Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Reform," Beacon Hill style (here comes the casino bill!)

So Speaker Robert DeLeo is slated to unveil his long-awaited legislation tomorrow, to legalize casino gaming in the Commonwealth, and to bring 'slotstadatracks' (in the Beacon Hill vernacular).

That's no surprise.  I've typed my fingers raw on this issue, and so will hold back on the substance until the bill is available for review.  What's got me revved up this morning is the teeny tiny little wink of a eeenie weenie little "reform" that is hidden in the State House News's blurb announcing DeLeo's planned press conference.  See if you catch it:
DeLEO TO DETAIL GAMBLING BILL THURSDAY: House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Thursday morning will outline long-awaited details of his legislation to authorize casinos and racetrack slots machines in Massachusetts.   The Winthrop Democrat will discuss his bill at 10 a.m. Thursday at the foot of the State House's Grand Staircase.   He will be joined by Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), co-chairman of the Legislature's Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee.  That committee is technically charged with reviewing and voting on expanded gambling bills.  An aide to DeLeo said Tuesday that the committee will not vote on DeLeo's bill prior to the press conference.
See it?  Here's a hint: it's in the very last line.  "An aide to DeLeo said Tuesday that the committee (that'd be the committee that "is technically charged with reviewing and voting on expanding gambling bills") will not vote on DeLeo's bill prior to the press conference".

So the committee that is "technically" (interesting word) responsible for review of gaming legislation will hold off on voting on DeLeo's bill until AFTER the bill is released to the public! 

See??  REFORM!  And as we all know, it's tough to put the genie back in the bottle.  Before you know it, we could be seeing all sorts of wacky "democracy" breaking out on Beacon Hill.  Committee meetings open to the press, recorded votes on controversial issues... maybe even the occasional debate on the House floor, complete with opposing points of view freely expressed and legislators allowed to vote as they wish without fear of petty retribution from leadership!

Ah, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.  All of that will probably have to wait at least until after November second.  For now, it's just nice to of the Speaker and his people to allow the public a quick glance at the casino bill before the railroading begins.

UPDATE:  Seems I really was getting way ahead of myself.  The railroad has well and truly begun.  This just out from the State House News:
Poised to detail legislation Thursday morning sanctioning two resort casinos and slot machines for the state’s four racetracks, Speaker Robert DeLeo met privately with House leaders Wednesday and told them he wanted two-thirds majority in favor of the bill, inoculating it from a potential gubernatorial veto. 
 So Speaker DeLeo wants "a two-thirds majority" in favor of legislation that for all intents and purposes will be substantively indistinguishable to the bill that was defeated overwhelmingly a couple of years back, when DeLeo's (now indicted) predecessor expressed a very different - though no less emphatic - "want" to his members.  It will be fun to listen to the many, many strained justifications for all of the votes that flip this time around.

In any event, my illusions are shattered.  My brief moment of Hope for Change is over.  I'm back to being my usual, cynical self.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tim Cahill's self-defeating logic

Yesterday,  as yet another in a series of noxious emissions emanated from Tim Cahill's fund raising operation, Cahill released a web ad calling Charlie Baker a "special interest" because Baker has received campaign contributions from people who work in the health care industry.

This ground has been covered before.  Cahill's attack on Baker this week is a mere echo of an attack lodged earlier this year by Tim Murray, Deval Patrick's ankle-biting running mate, which boils down to this (from the Globe article linked above):
Baker’s campaign has raised more than $260,000 from employees of health care providers, other insurers, and related businesses in the health care sector, the Globe reported last month.
In the ominous terminology of Cahill's attack ad, this means Baker has "taken over $260,000 in campaign contributions from health care special interests."  Sounds bad!  But Baker's publicly-available campaign fund raising records tell a different story.  Far from a $260K influx from an "industry," that figure (which represents approximately nine percent of Baker's fund raising total, by the way) is comprised of hundreds of individual donations from Massachusetts citizens who work in or in proximity to "the health care industry."  In order to reach that $260K total, the Globe article cited in Cahill's ad included not only individual contributions from people who worked with Baker at Harvard Pilgrim, or who work for other health insurance companies.  It also included contributions from people who work for, among other things, hospitals, health clinics, accounting firms, a data storage company, and a PR agency that do business with the Commonwealth's major insurers.  In this health insurance version of the game "Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon," nearly anyone who functions within the Massachusetts economy is eventually tied back to "the health care industry."

But even if one buys the notion that Charlie Baker has received nine percent of his campaign contributions from people tied to "the health care industry," what is the conclusion that Cahill's consultants wish a voter to draw from that fact?

Remember, the vast majority of the individual contributions that make up that $260K - all of which come in increments of $500 or less - came from Massachusetts voters.  These are people with a stake in November's election that may include concerns relative to their workplaces, but who are also motivated by exactly the same issues that motivate anyone to contribute to a favored candidate: the economy, rising taxes and rampant spending, concerns about what the future here holds for our children.

Now contrast that to Tim Cahill's fund raising, which has been much in the news of late - and never in a good way.  Last week Cahill admitted to taking over forty thousand dollars in contributions in a single day from employees of an out-of-state firm that was bidding on a state contract worth approximately one hundred million dollars.  The very next day - the very. next. day. - Cahill's office awarded the contract to that firm.  The individuals who shipped Cahill that forty grand do not live here.  They do not care about our taxes and our spending and the rampant corruption on Beacon Hill.  They had only one, very very "special interest" in Massachusetts, an interest worth a hundred million bucks, and that interest was immediately addressed by Cahill's office.  And that whole mess is just one example of a pay-to-play pattern in the Treasurer's fund raising - a pattern that Cahill himself sought to shrug off when it was reported on the front page of the Boston Globe (the Globe later devoted an editorial to Cahill's rank fund raising practices).  As the Globe put it,
Cahill, in an interview, expressed no qualms about receiving campaign contributions from companies that have or want business from the treasurer’s office and the five agencies he oversees, including the pension board.
Now let's return to Cahill's attack on Baker this week.  According to the logic of Cahill's web ad, the fact that hundreds of individuals with ties, both direct and tenuous, to the health care industry in Massachusetts have chosen to make individual, uncoordinated contributions to Charlie Baker's campaign means that... what?  Charlie Baker is somehow beholden to "the health care industry?"  Okay...

So take that logic, and apply it to Cahill, who has admitted to routinely soliciting and accepting large, coordinated contributions from employees of out-of-state firms who do business with the agencies he oversees.  In at least one instance, forty grand in contributions from one such firm came in the day before Cahill's office granted the firm a nine figure state contract.  Following the logic of his own attack against Baker, what exactly does that say about Tim Cahill?

It is easy to understand why Cahill is seeking to cast Baker's experience in the health care industry as a negative.  It is the same reason Patrick/Murray have been trying to do the same thing.  They want to take one of Baker's primary strengths - his unique and extraordinary expertise in an area of the economy that is bankrupting the state - and turn it into a negative.  In the process, though, Cahill is keeping the focus on campaign finance, a subject area from which he ought to be running as fast as his disingenuous feet can carry him.  And he is also providing Baker with a continuing opportunity to talk about and highlight his health care expertise to the voters, something that will inure to his benefit in the long run.

You might be wondering at this point, why would Tim Cahill continue to focus on health care, an issue he knows next to nothing about, and fund raising, an issue that immediately strips away his flimsy "independent outsider" disguise and reveals him for the Beacon Hill incumbent that he is?  The answer is simple: Cahill does it because he has to.

This year in Massachusetts, finally, the voters are yelling "throw the bums out!"  They are not yelling "promote the bums to higher office!"  Cahill is a sitting, two term Beacon Hill incumbent, a life-long Democrat elected statewide twice with a (D) after his name on the ballot.  There is nothing wrong with that.  In an ordinary year in Massachusetts, all of that would serve him well.  But not this year.  This year, Cahill simply cannot run as who he is.  He needs to run as something he is not.  He needs to convince the Commonwealth's fiscally conservative voters to go for the pretender, when the real deal fiscal conservative, a guy with a long record of success in state government, local government, and the private sector, is right there on the ballot.  Cahill is like a salesman tasked with convincing a shopper to go for the cubic zirconium when the real diamond is available for the same price.  One wouldn't expect that poor salesman to make honest arguments.

Deprived of the ability to run on his own record, Cahill is left to try and tear down his opponent.  To succeed, he has to hope that the voters who see his web ad and listen to similar arguments on his behalf do not bother to follow their self-defeating logic to its inevitable end point.

Meanwhile, rumor has it there are still a handful of people in the Commonwealth who think it would be a good idea to put this guy in charge of the state budget.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Treasurer Cahill could not be reached for comment...

Not to be outdone by the Globe, the Herald this afternoon weighs in on the growing scandal surrounding Tim Cahill's fund raising with this bit of breaking news:


Here's the meat:
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission claims a Medfield executive illegally won $14 billion of bond deals from state Treasurer Tim Cahill’s office after throwing Cahill a fund-raiser and donating to his campaign.
An SEC civil complaint filed today charges John Kendrick, former New England chief of Dallas-based Southwest Securities Inc., with violating rules covering contributions to officials who oversee government-bond deals.
Southwest Securities agreed today to pay some $470,000 to settle its alleged involvement in the case, although the company neither admitted nor denied any wrongdoing.
Cahill's people could not be reached for comment. There is a lot of that coming out of his office this week. When they do get around to responding, they will correctly point out that the Treasurer himself broke no laws by accepting the contributions in question, nor is he accused of legal wrongdoing.

But boy oh boy, there sure is a lot of this stuff floating around our Treasurer lately.

UPDATE: Cahill's people eventually did come out of the bunker yesterday.  In response to Cahill's most recent forest fire, the SEC charges against one of his money guys, his campaign did the only thing it could do.  They promised to return the cash.  He has a bigger problem looming though.  Since the fund raiser in question was dinged for raising and contributing money while soliciting state bond work, which is illegal, and Cahill this week admitted that he and his people routinely hit up people for donations who do business with his office, you can bet his finance team is scrambling to figure out just how much cash they are going to have to cough up if the SEC keeps following this trail. 

Tim Cahill does the pretzel

Another day, another ugly front-page-above-the-fold Globe article for Treasurer Tim Cahill. This one concerns the curious disconnect between his recent, attention-grabbing pronouncements about the dire fiscal consequences of the Commonwealth's 2006 health care reforms, and his very different tone in bond disclosure documents he recently issued in his capacity as state Treasurer. The Globe explains:
Two weeks before leveling grave charges that the state’s universal health care law was bankrupting Massachusetts, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill signed a statement for potential buyers of a $538.1 million bond that made no mention of his concerns about a financial calamity.
On March 2, Cahill approved a general obligation bond to operate state government that specifically outlined the finances of the state’s landmark health care statute. But the document, which potential investors use to evaluate the financial health of Massachusetts, does not indicate that the 2006 law poses a threat to the state’s economic stability... The absence of alarm in the documents stands in stark contrast to Cahill’s campaign trail rhetoric, as he tries to position himself as a fiscal conservative in the governor’s race.
Why does that matter? Well, for one thing, because state officials like Cahill who issue obligation bond disclosures are required by law to include all "material facts" within their knowledge concerning the state's economic condition. Since Cahill has in the two weeks since issuing that bond statement been all over the state and even the national news proclaiming that the 2006 health reforms are "bankrupting Massachusetts," one would think that opinion constitutes the sort of "material fact" that Cahill is obligated to disclose to investors... if he in fact believes it. Here's how the Globe characterizes the Treasurer's conundrum:
The question Cahill now faces is whether he misled investors by not disclosing a major potential fiscal problem facing Massachusetts, or whether his criticism of health care was a political maneuver designed to tap into anger among some voters over government spending.
But of course that's not really a "question," is it? It's more like a padded observation - an observation already made clear by the Globe earlier in the article, when it notes that Cahill's headline-garnering rhetoric was issued "as he tries to position himself as a fiscal conservative in the governor’s race."

Already limbered up from his twisting and weaving in response to the week's first Globe front page article about the pay-to-play culture that has permeated the Treasurer's office under his watch, allowing him to raise hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions from out of state firms that do business with the agencies that he oversees, Cahill was forced to twist himself further. Grace Lee, a deputy Treasurer (paid by the state) told the Globe she was “disappointed that some would politicize the official financial business of the Treasury, especially in light of the fact that the treasurer has managed the Commonwealth’s finances so successfully through the most challenging fiscal climate since the Great Depression.’’

Leave aside the belly-laugh-inducing expression of disappointment that "some would politicize the official business of the Treasury." Apparently Deputy Treasurer Lee did not get the election year memo explaining that Mr. Cahill in fact has little involvement with or insight into the Commonwealth's finances (despite describing himself in a pre-election year version of his official bio as the "Commonwealth's Chief Financial Officer"). As Cahill explained to the Globe last month when he declined to offer any budget reform ideas, "I don’t have enough insight into the budget, especially particular areas where money is being wasted, until I get in there."

Once again, circumstances have conspired to highlight the fundamental falsehood that underlies Cahill's entire campaign. In order to have any prayer of winning, he must sell himself as an independent outsider. But he is unwilling or unable to completely sacrifice the political benefits that stem from his two terms as a consummate Democrat Beacon Hill insider. When it suits him to be the former, he claims ignorance of the state's (disastrous) finances. He makes wild-eyed pronouncements that seek to tap into growing conservative grass-roots anger about government excess, and he gets himself on TV.

In other circumstances, though, Cahill is all too happy to resume his prior, more comfortable role. So surrogates like Ms. Lee are paraded out to claim - in total contrast to Cahill's own posturing - that he has "managed the Commonwealth's finances" through the economic downturn. And when it comes to fund raising, Cahill is more than happy to leverage the power and influence of his office to squeeze state contractors for big dollars.

Cahill and his consultants hope nobody will notice the contradictions - and the hypocrisy. The Globe did notice, and put all of it on the front page - twice in one week.

So it always goes for a pol who decides to run for high-profile office as a fictional construct rather than as himself. Tim Cahill is a career Beacon Hill Democrat. That's who he is. He is not an outsider. He is not an independent. He is not "the real fiscal conservative in this race," no matter how desperately he and his supporters would like him to be viewed that way.

As the past month has clearly demonstrated, the Treasurer's effort at election year transformation is more likely to turn him into a human pretzel than to land him in the corner office.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

And he was having such a good week...

Until this morning, it looked like Tim Cahill might actually be making some headway in his implausible quest to obscure his decades-long career as a Beacon Hill Democrat incumbent with a thin veneer of faux fiscal conservative populism. His brand new, pricey team of national Republican consultants had managed to parlay some well-timed pronouncements by Cahill about Obamacare into a number of national news talk appearances last week. Producers at Fox, desperate to fill time, apparently bought into the proposition that as the Commonwealth's Treasurer, Cahill could plausibly be thought to have some degree of insight into our 2006 health insurance reforms, which are now being held up as a template for the monstrosity being rammed through Congress. (Seems they missed Cahill's bizarre acknowledgment last month that despite nearly two full terms as the Commonwealth's CFO, he lacks sufficient "insight into the budget" to propose any fixes to the state's current mess). In any event, Cahill landed himself some air time on national Fox, apparently deciding that if he can't convince the Commonwealth's newly-awakened fiscal conservative base that he is the real deal, at least he can take a shot at convincing their relatives in other states...

And then this morning's Boston Globe hit the stands, with this front page, above-the-fold headline:

There goes the Treasurer's good week. Because while his 'real fiscal conservative' act finds little support in his long record as a statewide officeholder (mysteriously, he never before criticized Commonwealth Care until last week), the narrative set forth on the Globe's front page today is perfectly familiar to anyone who follows Massachusetts politics.

The proposition that Cahill built his vaunted $3 million political war-chest largely via contributions from firms and individuals with clear business interests before Cahill's office and the offices he oversees is hardly a new one. It's more like common knowledge. That's why the Globe assigned not one, but three reporters to follow Cahill's money trail (click on this link even if you do not have time to read the whole story).

That's why when the Wall Street Journal's own front page last month featured a story about pay-to-play schemes involving trial lawyers in a number of states, Cahill received poster-boy treatment, complete with a picture.

So what did the Globe's team of investigators turn up? Read the whole, long article if you can, but here's the core:
They came in batches, nearly 250 checks, most for $500, from real estate lawyers, property managers, and realtors in far-flung states, all dedicated to the election of state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill.
The contributions, almost all of them deposited on three separate dates in 2002, 2003, and 2005, total more than $100,000 — part of the $3 million war chest that Cahill is now tapping for his independent run for governor this year.

Nothing obvious connects Cahill to these donors, whose companies are based in such states as Texas, Missouri, Florida, and Colorado. But an extensive Globe review of Cahill’s aggressive fund-raising practices uncovered the common link: Michael A. Ruane, a Boston investment manager who employs those firms to handle the vast real estate holdings he has bought for his investors — and who counts the Massachusetts pension board as one of his clients.

Since Cahill became the board’s chairman in 2003, Ruane’s investment management firm has been allocated $500 million in pension funds to invest — and has earned $34 million in management fees.

In fact, the largest one-day infusion of Ruane-connected campaign donations, $40,250 from business associates and their relatives in 12 states, was deposited on Aug. 13, 2003, a day before the Pension Reserves Investment Management board voted unanimously to give Ruane’s company $100 million to invest.

The Globe is at pains - as it should be - to point out that it found nothing explicitly illegal in the contributions it tracked. Neither did the Wall Street Journal. You need more than the stink of pay-to-play to establish illegality. You need a smoking gun, a quid-pro-quo. An email saying "if you give $___, I'll do _____." Absent that, even a campaign influx of more than forty thousand dollars the day before a hundred million dollar contract is awarded is not enough to point a legal finger of accusation. But it sure does stink like two-week kitchen garbage in August, doesn't it?

For his part, Treasurer Cahill thinks it's no big deal. From the Globe,

Cahill, in an interview, expressed no qualms about receiving campaign contributions from companies that have or want business from the treasurer’s office and the five agencies he oversees, including the pension board.

In fact, he acknowledged that he and his campaign aides routinely seek contributions from such companies...

“We sometimes just sit there and brainstorm . . . Who can we call? Who are the people that we think can raise money?’’ Cahill said, describing how he and his aides decide how to solicit campaign contributions.

Faced with three investigative reporters and a money trail as ugly as this one, Cahill had three choices: dummy up, fall on his sword, or shrug his shoulders. He chose the latter, opting for the "what's the big deal?" response.

The trouble is, to Massachusetts voters that sounds a lot more like Sal DiMasi than Scott Brown.

UPDATE, Monday March 22: Challenged on this topic at a public forum today, Treasurer Cahill stuck with the shoulder shrug 'defense.' From the State House News Service:
Fielding a question during a Suffolk Law School forum from Rep. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, Cahill said he did not weigh political considerations in making pension system decisions. “You are forced to ask people and accept contributions, and it’s up to us as politicians to make sure there is no commingling,” Cahill said.
Get that? Politicians are "forced" to ask for "and accept" contributions, and then it's up to them - the politicians asking for an accepting said contributions (in this case in bulk, from out of state) - to "make sure there is no commingling."

Mr. Fox, this here is the hen house. Keep an eye on things, would you?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Numb

Variations on yesterday's Globe headline - "More cuts loom as state faces $295M in red ink" - have become commonplace under the Patrick/DeLeo/Murray stewardship of our state government. Mid-year budget cuts, once thought of as extraordinary measures to be implemented in only the most unusual and dire budgetary circumstances, have become regular quarterly events. News that our budget writers got it wrong - again - to the tune of another quarter billion dollars and change is greeted with a yawn. We're numb.

Because we are numb, we do not react with the frustration and anger that passages like this one (from today's Globe) ought to elicit:
The news that the state is suddenly facing up to a $295 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year is prompting a lot of head-scratching about how it happened...
Who is doing the head-scratching, you ask? More Globe:

Jay Gonzalez, Patrick’s budget chief, said he could not provide details until the administration completes an assessment of the spending levels at various state agencies.

“It’s premature for me to try to detail for you how much we see in each agency and what exactly is driving those, because we’re in the process of doing our own due diligence on that,’’ he said...

The lack of information caused confusion among legislative budget writers and policy specialists.

The Patrick Administration is initially pointing a finger at the MassHealth program because (in a lesson that ought to be noted carefully in Washington this week, but will not be) our state health reform, as implemented, has (surprise!) ended up costing a lot more than initially advertised. But in so doing, the Governor & co. are ignoring the forest to blame one tree.

In fact, as I noted back in May 2009 and then again in June 2009, the Governor and the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts legislature all but guaranteed this latest mid-year gap when they once again proposed and then passed state budgets that sought to deny the harsh economic reality in which we've all been living for the last two plus years.

Later in today's front page Globe article, Governor Patrick's budget chief predictably blames the state's latest woes on "the economy."
“The big difference is that, as a result of this economic crisis, revenues dropped so steeply, and demand on programs increased so steeply . . . that those fluctuations have been more volatile than in a normal time and we’ve had to make adjustments,’’ said Gonzalez. “And that’s not a function of how we’re managing. That’s a function of the economy.’’
That excuse might have flown in 2008 and even 2009, when budget-writers could plausibly claim to have underestimated the depth and breadth of the current recession. Not this year. By last spring, the folks in charge of the 2010 spending plan knew full well just how bad things were, and how long the budgetary tight times were likely to last. Yet knowing this, they proposed, "debated" and passed a $27.4 billion state budget (as compared to the $28.2 billion 2009 budget that ended up a couple billion out of balance itself).

This week's news of a "new" $295M gap is neither surprising nor confusing. In all likelihood, it will not be the last "new" gap discovered between now and November, when we have an opportunity to elect a new Governor who will put an end to these destructive and irresponsible quarterly budget games.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How the sausage is made (or isn't?) in Massachusetts

A missive this afternoon from the State House News Service perfectly describes the infuriating dysfunction that passes for legislative "democracy" in a one-party state ruled by entrenched career politicians. I'm going to crib liberally, because so much of what the SHNS produced today needs to be read and understood by as many voters as possible in this, the rare election year when the Massachusetts electorate is riled up and paying attention:
Eliminating Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day as paid holidays for Suffolk County workers? Not so fast, lawmakers said Tuesday, putting a bill to nix the two controversial holidays into a study, often a death knell for legislation. Republicans have said they plan to file a budget amendment repealing the holidays.

While the decision by the Judiciary Committee to sideline the bill drew much of the capitol press corps’s attention – Wednesday, after all, is Evacuation Day – lawmakers also sanctioned, killed and froze hundreds of bills Tuesday, the day before a deadline to rule on issues as wide-ranging as the legalization of medical marijuana (study), providing for bilingual ballots in Boston (favorable) and the continuity of mental health treatment (favorable).

Although they happened quickly and without debate, the decisions are effectively the end of the road for scores of bills that were dumped into legislative studies. Lawmakers are quick to note that bills can emerge from studies at any time – indeed, news events often spark rapid action on policy changes that have barely been mentioned in the capitol before – but studies typically signal a dead end.
Most folks do not understand that a "study commission" equals legislative death, though - which is why relegation of even mildly controversial proposals "to study" is such a popular procedural device in our legislature. "Sent it to study" does not sound like "killed it." It sounds like "we're going to study it further." It sounds like future action - more informed action at that! - is all but assured. Not so much.

So smugly secure are our legislators in this deception of the public that they frequently go so far as to issue press releases congratulating themselves on the accomplishment of shepherding a favored proposal "to study." This is the legislative equivalent of an actual shepherd seeking congratulations for guiding his own sheep off a cliff - but no matter. When it comes to the self-congratulatory press release, most of our Reps and Senators don't let reality get in the way of a good, airy toot of their own horns.

Anyhow, returning to the State House News:
Years ago lawmakers often proposed amendments during the types of executive sessions that unfolded Tuesday, forcing deliberations and votes, now a rarity among generally deferential committee members...

The fates of hundreds of bills up for votes remain unknown, passed, rejected or put into study by committees whose members voted remotely, and whose staffers haven’t released any poll results.

For committee members, the press, lobbyists and the occasional member of the general public who does turn out, the proceedings sound more like auctions than deliberations.
Bear in mind that each of the hundreds of bills disposed of in this perfunctory way was filed by someone, presumably for some reason. Often, that reason is motivated by a constituent - or even a constituency; actual human beings with some skin in the game. These people - who likely at one point were excited and filled with hope at the news that their proposals had been filed as legislation - might well have turned up at the State House today to observe the legislative process in action. If they did, then they walked away this evening at best frustrated and disillusioned - and at worst still having no idea what happened to their legislation, despite knowing that something in fact did happen. For example, in the notoriously "efficient" Judiciary Committee,
Co-chairman Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty asked committee members to take four votes, one on dozens of approved bills, one on bills referred to a study, one on extending consideration of dozens more bills and a final vote to reject one bill – a Sen. Michael Morrissey proposal, requested by a constituent, to ban certain circumcision procedures. O’Flaherty didn’t read any bill numbers aloud, perplexing at least one advocate who left the hearing unaware of how the panel had voted on his legislation.

Several hours after the hearing, committee staff provided a list showing that several hundred proposals had been recommended for extension orders, several hundred more were sent to study and 21 were approved.
But hey! Do not spare too much pity for that poor "advocate who left the hearing unaware of how the panel had voted on his legislation." It's his fault for not waiting around to see a list provided by committee staff "several hours after the hearing," thus demonstrating a lack of dedication deserving of the treatment he received. Right?

Oh, and by the way, when the SHNS notes that "the panel had voted on his legislation," they are using the word "voted" loosely. In fact, the Chair of the Committee read a list of dispositions - supposedly based on votes taken by the actual members of the committee "remotely." These votes are not recorded. You cannot easily find out how your legislator voted in committee on any of the hundreds of measures shuffled about today. Why not? Well, as the SHNS notes, "[t]he House voted 125-29 last year to reject a rules change requiring committee votes to be posted online."

Care to guess how that 125-29 vote came down? Here's a hint: There are 16 Republicans in the House, and all of them voted to require online disclosure of committee votes.

And lest you think that only minor legislation concerning parochial interests is treated to such cursory disposition, ponder what went on today in the Economic Development Committee - where our elected representatives are dealing with legislation of such universal interest and significant moment as so-called "jobs" bills and legislation to legalize casino gaming:
An aide at the committee said Tuesday that she was not authorized to discuss which bills were being voted on, when the voting began or when it would end. The panel’s co-chair, Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), who was in the building Tuesday, declined to respond to media inquiries.
Got that? You (and by "you," in this case I mean "the media") aren't authorized to know (a) what your government is doing, (b) when it started to do it, or (c) when it finished doing it.

Meanwhile, in exactly 7 months and 17 days we'll have a little statewide committee hearing called "Election Day." And the results will be posted online.

Happy Evacuation Day!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Talk about a dubious distinction

According to one national pollster, Public Policy Polling, our very own governor Deval Patrick has assumed the title of least popular governor in the country - with an approval/disapproval of 22/59.

Full report here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ask your Democratic state legislators...

... why the political support they get every two years from the unions is more important to them than protecting local aid to the cities and towns they represent. 

It's a legitimate question, and the only possible conclusion to be drawn once one connects the series of dots that have been lining up over the past couple of weeks.

First, there was the Democratic leadership's refusal to allow "plan design," a proposal that would allow cities and towns to save millions by designing their own employee health benefit packages, into a piece of legislation misleadingly called the Municipal Relief Act.  "Too controversial," declared Rep. Paul Donato, chair of the committee that is supposed to look out for our communities.  (More on plan design here).  According to the Mass Municipal Association, plan design would save cities and towns approximately $100 million per year.  Local officials feel so strongly about plan design that a bipartisan group of 20 mayors last week announced a plan to go straight to the ballot to seek the authority that the gutless wonders in the legislature refuse to even debate.  From the State House News Service:
Over 20 mayors and municipal officials from across the state are plotting an end-run around Beacon Hill, taking to voters a bid to relieve local budgets by wresting control of employee health plans from labor unions.
Then we have the Globe's recent renewed attention on a perennial proposal to remove union impediments to joining city and town health plans to the state's larger plan, known as the Group Insurance Commission (the GIC).  (More on Municipal GIC here).  According to a recent study by the Boston Foundation, Boston alone could save $45 million per year by joining the GIC.  In the aggregate, the Commonwealth's cities and towns would save several hundred million dollars.  Asked by the Globe last week to comment on legislative prospects for removing the absolute veto currently held by local unions on proposals to join the GIC,  House Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray demurred, citing the importance of collective bargaining.

And this morning, the final dot.  Top Mass. legislators warn cities, towns to prepare for a 5% cut in coming fiscal year, reads the headline in the Springfield Republican.  That's the word out of a two hour, closed door (of course!) meeting of the House Democratic caucus yesterday.  Here's an excerpt from the Republican (the non-partisan newspaper):
After leaving the closed meeting at the Statehouse, several House members, including Reps. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, and Kathi-Anne Reinstein, D-Revere, said communities should brace for a 5 percent reduction in local aid.

“Considering all the obligations we do have, that is reasonable to plan for,” Gobi said.

Gobi said unrestricted government aid and Chapter 70 education aid could each be cut.

Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and Swan said they would support up to a 5 percent cut in local aid in order to avoid massive reductions in human services.

“If we level fund local aid, it seems we will devastate health and human services,” Story said.

“We’re not going to be able to hold local aid harmless,” Swan added.
So how many dollars is that?  Again from the Republican:
Local aid, which also includes money for specific programs such as reimbursements for regional school transportation, totals $5.2 billion, or 18 percent of the budget. A 5 percent cut would be about $250 million.
$250 million.  Plan design could take an estimated $100 million bite out of that, but it is "too controversial" even to discuss.  Municipal GIC could eliminate that $250 million cut entirely. 

One might think that yet another cut in local aid - in an election year - would be a bit "controversial" in itself.  And indeed, apparently it is.  House Republicans are pushing for a vote on a resolution that would commit the House to maintaining current local aid levels.  DeLeo is blocking that vote, handing the growing number of Republican legislative candidates a very ripe issue for the stump.  That isn't sitting well with embattled Democratic rank-and-file Reps, one of whom told the State House News yesterday, anonymously, "That gets everybody really [expletive] fired up... [The Speaker] doesn’t want to do anything because he doesn’t want to take the vote that early."

So to review:  (1) Plan Design is "too controversial" even to debate, because the unions oppose it.  (2) Municipal GIC is a no-go, because the unions oppose it.  And (3) already strapped cities and towns are being warned to brace for another five percent cut to local aid - which, by the way, will result in another round of property tax increases next year.  Conclusion?  The Beacon Hill Democrats who represent the vast majority of our cities and towns would rather cut aid - again! - to our communities than risk annoying the state's politically powerful unions in an election year.

For all the money and manpower the union bosses put into Democrats' campaigns in this state, there is one essential electoral commodity that they do not control - our votes.  Which is why you should call your Democratic state representatives and senators and ask them why union political support is more important to them than local aid.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Failing the smell test

One has to feel for Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray these days.  Four years ago he was the luckiest guy in the state, winning a hotly contested Democratic LG primary for the privilege of hitching his wagon to the Commonwealth's fastest-rising star.  Now, he's the political equivalent of a Prius driver - left wondering when the vehicle that once had all of his pals thinking he was the coolest cat in the room turned into a electoral death trap, accelerating out of control and barreling toward Election Day.

This week his boss added insult to injury by deploying the LG to make an argument that does not come close to passing the public's smell test.  As reported by the Associated press (via the Boston Herald),
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray says Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker is misleading the public by suggesting state employees haven’t suffered like their private sector counterparts amid the economic downturn.
 You have to hand it to LG Murray, though.  When he's asked to go out and sell a bill of goods to the public, he does it with enthusiasm.  Again from the AP:
"It’s bad enough to try to score cheap political points on the backs of public employees, but he’s wrong. He’s flat-out wrong," Murray said.
 Trouble is, Baker is right.  Flat-out right, even.  And the public knows it.  For one thing, the state payroll has been allowed to expand under Patrick/Murray, even as tens of thousands of jobs have been shed in the state's private sector.  80,837 full time employees when they came into office, 84,688 today.  A quick mathematical calculation tells me that 84,688 is more than 80,837.  As a baseline matter, many voters find it understandably intolerable that the state continues to add employees who are paid with the tax dollars that are taken in greater and greater quantities from our wallets.  Then there are all of the stories that appear in the papers and on TV just about every week touching on the broad topic of the state payroll.  In an unfortunate bit of timing for the LG, three such stories appear in our newspapers today alone:

From the Herald:
Gov. Deval Patrick's tough talk on vacation pay perks in state government has landed with a thud in the Corner Office where his top strategist and 21 other exiting staffers cashed in more than $90,500 in unused vacation days last year.
One of those 21 staffers was none other than Patrick's Chief of Staff, Doug Rubin, who cashed in unused vacation time to the tune of $11,000 taxpayer dollars.

Elsewhere in the Herald, the editors write:
It took a Herald report last week for the state Department of Transportation to begin investigating why it is that three civil engineers working for the Department of Conservation and Recreation managed to rack up more than $100,000 apiece in overtime last year, jacking their earnings for 2009 to nearly $200,000 in two cases, over that in the third.
(They are referring to this story from last week, in case you missed it).
 
 Over in the Globe, we get this little anecdote:
For 22 years, Robert Tweedie served as a part-time, on-call pharmacist for the New Bedford Board of Health, making $2,200 a year.
Then, in 2001, he took a $77,000-a-year pharmacist job in the office of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. After working exactly three years - public retirees’ pensions are based on their top three years’ salary - Tweedie retired, boosting his pension from $1,171 a year to $46,781.
 (These kinds of shenanigans are common enough in Massachusetts for the Globe to devote an entire ongoing series to them).

And that's just today!  Recently there has been a flood of press attention to the disparity between the severe impact of the recession in the private sector, and the, um, blunted impact felt in the Commonwealth's public sector.  On Sunday, under the headline "Public Enemies!" the Herald's Margery Egan railed,
Make no mistake. This is why we’re broke. This is why your neighborhood firehouses and libraries are shutting down and your kids’ class sizes are going up - along with your property taxes. Your local politician might try to blame the recession or energy costs or whatever. Don’t believe him.
The truth, Average Joe and Jane? You are paying more taxes and getting fewer services so that government workers - whose wallets already are fatter than yours - can continue to get theirs, and more. You’ll be scraping by in retirement, assuming you can ever retire. They’ll be retiring in their 50s, secure, with health care and pensions for life. And you paid for them.
The Globe, on February 19 reported:  With a salary of $136,000, [Governor] Patrick is out-earned by 1,294 other state employees, according to a payroll database released by the state."  And then of course there were the recent revelations concerning the (un)shocking disparity between jobs "created" in the state by the federal stimulus bill and the many thousands of state jobs temporarily funded by those federal tax dollars. 

Then there's this.  And of course, this.  And my personal favorite anecdote on this general topic - this

I could go on forever.  The point is, poor Lt. Governor Murray was dispatched to make an argument that the public cannot possibly be expected to believe, because it quite simply does not pass the smell test.  In much the same way that the voters instinctively reject President Obama's implausible insistence that creation of a massive new entitlement program will magically save money, the public is by-and-large unwilling to discount Charlie Baker's criticisms of the Patrick/Murray stewardship of the state payroll, simply on Murray's emphatic say-so.

As for Murray's attempt to curry favor with state employees by claiming that Baker is trying to "score cheap political points on the backs of public employees," the voters are smart enough to see through that transparent attempt to incite class warfare.  Arguing, as Baker has, that in the midst of a deep recession the Governor ought at a bare minimum to have instituted a government hiring and salary freeze is not trying to "score cheap political points."  It is common sense, and easily recognizable as such.  Most state employees - who would likely welcome the notion of working for a Governor who will get the state budget under control - will appreciate that approach just as much as their private sector compatriots.

People expect politicians to forcefully assert blatant falsehoods during election season.  It is annoying but generally accepted, like the fact that every time you buy a new cell phone, the charger port will have changed in some small but functionally crucial way.  Just because it is accepted, though, does not mean that the Lt. Governor does not lose a little bit of credibility every time he agrees to stand up and affirmatively mislead the voters on behalf of his foundering boss.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On casinos, our timing is impeccable

I noticed an interesting headline on the Drudge Report this morning, linking to an AFP dispatch carried by Breitbart.com: Chips are down for US casinos as revenues slide.

The fact that casinos are suffering along with the rest of the economy is hardly breaking news.   Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, our closest "destination resort casino" neighbors, have been hurting for a while now (ditto Twin Rivers in Rhode Island, the nearest prototype for Speaker DeLeo's favored "racino" option).  But today's article is a nice reminder of a pesky little thing those of us who do not work on Beacon Hill like to call "reality."  Here are the lowlights:
US casinos have run into a string of bad luck as the recession and other factors cut into gambling revenues, even as more states move to get a piece of the action. Gaming revenues in the 12 US states authorizing casinos fell 5.7 percent in 2009 to 30.7 billion dollars, according to a preliminary estimate by the American Gaming Association, a trade group.
This followed a 4.6 percent drop in 2008 gross gaming receipts, the figures showed...
[Research analyst Billy] Hulkower said the trend suggests little or no growth in casino attendance over the past decade, a period that included two recessions and an economic upturn. This means economics is not the only factor, he said...
Twelve states currently authorize casino gambling, but Mintel notes that at least 25 states have proposed or are considering expanding gambling operations including lotteries and sports betting to help balance their budgets.
"If a whole lot of states are suddenly starting to allow gambling and were counting on this revenue you're going to have a problem," Hulkower said...
"The expansion of gambling does not bring more customers into the market," said Lucy Dadayan a senior analyst at the Rockefeller Institute.
"There are only so many customers, so with every new casino there are only marginal increases."
Although the economy is showing signs of reviving, casinos are still struggling, based on tax receipts said Dadayan, who calculated a decline of five to six percent in state revenues for the July-December period.
"The overall trend for the state tax collections from casinos... is still downward," she said.
The nice thing about this kind of analysis is how well its conclusions match up with yet another pesky little thing that those of us who do not work on Beacon Hill like to call "common sense."  There is no reason why gaming - particularly destination resort gaming - should be immune from the effects of an economic downturn.  For most people, other than the addicts, gambling is the ultimate form of discretionary spending.  It is profoundly frivolous entertainment - the first spending to go when belt-tightening is required.

Moreover, common sense tells us that there is a finite market for gambling.  New casinos do not create new gamblers.  They simply compete against already existing facilities for a share of the existing market.  Currently, the existing market is barely sustaining Twin Rivers, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.  Yet somehow, on Beacon Hill the rational conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that legalization of casino gaming in Massachusetts and construction of who knows how many new casinos will magically defy market reality and common sense to net untold millions for the Commonwealth's coffers.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gaming Games

As expected, Massachusetts Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo yesterday released the outlines - the very broad outlines - of his pending plan to legalize casino gambling in Massachusetts. The Speaker wants two "destination resort casinos," locations TBD, and establishment of so-called slot parlors at 4 current racing facilities (in Beacon Hill-ese, this is known as "slotsattatracks"). He hasn't released his bill - or even many details of his bill. Heavens no. He won't do that until he has his Reps whipped into line for a vote. But at least we now have a general sense of what he is thinking.

Governor Patrick, who, as Brian McGrory notes in his Globe column this morning, is trying to dance a very fine line between his anti-gaming base and the pro-gaming unions, is voicing cautious support for the first part of DeLeo's plan (casinos), but opposition to the second (slotsattatracks). The third point in the state's ruling triumvirate, Senate President Therese Murray, is keeping mum - but she is widely know also to disfavor slotsattatracks.

Further complicating all of this is the fact that for Speaker DeLeo, who has two race tracks in his own district that are barely limping along, pressing him hard for slots, slotsattatracks are the whole ball game. DeLeo voted against Governor Patrick's three-casino plan two years ago, first because then Speaker (now federal corruption defendant) Sal DiMasi told him to do so, but close second because Patrick's plan did not allow for slotsattatracks.

So here's a summary of the state of play:

DeLeo = slotsattatracks + casinos to win votes for his plan. He controls the House, where most expect the first big battle to play out, with plenty of back-room enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the Speaker and his crew to convince a large number of Reps who voted against gaming just two years ago to flip their votes in an election year.

Patrick = casinos, but no slotsattatracks. He believes (correctly, in my humble opinion) that slotsattatracks presents all of the downside of legalized gambling (addiction, corruption, preying on the consumer who can least afford to toss money into a hole) and none of the upside of the 'destination resort casinos' that he favors (restaurants, hotels, enhanced tourism). In his heart of hearts, the Governor probably has no desire to replay the gaming battle that drained so much of his early political capital, and wishes the whole thing would just go away.

Murray = keeping her cards close, but based on prior statements seems to be a lot closer to Patrick than to DeLeo.

Now add another crucial little wrinkle - the tribes. Like Governor Patrick before him, Speaker DeLeo proposes somehow to limit the number of casinos that can be built in the Commonwealth. In DeLeo's formulation, we'd have two. This is fantasy.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) gives a federally-recognized tribe (of which we have several) the absolute right to operate a "Class III" gaming facility (a casino) on its sovereign land in any state where such gaming is legal. Advocates for expanded gaming will rely on the public's (and the media's) relative ignorance of this complicated law to argue that a tribe may only establish a casino after entering into a "compact" with the state. This is accurate, but misleading. Under the IGRA, once a state legalizes Class III gaming and a tribe requests such a compact, the state "shall negotiate with the Indian tribe in good faith to enter into such a compact." It's compulsory. A tribe asks for a compact, the state must give it one. Further, if the state delays or refuses to enter into negotiations, or fails to negotiate in "good faith," the IGRA gives the tribe the right to petition the federal government, which is thereafter obligated to impose a compact of its design upon the state.

Bottom line: any of our tribes that have land and want to build a casino can build a casino once the state legalizes casino gaming.

This is precisely what Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, had in mind yesterday when he released a statement saying, "Once gaming is expanded, we intend to move forward with our plans to build a full resort-style casino in Southeastern Massachusetts under the rights afforded to us as a sovereign Indian tribe." Simplified: once you open the door, we're walking through it.

Speaker DeLeo may wish to crack open Pandora's Box, pull out what he wants (two casinos, four slot parlors) and then slam it shut again. That isn't how Pandora's Box works. Once it is opened, it is opened. Everything comes out.

Once casino gambling is legalized in Massachusetts, all of the well-crafted, hastily-crafted, and stuck-together-with-spit-and-bubblegum "plans" emanating from Beacon Hill will be rendered instantly meaningless. We'll have as many casinos in this state as there are developers interested in our market. And there are a lot of developers interested in our market.

As I've said before, many times, whether Massachusetts should adopt a 'casino culture' is open to debate. Opinions vary. I do not think it should. But let's at least have an honest debate, informed by reality and not political hokum, before taking that plunge.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Globe continues its municipal health care tirade

... so I'll continue mine.

Today's installment of what is now effectively a three part Globe series is about something called the state Group Insurance Commission - the "GIC" for short. I wrote a little bit about this over a year ago. The GIC is the Commonwealth's state-administered health plan. "Minicipal GIC" refers loosely to the notion of allowing our cities and towns to enroll their employees in the GIC, thereby saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Bigger plan = more options, more flexibility, and lower costs. I am personally quite familiar with this issue, having worked on a proposal crafted by my former boss, Kerry Healey, when she was Lt. Governor. Healey's plan, which would have given municipalities the unfettered ability to join the GIC if they wished, almost made it past the finish line at the end of the Romney/Healey Administration... but not quite. Governor Patrick, after besting Healey in the 2006 gubernatorial election, co-opted the municipal GIC idea (great!) and then gutted it (not great) by caving to pressure from organized labor and inserting a provision in the implementing legislation that gave local unions an effective veto over any decision to join the GIC. As a result of that veto power, as the Globe reports today, only 19 of the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns have joined the GIC.

So what kind of dollars are we talking about here? Big ones, that's what kind. From the Globe:

Cities and towns would save tens of millions of dollars in health care costs for employees, retirees, and elected officials by joining the state’s much larger, more flexible health care system, according to a new report by the Boston Foundation.

The foundation’s detailed study of four municipalities - Boston, Cambridge, Melrose, and Marshfield - illustrates how health care expenses are severely hampering communities across Massachusetts.

Boston, for example, could reduce its health insurance premiums this fiscal year by up to 17 percent, or $45 million, by joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission, the report finds. Melrose, which joined the GIC in July, will likely save $1.6 to $1.8 million annually, says the report, which the foundation will release today.

“The irrefutable point,’’ the report concludes, “is that there could be significant savings for cities and towns - in a time of severe fiscal challenges - if they were allowed to join the GIC apart from collective bargaining.’’

And there's the rub: "apart from collective bargaining." More from the Globe:

Currently, communities can join the GIC only with the approval of local unions. But with some exceptions, unions across the state have rejected such a move because it would end up costing their members more money, particularly in the form of higher copayments.

Cities and towns are pushing the Legislature to change the law so communities can join the state system without union approval.

“It’s the single most important step the Legislature can take to address the budget crisis of the cities and towns,’’ Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said in an interview yesterday.

As anyone who has ever dealt with a union knows, union bosses do not agree to tie their shoes without collectively bargaining about it first. The union mantra - "you give something to get something" - has the weight of a Holy Commandment in union world. Brad Tenney of the Commonwealth's largest firefighters' union argues to the Globe that "Members gave up pay raises or accepted smaller pay raises through the years for the health care benefits they have."

That may be true in some cases. Assume it is. So what? If there's one lesson we should have all collectively learned as we rode the nauseating economic roller-coaster from the highs of 2004-2006 to the lows of 2008-2010, it is that things change. One day you have a secure job, the next you don't. One year a bonus, the next a pay cut. People who used to shop at Whole Foods now patronize Market Basket. We all see countless examples of this adaptation and flexibility every day. Most of us do not assume any longer that current economic reality - whether based on a written agreement or a nod and a handshake - is writ in stone. We adjust, we compromise, we push forward and we hope for better times ahead.

But not the union bosses. For them, a benefit negotiated is a benefit locked in forever, if they have anything to say about it. That is why, as the Globe reports, "[c]ities and towns are pushing the Legislature to change the law so communities can join the state system without union approval." The only way to make the needed change is to ensure that the unions don't have anything to say about it. That is the unfortunate situation that they have created with their intractability on this and many other issues.

And let's be clear. Nobody is proposing to strip municipal employees of their generous health benefits. Joining them to the GIC would simply bring municipal benefits in line with those enjoyed by state employees - which are still extremely generous. The Globe notes that municipal employees currently pay an average $5 co-pay to visit their doctors. Five bucks. Unless you are a municipal employee, you probably pay closer to $20. And guess what? You also help to pay the delta between that $5 co-pay and the $20 you pay, through your ever-increasing property taxes, hiked year after year in good part to keep pace with exploding municipal health insurance costs.

So here's a summary: allowing cities and towns to join the GIC without union approval would save millions upon millions of dollars, while still providing our municipal employees - many of whom (including those in my own town) are by and large treasures of their communities - with extremely generous, comprehensive health care coverage. Seems like a pretty good trade, especially at a time when our representatives on Beacon Hill can hardly draw breath without telling someone that they are doing everything they can to get the state out of the red without raising any more taxes. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Wrong. Globe again:

Public employee unions and retiree groups, which make generous donations to the treasuries of many state officer-holders, are well-connected on Beacon Hill.

In brief interviews on Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray expressed little desire to strip union employees of long-held collective bargaining rights.
So that's that. At least until November.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Great series - a week too late

The Globe yesterday and today ran a two-part feature story analyzing how and why employee and retiree health care costs are crippling the Commonwealth's cities and towns. Both parts - linked here and here - are well worth your time. If you are in a pinch and just don't have the ten minutes required to read both pieces, take a quick look at the interactive graphic linked here. It does a better than good job at explaining the crux of the problem in thirty seconds.

And there's the irony of this issue. For such a massive and apparently intractable problem, its fundamentals are quite easy to identify and to understand. In fact, a reader can get a basic understanding of both the problem and its primary cause simply by reading the Globe headlines that ran yesterday and today. First: Runaway health costs rock municipal budgets. Second: Unions safeguard health benefits. Cause and effect. Or, more precisely in this case, effect and cause.

The two Globe articles make very clear a base truth that has been well known to policy makers at the state level and to local officials who must deal with that truth every single day: municipal health benefits - both for current employees and for retirees - are unaffordable as they are currently structured. Pure and simple. With each year, as what are called "unfunded liabilities" (basically: obligations incurred for which there is no identified source of funding) pile up, that truth becomes more and more profound.

Well known too - and obvious - is the solution. Contracts that are unaffordable need to be re-negotiated. Period. Current employees should derive no real comfort from a contract that promises benefits down the road that are in no way affordable. Cities and towns can - as Springfield and now Lawrence are illustrating - go belly up. Unfortunately, fiscal reality has little if anything to do with the calculus once politically powerful unions are part of the equation. And when it comes to the prospect of renegotiating existing contracts to reduce bargained benefits, those unions are functionally the only part of the equation worth mention.

The Globe's second piece, the one that ran today, captures the relevant dynamic in three quick paragraphs:

But organized labor, fiercely protective of its members, has largely refused to budge, resisting local efforts to transfer more health care costs to workers and move communities onto the state’s health care plan. State lawmakers have shown little appetite for forcing an overhaul of the system.

The state forbids cities and towns from shifting health care costs to employees without bargaining with unions. It is this aspect of state law that municipal officials say the Legislature must rewrite to address the crisis.

Municipal unions and retiree groups, however, have for decades cultivated close ties on Beacon Hill - spending generously in campaign contributions - and have so far successfully fought major changes.

Looking at the state's fiscal problems, I often point a finger of blame at public employee unions. While they deserve "blame" in the sense that they are indisputably a major cause of a great number of fiscal problems in the first instance, and a huge and often insurmountable obstacle to reform in the second, in another way it is inappropriate to "blame" the unions. They do what they are supposed to do. They exist to advocate for their members. They operate (usually) within the law. It is unquestionably the case that on an individual, short-term level, it is "against the interests" of a municipal employee or retiree to support renegotiation of an existing contract. This is the time-honored "bird in the hand" rule in operation.

The true blame lies with our elected officials, who time and again bend to the will of the unions and block or avoid reforms that become more clearly necessary with each passing year. This is the point of my subject line for this post: "Great series - a week too late." Exactly a week ago I noted that a supposedly major piece of legislation - a so-called "Municipal Relief Act" - deliberately omitted a proposed change in the law to allow local officials to design their own employee and retiree benefit plans. Dubbed "plan design," this proposal has been a major policy aim of the Massachusetts Municipal Association for some time. According to the MMA, plan design authority would save approximately a hundred million dollars a year at the local level - real money even in good times.

But plan design was not to be. Again. According to Representative Paul Donato, Chair of the Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government that authored the toothless "Relief Act," plan design was "too controversial" even to be proposed, much less debated on its merits.

"Too controversial," as I noted last week, is Beacon Hill vernacular for "the unions don't like it." Particularly in an election year, that is more than enough to earn the proposal a cradle stifling.

The Globe feature makes for excellent and informative reading. It should be widely circulated. It probably would have made little to no difference had it run a couple of weeks earlier, while plan design could still have made the cut for inclusion in the Municipal Relief Act. But it couldn't have hurt.