Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Morning Miscellany

Charlie's got the mo'. That's the only conclusion to be drawn from the latest Suffolk University-7 News poll on the gubernatorial race, as reported in the Herald, and on whdh.com. Channel 7's inimitable Andy Hiller sums it up:

Deval Patrick is holding on... Charlie Baker is coming on... Christy Mihos is barely on... and Tim Cahill needs to turn it on.

The biggest winner in our poll is Republican Charlie Baker.

He now seems set to cruise by Christy Mihos in the GOP primary..(47% to 17%) and is showing the most growth of any of the gubernatorial candidates.

Governor Patrick has mo' too... just in the wrong direction. The Herald disagrees with Hiller's conclusion that Governor Patrick is "holding on," reporting

Meanwhile, there are ominous signs for Patrick. Only 29 percent of likely voters said they thought the governor deserved re-election, compared to 60 percent who wanted to give “someone else” a chance. Equally grim for Patrick is a job approval rating of just 35 percent, and 68 percent who view him as a “weak leader.”

Using the sour economy as an excuse won’t fly with voters, the survey shows. Only 22 percent agreed that Patrick is a “victim of the bad economy.”

29 percent "deserves re-election" is a rough number three months into an election year. Perhaps the worst news for Patrick lies in that second bit, though - the result showing only 22 percent of voters will let him get away with his preferred mode of 'leadership' (finger-pointing).

Looks like that Superbowl ad didn't do much for Tim Cahill. The Treasurer got some exposure earlier in the month when he made much of a Superbowl ad buy. No, he didn't spend millions - broadcasters reserve a slot for cut-rate local market ads, and Cahill snatched it up. The ad was intended to convince voters that the decade-long Beacon Hill Democratic fixture has transmogrified into a genuine "independent." This is a tough sell for Cahill, first because of his history as a statewide office holder, and second because of the long and very public evaluation of his chances in a Democratic primary that immediately predated his change of registration. Voters who are paying attention aren't so easy to fool. They can tell the difference between opportunism and ideology. In any event, the Suffolk poll shows the voters aren't buying what Treasurer Tim is selling, as noted by the Herald in a separate article titled "Analyst says Timothy Cahill's suffering from 'lack of definition':

State Treasurer Timothy Cahill may have made a grand exit from the Democratic Party, but that bold move has done little to boost his independent street cred.

A new Suffolk University/7News poll shows only 26 percent of likely voters view Cahill as a “true independent.” That compares to 47 percent who view him as a “true Democrat,” and 26 percent who were undecided.

Being viewed as a "true Democrat" is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a statewide candidate here in Massachusetts. This year, though, being viewed as a Beacon Hill Democrat is probably something to be avoided. Hence, Cahill's continuing effort to flee his true identity.

Meanwhile, Christy is... still running. In the November Suffolk poll, the mercurial Christy Mihos held a small lead over Charlie Baker among Republican primary voters. A few months later, without having run a single ad, Baker has surged past Christy to a 47-17 lead among those same voters. In a question asking Scott Brown's voters their preference for Governor, Mihos didn't even register (43% said Baker, 28% Tim Cahill, 11% Patrick, 2% Jill Stein of the Green Party, and 16% are undecided, as reported by Andy Hiller). Ouch.

Ironically, in a month that has seen his campaign bounce a $20,000 check and lose his celebrity consultant and top fund raising draw, the news that there are still 17% of Republican primary voters willing to support him might well be the best news Christy has heard in weeks.

UPDATE (2/27): Mihos's spiral accelerates.

The exodus continues. The Globe gives front page space this morning to the accelerating phenomenon of state legislators making the decision to leave office rather than face the voters this year. Yet another day of front page treatment for the Beacon Hill Democrats' long series of embarrassing scandals:
Republicans are expected to seize on ethics scandals that have forced several Democrats out of the Legislature in recent years. Former senator Dianne Wilkerson is awaiting a federal trial on charges that she took bribes, and former senator James Marzilli stepped down after being accused of accosting several women. Salvatore F. DiMasi, the former House speaker, was indicted in a federal corruption probe after his resignation in January 2009, just three weeks after his Democratic colleagues reelected him speaker during an ethics scandal.
DiMasi is accused of taking money from a software firm he helped to win a state contract. Republicans were thrilled at news yesterday that DiMasi’s trial is expected to begin in September, during the campaign.
“Any incumbent who voted for Sal DiMasi has a target on their back,’’ said Jason Kauppi, a Republican consultant. “Scandal was everywhere around him. They still voted for this guy. Someone has to take responsibility for condoning the culture of corruption.’’
Well said. And as the Herald noted earlier this week, the DiMasi scandal is likely to continue to burn its way through the Beacon Hill Democrats all year, as his trial approaches and a long line of party luminaries are summoned to testify. A lot of legislators will have cause to deeply regret their sheep-like votes to reelect DiMasi as Speaker back in January - especially the freshmen who had the dubious honor of making that vote their first.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

They still don't get it

According to the Herald earlier this week, "House Speaker Robert DeLeo said a bill to legalize expanded gaming will be released in the next few weeks, and said he expects a vote before the House budget is debated in March."

Okay... now take a look at a calendar. It is February 25. In four days, it will be March. If a casino bill is to be "released in the next few weeks" AND the Speaker "expects a vote before the House budget is debated in March," then you can be sure Mr. Speaker is not planning on much of a debate prior to that vote. Nor much time for an extremely interested public to internalize the proposal and provide feedback to the legislature prior to the vote.


By any measure, the proposition of expanding legal gambling in the Commonwealth - whether by way of "slots parlors," "slots at the tracks," or full blown "destination resort casinos - is a very big deal. Should the state legislature decide to go that route the Governor will almost certainly go along, having blown a whole lot of political capital already in a failed attempt to legalize casino gaming earlier in his administration.

Successful passage of a 'casino bill' this year will significantly change the budget calculus, allowing spendthrift legislators to plan for unknown and unknowable millions in additional state revenues, pushing off necessary spending cuts for another year. It will touch off fierce battles at the local level across the state, as developers who have been eying potential casino sites swoop in with bulging wallets and defenders of a more serene way of life mount the barricades against their efforts. Ultimately, development of one or more casinos in this state will change the 'character' of at least the area(s) in which they are built, and possibly of the state as a whole.

I've explained my thoughts on expanded gaming at length - here, here, here, here, here, and here. I think casinos, 'racinos' or slot parlors are a lousy proposition for the Commonwealth, not so much because of moral objections (I have them, but they are personal) as out of a deep certainty that placing a bet on gaming to pull the state out of its economic doldrums will end the same way as most nights at the casino end - in bitter disappointment and even deeper debt. But those objections (set forth at greater length than I'd realized at the links above) are not my point here.

Opinions vary on gaming in this state. It's a debate worth having. Unfortunately, comments this week by House Speaker Bob DeLeo - the man commonly understood to hold the future of gaming in Massachusetts in his hands - strongly suggest that this extremely important issue will be "debated" in the legislature in the same perfunctory, outcome-determined way that every other issue of any moment is "debated" in our legislature.

At this point, the Speaker won't even provide the broad outlines of the gaming bill that all the world knows is being drafted in secret, behind the closed doors of his office. Is it slots at the tracks? Maybe. Full blown casinos? Maybe. If so, how many? Nobody knows.

And nobody will know until Mr. Speaker deigns to release his bill to his members. Even that will likely happen in closed caucus to give the Speaker and his cronies plenty of opportunity to firmly twist the arms of the healthy majority of those members who (responding to similar arm-twisting by now-indicted former Speaker Sal DiMasi) voted against expanded gaming the last time around. The arms will be twisted, the votes secured, and only then will the bill be released and voted on - as quickly as possible. Leadership will even have the gall to cite the pending budget bill as the reason for the rushed process. Wait and see if I'm not right.

All of this just goes to show that despite the klaxon wake-up call delivered to Beacon Hill's sclerotic ruling class just a month ago, the Democratic leadership still doesn't get it. This heavy handed, government behind closed doors nonsense fuels a lot of the voter anger that put Scott Brown in Ted Kennedy's old office, put Deval Patrick's poll numbers in the cellar, and has a steady stream of long-time Democratic pols heading for the exits rather than face an angry electorate in November.

Yet DeLeo and his crew soldier on. Business as usual.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Fair and reasonable"... but that's not the point

Let's re-cap what has become a stale story:

In January 2009, Sal DiMasi, the recently (overwhelmingly) re-elected Speaker of the Massachusetts House resigned in the face of an escalating federal investigation into allegations of fraudulent activity. He was the third Democratic House Speaker in a row to end his tenure in such fashion here in the Commonwealth.

In June, the former Speaker was indicted.

In October, he was indicted yet again, on additional charges.

In December 2009, a related brouhaha erupted on Beacon Hill with the revelation that in the midst of a deep recession, the House had spent nearly $400,000 on a private law firm to represent the interests of the Office of the Speaker in connection with the DiMasi investigation.

From multiple fronts (including, in fairness, from a tiny minority within the House Democratic caucus) came calls for full disclosure of the legal bills that added up to that surprising total. New House Speaker Bob DeLeo steadfastly resisted those calls. He ultimately tried (unsuccessfully) to placate his critics by appointing a hand-picked attorney (yet another one!) to review the bills in question and render judgment as to their reasonableness. That review was to include no public disclosure of the contents of the bills in question.

End of re-cap. I'm sure you've been waiting with bated breath for the news reported - finally! - today on Boston.com (and elsewhere). The Speaker's hand-picked attorney has rendered his judgment, and all is well. Review finds House legal bills were reasonable in DiMasi investigation, reads the Boston.com headline. Long exhale.

Except... the question was never really whether Gargiulo Rudnick, the firm blessed with the House's largess, had over-billed the Commonwealth. Not really. The question everyone wanted to get at back in December, the question Speaker DeLeo stiff-armed by appointing yet another lawyer to conduct a review of the first lawyers, was: what, exactly, were the interests of the Office of the Speaker that needed protecting in the DiMasi investigation?

We've been repeatedly assured that Sal DiMasi's sins were individual ones; that his departure cleansed the House of its latest infection. But those lawyers racked up $400K in bills dealing with something, presumably something pretty significant. What? Disclosure of the bills and the narratives usually included with such bills would have answered that question. The report issued today does not.

Well, to be totally fair it does answer that question partially. And it provides some intriguing new information. Here's the partial answer: those lawyers reviewed a lot of documents. A lot lot. As in (from page 8 of the 15 page report), "approximately 1,080,000 documents, including emails, spreadsheets, PDFs, Word documents and paper documents." That's a lot of trees!

But wait, there's more. "A total of 58 computers, two (2) servers, and one year of backup tapes were analyzed for responsive [to federal subpoenas] materials as well as 94 locations for paper documents." I don't envy those lawyers one bit.

And here's the intriguing new information: While Gargiulo Rudnick was initially retained in January 2009 to coordinate the House's response to multiple subpoenas issued to the Office of the Speaker, it wasn't until April 16, three months later, when "Federal investigators served an additional grand jury subpoena... upon the Keeper of the Records, House Ways and Means Committee." (page 6 of the report). So a quarter of a year into its investigation, the US Attorney's office determined that it needed to expand the DiMasi investigation to the House Ways and Means Committee. The Ways and Means Committee, as you probably know, is one of the most powerful bodies on the Hill, responsible for formulating the House's version of the annual budget, among other things.

Under Speaker Sal DiMasi, the House Ways and Means Committee was chaired by... now-Speaker Bob DeLeo.

I'll digress now, as I nearly always do whenever I type something that might arguably cast an implied aspersion on the current Speaker, to note that he's never been accused (so far as I know) of being corrupt and - more importantly to me - we have a mutual trusted friend who assures me that he is a straight arrow. So despite the weighty ellipsis in the paragraph above, I'm not trying to imply anything about the current Speaker beyond this: his reasons for wanting to avoid public disclosure of the legal bills detailing the work performed by private lawyers to protect the interests of not only the Office of the Speaker, but also of the powerful committee that he chaired during the time period under investigation, are fairly obvious.

Obvious too is the simple fact that today's report (cost to the taxpayer, $13,000 - or $866.67 per double-spaced page) does little to answer the very legitimate question asked in December and still pending today: nearly $400K in legal bills paid by the taxpayers of Massachusetts... for what?

We'll find out eventually.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Too controversial"

Ask any elected municipal official for the single largest cost burden weighing on his or her town's finances, and the chances are good that municipal health care premiums will be the answer you get. Municipal health plans are dictated by the state, in a all-too-typical 'one size doesn't fit all' arrangement that imposes huge and avoidable costs at the local level.

That's why the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), the state's primary political advocacy arm for city and town officials, has been pushing for a change in the law to allow municipalities to design their own employee health benefit plans, tailoring them to fit differing local needs and saving - according to the MMA - approximately $100 million each year.

On Beacon Hill, the House Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government has been hard at work cobbling together what it calls the "Municipal Relief Act." Since the MMA has identified plan design as the next best way (besides an increase in local aid than nobody sees in the cards) to bring relief to our 351 cities and towns, one would think that 'plan design' would be a part of that package. You know, so that it could go to the floor and be debated on its merits, and then voted up or down by our elected representatives - many of whom spend a great deal of oxygen and ink pledging to do whatever they can to help the cities and towns they represent. Wrong. Here's the State House News this afternoon:
Lawmakers are poised to vote on a plan Tuesday aimed at prodding municipal government to streamline services and save money, a proposal that also boosts auto inspection fees and does not address what municipal leaders have described as their biggest cost driver: rising municipal health care premiums.

Empowering city and town leaders to redesign health plans for their workers, which advocates for municipalities say could save $100 million statewide, was “too controversial” to include in the wide-ranging proposal, according to its lead sponsor, Rep. Paul Donato, co-chair of the Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.
Get that? "Too controversial." And why, you ask, is a proposal to allow local officials to save money by designing their own health insurance plans "too controversial" even to include in a "wide-ranging proposal"? As usual in these situations, the answer is simple: the unions don't like it. Again from the SHNS:
But employee unions have countered that empowering municipal leaders to make unilateral changes to health plans would cut workers out of the bargaining process and could result in unaffordable premiums and cost-sharing.
Okay... but that sounds an awful lot like the sort of argument that might be made on the floor, to be set and considered against the many arguments in favor of plan design that would doubtless be presented by the MMA and others. You know, in a debate. Like they have in democratic systems of government in other places like, I dunno, North Carolina and Nebraska.

But as we all know, it is an election year. And in an election year, proposals that might rankle the powerful union bosses cannot be suffered to see the light of day, lest the "debate" take a populist turn and our representatives be forced to either buck the bosses or defy the will of the voters who will soon have their biannual opportunity to pass judgment on the representation they are getting. Much better to stifle the proposal in committee.

Instead, the package that will be released this week for consideration by the House contains - wait for it! - a 20 percent increase in auto inspection fees that will hit the Commonwealth's drivers for a cool $27 million this year.

Yet another example of a reform opportunity deliberately bypassed in favor of yet another dip into our wallets.

"Too controversial," my tuckus.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

There goes another one

From the Globe: St. Fleur won't seek reelection to House.
State Representative Marie St. Fleur will not seek reelection to the seat she has held since 1999, a statement from her office yesterday said. St. Fleur, a Democrat who represents parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, did not give a reason for her decision.
You remember Rep. St. Fleur. She ran the shortest-lived campaign for Lieutenant Governor in Commonwealth history when she was tapped in 2006 to team up with then-AG Tom Reilly, apparently before Reilly's campaign ran a background check. 24 hours of news stories about St. Fleur's well known financial, um, "issues," and she was dropped from the ticket.

St. Fleur represents one of the safest of Massachusetts' many safe D districts, so it's hard to attribute her decision this year to bail out to the Scott Brown effect. But we can add her to the growing list of Beacon Hill fixtures deciding this year to move along anyhow. This is nothing but good news.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cahill's Catch-22

The Globe this morning runs a front page article titled "Patrick challengers offer ideas to close budget gap." The sub-title reads: "But Cahill demurs on detailing a plan." That sounds familiar for some reason...

Three paragraphs in comes this jaw-dropper:
And state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, although he promises to cut spending on health care, education, and local aid, says he cannot offer more details about his plans until he is elected governor. “I don’t have enough insight into the budget, especially particular areas where money is being wasted, until I get in there,’’ he said.
Just to clarify for those who might be joining late, Tim Cahill is the Massachusetts State Treasurer. He's been the Treasurer for the past eight years. The first paragraph of his official bio says he "manages the state finances...". A year-old, pre-gubernatorial-campaign version of that bio went further, calling him "the Commonwealth's Chief Financial Officer."

One might reasonably ask how he's possibly fulfilled that important CFO role for most of the past decade, while lacking "enough insight into the budget" to identify potential spending reductions.

But in truth, Treasurer Cahill's demurral to the Globe's invitation to "come up with five ways [he]would close the more than $2 billion budget gap the state is facing next year" is not an answer so much as implied recognition of the Catch-22 that he has walked into at this early stage of the campaign.

Earlier this month at a state AFL-CIO conference, Cahill reassured his long-time union allies that if elected he will keep his hands off of the current public pension system. That public pension system is, by any honest account, a huge part of the cause of the state's current fiscal problems - both at the state and local levels. A couple of weeks later, Cahill performed a tax-cut about-face and announced a proposal to cut state taxes across the board.

These two bold statements: "leave the pension system alone" and "tax cuts across the board" are intended to woo two very different groups of potential supporters. The first is obviously meant to retain and shore up the support of organized labor, a crucial part of the political machine that he spent years building as a Beacon Hill Democrat, before his politically-induced conversion to "independence" late last year. The second, just as obviously, represents an attempt to poach the state's resurgent fiscally conservative faction (Republicans, Unenrolleds and Democrats alike) from Charlie Baker, the obvious and natural choice for such voters.

The problem for Cahill is that there is no way to connect up his two bold statements. There is no way to square that circle. You can't get there from here, as they say. Some significant reform of the state's public pension system, such as proposed by Charlie Baker, is a sine qua non for getting the state's budget back in order - and for implementation of any significant tax cuts. Left as it is, as Cahill proposes to do, the public pension system will continue to consume an increasing share of state and local budgets, edging out other spending and forcing never-ending tax increases just to keep pace with current obligations.

Treasurer Cahill certainly knows enough about the budget to know this, his utterly incredible profession of ignorance in today's Globe notwithstanding. It's a Catch-22 of Cahill's own making. To wriggle out of it he will eventually have to retract - or at least significantly revise - one of this month's bold statements. It will be interesting to see which he chooses.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"It's as simple as that."

Long-time Democratic state house fixture Senator Joan Menard announced earlier this month that she is joining the incumbent voluntary retirement party on Beacon Hill, and will decline to seek reelection this year after three decades in the legislature (21 in the House, 12 in the Senate).

Explaining her decision today to the State House News Service, the outgoing Senator said, "I decided I didn't want to campaign again... I just decided I didn't want to do it again. It's as simple as that."

Maybe it is, but looking over election records for the past few cycles (back through 2002, which is as far as the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website will take me), I cannot help but wonder if there is a very particular kind of "campaign" that Senator Menard decided she "didn't want to do." Specifically, a contested one. It seems Menard has not had a real campaign in nearly a decade. I have no idea if she was challenged with any regularity in the two decades before that, but the demographics of her district and the Massachusetts Republican Party's long, unfortunate history of leaving the vast majority of legislative incumbents unopposed for cycle after cycle both suggest that Senator Menard may have long ago forgotten what it is to work for her office.

This time, she was going to have a primary and (if she made it through that) a general election challenger, in a year when anti-incumbent sentiment is running very, very high. It's a good bet that when she told the SHNS today that she "didn't want to campaign again," she meant exactly that. She doesn't want to campaign. There is a difference between "running," as in unopposed, and "campaigning," as in 'knocking on doors eating rubber chicken 3 meals a day seven days a week debating fund raising and putting every available moment for several months into convincing angry voters to give you another go.' Those are very different things.

Of course, with three decades in the legislature and a career as a municipal official and then as schoolteacher before that, it is entirely possible that this particular Senator just happened to hit retirement in an anti-incumbent year. She also told the News Service, "You really don't want to stay too long. You want to leave at the top of your game." Which begs two related questions: (1) 32 years!! What would have been "too long?" And (2) why did it take the Senator three decades to get to the top of her game?

More likely, Senator Menard's calculus was exactly as it appears to have been: she's had a good ride, and she just doesn't have a contested race in her. She is hardly alone in performing that calculus, as a growing number of her colleagues in Massachusetts and in Congress come to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, my Facebook feed overfloweth with invitations to Republican campaign kick-offs. There will be more. Additional incumbents will decide to follow Senator Menard out the door rather than face a credible challenger in November. Others will choose to fight, and some of those will lose. Still others will continue to believe - as they have been conditioned by experience to believe - that so long as their name appears on the ballot, the voters will put them back in office for as long as they wish to serve.

This blinkered outlook was expressed nicely today (again to the State House News) by Representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst). Asked to assess her party's prospects in November in light of increasing anti-incumbent sentiment and voter frustration, Rep. Story was sanguine. "I can't think of a single rep who is going to lose their seat." Of course, Rep. Story represents Amherst, sometimes known as "Cambridge West," so she can be forgiven her political bubble dwelling. Back here in the real world, Rep. Story's colleagues are all too aware of the fact that many of them will have a capable challenger in November, some of them for the first time in their (often long) legislative careers. Some of them will not want - or will not be able - to handle the challenge.

As Senator Menard said, "It's as simple as that."

Update 2/18/10: Another one. From the State House News:
Rep. Bill Greene (D-Billerica), in his ninth-term, has no plans to run for a tenth, he told the News Service Thursday. Greene, who joined a handful of Democrats recently to criticize House Speaker Robert DeLeo's leadership, said he intends to retire once his term expires. "I'm old enough," he said with a smile as he walked toward his fourth floor office. The news was first reported earlier this week by Greene's local paper.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday lunchtime miscellany

A needed reset? Looking out my window at the virtual white-out created by the very considerable amount of snow coming down, I cannot help but note that at this time last week, the internet, television and radio were all abuzz with dire predictions about the next day's apocalyptic storm. Many schools had already preemptively canceled classes for the next day. The Governor was soberly discussing storm preparations. States of emergency had been declared. Today, with snow coming down at mid-day at pretty much the clip that was predicted, incorrectly as it turned out, for last Wednesday... there's nothing. Boston.com's home page as I type has barely a mention of the weather. This is it. My wife tells me that on the streets near our home, cars are sliding off the road. And yet, so far as I know, state workers (essential and... otherwise) are still at work, with no mention of sending them home early. There was much lamentation last week, post Chicken Little-o-rama, of our lost Yankee fortitude; much self-flagellation by meteorologists and public officials alike over their shared responsibility for whipping up costly public panic over what - even if it had panned out as predicted - would have amounted to nothing more than a run-of-the-mill February snowstorm in New England. I realize this is school vacation week, and so the muted public reaction to today's weather could have something to do with the fact that most kids are not in school anyhow. But I would like to think that our deserved collective embarrassment over last week's ridiculousness caused a good, firm push on our societal reset button. Every snowfall need not conjure the Blizzard of '78. That Boston.com article I linked above contains this little nugget from a National Weather Service meteorologist:
“If temperatures get colder, it may be a little more problematic,” he said of road conditions for this evening's commute. “But as long as people use some common sense, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
True today, true last week. Here's hoping we remember next week.

The checks and balances of Charlie Baker. On the off chance that you are not a daily reader of the Lowell Sun and you missed the excellent political column by Peter Lucas a few days back, read on. It makes the case for electing Charlie Baker Governor in November about as well as anything I've seen. Here are the highlights:

Simpler and smaller.

That's the way Republican Charlie Baker sees state government.

Hardly were these words out of his mouth than Gov. Deval Patrick and his new friend, Senate President Therese Murray, who once said the governor was "irrelevant," teamed up to propose a streamlining of state agencies to help small businesses create jobs and stimulate economic development.

"I'm thrilled to see this come about," Baker said. "It confirms what I've been saying all along. We've got to cut the size of government, period. We are spending at an unsustainable rate. We've got to make government simpler and smaller."...

Prior to working in the health-care industry, Baker served as secretary of Administration and Finance in the administrations of Republican Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci. In that capacity, Baker put together more state budgets than the incumbent governor has. With state Sen. Richard Tisei as his running mate, the pair bring to the campaign more political and business experience than the rest of the field of candidates for governor and lieutenant governor combined...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Problem is, the flip is only the first part

Treasurer Tim Cahill is getting some press attention this morning for his plan(ish) to cut state taxes across-the-board. Some of those articles are accurately pointing out that a mere two weeks ago, Cahill unequivocally expressed opposition to an income tax cut. Here's the Associated Press (via MassLive.com):
Yet the policy reversed Cahill’s comments two weeks ago, when Republican Charles D. Baker announced his own gubernatorial campaign. At the time, the treasurer said he favored cutting corporate taxes, but not the income tax rate.

Cahill said then an income tax cut would not “put people back to work.”

He also told the State House News Service: “I don’t think it’s necessary at this point.”

Baker’s campaign manager, Lenny Alcivar, pounced on the change.

“Will the real Tim Cahill please stand up?” Alcivar asked in a statement. He noted that three years ago, Cahill praised Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s “courageous” stand against cutting the income tax rate.
To his credit, Cahill did not try to weasel out of the obvious (and quick!) change in position, as many other politicians would. He did not try to explain how "I do not think it is necessary" really meant "we've got to do it now!" He just owned up to the "flip". Again from the AP:
“If I’m going to flip, I’m going to flip in favor of cutting taxes,” the independent candidate told The Associated Press in an interview...

In his interview with the AP, Cahill said he changed his position as he developed his recovery plan. He said he concluded many small businessmen pay their taxes through the income tax rate, so a cut would leave them with more money to hire workers.

“The more research we did, we realized cutting corporate taxes was not enough. If you want to spur job creation, you have to do it at the small-business level,” he said.
That's good as far as it goes. The more statewide candidates are out there spending time and money clamoring publicly for tax cuts the better, so far as I'm concerned. The problem for Cahill is that his recent, rapid transformation - and especially the way in which he chose to phrase his initial opposition to an income tax cut - lifts the veil on the fiscally conservative persona his campaign is trying so hard to create for him.

Way back when, in early February, Cahill opined that the income tax cut proposed by Charlie Baker "would not put people back to work." That is just not how a fiscal conservative thinks. It is pretty much the opposite of how a fiscal conservative thinks. It's like a guy showing up to seminary and saying he wants to convert to Christianity and become a priest... but he does not buy the whole "thou shalt not kill" thing.

After 20 years in retail politics, including two statewide races, Cahill would have voters believe that it was only in the past two weeks that his "research" convinced him that income tax cuts benefit small business. But his quick shift speaks more to a finger in the wind than a nose in a book.

Again, though, I am all for another statewide candidate joining the tax cut brigade, no matter the motivation. The real problem with Cahill is not his "flip" yesterday.

The problem is that with every "flip" comes a "flop." And since Cahill's flip in this instance was so clearly motivated by political calculation rather than personal conviction, it is not hard to guess which way he'll flop when the winds change.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A pitch, sure. But no plan.

"Just In" says BostonHerald.com this afternoon, "Cahill pitching across-board tax cuts in recovery plan."

Sounds great! But it turns out the Herald (which is actually just reprinting a dispatch from the State House News Service) gives Cahill too much credit even in its headline by using the word "plan" to describe Cahill's pitch. A more accurate headline would read, "Cahill pitching across-board tax cuts," period. An even more accurate - if considerably less kind - headline would read, "Cahill pitches for headlines," or "Cahill pitches for attention," or "Cahill doubles-down on fiscal conservatism charade."

You do not have to get too deep into the article to see what I mean. Three paragraphs in, there's this:
Cahill did not offer numbers to delineate how deeply he hopes to reduce each tax, or the collective impact on the state’s revenues. "We’re not proposing any specific numbers right now," he told the News Service. "It’s something well have to work with the Legislature on.”
Ah, yes. After he gets elected Governor, he'll work with "the Legislature"... by which he means the Massachusetts Legislature... by which he means his fellow Beacon Hill Democrats... on the "specific numbers." For an across-the-board tax cut. Riiiiiight.

So what Treasurer Cahill has "pitched" today is in no sense a "plan" in even the most rudimentary sense of the term. It's an aspiration at best, but in truth it cannot even be fairly called that. More likely it is a pitch that some consultant told him was essential for him to make at some point soon to try and grab on to some part of the Scott Brown coalition. The "Reagan Democrat" part. The part that is not necessarily bothered by the fact that he is a lifelong Democrat with a long track record as a Beacon Hill fixture so long as he feigns the outraged populist thing even semi-convincingly.

Ponder for a moment a world in which Tim Cahill somehow catches lightning in a bottle and is elected Governor this year. What message, do you think, will be received by the Democratic leadership in the State House? Remember, Cahill's election would mean that the voters, for all of their disappointment in Governor Patrick and their disgust with Sal DiMasi, Diane Wilkerson, Anthony Galluccio and the rest, will have voted to put yet another Beacon Hill Democrat into the corner office.

The message the Legislature would take from such a result is: hey, the voters weren't so angry after all. They just wanted Patrick out. Business as usual to commence after lunch. Hey Tim, when are you changing your registration back so we can host a fun-da?

In any event, nothing in a Tim Cahill victory would say to the DeLeos and the Therese Murrays of the world, never mind the much further left benches over which they preside, to go against their every political inclination and enact an "across-the-board tax cut."

Cahill is like a kid running for class president in the 4th grade, promising his voters what he thinks they want to hear. Chocolate iced cream for lunch, every day! Will the school allow it? I'll work with them on that!

More to the point in the short term, simply by making the "pitch" and gaining the headline, he allows himself now, for as long as his campaign may last, to repeatedly say he's the "only candidate who has proposed an across-the-board tax cut." He'll probably also refer to his non-existent "plan" because, heck, the newspaper already did.

All of this in an effort to convince a small group of voters who (by necessity) are not paying much attention that it is he, a guy who just last week stood up at an organized labor event and promised not to touch a public pension system that is bankrupting the state, who is the "true fiscal conservative" in this race. Against Charlie Baker. Nonsense.

Cahill is taking advantage of the fact that, at least until he shows some staying-power, the press and the public are a lot less rigorous in evaluating the proposals thrown out there by the perennial third party candidates who tend to populate our ballot. Grace Ross, Christy Mihos and Jill Stein will make similar proposals (similar in credibility, if not necessarily substance). That's all fine. In the meantime, Charlie Baker will continue to make sober, considered and responsible proposals to cut spending, reduce taxes, reform the state's out-of-control bureaucracy and get the Commonwealth back on a sound fiscal footing. And unlike a hypothetical Cahill victory, Charlie's win on Election Day - likely sweeping in a new crop of Republican legislators in his wake - will send a loud and clear message to the Legislature. Then perhaps they really will be in a mood to talk about tax cuts, across-the-board and otherwise.

Just words? Just words?

Uh oh.

Speaking of the Massachusetts gas tax, anyone who closely observes both Massachusetts and national politics ought to be more than a little concerned about recent statements made by President Obama concerning his new amenability to a middle class tax increase. As reported in Business Week:
President Barack Obama said he is “agnostic” about raising taxes on households making less than $250,000 as part of a broad effort to rein in the budget deficit.

Obama, in a Feb. 9 Oval Office interview, said that a presidential commission on the budget needs to consider all options for reducing the deficit, including tax increases and cuts in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“The whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table,” the president said in the interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday. “So what I want to do is to be completely agnostic, in terms of solutions.”

Obama repeatedly vowed during the 2008 presidential election campaign that he would not raise taxes on individuals making less than $200,000 and households earning less than $250,000 a year.
"On the table." Where have we heard that before? Ah, yes. When governor Patrick began his slow drift away from a very similar campaign vow not to raise the Massachusetts gas tax, he started by picking up the notion of a gas tax hike, dusting it off, and putting it "on the table."

It is no secret that President Obama and Governor Patrick tend to use the same words to the same effect. Many will recall the most famous example of this phenomenon:



No mystery there. They have many of the very same people writing their words. As the months have passed on the Obama Administration, it has also become increasingly apparent that our president and our governor tend to set their tables with the same options. Tax increases. Spending increases. New burdens on business. Massive increases in the public sector workforce.

In ordinary life, when a person vows not to do something, it generally means that 'something' is pretty well "off the table." Not so with these guys. A vow, a promise, a pledge - no matter. Put it all on the table... but don't let it gather any dust before taking it back off the table and putting it into action.

The point is: anyone out there who might be riding out the current economic storm and taking slight solace in the notion that the president promised to leave them alone and only go after the "rich" had better pay attention. Your paycheck is suddenly "on the table" too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"At least he tried to raise the gas tax"

There is a very telling exchange related in a front page article from yesterday's Globe about the challenges that Governor Patrick faces in wooing back the all-important Democratic "grass roots," who were so important to his win in 2006 but who have since abandoned him in droves.

Under a photograph of Patrick speaking to a tiny group of erstwhile supporters in what appears to be Pee-Wee's Playhouse (but is actually someone's home in Cambridge), the Globe reports:

Even on friendly terrain, though, the governor encountered some resistance. Fred Berman, a Somerville activist, told Patrick that some of his friends, disappointed with the governor’s support for casinos and his failure to increase the gas tax, are planning to support Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate.

“If the progressives stay home, if they don’t come out in force, we will be congratulating you on one term,’’ he warned.

Brian Corr, an African-American activist, said the black men he works with in Boston are also disillusioned.

“They are furious,’’ Corr told the governor. “They feel like they’ve been left behind. Their issues have not been addressed. I do my rap. But they look at me like I’m insane.’’

Patrick responded by saying he has never been closer to reforming sentencing and criminal offender record information laws, issues important to Boston’s black community. He told Berman that at least he had tried to raise the gas tax.

So there you have it. Patrick has evolved in four short years from pledging unequivocally not to raise the gas tax in an October 2006 debate exchange with his opponent, Kerry Healey, to four years later trying to regain the support of the grassiest of the grass roots by whining that "at least he had tried" to raise that very tax. Wow.

The obvious problem for Patrick is that if he stays in the race he needs these grass people (heh) to do his grunt work, and to vote for him in a primary against Grace Ross, that will be dominated by the left wing. But in the general, he needs unenrolled voters to pull the lever for him (while he simultaneously tries to keep too many grass people from fleeing to Dr. Jill Stein). Those would be the same unenrolled voters whose support he was courting in October '06 when he said he would not raise the gas tax. The same voters who have abandoned him over the past three years as he supported tax hike after tax hike and failed to keep the vast majority of his campaign promises. He (or any Democrat) will have a hard enough time wooing back those voters, especially up against Charlie Baker, a bona-fide fiscal conservative, and a newly-minted "Independent" Democrat doing his implausible best impression of a fiscal conservative (anyone else wonder when Tim Cahill's eyes are going to start glowing red?).

Simpering reminders of his failed effort to hike yet another tax on the Commonwealth's consumers may help Patrick in the Cambridge playhouse, but they will only continue to erode his already anemic support in the broader electorate.

At this point, the Governor must feel a rush of adrenaline every time "202" pops up on the caller ID. That call can't come soon enough.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Scott Brown Effect (local edition)

Plenty has been written about the palpable changes down in DC since Scott Brown's election to the U.S. Senate. Although there is no local equivalent of the health care bill to illustrate the power of the "Scott Brown Effect" on state government here in Massachusetts, the political Geiger counter that is the local news media has been registering a steady series of aftershocks since election day. Some examples:

No new "revenue enhancements." That's what Massachusetts House Speaker Bob DeLeo said this weekend about the pending state budget. Governor Patrick, because he seemingly cannot help himself, earlier this month proposed a budget that includes significant new taxes on employers and consumers (most conspicuously, a new kind of "sin tax" targeting junk food). According to the State House News, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray are pouring cold water on the idea. "There'll be no new taxes," said DeLeo, while Murray called Patrick's proposed tax on candy and soda "a bad idea."

I know, I know - Beacon Hill Ds always say they have no plan to raise taxes, then they go ahead and raise taxes. Sometimes they admit to it, most times they call the tax hikes by another name: a repealed exemption, a fee increase. But DeLeo this weekend went further, saying, "I think any type of discussion about any other, you know, revenue enhancements will not be in the budget." The Scott Brown Effect.

And you know they'll do it, too. The State House News also reports that Speaker DeLeo has some sage political advice for his suddenly endangered troops:
Speaker Robert DeLeo has a message for the seven score or so House Democrats who will try to get reelected in the fall: Scram. Vulnerable Democrats say they have heard the message loud and clear from House leaders, increasingly in the days after Sen. Scott Brown’s upset victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley in the U.S. Senate election. The House’s senior members and strategists want less seasoned lawmakers in volatile districts, particularly, to spend less time on Beacon Hill, and more time mingling with constituents, calling in-district voter contact a sort of inoculation against the type of anti-incumbent wave some analysts think may be building.
If there's one thing we know about Massachusetts House Democrats, it's that they do what the Speaker tells them to do (with a few notable exceptions - eight, to be exact). So when you realize this summer that you cannot turn around in your local community without your state rep getting in your face, you can blame: The Scott Brown Effect.

A smaller helping of alphabet soup. The State House News has yet more potentially good news from our suddenly taxpayer friendly (or at least attentive!) State House:
Senate leadership will propose a drastic reduction in the number of agencies under the state’s far-reaching economic development bureaucracy, empowering the governor’s economic development chief with enhanced oversight of several quasi-public agencies and opening the door to a state-owned bank.

Under legislation developed over the last year with Senate President Therese Murray’s supervision, the state’s housing and economic development secretary would chair all boards that handle economic development work, including MassPort, the port authority that largely escaped consolidation measures in last year’s sweeping reorganization of the transportation bureaucracy, and the Mass. Convention Center Authority...

Six existing agencies – dealing with travel and tourism, trade, and marketing – would be collapsed into offices within the newly created Mass. Marketing Partnership, overseen by a nine-person board.
The alphabet soup list of agencies that currently share overlapping and wholly uncoordinated responsibility for "economic development" in Massachusetts is a source of enormous budgetary waste. Boiling them down and creating some transparency cannot help but make things better - perhaps substantially so. I'm not sure about this notion of a "state-owned bank" though. Only one other state has such a thing (North Dakota). And I'm instinctively leery of any entity prefaced by "state-owned." Still, on first blush this looks like a good initiative overall from the Senate President. Her people will note that she's been working on this piece of legislation "for over a year." You can bet, however, that its roll out now owes more than a little bit to... you know.

Even the Governor is getting into the consolidation act. From today's Globe:
The governor is also proposing to merge three state agencies that provide credit for small businesses, pool their resources, and float a $25 million bond to make it easier for the new agency to provide small-business loans, equity investments, and loan guarantees to private banks that support small businesses. The proposal would merge the Community Development Finance Corporation, the Economic Stabilization Trust, and the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation into a new entity, the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.
Presumably these are some of the "efficiencies in government" that Patrick promised he'd find when he was running in 2006, when his opponent, Kerry Healey, suggested that his election would lead to increased spending and increased taxes (crazy!). So why did it take until now, eight months before the end of his term, for Patrick to notice that three state entities are doing a job that could be handled by one?

That's right: The Scott Brown Effect (you're supposed to hear a majestic gong in your head when you read that. Is that working?)

Obviously the Democrats on Beacon Hill have become suddenly aware of their own political mortality, and are earnestly hoping that a flurry of market conscious, pro-taxpayer activity will eclipse a sorry record of profligate spending and extortionate taxation. Just like Martha Coakley hoped that if she said "Republican" and "Kennedy legacy" enough times, the voters would ignore the fact that she failed to make so much as a single argument in favor of her own candidacy. I'm betting it won't work for the Democratic machine any better than it did for Coakley.

Perhaps the most significant manifestation of The Scott Brown Effect here in Massachusetts is this; Brown's campaign and his victory have, at long last, brought into our political reality a phenomenon that has long been confined to the worst nightmares of Beacon Hill's ruling cabal: an electorate that is paying attention.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ignoring the fat

The Governor likes to say, when discussing state budget cuts, that the fat has been cut and "now we're into the bone." He's been using that imagery for the better part of two years now. It wasn't accurate the first time he pulled it out in 2008, and it is not accurate now.

The other day an earlier post about the stimulus bull triggered a response that pulled me into the classic spending cuts v. tax hikes with an acquaintance with whom I frequently disagree politically. I commended to his attention a truly excellent new study just released by the Beacon Hill Institute, titled: "'TELling' it like it is: How Massachusetts could eliminate its structural deficit and still spend generously on safety-net programs." In a nutshell, the non-partisan think tank's study comes to two primary conclusions: (1) Massachusetts spends approximately thirty percent more, per capita, on safety net programs than the national average; and (2) if ten years ago the state had limited annual spending growth to the rate of inflation plus population increase, then this year the state budget could have been fully funded without any of the recently enacted tax hikes. (By the way, If you've even once been accused of being a policy wonk, you should take an hour to read the whole thing.)

As he always does whenever conversation turns to the proposition of additional cuts in state spending, my friend trotted out the teachers and the first responders. "Who would you cut? Teachers? First responders?" This shtick always makes me want to respond: "Yes, then puppies, rainbows and chocolate iced cream," but one has to be careful with these folks. So deeply seated is their faith in the notion that we Republicans actually do want to squeeze all good things from the world that you never know what they will take literally.

Instead, I responded in the same way as I always do in this frequently re-run conversation: by arguing that waste is inherent in any large bureaucracy, that this condition is almost invariably worse when the bureaucracy in question is part of government, and that anyone who would deny that proposition clearly has no personal experience in government. To illustrate the point, I related the "three guys and a supervisor" anecdote from my own first day in state government.

Today's news brings some more good examples. Continuing his recent 'what the hell are they doing?'-themed series in the Globe, columnist Brian McGrory describes a recent crack down by Attorney General Martha Coakley's office on... the Commonwealth's garden clubs. This on the heels of his column last week that chronicled the Department of Environmental Protection's vendetta against a dying man's backyard gazebo.

Channel 5's investigative team, for its part, reports on some serious double-dipping going on in our state legislature. You may know that the state pays a per diem to legislators who commute from outside of Boston, to cover transportation costs. Those payments have raised eyebrows in the past, especially since they are routinely collected for time periods when no formal business is conducted in the state house. Most people, though, recognize that nobody gets rich off of a state legislator's salary, and so the periodic grumbling is limited.

You probably did not know (I didn't) that the federal government also allows state legislators to deduct transportation costs for federal income tax purposes. According to Channel 5:
Federal tax law allows them to legally deduct as much as $311 per day from their federal income tax. For some, it could mean deducting their entire state salary... The law, passed by Congress in 1981, only requires the Massachusetts House and Senate to be "in session" on the days claimed. WCVB discovered the last time the Massachusetts Legislature prorogued -- or was officially not in session -- was in 1988... WCVB contacted 54 Massachusetts legislators eligible for the lucrative tax deduction. The vast majority -- 45 legislators -- ignored the inquiry. Nine confirmed they took advantage of the federal perk. Two said that in some years, they paid no federal taxes.
It gets worse.
All of the legislators interviewed not only admitted they took the federal deduction, but that they also already accept large per diem reimbursements by the state for their transportation costs.In 2008, Sen. Rosenberg claimed $7,680 in per diems from Massachusetts taxpayers. Rep. D'Amico claimed $3,600. Rep. Guyer received $11,234. "Absolutely the effect of it is double-dipping," said Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "It's understandable there may be a per diem for travel from western Massachusetts into the State House that the state provides. But then there is this huge benefit that the federal government provides on top of it."
One could argue all day over whether state legislators ought to be reimbursed for their commuting expenses. Most workers in the private sector aren't. Most workers in the public sector aren't either (including teachers and first responders). Even if you agree that reimbursing a legislator for his or her gas money is a fair and appropriate thing to do, though, it's hard to argue that reimbursing them twice - essentially allowing them to pocket the overage - makes sense - especially during a recession when the state budget has supposedly been cut to the bone.

Federal law provides for the income tax exemption uncovered by Channel 5. It applies to legislators in all 50 states. We aren't going to see that repealed any time soon. Since our legislators already have that avenue available to them to cover their transportation costs, though, what exactly is the argument now against doing away with those state funded per diems? Human nature being what it is, so long as this double-dip opportunity exists, many or most of the folks to whom it is available are going to take advantage. In the squirm-inducing words of Rep. William Pignatelli, (D-Who Let This Reporter In Here?), "I abide by the laws that are on the books today."

Which brings me back around to the argument with my friend. Defenders of the way things are done in this state always want to go right to "the bone" - those teachers and first responders. Services for the homeless. Local aid. In the meantime, the state budget is paying someone to chase backyard gazebos. It is paying someone else to hector garden clubs. And hundreds of thousands of dollars are going to reimburse legislators for costs that are already covered by the federal government. There are hundreds, probably thousands of other, similar examples.

None of these things by themselves will solve the state's budget problems, and so they are easy to ignore. The larger point, though, is this: in going straight to "the bone" with their budget cuts, the Governor and his allies are deliberately bypassing a lot of politically uncomfortable fat.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Possibly the most pathetic thing I've ever read

A friend just sent along the following email that went out this evening to Governor Patrick's political supporters:

Team,

In the days ahead, the media will likely report that Charlie Baker's campaign has raised more money than our campaign has in the month of January.

This is true.

As you know, Governor Patrick was elected to change the way business is done on Beacon Hill. And for the past three years, he has taken on entrenched interests and won -- lowering auto insurance rates through increased competition in the market, saving taxpayers millions by allowing civilian flaggers at construction sites, and bringing more accountability to state government by strengthening pension, ethics and lobbying laws.

So it's no surprise that the special interests are lining up behind Charlie Baker, helping him to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars this month. If you don't believe us, just read the Boston Herald story from last week.

Insiders may try to use this month's fundraising totals to proclaim that Governor Patrick is in trouble, is unlikely to win in November, or may not even run at all.

This is not true.

We do things differently. We always have, and it has proven successful. We have a base of over 35,000 donors, a strong finance team, and a proven method of collecting thousands of low-dollar donations from people all across Massachusetts. But we also have another tremendous story to tell. Over 1,600 grassroots organizers are now hard at work in their communities, engaging voters, identifying supporters, and preparing for their local caucuses, and two weeks ago, hundreds of people attended one of our 30 house parties to watch the Governor's State of the Commonwealth address. If you haven't yet, sign up to attend your local caucus.

Rest assured, that with your support, we will have more than enough money to be competitive in November. Not the most, but enough to win. And we will have the broadest, most active, and engaged statewide campaign organization in the history of Massachusetts politics.

That you can count on.

Sydney Asbury
Campaign Manager

Doug Rubin
Senior Advisor

This is one of those things that is almost impossible to parody, because it is parody. But here's a shot anyhow (cannot resist):
Team,

In the days ahead, the media will likely report that our poll numbers tanked months ago and show no sign of recovering.

That is true.
Or:
Team,

In the days ahead, the media will likely report that after promising repeatedly to reduce property taxes, Governor Patrick presided over continued increases in property taxes, a billion dollar sales tax hike, and billions in new taxes on business.

That is true.
Or:
Team,

In the days ahead, the media will likely report that the Governor's proposed budget relies on unapproved federal funding, more draw-downs from the depleted rainy day fund, and additional tax increases.

That is true.
Ok, ok, I'll stop. None of my versions are as risible as the original.

One thing is certain: they sure do "do things differently" at the Patrick campaign.

I understand the notion of getting bad news out before the press has a chance to run with it. That tactic is time-tested and mother-approved, as they say. It dilutes the impact of the news and, in a situation like this, guards against panic in the ranks.

This limp attempt to repackage dung as dessert, though, is something else entirely. Were I a Patrick supporter, I'd be more than a little offended at the assumptions about my intelligence embedded in this this missive. I imagine that 99 percent of the recipients of this email tonight know all too well that it is never (never, ever, ever) good news when your opponent out-raises you. Ever. When that happens month after month, you have a problem.

There is no way to spin that fundamental truth out of existence - especially when the spinning in question ends with a plea for ten bucks that whimpers almost audibly from the computer screen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nails on a chalkboard

That's what it's like for me every time I read or hear this bogus "jobs saved or created" nonsense. Nails on a chalkboard. As I've written (fumed? railed?) before, the entire formulation is baloney - impossible to quantify and all too susceptible to shenanigans and even outright fraud.

Today the Herald adds another fun wrinkle:

About 71 percent of the 4,722 full-time equivalent jobs that Patrick said were created or saved last quarter were government jobs either fully or partly funded with federal stimulus dollars.

An examination of the state’s overall numbers also shows that about 70 percent of the total jobs were retained, not created. Only 1,389 of the positions touted by Patrick are classified as newly created jobs, data shows.

I predicted this outcome in August of last year, when I wrote,
"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."
So anyhow, start from the increasingly obvious fact that virtually any numbers released concerning jobs "created or saved/retained" by the federal stimulus boondoggle are exaggerated, sometimes wildly. Then add the impossibility of quantifying how many jobs were actually "saved" or "retained" by stimulus funding (as opposed to simply funded by it, in a budget shift). Then consider the huge percentage of the inflated numbers being bandied about by Obama acolytes like our Governor that reference public sector jobs, as reported by the Herald today.

Ultimately it is hard to conclude that the stimulus bill was anything but another enormously wasteful big government program, with huge amounts of money spent on creating the illusion of 'accountability' and very little real oversight or control over how our tax dollars are being spent.

Now ponder the fact that despite yawning deficits locally and nationally, the president and his allies in Congress are pondering yet another "jobs bill" that will be chock full of more spending and new taxes.

Here's a crazy thought: legislation does not create jobs. The market creates jobs. Reduce the cost of doing business (through tax cuts), and businesses will hire to expand. It is such a simple concept, yet somehow its logic escapes our president and our governor.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lazy Journalism

There are certain "news" stories that appear from time to time, with only minor changes from one iteration to the next. They concern topics that reporters know that they can always pull out of the file to fill some space during a slow news week. "Prison population up despite decline in crime rate" is a classic (and ironic) example. Howie Carr's regular forays into state payroll records are another.

"Campaign finance records show [candidate] funded by ________ industry" is yet another favorite of the press corps, currently playing out in substantively different ways in our two major newspapers.

This is an easy story to write. Campaign finance records are (appropriately) available to anyone, at any time, online. A reporter need only spend an hour or so culling through a candidate's most recent reports. Since donors are obliged (again, appropriately) to report their occupations and employers, the intrepid investigator typically seeks a common thread among contributions, preferably from some publicly disfavored sector like lawyers or defense contractors. He or she aggregates the contributions and voila! The lede writes itself. "Analysis of campaign finance records suggest [candidate] could be beholden to _________."

And so: "Charlie Baker's bid to ape Scott Brown undercut by health care cash," blared a recent Boston Herald headline - on the front page, no less. The lede is even more breathless: "GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker, hoping to catch the anti-Obamacare wave that propelled Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate, risks being dragged down by a war chest heavy with campaign cash from the health-care industry, records show."

"Risks being dragged down?" Well, no. Not exactly. [And now I'll throw in my usual "I'm in the bag for Charlie" disclaimer - take my reasoning as you will]. In fact, the Herald story provides exactly zero evidence in support of the proposition that the very minor percentage of Baker's total contributions (five percent, to be exact) that could be said to come from people with links to "the health-care industry" presents any problem whatsoever for the Baker campaign. The "dragged down" storyline, for now, exists solely in the minds of these reporters (and the hopes and dreams of state Democratic operatives, who now owe the Herald big-time for running with the non-issue).

The problem with this "news story" is endemic in the genre. Having identified a common industry denominator among certain contributions and performed some simple addition, the reporters stop their analysis and start writing. It is left to Baker's campaign manager to point out the small overall percentage, and to make the obvious observation that no candidate is going to be "beholden," to anyone as a result of five percent of his or her contributions. And of course even that five percent figure assumes, probably incorrectly, that every one of the individual donors shares some common agenda to which they seek, by their contributions, to obligate the candidate. Baker did a good job of making this point in an appearance this weekend in Lowell, as quoted in the Lowell Sun:
"We have 8,000 donors, and our average contribution is $300," Baker said. "It's pretty hard for me to draw conclusions that somehow people who are contributing $300 on average to our campaign are going to have undue influence on it."
The Herald headline and lede require the reader to suspend common sense - or, alternatively, they assume that the reader is ignorant of the realities of political fund raising in Massachusetts. A candidate for statewide office who is obliged by the realities of a mass media campaign to raise millions upon millions of dollars in five hundred dollar increments (at best) can hardly be bought off by a single donation, or by a small aggregation of donations from individual supporters who happen to work in the same industry.

In Baker's case, the focus on the "health-care industry" is even more misleading. One of Baker's many strengths as a candidate is that he has very real, substantive experience in the "health-care industry," which industry just happens to present many of the thorniest budgetary and policy challenges currently facing the Commonwealth. Moreover, he has had an extraordinary degree of success in that industry, taking Harvard Pilgrim from receivership to the nation's top-rated health care plan for five years running. The fact that people who worked with or in close proximity to Baker and witnessed that success are now supporting his candidacy is neither surprising nor scandalous. That experience and that support are arguments in favor of his election. It would be a much, much worse sign for Baker if the people most familiar with him chose not to support his campaign financially.

In any event, the fact that campaign finance records are available online is a good thing. It is helpful and useful for reporters to undertake their periodic reviews of those records, and to identify trends and report them to the public. The problem arises when those reporters pre-determine their storyline and proceed with it, regardless of the results of their analysis. That, it seems to me, is pretty clearly what occurred in this instance. The Herald reporters and their editors had to know that the number of "health-care industry" contributions they found in Baker's records did not come close to supporting either their conclusions or the decision to run the "story" on the front page, under a banner headline. But having decided on their angle, they ran with it. That's fine - they do it to the other side too. The folks at the Herald are equal opportunity sensationalists. But in this case their conclusions are patently ridiculous.

Not to be outdone, the Globe's front page today features this above-the-fold headline: "Financial executives spent big on Brown." The Globe's story is considerably more restrained than the Herald's. By the end, the reader is left with the (fair and probably accurate) impression that financial sector employees across the country viewed Brown's election as likely to apply a brake to President Obama's increasingly aggressive moves to regulate and tax the financial services industry. More to the point, though, the Globe's report allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusions.