Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beacon Hill self-parody

In a post yesterday on the dueling probation investigations soon to redundantly besiege Beacon Hill, I mentioned in passing a State House News report on the failure of a two-year-old legislative "job creation" commission to hold a single meeting - or even to establish its membership.  On reflection, that report merits lengthier treatment.  Because it's almost Onion funny.

Let's start from the beginning:
A jobs commission ordered almost two years ago by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature to find ways to create and maintain jobs in Massachusetts has never met, causing some to view the panel as a missed opportunity during a period of high unemployment.

In interviews, stakeholders said it had taken them two years to name commission members and said they hoped to meet for the first time in January, more than 18 months after their initial reporting date. But loose ends remain. For instance, those involved in the panel could not provide a full list of its members.
The members who could be identified seem to agree on two things: (1) job creation ought to be a "priority"; and (2) it's awfully dag-gummed hard to appoint a commission in this town.
An aide to commission co-chair Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) said the lawmakers in October extended the group's reporting deadline until June 2012, or three years after the commission's initial reporting date. Sarah Blodgett, chief of staff to Spilka, said the group was delayed because it took a long time to appoint all the commission members.

Co-chair Rep. John Scibak (D-South Hadley) did not return repeated phone calls...
Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge), one of the original sponsors of the jobs commission legislation, also said it was a lengthy appointment process. It was only recently that all 17 members were chosen, she said.

"I think it is very timely, even though it took a long time to get it passed, and a long time to meet," Wolf said. "I think the purpose of it is to look at what the state can do to support jobs creation." ...
Another commission member, Aaron Tanaka, the executive director of Boston Workers' Alliance, said he feels not meeting yet was a "missed opportunity."

"I think it is a great opportunity to come up with new strategies for bringing jobs to Massachusetts," said Tanaka, who works with more than 700 unemployed people in Boston. "Obviously that should be at the top of everybody's priorities."
Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor of economics and public policy at Northeastern University appointed to the commission by the governor, said he was disappointed the commission has not met yet.

"This is not an easy task," Clayton-Matthews said. "It is just not easy to turn an economic ship around. Any policy recommendations we come up with are really going to have a long-term impact and not be felt immediately."
Well, one thing is for sure:  nothing this group does is going to have an impact anywhere close to "immediately."  Honestly, you'd think these folks were planning a moon shot, not working out appointment of a dozen or so pols and hangers-on for an hour long chat over sour coffee and stale bagels.

Perhaps the group's collective reticence can be explained by the breadth of its charge.  The commission was initially created, way back in December 2008, "for the purpose of making an investigation and study relative to the economy in order to create and maintain quality jobs in the commonwealth."

Riiiiight.  Because all that is needed to bring down the Commonwealth's sky-high unemployment rate are a few brainstorming sessions by a handful of state legislators tapped by Deval Patrick, Therese Murray and Bob DeLeo.  If only the media had noticed this half-anonymous brain trust's failure to meet sooner, the tail end of the decade might have been salvaged.

Sarcasm aside, this truly is a perfect example of how commissions (and panels, and task forces) substitute for action in state government.  In December 2008 the state had just tumbled off an economic cliff.  "Job creation" was the newly-minted buzz-phrase of the day, as government at all levels scrambled to "create jobs" to bring down the soaring unemployment rate and stabilize the wider economy.  Lacking (by no fault of their own, by the way) the ability to actually achieve those goals, the state's leaders felt compelled to at least make a show of doing something.  And so, flipping to page one, chapter one of State Government for Dummies (titled "Do Something - Anything") Patrick, Murray and DeLeo did what pols in such a situation always do.  They appointed a commission.

This approach works for politicians on three levels: (1) it takes the pressure off of them; (2) it gives the media something to write about; and (3) it allows politically significant supporters and constituencies to get in the newspaper and feel important.

Except benefit number three does not really work when the assigned task is impossible to achieve - or even to faux achieve.  Think of it this way: if  you were appointed to a commission "for the purpose of making an investigation and study relative to porcine aerodynamics in order to breed a flying pig," would you be in a big yank to convene the first meeting?  I wouldn't.

Think I'm being unfair?  Overly cynical?  Give a listen to the audio link a few paragraphs down in the WBZ story linked here.  Two years on (and - worse - a day after the story about the neglected commission initially broke) Governor Patrick not only has no idea who he appointed to serve on the commission - he does not even remember the commission that he created exists.

Look, the notion that this or any other legislative commission was going to sit down for a pow-wow back in 2009 and come up with ways to "create jobs" in Massachusetts in the depths of a severe recession was fantasy.  The notion that it will do so prior to its new reporting date in 2012 is too - but by then the recession is likely to have run its course anyhow, and employment levels will be recovering on their own.

At that point look for the members of this commission - and its creators - to declare the endeavor a resounding success.

UPDATE 12/10: And the story keeps getting better...

1 comment:

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