Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last post of '09

Ending the year in one of those rare points of agreement with the Globe's editorial page: You may not have noticed, but the Massachusetts House of Representatives released its version of an education reform bill this week. More accurately, I should say that the House Democrats released their version, since like most important pieces of legislation in Massachusetts, this one was crafted behind closed doors, out of public view, by members of the Democratic leadership. This legislation was the subject of some controversy at the end of formal sessions last month, when the Governor publicly criticized the Legislature for adjourning without putting an education reform bill - which his Administration claims is crucial to secure millions in federal aid - on his desk. The Governor's education proposals seek to un-do many of the reforms enacted in past years that have made Massachusetts schools top performers in the nation. The final bill is likely to have a negative impact, overall, on public education in the Commonwealth. On one limited point, though, I find myself in rare agreement with the editors of the Boston Globe, who write this morning:
THE HOUSE unveiled a much-improved version of the state’s high-stakes education bill this week. So far, at least, the House hasn’t been rolled by teachers’ union officials, who eviscerated the Senate version of the bill in November.
Unions bristle when blamed for failed schools, and they are certainly right that parents and school administrators should share responsibility. But it is increasingly obvious that union contract provisions, especially regarding dismissal of ineffective teachers and length of school days, are limiting the chances of students in low-performing schools and districts. The Senate at first seemed to understand what was at stake and embraced the notion that school superintendents or the education commissioner could force changes in teachers’ contracts. But the Senate bowed to the unions’ insistence on imposing a lengthy labor arbitration process.
Although I often find myself criticizing the deleterious role that the Commonwealth's public sector unions play in our government, nine times out of ten the true target of my criticism is union leadership, not rank-and-file members. That is particularly true of the teachers' union. I know plenty of Massachusetts public school teachers. Several good friends are teachers or administrators in our public schools. Every one of them cares deeply about their students and about education. Most of them loathe the unions that they are literally forced to join. These teachers support merit pay. They support teacher evaluation. They oppose union seniority rules that allow mediocre (and bad) teachers to simply muddle through, year after year, protected from dismissal by their longevity.

The leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, on the other hand, could not be more different from the membership that they purport to represent. Perversely, these seasoned political gutter-fighters cloak themselves in the virtue of the teachers described above, claiming to act always in the interests of "the children," when in fact their sole objective in most instances is protection of the lowest common denominator in the teaching ranks from any semblance of accountability.

The Globe is correct to observe, in what could be the understatement of '09, that "it is increasingly obvious that union contract provisions, especially regarding dismissal of ineffective teachers and length of school days, are limiting the chances of students in low-performing schools and districts." It is nice to see that the House bill recognizes that - especially in light of the troubling symbiosis noted here. It will be interesting to see if that recognition survives to the final version of the bill.

The slow death of public civil discourse.
Jeff Jacoby's column in today's Globe laments the decidedly uncivil tone of public debate over the past year. By utter coincidence, at the gym this morning I read a much longer treatment of the same topic from a recent edition of the Weekly Standard. The gist of it is that the U.S. Supreme Court's defamation jurisprudence, which over time has evolved to protect all but the most egregiously defamatory criticism of those in public life, has coarsened public debate, encouraged deliberate ignorance, and ultimately serves to discourage people who care about their reputations from entering public life. In my own (failed) run for public office, I was fortunate to have an opponent who shared my desire to keep our debate civil and issues-oriented. We disagreed often, sometimes heatedly, but always respectfully. Unfortunately, that has become the exception rather than the rule. In any event, the Standard article, by Professor Robert Nagel, is thought-provoking and worth a read.

Finally, truth in advertising.
If ever there were a headline perfectly targeted at the core "climate change" demographic, it is this one in the Globe today:
"Carbon controls: do it for the pinot noir."

Something missing from that bio? The Associated Press reports that Speaker DeLeo has tapped a "lawyer" to conduct that unnecessary review of $370 some-odd taxpayer dollars in legal bills racked up by the private law firm retained to protect the Office of the Speaker in the Sal DiMasi investigation.
DeLeo on Wednesday said Daniel Crane, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, would perform an independent review of the House’s contract with the law firm Gargiulo/Rudnick.
Daniel Crane is, in fact, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association - a credential that, taken in the isolation in which it is presented by the AP might serve understandably to bolster his credibility. Ah, but there's a pretty significant factoid mission from the AP's ever-so-brief biographical sketch of Mr. Crane. The State House News more completely introduces him thusly: "Dan Crane, the Patrick administration's former consumer affairs chief, was named late Wednesday by Speaker Robert DeLeo to review House legal spending..."

So now the Speaker has retained a Democratic political insider to conduct a wholly unnecessary review of legal bills that ought simply to be disclosed to the public, as has been demanded by a small but energetic group of Democratic lawmakers for several weeks now. Critics will correctly carp that this smacks of an inside job. That criticism misses the point, however. The fact that Crane formerly worked for Governor Patrick does not mean he cannot fulfill this new task with honesty and integrity. At the end of that process, however, in even the best case scenario he will report that his review did not turn up any impropriety - which will leave the public and the press again asking, "so what's in those bills that you guys refuse to release?"

This says it all. Excellent dual observation from the inimitable Jim O'Sullivan of the State House News, introducing number 8 in his list of the top ten Massachusetts political stories of the decade:
If you were a speaker of the Massachusetts House whose regime sat entirely in the first 10 years of the 21st century, you left office and then you got indicted. Alternately, if you were the top Justice Department official in the Bay State during that span, you probably indicted a former speaker of the Massachusetts House.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dead week miscellany

I keep hearing the term "dead week" to describe this annual lull period between Christmas and New Years. I've been busy, so the term does not necessarily fit my experience this year, but in general it works for me. Everything slows this week; so much so that it seems almost a waste to take vacation time. In any event, various fun issues continue to percolate in state government. First, though, a digression:

"Good thing he didn't try to blow up his underwear." That's what a friend said a few years back in the wake of the infamous "Shoe-Bomber's" attempt to take down an airplane with a makeshift explosive secreted in his loafer. The lingering aftermath of that failed attempt, as we all know, is the inconvenient, unsanitary, stinky and annoying shoe removal requirement that has become part of the hassle that is modern air travel. My friend's comment was made as a complaint about the reactive way in which we (meaning our government) respond to these ham-handed yet indisputably evil attempts by terrorists to commit mass murder in our skies. Now another one of these loathsome jackasses has, in fact, tried to blow up his underwear (how insane does one have to be, by the way, to light one's own crotch on fire?). Nobody has suggested (yet) that undergarment removal should become part of airport security screening - but it seems pretty clear that pretty soon we're all going to have to consent to visual inspection of our nether regions by way of Superman-esque "full-body scans." Meanwhile, while we wait in our interminable lines for the privilege of letting the TSA get virtually in our pants, in their rat holes the scumbags will ponder new ways to try and bring down an airliner - ways that have nothing to do with shoes or underwear. The TSA announced today that Logan is in line to get one full-body scanner. One. For its 4 terminals and what? a dozen? different access points to those terminals. The scumbags aren't the brightest bunch (reference again the whole own-crotch-burning thing), but presumably they are smart enough to avoid the line with the one state-of-the-art scanner. None of it makes any sense whatsoever.

And now, back to my preferred subject area:

Fuzzy Math Expected. Under the headline, "Signs still point to loss of House seat for Mass.," the State House News reports that despite an uptick in population in the last year, "Massachusetts [will] fall more than 70,000 heads short of what the state needs to retain its 10-member House delegation, according to a new study." I wrote a little bit about this back in July. Ah, but the SHNS continues, "researchers say Massachusetts can still avoid the need to pare its Congressional delegation down to nine with a thorough, aggressive Census count backed up by adequate state resources." So more money = more... citizens? Unfortunately, when it comes to census-taking tied to redistricting, an "aggressive Census count" tends to be more aspirational than "thorough," if "thorough" is meant to encompass "rigorous and accurate." Look for revival of the periodic debate over the wisdom and reliability of census "estimates" in dense urban populations, which Democrats have tried to use for decades to bulk up the count in areas that reliably elect Democrats. As I mentioned in July, I'm not sure one fewer Massachusetts Democrat in the US House should be viewed as a loss, in the short term. And the SHNS notes that "[i]f Massachusetts loses a seat, it will be up to the Legislature to redraw the lines, a process that will dictate which of the state’s House incumbents, all Democrats, will be squeezed by the decennial redistricting." That scrap alone could be almost worth the price of admission (said price being 'one House seat'). Still, short-term politics aside, it is never a good thing for the Commonwealth to lose a seat in Congress. Here's hoping the math works out in our favor - the real, true, accurate, apolitical math.

This whole House legal bill thing? It makes more sense now. The other day I wondered, "what's Speaker DeLeo hiding in those legal bills?" The State House News today provided a partial answer. It seems the federal corruption investigation of former Speaker DiMasi has cast something of a wide net across the House:
To avoid being at risk of failing to comply with an ongoing federal criminal investigation and grand jury inquiries, the House counsel's office has helped oversee the “extensive gathering of paper and electronic documents spread across numerous areas” of the House, according to Namet's memo.

The work, according to the memo, had included the removal or copying of hard drives in desktop computers, data folders and email attachments from the central House server, the House Ways and Means Committee server and information technology division files. Also, data from backup tapes was extracted by an outside contractor and provided to CGM Technologies LLC for analysis, according to the memo, which said its search had covered “dozens of hard drives” and servers from which more than 529,428 email messages 103,135 documents were extracted and reviewed.

Notebooks and paper documents were also collected and reviewed, with 8,267 pages of documents reviewed. CGM Technologies provided technical assistance to Gargiulo Rudnick, which, according to the memo, had received nearly $295,000 in legal fees for a total of 1,242 hours of work at an average hourly rate of $237.32. Non-legal expenses totaled $83,468.32, according to the memo.
Note in particular the reference to data collected from the House Ways and Means Committee Server. Remember who was Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee during the reign of Speaker DiMasi? Here's a hint: his name rhymes with "DeMeo" and he's currently warming Sal's old chair. There has been no suggestion of wrong-doing by the current Speaker. And, in candor, plenty of people who I know and trust have described him consistently to me as a decent, ethical straight-shooter. But as I noted the other day, the legal bills that the current Speaker is tenaciously guarding against public disclosure likely contain narrative accounts of the certain aspects of the investigation - an investigation that, we now know, has gathered a huge amount of information from across the Democrat-dominated House. Those narratives would at the very least be a treasure trove of potential leads for investigative journalists, conspiracy theorists, political opponents... not to mention wiseacre bloggers. Whether there's any "there there," as a political matter Speaker DeLeo's dogged refusal to release those bills is no longer perplexing. It makes perfect sense. That refusal, by the way, has extended even to ignoring one of his own Member's efforts to be recognized on the House floor. Again from the SHNS:
Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) hoped to block House deliberations Monday morning to protest House Speaker Robert DeLeo's refusal to release more information about $378,000 in House legal expenses in connection with the federal investigation into former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi. By early Monday afternoon, Stanley concluded he was being ignored by DeLeo's office and his deputies... Rep. Paul Donato, presiding during Monday's 11 a.m. session, quickly gaveled the House into a recess of undetermined length, ignoring Stanley's calls to be recognized.
House Republicans, who are subjected to this kind of indignity on a regular basis in Massachusetts, can probably advise Rep. Stanley on how to move past it. Stanley should again be commended for his efforts - and the scores of his Democratic colleagues who are remaining silent on the issue should be asked why Stanley does not deserve their support.

Never a bad headline. Boston.com this afternoon: "Court ruling deals setback to MBTA unions." Here's the meat of the story, from the State House News:
[Middlesex County Judge Christina] Roach rejected the unions’ claim that lifetime health care benefits were verbally guaranteed to workers by their employers, noting that only the MBTA board has the authority to make such a declaration. In addition, she ruled that any agreements reached in now-expired collective bargaining contracts no longer apply, that a 1973 advisory opinion describing membership in a retirement system as “contractual” carries no statutory weight and that federal protections do not guarantee contribution-free health care for life. Roach acknowledged in her ruling that “certain individuals may experience personal difficulties coping with the administrative changes” but said those difficulties don’t rise the level necessary to trigger protections against “irreparable harm.”
The ruling puts a crimp in MBTA union plans to halt the state's efforts to bring outlandish MBTA benefits in line with something known colloquially as 'fiscal reality.' It's a good bet, though, that the fight is far from over. "Contribution-free health care for life" is not easily relinquished.

That's not what you promised, Governor. I missed this one last week. According to the Herald, it seems that during his monthly radio appearance on WTKK, Governor Patrick "traded volleys" with an Uxbridge selectman and "expressed irritation with local officials" when the selectman "suggested [Patrick] had not delivered on his 2006 campaign pledge to lower property taxes." Patrick "noted his administration’s efforts to maintain the bulk of state aid to cities and towns; add local-option meals and hotel taxes; and end an exemption allowing telephone companies to avoid paying taxes on their poles and wires."

That's what's known as 'moving the goalposts.' As I've noted before, many times, Patrick's oft-repeated campaign promise to reduce soaring property taxes was most often deployed as a ducking mechanism, either to avoid questions about his opposition to an income tax reduction, or to change the subject from his opponents' frequent observations concerning the likely price tag attached to Patrick's many, many spending-related promises. Significantly for the purposes of the Governor's scrap with a local official, his promise to the voters was not that he'd arrange to replace high property taxes with alternate levies on other things (like hotels, restaurants and telecom services). He promised - repeatedly and emphatically - to find "efficiencies in government" and use those wonderful "efficiencies" to reduce property taxes. The economy is what it is. Politicians do not get to choose their reality. The Governor has failed to keep that particular promise - as many knew he inevitably would. The Selectman (who noted that his own community has raised property taxes three times during the Patrick Administration) was correct in his observation, and undeserving of the Governor's "irritation."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve miscellany

I have been traveling out of state this week in the run-up to Christmas, and boy have I missed a lot. Here are some thoughts as I catch up, in no particular order:

Now this Galluccio thing is just sad. State Senator Anthony Galluccio, the latest Beacon Hill fixture to run afoul of the law, violated the terms of his home confinement not a week into the sentence by blowing a mandatory breathalyzer test. He's blaming toothpaste. I prosecuted a fair number of chronic drunk drivers during a short stint as a Middlesex County ADA. Any time one of those guys failed a breathalyzer test, the oral hygiene products were always to blame. It was the mouthwash. Or the toothpaste. Or the breath strips. These lost souls would stand there in front of the judge, sometimes swaying and often reeking of much more than a hit of Listerine, and tell the judge all about their lifelong commitment to clean teeth and fresh breath. It was always pathetic and sad, and it is in this instance too. A week ago I wondered what Senate President Terese Murray would do, now that another of her troops has ended up on the wrong side of a guilty verdict. As I predicted, thus far she's taken the middle road - stripping Galluccio of his committee assignments, but leaving it to him to decide if he can continue to serve his constituents while he serves his sentence. Until the "toothpaste" incident, that sentence allowed him to leave his home confinement for formal sessions of the Senate. Post-breathalyzer, he's locked down tight and may be (should be) facing actual jail time. President Murray?

Fear-mongering-mongering. In a series of end-of-year interviews with the State House press corps, Governor Patrick boldly predicted that his opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial election will - prepare yourself - criticize his record. Of course that's not how Patrick put it. His opponents will "use fear as a tool" to convince voters to vote against him. Fear of what, you ask? Having read more than a few accounts of Patrick's statements, it appears the "fear" Patrick expects his opponents to exploit is the fear of continued hardship if things continue the way they have been going in this state. Here's how the Globe put it:

Speaking with reporters at a year-end press briefing, Patrick said that with state and national economic conditions the way they are, his challengers will try to exploit the public’s concerns in trying to persuade voters not to reelect him.

“Fear is going to be used as a tool in this campaign,’’ Patrick said. “You watch it. I will.’’

A cynical observer might point out that every incumbent politician in the history of politics has had to deal with the argument that his reelection will result in more of the same. Come to think of it, wasn't that a key argument posed by Patrick against Kerry Healey? That her election would constitute a continuation of the Romney Administration? Back then, Patrick called such arguments "change." This year, they are labeled "fear mongering." More Patrick:
“And there are going to be people, because fear is a classic political tool, who will be saying, ‘My goodness gracious, if we stay on this course, you have even more to be fearful of.’ ’’
I'll go out on a limb and predict that Patrick is absolutely, 110 percent correct - as his opponents will be in arguing that voters ought not to reelect the guy who has steered the state into its present ditch.

What's Speaker DeLeo hiding in those legal bills? When news broke of nearly $400K in legal bills racked up by a private law firm to defend the interests of the 'Office of the Speaker' in the ongoing Sal DiMasi indictment imbroglio, current Speaker Bob DeLeo stiff-armed requests for disclosure of those bills. Such disclosure, he argued more than a bit implausibly, could compromise a federal investigation. This week Brian Kelly, head of the public corruption until in the US Attorney's office, smacked down that argument quite convincingly, writing to DeLeo's antagonists in the Democratic caucus, "it does not appear that the government’s case would be affected in any way by such a release." According to today's Globe, however,
DeLeo appeared unmoved yesterday by the letter, and gave no indication he would disclose the material anytime soon. Instead, he reiterated a pledge he made last week to appoint an independent lawyer to review the contract. That lawyer, he said, would look at the contract’s “scope, scale, performance and cost.’’
That was a strange position for the Speaker to take last week. Now it is downright bizarre. People (the press, a rump group of legislative insurgents, a good number of voters) don't want to see yet another taxpayer-funded private attorney's report on the first taxpayer-funded attorney's exorbitant billable hours. They want to see the bills. Just what, exactly, is this firm doing to justify the outlay of nearly a half a million bucks on the discovery stage of an investigation in which their client is not (we assume) a target. Unless.....

I don't want to get all X-Filesy here, but this firm has in fact spent a lot of billable time representing the Office of the Speaker in connection with the DiMasi investigation. Said office is currently occupied by the guy who is stubbornly refusing to release bills that likely contain narrative accounts of that work. This is an unwanted and unneeded political headache that could, presumably, be cured by simply releasing the bills. DeLeo's refusal to do so cannot help but make one wonder if the contents of those bills would create bigger problems for the current speaker - or other members of his leadership team, many of whom were also tight with Sal - than will continued stiff-arming of the demands for their release.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Galluccio pleads guilty - now what will the Senate do?

State Senator Anthony Galluccio, a guy with a history of drunk driving, plead guilty today to a hit-and-run a couple of months back. He's getting six months of home confinement. The terms of the plea, though, which require him to abstain from consumption of alcohol, strongly indicate that he admitted to something more than simply leaving the scene of an accident.

'We'll wait for the legal process to run its course' is the usual response of legislative leadership when they are questioned about potential institutional ramifications when members are accused of violating the law - something that seems to happen on almost a monthly basis here in Massachusetts. Senate President Murray said something along those lines when Galluccio was first arrested back in October, as I recall.

Well, the legal process has run its course. A state Senator has plead guilty and been sentenced (lightly, in my humble opinion, in light of his record). His home confinement allows him an exemption to attend formal sessions of the Senate, but he cannot leave home for meetings, for events, for hearings. Assuming the full-time job of a state Senator involves something more than attending the body's infrequent formal sessions, this guy is literally prohibited from doing his job for the next half of a year.

But that's a logistical concern. I doubt the Commonwealth will suffer from the loss of one every- day state Senator for a few months. Much more important is the fact that yet another member of our Legislature has been found guilty of breaking the law - in this case, breaking the law in a way that but for good fortune could easily have injured or killed someone.

If Senator Galluccio is unwilling to resign his Senate seat, he should be removed from office. This news is breaking on a Friday before Christmas week. It will be interesting to see whether Senate President Murray acts decisively, stalls or ignores the issue entirely. My money is on option B.

Stimulus for Lawyers? (part deux)

Boy oh boy! As a lawyer in Boston, I'm starting to think I've missed the boat in not scoring some of this lucrative work defending Beacon Hill Democrats (past and present) against public corruption charges.

Not to be outdone by the Herald, which earlier this week reported on the $378,000 in legal bills racked up by private attorneys defending the Office of the Speaker in the Sal DiMasi mess, the Globe this morning reports that the two private firms defending Treasurer Tim Cahill and his lottery director against allegations of bid-rigging have billed the taxpayer for even more money in a shorter period of time - $393,000 in just seven months.

Much of the outraged reaction flying around the blogosphere this week misses the mark. "Tax money paying to defend crooks! SO WRONG!" laments one comment. "This is an outrage!!! Let the criminals pay for their own lawyers!" hollers another.

While the sums amassed in so relative short a time are certainly shocking, the fact that private lawyers are paid with public funds to defend public officials accused of wrongdoing is neither shocking nor wrong. Politics aside, it should be borne in mind that these people are accused of bad acts - but have not yet been convicted. Calling them crooks or criminals is premature, to say the least, no matter how bad an odor emanates from the known facts.

More generally, though, public officials have to be defended vigorously against accusations of wrong-doing in the execution of their public duties; and they cannot be left to their own financial resources to mount that defense. If it were otherwise, a credible sounding accusation or two would be all that it would take for a political opponent to take down a rival. Nobody in his or her right mind would serve in government with the knowledge that a mere accusation could mean personal financial ruin. Where, as in these cases, the office of the Attorney General determines that it might well find itself at some point on the opposite side of the courtroom in the matter in question, the accused officeholder has no option but to retain private counsel. And again, in these cases those bills are properly paid by the Commonwealth. Now, whether a public official ultimately found guilty of the alleged wrongdoing ought to be forced to repay the Commonwealth for the outlay is certainly a notion worth discussion...

All of that said, there are still more than a few aspects of today's news that raise eyebrows. Not least among them is the magnitude of the legal resources deployed on the Treasurer's behalf. To say that the public ought properly to pay for a legal defense is not to say that the coffers should be thrown open to fund unlimited billable hours by attorneys who bill at rates at the top of the local market. The Globe reports:
Cahill, who oversees the lottery, decided on one week’s notice to give the legal work to two politically connected law firms: Mintz Levin, which has done millions of dollars of bond work for the treasurer’s office, and former attorney general Scott Harshbarger and his firm, Proskauer Rose LLP. Four lawyers at Proskauer Rose have represented Cahill, including Harshbarger, charging $500 an hour. [Lottery Director] Cavanagh has used a five-member legal team from Mintz Levin at $484 an hour.
Legal expenditures are no different, really, from any other outlay of public monies. Those deciding how and where to spend those monies ought to seek out the best possible bang for the Commonwealth's buck. In lean times like these, perhaps the local legal gold standard might have been passed by for a serviceable smaller firm with lower billables and more restrained staffing policies.

One would think that a guy who is running for Governor purportedly as a fiscal conservative would be especially sensitive to such issues. One might even think such an individual might make decide to forgo public funding for his defense, and perhaps pay for it out of his $3 million dollar campaign account. Then again, in two paragraphs the Globe effectively conveys the seriousness of the allegations leveled against the Treasurer:

The Globe reported last year that Cahill’s decision to give the contract to Scientific Games was made against advice of his senior staff that the company’s role be cut back. Scientific Games began payments of $3,000 and $4,000 a month to Kelly as part of lobbying to keep its state work, because of his close relationship with Cahill. The payments to Kelly were directed through Regan Communications, the politically influential public relations firm hired by the gaming firm.

While Cahill and the lottery pondered the contract, Kelly was pushing Scientific Games executives to donate to Cahill’s political committee, according to sources involved in the procurement process. The executives said they would not donate until after the contract was awarded. Three months after the award, the firm threw a fund-raising event in New York that raised $20,000 for Cahill.
Given the potential impact on his political ambitions, perhaps it is not so hard to understand how Cahill might have let self interest trump the public interest in picking out his publicly-funded legal brigade - and why he might anticipate needing every dollar of his campaign fund to pay for reputational disinfectant when all of this is over.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stimulus for lawyers?

Here's a fun one.

It was recently revealed on Beacon Hill that a private law firm hired by indicted former Speaker Sal DiMasi on his way out the door (to represent the Office of the Speaker in connection with the federal investigation of DiMasi) has racked up somewhere around $350,000 in legal bills - paid for by the taxpayer, through what seems to amount to yet another legislative slush fund. So over a quarter of a million dollars, purportedly to protect 'the institution' of the Speaker from the consequences of the corruption that 'the institution' and its members re-elevated to its highest leadership position just a month before his indictment. Good stuff.

But it gets much better.

This week, a small group of dissident Democratic legislators - a group that just happens to be comprised of folks who vocally supported the guy who ran unsuccessfully against current Speaker Bob DeLeo to replace DiMasi back in January - has brought legislative activity in the House to a standstill, deploying procedural tactics to halt action until their demand for an "audit" of those legal expenditures is conducted. And good for them, by the way, regardless of their motivations (though in fairness, bringing legislative activity in the Massachusetts House in December to a "halt" does not require much change in the ordinary pace of activity). DeLeo at first refused to respond to the rump group's demands.

Today, however, perhaps recognizing what a bad thing it is to have the DiMasi imbroglio brought again into the headlines, DeLeo relented... sort of. He's not going to allow an "audit." What he is going to do, according to the Globe, is "hire a private lawyer to review more than $350,000 in taxpayer-funded legal bills stemming from the federal investigation of his predecessor, Salvatore F. DiMasi."

So - just to be clear: to protect the Office of the Speaker from concerns about the legal bills incurred by a private law firm hired by Speaker DiMasi to protect the Office of the Speaker, Speaker DeLeo will hire a private law firm to investigate the first private law firm.

Is anyone willing to bet that sometime down the road we aren't going to see another Speaker hiring another private law firm to investigate the bills racked up by the DeLeo-selected private law firm to investigate the bills racked up by the DiMasi-selected private law firm?

Really, there's only one question left to be answered: is there stimulus funding available for all of this?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Listen to what I say... and don't look at what I do.

One of gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker's standard criticisms of Governor Deval Patrick is that in the midst of a deep recession, as the state has forced deep cuts at the local level and repeatedly raised taxes on consumers and businesses alike, the Governor has failed to take the baseline, common-sense step of implementing a hiring freeze at the state level. That criticism is hard to rebut, especially in light of the Governor's own rhetoric about all of the tough choices and deep cuts he has supposedly been making.

Now comes the Boston Herald, stepping through the window opened by that rhetoric to examine the state's hiring practices over the last year. The result is pretty damning. 1,300 new hires this year alone - really just the first 10 months of this year - for a total taxpayer outlay of $46 million.

The Patrick Administration's response to the Herald is as predictable as it is lame. "'The vast majority of new workers have been hired to backfill necessary or critical positions,' said Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez in a statement." He also noted that "the administration has since laid off 236 of the recent hires." Does that not paint a nice picture of what passes for sound fiscal crisis management in the Patrick Administration?

The "necessary or critical positions" trope is always the political response to questions about hiring. Happily, the Herald also provides a handy alphabetical list of each and every one of those 1300 hires, which includes scores (over 200, to be exact) of "necessary or critical" hires in the Department of Correction.

Patrick's infamous 'cynics,' among whose number I proudly count myself, might note that the Massachusetts Corrections Officers' Union was among candidate Patrick's most... er... aggressive supporters during his 2006 campaign. But certainly that has nothing to do with the sudden discovery of a "critical" need for mass hiring into that union's ranks, even as the rest of state government is pared back to deal with the financial crunch. Right? In any event, even a cursory look through the Herald's list quickly gives lie to the "necessary or critical" line. As the Herald notes, the list includes "a librarian for cons, a painter for hospitals and a 'game biologist,'" in addition to the aforementioned DOC army and dozens of apparent administrative hires across any number of agencies.

Whenever this sort of criticism of government arises, it is tempting to treat the "new hires" listed in the Herald's database as mere dollar figures on a page. In reality, of course, each of those 1300 hundred names represents an individual who, through no fault of his or her own, was hired by the Patrick Administration at a time when the mere fact of the hiring opens them up to public criticism. That (and the further indignity suffered by the unlucky 236 who were both hired and fired this year) is just one more unfortunate effect of the hiring practices of an Administration that tells voters it is managing tight fiscal resources carefully and responsibly, and then hopes that nobody takes time to look at the books.

As Michael Widmer, the Massachusetts press corps' favorite non-partisan budget watchdog said, "In the middle of this fiscal meltdown there should be a close scrutiny of new hires, and that doesn’t seem to be reflected here." That's putting it mildly.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Scott and Charlie on the tube

Both Senate candidate Scott Brown and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker sat down for statewide televised interviews in the last couple of days. Both are worth your time.

Scott was interviewed by WBZ TV - give it a watch at this link. Note in particular the anchor's very first comment: both Brown and his opponent, Martha Coakley, were invited to appear. Coakley declined. What a surprise.

Charlie appeared on WCVB TV's "On the Record" this weekend. View the interview here. As always, Charlie is refreshingly frank and forthright, providing detailed and substantive responses where others rely on buzz phrases and platitudes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nobody likes hubris

If there is a single, overriding lesson in the gross feeding frenzy following a recent late night car accident in Florida, it is that we as a society do not react well to ostentatious displays of hubris. Excessive self-confidence, indications that success is taken for granted and not appreciated - we do not like these things.

Martha Coakley ought to keep that in mind as she embarks upon what is shaping up as a month of campaign avoidance following her decisive win in the Democratic Senate special election primary on Tuesday. Her comments in the Globe this morning, and the campaign strategy that they reveal, ooze the sort of excessive confidence and false humility that can easily cross the line into self-destructive hubris. Comparing Coakley's immediate reaction to her primary win to that of Scott Brown, the Republican victor, the Globe observes,

Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, signaled he would go after the attorney general with everything he had. She indicated she would do all she could to ignore him.

He kicked off his six-week push with a press conference and then immediately traveled to a Holyoke factory and Soldiers’ Home to launch a “Jobs are Job One’’ tour.

Coakley, after a press event with her vanquished primary rivals, retired to her campaign headquarters in Charlestown, seeing no need to hit the trail on her first day as the Democratic nominee.

Brown made much of signing a pledge not to raise taxes. Coakley, in a reflection of their divergent political views, laughed it off as a gimmick.

Asked to draw a distinction between herself and her opponent, Coakley replied, "I’m going run my campaign based upon what I’m doing... That’s really a question for Scott." She treated a question about Brown's pledge not to vote to raise taxes as beneath her dignity as the Democratic nominee, sniffing "I'm just not going to respond to that." Why not? In the midst of a massive recession, with her potential future colleagues just this morning announcing a plan to pile unfathomable amounts of additional debt on current and future taxpayers, why should the heir apparent to Ted Kennedy refuse to respond to a question about taxation? Hubris.

Brown immediately accepted two invitations to debates hosted by national media outlets. Coakley, who skipped several primary debates attended by her opponents, said she "looks forward" to debating, but declined to commit. Hubris.

Martha Coakley thinks that having cleared the Democratic primary hurdle, she is 99.9 percent of the way to a long-coveted Senate seat. More, her experience in that very primary campaign underscored her preexisting conviction that the best way to campaign as a Democrat in Massachusetts is to issue empty proclamations heavily salted with buzz phrases and references to carefully selected groups, avoid debate where possible, and refuse to actively engage with opponents. As the Globe notes, she intends to ignore Brown, the guy whose name will be sitting on the ballot opposite hers next month.

It is understandable that this strategy worked in the Democratic primary. Roughly 15 percent of eligible voters participated. Coakley garnered approximately half of those. Presumably, the relatively miniscule percentage of eligible voters who gave Coakley her victory come from the shrinking group of Massachusetts voters still in thrall to the ephemeral politics of "Hope," "Change" and "Yes We Can!" You know, the steadfast Democrats who still tell pollsters they approve of our wildly unpopular governor.

Most Massachusetts voters, though, have gradually turned from "Yes We Can!" to "Maybe We Can't Afford To Right Now." Those voters are looking at what is happening at both the state and the national levels, where Democrats currently control everything, and finding a new appreciation for the benefits of balanced government.

Coakley ran a campaign dominated by generic sops to the left wing of her party. Here in Massachusetts, though, commonly thought to be the bluest of blue states, it remains the case that unenrolled voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined. Scott Brown's message of fiscal responsibility could resonate with those increasingly worried voters. Especially if Coakley's hubris puts them off of her personally.

Speaking of Massachusetts Democratic hubris, State Rep. William Lantigua, recently elected Mayor of Lawrence following a noxious campaign based almost exclusively on ethnic divisions, announced this week that he intends to serve out his term in the House - and collect both a state and a municipal salary while doing so. This while Lawrence is in such bad fiscal shape that it has come begging to Beacon Hill for a state bailout.

Hubris.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don't forget to vote TODAY

I am traveling this week, so Friday I dropped by Town Hall and cast my absentee ballot for Scott Brown in today's GOP primary, the precursor to next month's special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat in Washington.

For all sorts of reasons, turnout is likely to be very low - especially on the Republican side. The fact that conventional wisdom gives the Kennedy seat ultimately to another Democrat, leaving the Republican candidate as little more than an after-thought, is not least among those reasons. Even those who think, as I do, that in today's volatile political climate Brown could well attract a lot more voters than the cognoscenti expect, assume that Brown will handily beat perennial oddball candidate Jack E. Robinson among whatever small number of Republican voters participate.

None of that makes it any less important to get out and vote. For one thing, I believe strongly in the maxim: if you don't vote, you can't complain. As someone who complains on almost a daily basis, I'm pretty well obligated to vote. If you bother to read my complaints, you likely fall in the same category.

More importantly, if Scott Brown is to have any chance of turning conventional wisdom on its head next month, he is going to need a great deal of momentum. That momentum will not come from huge pots of money. It will not come from multi-million dollar ad campaigns by the unions (my wife is a registered Democrat, which means our voice mail is filled these days with robo-calls paid for by dueling unions squared off in favor of either Martha Coakley or Mike Capuano. President Clinton (robo) called us this morning! Imagine the thrill.). It has to come from the voters. Vote today, and you're that much more likely to vote in January, when it really counts.

Of course it is not enough to say "vote because you oughta." Scott Brown deserves your vote. He's worked for it. More, he has worked for years to encourage other Republicans to run for office, and to help them substantively once they were on the ballot. Scott is correct when he says, in his comparatively rare ads, that he will bring a different voice to Washington; one that is not aligned with the leadership that is currently crafting new entitlements like there is no tomorrow, and spending us into debt that dwarfs anything this country has seen before. We in Massachusetts know first-hand what happens to the notion of fiscal responsibility when liberal Democrats control all levers of government. It disappears. Simple as that. Whoever sits on the ballot opposite Scott next month will be yet another vote for continuing down the ruinous path we are on.

Scott Brown deserves your vote. Make sure you get out and give it to him. And bring a friend.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Baker way out in front in the dollars primary

The "dollars primary." That's how pols refer to the competition that goes on behind the scenes of a contested race to convince donors that one candidate is more worthy of support than are his opponents. Each month, the candidates for governor here in the Commonwealth are obliged to file their fund-raising results, and so each month affords the public a snapshot of the current "dollars primary."

Today's Globe coverage shows that Republican candidate Charlie Baker is running far ahead of his competition on the Republican side, and is significantly outpacing the rest of the field as well. Under the headline, "Candidate Baker got $516,123 last month," the Globe reports:
Baker’s campaign raised $516,123 during the month, significantly more than any other candidate. Baker, a former health care executive, has raised more than $1.5 million this year from more than 5,000 donors.
By "significantly more than any other candidate," the Globe meant significantly more. Baker's opponent in the Republican primary, Christy Mihos, $55,935 in November - and $20,000 of that came from a single donor... named Christy Mihos.

The Globe notes that Treasurer Tim Cahill "has by far the most money in the bank overall, about $3 million." That is true. It is also true, however, that Cahill raised the vast majority of that sum while he was still Treasurer Tim Cahill, member in good standing of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and beneficiary of its vast fundraising network. Now that he's Treasurer Tim Cahill, maverick Unenrolled voter and Deval Patrick critic? Well, the Globe reports that as of November 15 he'd raised $23,040. Assume we can double that for the month, and he raised roughly tenth of what Baker raised. That result is consistent with the previous months since both have been in the race.

Finally, according to the Globe governor Patrick reported just shy of $140K for November.

It is certainly true that money is not everything, and the dollars primary can be misleading. There have been plenty of well-funded candidates who flopped on Election Day - though one must be careful to separate the well-funded self-funders when evaluating that group, as clearly the ability to write large checks to oneself is not an indication of popularity beyond the grinning supporter in the mirror. Fundraising results like Baker's, though, comprised of contributions from more than 5,000 individual donors - in an 'out year' to boot - cannot be read as anything but a positive indicator for his campaign. And the results are garnering him some early national attention as well.