does not. Neither the dealers nor the buyers need worry. In the context of nearly a trillion dollars in "stimulus" spending, another $2 billion is the proverbial thimble in the ocean. The next two billion will flow into the program. And after that is gone, more will come. After all, "the people like it."

President Obama promised at the outset of the 'stimulus' program that the taxpayers would be able to track how every single dollar is spent. The cash for clunkers program has made it painfully clear, however, that the government does not even know whether our dollars are being spent - never mind how.

According to the Globe, "President Obama called the program an 'overwhelming success’ and urged the Senate to pass legislation." This "overwhelming success" started out as a temporary, billion dollar program. It is now up to three billion, on the suspicion that the billion may not be enough.

The stimulus bill started out at a trillion dollars. Do I hear three trillion?

A teachable moment.