Friday, May 28, 2010

More public employee union misbehavior

This item is not likely to get near so much attention as the recent public employee union shenanigans surrounding the disputed Boston firefighters' contract, but it's a fun little anecdote in its own right.

Under the clever front page headline "In-tollerable," the Boston Herald this morning reported that Pike toll-takers were recently paid overtime wages to take the Commonwealth's new 'ethics/minimum degree electrical activity in the brain' test.

Trying gamely to defend the indefensible, Department of Transportation spokesman Colin Durrant said, according to the Herald, "the idea was to keep traffic flowing on the tollway."

What's that now? Does he mean the alternative was to shut down the Pike to allow the toll-takers sufficient time to mull over such ethical connundra as, "Can politicians run their campaigns on taxpayer time or flash their business cards to avoid drunken-driving busts?" Well, yes - apparently that's exactly what Durrant meant. "The solution devised was within the requirements of the existing union agreement," he added.

So dollars-to-doughnuts, here's what happened: Pike union officials, their highly-calibrated noses catching a whiff of available toll-payer bucks, told the DOT bosses, "You want us to take that test? You're paying OT." When said DOT bosses pushed back (I have to believe they pushed back. I just do. Call me an idealist), the union guys said, "OK, don't pay us OT. But your fancy little test is mandatory. And our contract doesn't allow you to force us to do anything on our own time. So we'll just do it on the clock and let the traffic wait for a few minutes to get through the tolls. How'd that be?"

This news comes on the same day as Lt. Gov. Tim Murray crowed to Boston.com about the administration's consolidation of the Commonwealth's transportation agencies. That consolidation, he claims, has "already saved hundreds of millions of dollars for tax payers and toll payers." Asked by a reader (gently) for an accounting of those "hundreds of millions of dollars" in supposed savings, Murray pulled the time-honored 'outta time!' trick and referred the reader to the Patrick/Murray campaign website. Needless to say, no such accounting is provided there.

It's a good and happy thing that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority no longer exists as a free-standing entity. But the 'ethical overtime' imbroglio splashed all over the Herald today makes clear that the Turnpike culture is still alive and well, sustained and maintained by the continued strength of the toll-takers' union and the continued willingness of the Patrick Administration to roll over for its demands.

Maybe it isn't their fault?

Perhaps it has something to do with the full moon. Could it be that, like Michael J. Fox circa 1985, when the sun goes down and the moon comes up Massachusetts Democratic legislators are overcome by a sinister and ancient force that they are powerless to resist?

How else to explain what happened in the our state senate yesterday? In the shining light of a glorious pre-summer day, Senate Democrats were a model of small-d democratic voter responsiveness. Smartly on the heels of a Suffolk poll showing overwhelming (84 percent!) support among Massachusetts voters for a crackdown on taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants, the Senate passed just such a crackdown by a 28-10 margin. (Never mind that quite a number of Senators who voted for the measure immediately showed their election-year cards, acknowledging openly their expectation that much of the measure will not survive House-Senate conference).

But then the sun went down and the moon came up. As dawn breaks on another gem of a new day, we get this from the State House News:
SENATORS USE LATE-NIGHT BUDGET SESSION TO TACK ON MILLIONS IN SPENDING: As Senate debate on its fiscal 2011 budget eclipsed midnight and spilled into Friday morning, members began tacking on tens of millions of dollars worth of spending amendments to boost special education, seniors’ prescription drug assistance, anti-gang grants, full-day kindergarten and various other programs.
The merits of any particular recipient of the Senate's nocturnal largess are entirely beside the point in the context of a looming budget deficit that estimates peg between $1.5 and $3 billion.

It may be time to put an end to late night legislating... or at least to block the State House windows so the moonlight can't get in.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More evidence that it pays to play with Tim Cahill

A quick re-cap of the brewing scandal surrounding the Commonwealth's probation department, in case you've been under a rock for the last few days:

On Sunday the Globe ran a front-page "Spotlight Team" article that represented the culmination of several months of investigative reporting by a team of journalists into the probation department, yet another of Beacon Hill's open secret political patronage havens. In a nutshell, since 1998 when the Democratic legislature relieved the department of judicial oversight and put it under the auspices of (ahem) said Democratic legislature, the probation department has rapidly devolved from the national gold standard to a cushy landing spot for friends and relatives of Beacon Hill Democratic pols. Echoes of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority...

Ruling the roost since 1998 has been John O'Brien, a fella from Quincy who just happens to have close ties to "Independent" gubernatorial candidate and longtime Democratic Beacon Hill incumbent, Treasurer Tim Cahill.

The Globe's investigation dug up a lot of muck - enough for the Supreme Judicial Court to order an independent investigation of the department the very day after the story ran. Among the Globe's findings were several that directly concern the aforementioned Tim Cahill:
Rush’s quick exit gave O’Brien a second chance to take the advice of Judge Kathleen E. Coffey, who recommended Kennedy for the job. Instead, O’Brien chose another politically connected candidate: a veteran probation officer who has donated $2,100 to Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an O’Brien ally who employs O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters...

O’Brien has taken care of friends, too, finding jobs for the children of his Boston College football teammate, for a friend who ran a fur shop, for a former plasterer friendly with Cahill, and promoting two probation officers who moonlight as bartenders at a Northampton pizza joint frequented by one of his top deputies. Along the way, O’Brien’s family has also benefited...

O’Brien’s agency hired his daughter Genevieve, despite a warning that he might be violating the court system’s rules against nepotism. That gave O’Brien’s immediate family two jobs at the Probation Department, including his own, and two more under Cahill with a combined annual income of $260,000...

Similarly, some probation employees may feel pressure to support politicians backed by O’Brien. In July 2005, an impressive 45 probation employees — mostly senior managers — donated $5,900 to state treasurer Cahill. O’Brien said he played no role in orchestrating the donations to help out his fellow Quincy resident and the man who hired his wife to work in the state Lottery a few months later. Cahill said in a statement that he had known Laurie O’Brien for years and that she was hired based on qualifications...
The 45 (forty-five!!) contributions to Cahill from probation employees in July 2005, followed shortly by a new job at the Cahill-supervised lottery for O'Brien's wife thing might ring a bell to anyone following the life and times of our state treasurer of late. The temporal connection between a bulk influx of Cahill campaign cash and a happy result for the bundler of those contributions smacks of "pay-to-play," a term that has become virtually synonymous with Cahill's style of governance.

Across Beacon Hill yesterday, politicians expressed shock (shock, they tell you!) that government hiring decisions might be influenced by nepotism, patronage and campaign contributions. All, that is, except Tim Cahill, who responded to a reporter's question about his ties to O'Brien with refreshing candor. From the State House News:
Treasurer Timothy Cahill, the Independent gubernatorial candidate, said Monday he did not think an investigation into reports of cronyism at the state’s probation agency warranted an investigation, chalking up the apparent patronage to the routine functions of government. “Does that not happen in government all the time? I mean, that happens in government all the time,” Cahill told reporters.
On one hand, Cahill is undoubtedly right. On Beacon Hill, controlled entirely by a one-party machine, political patronage does "happen in government all the time."

But then again, Cahill is trying his darnedest to remake himself as an independent outsider, a guy who courageously broke the bonds of faction and party to strike boldly out on his own. The old shoulder shrug in response to a scandal that in a day captured the public's imagination and resulted in appointment of an independent investigator in what had to be record time probably isn't the best way for Treasurer Tim to convince voters that his "Independent" shtick is for real.

Cahill went on to deny flatly that politics and campaign contributions played any role in his coincidentally-timed hiring of O'Brien's wife and the separate job he found for O'Brien's daughter.

If you think you might be sensing a pattern here, you are. Cahill's reaction to the latest front-page story to accuse him of engaging in pay-to-play governance was remarkably like his reaction a few months back when the Globe investigated the curious ties between tens of thousands in out-of-state campaign contributions to Cahill, and the in-some-cases immediate award of state contracts worth hundreds of millions to the donors' firms: a shoulder shrug. Of course his campaign hits up people who do business with the agencies he supervises. Doesn't everybody? But no - there is absolutely no connection between the checks that flow into his coffers and the contracts that flow out of state in short order. Perish the thought.

Cahill's supporters (who surely must be getting exhausted, dizzy or both) dutifully took to the blogosphere yesterday to decry what they characterize as "another Globe drive-by" on their candidate. $45K in contributions the day before a $100 million state contract is a coincidence. 45 separate contributions from state employees supervised by a Cahill crony, followed shortly by the hiring by Cahill of said crony's spouse? Another coincidence. To Cahill's steadfast supporters, no amount of smoke will ever suggest a fire. A bullet-ridden corpse and blood-spattered walls are of no import absent a smoking gun.

Most voters aren't wearing those blinders. Tim Cahill is who he is - by all accounts a perfectly nice guy who is part and parcel of Beacon Hill and who honestly and truly does not understand what all the voter fuss is about this year. Patronage? Pay-to-play? Shoulder shrug. "Does that not happen in government all the time?"

Yes, Mr. Treasurer. It does. Which is why people are finally, at long last, fed up.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A must-read from the New York Times

Although it might seem a departure from my focus in this space on Massachusetts state government, this must-read article from the New York times has obvious implications not only for our national government, but for any society that operates on the erroneous and destructive assumption that it can be all things to all people without ever having to pay for its largess.

Europe today is the United States in just a few decades if we continue along the path we're traveling. The first dozen or so paragraphs in the Times article are chilling - and scream-inducingly obvious:
Across Western Europe, the “lifestyle superpower,” the assumptions and gains of a lifetime are suddenly in doubt. The deficit crisis that threatens the euro has also undermined the sustainability of the European standard of social welfare, built by left-leaning governments since the end of World War II.

Europeans have boasted about their social model, with its generous vacations and early retirements, its national health care systems and extensive welfare benefits, contrasting it with the comparative harshness of American capitalism.

Europeans have benefited from low military spending, protected by NATO and the American nuclear umbrella. They have also translated higher taxes into a cradle-to-grave safety net. “The Europe that protects” is a slogan of the European Union.

But all over Europe governments with big budgets, falling tax revenues and aging populations are experiencing rising deficits, with more bad news ahead.

With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle, at least not without a period of austerity and significant changes. The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions.

“We’re now in rescue mode,” said Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister. “But we need to transition to the reform mode very soon. The ‘reform deficit’ is the real problem,” he said, pointing to the need for structural change.

The reaction so far to government efforts to cut spending has been pessimism and anger, with an understanding that the current system is unsustainable.

In Athens, Aris Iordanidis, 25, an economics graduate working in a bookstore, resents paying high taxes to finance Greece’s bloated state sector and its employees. “They sit there for years drinking coffee and chatting on the telephone and then retire at 50 with nice fat pensions,” he said. “As for us, the way things are going we’ll have to work until we’re 70.”

In Rome, Aldo Cimaglia is 52 and teaches photography, and he is deeply pessimistic about his pension. “It’s going to go belly-up because no one will be around to fill the pension coffers,” he said. “It’s not just me; this country has no future.”

Read the whole thing. Share it with a friend. When even the New York Times recognizes the implications of liberalism run amok, it is hard to countenance a state and national government that refuses to look through the window into our future that Europe's current situation represents.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I'm no math whiz...

So maybe someone out there can explain this to me.

A missive from the State House News yesterday evening is titled, "Senate Budget Draft Imposes $750 Million in Spending Cuts" (whole thing here, reprinted in the Herald).

So far, so good. But confusion sets in just two paragraphs into the text:
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 18, 2010…... The Senate Ways and Means budget released Wednesday slashes more than $750 million from the level required to maintain state services in fiscal year 2011, committee members warning that deeper cuts could occur before the fiscal year starts July 1 and were almost certain the next year.

The $27.88 billion appropriations bill, marked for floor debate next week, adds $53 million to the version that cleared the House last month and calls for roughly $330 million below what Gov. Deval Patrick spent in his budget. It raises overall state spending, compared to this year's original budget, by about 3.5 percent.
Once one starts dealing in numbers with nine zeros, it's hard to maintain perspective. A "slash" of $750 million you say? Sounds pretty impressive! Like I mentioned though, I've never been much for math. That's a good part of why I went to law school. Happily, these days this handy machine in front of me is more than happy to crunch the numbers, no matter how large. A few seconds of crunching, and that $750 million "slash" is presented in a somewhat less impressive light: Assuming the "level required to maintain state services" is approximately $28.63 billion ($27.88B + $750M), the amount "slashed" from the state budget is a whopping... 2.62 percent.

So the State Senate budget writers have taken out the world's smallest scimitars and "slashed" (hacked! chopped! torn screaming and bloody!) significantly less than three percent off of their budget baseline. Say your household budget is $50,000 per year. A 2.62 percent cut to that budget would be $1,131. Might that be tough? Sure. But would you feel compelled to issue a press release if you managed it?

But there's worse confusion still. Exactly what has the senate "slashed" that 2.62 percent out of? It isn't current state spending. The careful wording above - "from the level required to maintain state services" - tells us that. Likely the budget writers took current spending and tacked onto that some amount intended to account for inflation over the next year. So as a baseline, that "cut" comes off of current spending, plus ______.

Plus what? According to this miracle machine at my fingertips, the current rate of inflation in the United States is 2.2 percent. So maybe that's what the Senators used?

Nope. That can't be it. Because the truly confounding piece of information has yet to enter into my rudimentary calculations. Here's the last sentence of that excerpt above: "[The senate's budget] raises overall state spending, compared to this year's original budget, by about 3.5 percent."

So even taking into account the "slash" of $750 million that we're sure to hear so much about in the coming days, the Senate's budget proposal "raises overall spending" compared to this year. And not only that, it raises that spending by 3.5 percent, 1.3 percent more than the current rate of inflation, compared not to this year's actual spending, which has been cut several times to account for revenues significantly below initial projections, but rather "compared to this year's original budget." See what they have done here? Instead of using this year's actual revenues and spending as a baseline, they've reverted inexplicably to the utterly unrealistic and woefully optimistic revenue projections that they used last year, ignoring all of the mid-year cuts that were forced this year to compensate for their budgeting ineptitude. Then they've tacked another 3.5 percent onto that!

It is in their steadfast and courageous refusal to pile another three quarters of a billion dollars in spending onto their latest imaginary budget where, presumably, the vaunted $750 million "cut" can be found.

This confusion and frustration is familiar, of course. Here's what I wrote barely more than a year ago, on the same topic:
Last year's $28.3 billion budget was hopelessly, egregiously out of balance. It required mid-year cuts, end-of-year cuts, and monthly re-visitations to the tax revenue estimates, which routinely ended up far too optimistic. The state is taking in far less - billions less - than $28 million this year. With the economy contracting and no reasonable expectation of a miraculous turnaround in the next 14 months, it is safe to assume the state will take in even less money next year than it did this year.

In any other state, then, this morning's headline in the State House News would be surprising - shocking, even: "House approves $28 billion budget."
That screed was written about the House's 2010 budget, which comes earlier in the process. But Mr. Magoo could see the pattern here in how the legislative Democrats who hold our purse strings go about their budgeting, year after economically-troubled year.

It used to be that mid-year budget cuts were reserved for truly extraordinary circumstances. Now they are deployed as quarterly expedients used to provide cover at budget time for entrenched politicians who cannot bear to make the predictive cuts necessary to craft a realistic budget that will stand up for its intended year-long run. This is profoundly irresponsible, and enormously costly. More, the mini-crises that this practice all but guarantees end up fueling arguments for higher taxes, fees and other "revenues" to off-set the "emergency" cuts that government is forced by black-and-white mathematical reality to make in the middle of the budget cycle.

Meanwhile, the House budget, the Senate budget and the Governor's budget all continue to rely heavily on federal stimulus dollars, which will dry up to nothing some time next year.

That line out there in the distance is not the horizon - it's a cliff. It is long past time to put the adults back in charge of Beacon Hill.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's in your wallet?

If you're Deval Patrick or Tim Cahill, the answer to the question made famous in those ubiquitous Capital One ads is: "The Commonwealth Bank's Platinum Card." Both of them just love governing on (our) credit.

You may have missed it last week when the Governor again whipped out his (our!) Commonwealth Card to pile some more debt on all of our tomorrows. Here's how the State House News reported it last Wednesday:

Patrick administration plans to extend state debt over seven years to net $300 million in budget savings next year are "troubling," a state senator said Wednesday, but an administration official testified that the plan is less costly than other alternatives.

Scott Jordan, deputy secretary of capital finance and intergovernmental affairs, said the administration's plan would likely add between $1.4 million and $2.5 million to debt service costs, depending on interest rates, by refinancing $300 million in principal payments due next fiscal year and spreading those costs out over seven years.

The administration hopes to refinance $200 million in principal payments near the beginning of fiscal 2011, which starts July 1, and $100 million, if necessary, after a revenue analysis in October, Jordan said.

So to be clear, to "save" money in the very short term, Patrick is proposing basically to extend the repayment period on existing state debt. Anyone who has ever opened a piece of junk mail from a credit card company understands the proposition: pay less now - but pay more (in this case millions more) over time.

The state senatorial critic mentioned above, incidentally, is not one of those troublesome Republicans. He is Democratic Senator Mark Montigny, chair of the Senate Bonding Committee, who had some harsh words for Patrick's latest move, likening it to "paying for a portion of state spending on a credit card." "We are doing something extraordinary," Montigny told the SHNS, adding, "I'm very skeptical about this type of solution."

The Patrick flack in charge of defending the plan was hardly more reassuring (again from the SHNS), "noting the plan is a comparatively small part of efforts centered on spending cuts and the use of one-time federal revenues to balance next year's state budget." Ah, those one-time federal revenues again. Long sigh. So now the Governor has two shovels working in parallel, digging our fiscal hole ever deeper.

Back to the State House News account for a moment, it is worth noticing that the last time Massachusetts sought to deal with a short-term budget gap by pushing debt payments off into the future was... in 1991. What a strange coincidence that 1991 just happened to be the final year of the last period in which one party controlled every branch of our state government...

It's no surprise that Tim Cahill, the other Beacon Hill Democratic incumbent running for governor, offered cautious support for Patrick's credit card approach to state debt, calling the move "measured." It's in essence the same way Cahill used the taxpayers' credit to pay for a million dollar art deco renovation of the lottery offices. When initially slammed for that move in independent ads aired by the Republican Governor's Association, Cahill denied that taxpayer money funded the swank upgrades, claiming that the lottery's landlord paid for the makeover. Turns out the "landlord paid"... in exchange for a renegotiation of the lottery's lease that put the taxpayer on the hook for significantly higher rent payments - exactly the kind of "buy now/pay later" scheme that Patrick is again using to rosy up next year's budget numbers.

Speaking of Tim Cahill, he takes it on the chin from Scott Lehigh in today's Globe, under the headline "Campaign-year cotton candy from Cahill." Read the whole thing here. Some highlights:

TREASURER TIM is nothing if not an entrepreneur and inventor.

His principal product? Political action figure Tim Cahill, the independent gubernatorial candidate whose mythic powers let him glide through the prickly thickets that snag mere mortal hopefuls.

Speaking yesterday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, that protean pol presented himself as a champion rushing to the rescue of the state’s business sector — all the while dodging the real world choices his own plans would entail.

Cahill proposed waiving the state income tax on a start-up’s founder, exempting its business expenditures from the sales tax and forgoing the unemployment tax on its first five employees, all for a period of three years.

But when chamber President Paul Guzzi asked Cahill what his tax relief package would cost the state, the treasurer slipped the surly bonds of substance.

I was at the Chamber breakfast. I'll confess to leaning forward in my chair when Guzzi asked Cahill for specifics on his latest pitch to disaffected conservatives. I got just exactly what I expected: meaning, nothing. Cahill had no idea what his plan might cost. While he theorized that the non-plan plan might generate revenues, he could not offer so much as a ballpark estimate. Though he characterized his non-plan plan as a "jobs" initiative, he couldn't say how many jobs he expects it to generate. Instead, he pivoted to "if we create one job, it will have been worth it," a platitude so gag-inducing it's a wonder the audience did not fall immediately into reenactment of the pie-eating contest scene from Stand By Me.

But what else is new? Tim Cahill cannot be expected to understand the details of his fiscally conservative proposals. He does not write them, his consultants do. This is a guy who, for all of his folksy stories about the small business he ran for a time back home in Quincy, initially opposed Charlie Baker's tax cut proposals as recently as February, before executing an abrupt about-face as soon as his consultants were able to get him on the phone. He isn't a fiscal conservative, he's just playing one for this election season. As a result, he is consistently unable to respond substantively to even the most obvious questions about his own proposals.

Lehigh certainly isn't buying Cahill's "independent conservative" act. Continuing down today's column, he pointedly eviscerates any claim Cahill might try to make to the coveted "reformer" mantle:

That sort of vagueness is par for the course for Cahill. As he positions himself as an alternative for those put off by Democratic incumbent Patrick but suspicious of Republican Charlie Baker, Cahill is obviously trying to finesse issues that might alienate potential supporters.

When I inquired recently about his positions on several reform matters, the written answers his campaign provided either embraced an anti-reform status quo or were nebulous enough to be almost meaningless.

For example, though Cahill said he favors “the eventual movement of all municipal employees’’ to the state’s Group Insurance Commission to help reduce local health-care costs, he stipulated that “the terms should not be dictated but negotiated through collective bargaining.’’ That’s basically what we do now — and it hasn’t worked.

On flaggers versus police details, Cahill said he backed any ideas that would bring real savings, but then asserted that using flaggers hasn’t done so. (The Patrick administration says it has saved $10.9 million over 18 months.) “Given the choice of a flagger vs. a member of public safety if costs are the same, I would choose the public safety official,’’ he concluded.

What about repealing the anti-privatization Pacheco law? “If legislation expanding the concept of the Pacheco law is forwarded to me by the legislature, I will not oppose it if [it] promotes competition and keeps unqualified vendors from receiving tax-funded contracts,’’ Cahill said. Translation: Never fear, you union voters looking for a home, if lawmakers won’t act, I won’t either.

Ouch.

Seems the voters aren't buying Cahill's act any more than Lehigh is, at least according to the latest bombshell poll from Rasmussen, which has Cahill's numbers taking a massive tumble in the last month.

In other gubernatorial campaign-related news, Governor Patrick has pledged, in his usual self-righteous way, that "his campaign" will not run any "negative ads" this election season.
“You haven’t heard any negative ads from me or my campaign, and you won’t,” Patrick said during a State House sit-down with ethnic media outlets. “I think it’s a turnoff for voters. I think what we have to do is show people what we are for, not what we’re against.”
Well, bully for the Governor. In this, he's like a guy standing in a house surrounded by ferocious guard dogs and pledging that he won't personally bite anyone. The last time around, in 2006, Patrick was the beneficiary of millions upon millions in independent advertising on his behalf, much of which was dedicated to tearing down his opponent, Kerry Healey. There is nothing shady about that - politics ain't bean-bag, as the saying goes. But Patrick knows full well that those groups and likely others will at some point land in this state with both feet and will go on the attack on his behalf. So his sanctimony is, like many things that come out of his mouth, more than a little bit disingenuous.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Arbitration lunacy in Boston

A few weeks back a labor arbitration panel ruled that Boston firefighters are entitled to nineteen percent raise in connection with a recent contract re-negotiation that also will subject the firefighters to random drug and alcohol screening. A brief media uproar ensued, as the press and the public wondered vociferously how a city in dire financial straits can or should be doling out double digit pay raises - especially in light of the series of mini-scandals (allegations of drug use, pension and overtime abuse, the guy who was participating in body building competitions while out on "disability") that have roiled the Boston Fire Department over the last couple of years.

I wrote about the beginning of this particular negotiation process back in March 2009, under the title "You give something to get something." Back then, the City was pressing for institution of random drug and alcohol screening for firefighters in the wake of a tragic accident that killed two Boston firemen, and the subsequent revelation that both of the deceased had drugs and alcohol in their systems when they died. What triggered my ire back then was a comment I heard on the radio from the head of the firefighters' union, who said that the union would be happy to "bargain" for drug testing. This is of course the most fundamental precept of labor union existence: you do not ever, ever simply agree to do something, no matter how trivial or necessary the 'something' may be. You "bargain." You "give something to get something."

Anyhow, last month when the arbitration panel (which included the head of the Massachusetts Firefighters' Union as one of its three members, by the way) announced its decision, there was widespread speculation that the shockingly high number resulted in part from the firefighters' "concession" on drug and alcohol testing. Seems that speculation was dead-on correct, as Boston.com is reporting this afternoon:

The arbitrator who awarded Boston firefighters a 19 percent raise in exchange for submitting to random drug and alcohol testing said in his opinion released today that the testing is an unprecedented and groundbreaking concession that warranted the wage hike...

He added that "to hold otherwise would ascribe zero value to a milestone drug and alcohol policy of enormous, lasting and arguably 'priceless' benefit in terms of human lives of firefighters and members of the public saved or rescued."

What nonsense. What utter, infuriating crap.

Firefighters do an extraordinarily dangerous job. They put themselves routinely in situations in which their lives and the lives of others depend upon their knowledge, skill and decision-making. Back in 2007, two Boston firefighters ventured into such a situation while under the influence of illegal drugs. They died. If the already unassailable logic of drug screening were not apparent before that tragic day, it was undeniably so once the autopsy results hit the newspapers.

Drug and alcohol screens are non-invasive. They present no major inconvenience. They require but one small thing of the employee subjected to them: that he or she refrain from use of illegal drugs, and from consumption of alcohol on the job. That people responsible for the lives of others in the most dangerous and volatile of situations should and must be required to so refrain is the very definition of common sense.

The union's insistence on a hefty pay hike "in exchange" for drug and alcohol screening is offensive. The arbitrator's self-righteous opinion agreeing with that proposition is doubly so. And the economic climate in which this ludicrous decision comes down makes it all the worse.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Greece literally burns as its political system and its economy collapse under the cumulative weight of decades of political pandering to public employee unions. We're a ways off from that yet. But the lunacy on display today in the Boston arbitrator's opinion represents a step (the latest of many) in that direction.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Be careful what you ask for, Governor

Excellent new web ad out from Charlie Baker, responding to Governor Patrick's recent request that someone show him the budget surplus he inherited - and promptly squandered - in 2007.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's happened again!

It does not happen often.  But I have started to recognize the signs.  I wake up with a sense of vague disquiet.  Colors seem off, somehow.  Sounds are muted by a background buzzing that nobody else seems to hear.  I open the Globe and turn to the editorial page, already knowing before I get there what I am going to find - I'm agreeing with the Globe's editors again.

This one is a doozy.  I've been over it three times, searching for a paragraph - even a sentence - on which I'm not in foursquare agreement with the Globe.  I cannot find one.  If I needed another signal that something very real is happening in the Commonwealth this year, and that Election Day in November is likely, at long, loooong last, to bring significant turnover in the legislature and common sense back to the corner office, I could hardly have asked for a clearer sign than this.

The editors wrote their truths (about the 2011 budget passed Friday by the Massachusetts House)  under the headline, "By postponing hard choices, Beacon Hill risks greater pain."  They might as well have titled their piece, "Charlie Baker for Governor."  Here it is, in its irrefutable entirety:

By postponing hard choices, Beacon Hill risks greater pain

THE STATE’S predominantly Democratic leadership might not be expected to pick fights with public-employee unions and other entrenched interests in an election year. But state finances are tight, and voters are restless. Unless Governor Patrick and state lawmakers enact further reforms — so that the state’s public sector shares more equitably in the sacrifices that the private-sector workforce has made during the recession — these officials will face a far worse budget picture next year.
Or their replacements will.
Under budget plans offered by Patrick and House leaders, Massachusetts would only tread water until after November. The House would balance the budget in part by cutting into higher education and state aid to local governments; Patrick would use a mix of spending cuts, reductions in tax exemptions, and further withdrawals from the state’s dwindling rainy day fund. Neither approach amounts to an aggressive response to the state’s underlying financial troubles.
In recent budgets, the state has relied heavily on federal stimulus money and the state’s ever-shrinking rainy-day fund. This one-time money is likely to dry up much faster than tax revenues recover; the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is predicting a $2.5 billion shortfall in fiscal 2012. That’s bad enough. But voters will likely be confronted in November with ballot initiatives to cut the state sales tax from 6.25 cents to 3 cents and to repeal the sales tax on alcohol purchases altogether. Should those measures pass, billions of dollars in expected revenues would vanish. Those measures are more likely to pass if voters believe the Legislature tends to noisy special interests over the broader public good.
A firefighters’ rally at the State House last week was a baleful sign. Fresh from his role on an arbitration panel that gave Boston firefighters a budget-busting 19-percent raise, Robert McCarthy, head of the state’s main union for firefighters, appeared at the rally to rail against possible cuts in state aid to municipal governments. He also denounced legislation to give local governments more power to cut costs by modifying the terms of their employee health care plans. This took some nerve: Cities and towns wouldn’t need as much local aid if they could keep their employee health costs in check. But McCarthy, it seems, wants the state to keep bailing cities and towns out after they make — or as in Boston’s case, are cudgeled into making — utterly unjustified concessions to their public employees.
It’s not just the firefighters; many other unions have resisted cost-cutting changes. It’s not just the unions; public employees at multiple levels benefit from a pension system that remains overly generous. And it’s not just payments to employees and retirees; some entire agencies, including the Probation Department, need to be overhauled, and others, such as most pension boards, need to be abolished altogether.
The tolerance for bloat and dysfunction threatens the viability of progressive government in Massachusetts. Last week, presidents of public colleges and universities were begging to avoid further cuts, and private colleges were desperate to preserve state scholarships to students who attend those schools. Human-services advocates are trying to preserve money to fight child abuse. Meanwhile, the state can’t fix enough roads. It can’t upgrade the community college system. It can’t expand a historic-rehabilitation tax credit that would spur faster redevelopment in the state’s old mill cities.
Last year, the Legislature did pass pension reforms that will free up money, at least in the long term. But there are signs that, in this election year, lawmakers are inching in the wrong direction. Just last week, the House passed a “municipal relief’’ bill that will let pension boards grant larger cost-of-living adjustments to retirees. Never mind that defined-benefit pensions are increasingly rare in the private sector, and that very few of the remaining ones grow with inflation.
In an age of layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, it’s hard to convince most private-sector employees that pensions for workers who retire at 55 should be untouchable, while initiatives to develop the economy, encourage higher education, and protect children are strictly optional. The purpose of budget season isn’t to find a way to scrape by until next year; it’s to set priorities. And if the governor and the Legislature want to soothe voters’ anxieties, they’ll lay the groundwork now for a government that is both progressive and efficient.
 All kidding and drama aside, something is clearly up when even the editors of the Boston Globe can no longer countenance the self-serving political cowardice of Beacon Hill's Democratic leadership, nor their craven pandering to the Commonwealth's public employee unions.  The obvious solution to the institutional irresponsibility that has driven even the Globe to distraction is to take our ballots on November 2nd and, whenever presented with an alternative to a Democratic incumbent, vote for that alternative.

That sounds pretty hyper-partisan, no?  But it isn't.  Well, maybe it is... but read me out.

One of the few downsides to controlling everything, as the Democrats in Massachusetts do, is that when things go sour, you own that.  Deflecting blame isn't really an option (despite a certain Governor's insistence upon continuing to blame everything on "sixteen years of Republican governors").  In Massachusetts that is particularly the case, because despite the aforementioned Republican Governors, the Democrats have run the show here for a long, long time.  We're talking decades.  Lots of them.

So the November 2nd rule could be "vote against the incumbent."  But in Massachusetts, "vote against the incumbent," much more often than not, means "vote against the Democrat."  And even if you are a Democrat in terms of your registration, chances are you are not a "Beacon Hill Democrat."  I have a lot of Democrat friends, family and business associates.  I have yet to find one of them who supports cronyism, back-room dealing, corruption, petty vindictiveness, union pandering, tax-and-and-spending, or the myriad other descriptives that accurately sum up the way the ruling cabal on Beacon Hill runs our state government.  And that cabal has proved time and again just in the past year that there can be no half measures in dealing with them.  The steep economic downturn did not convince them to change their ways. They have enacted billions in tax increases on businesses and on individuals in the teeth of that downturn.  The indictment of a third straight house Speaker caused hardly a pause in the steady stream of scandals - serious and petty - roiling the Beacon Hill Democrats on a monthly basis.  Even the election of a Republican state Senator to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate was not enough to convince Beacon Hill to curb its appetite for spending and enact serious reforms.  The budget plan passed last week proves that beyond a doubt.

No, the only way to change Beacon Hill is to change the personnel on Beacon Hill in a big way.

In the gubernatorial race, either version of the rule above works: 'vote against the Democrats' means vote for Charlie Baker.  Tim Cahill, though running as an "independent" is every bit as much a Beacon Hill Democrat as is Deval Patrick - more even.  Cahill has been comfortably part of the Beacon Hill Democratic machine for two full terms.

'Vote against the incumbents' means a vote for Charlie Baker for the exact same reason.  After running on endless promises to fight the "culture of Beacon Hill," Governor Patrick quickly became part of that culture, as the Globe editorial above makes clear: 
Under budget plans offered by Patrick and House leaders, Massachusetts would only tread water until after November. The House would balance the budget in part by cutting into higher education and state aid to local governments; Patrick would use a mix of spending cuts, reductions in tax exemptions, and further withdrawals from the state’s dwindling rainy day fund. Neither approach amounts to an aggressive response to the state’s underlying financial troubles.
Two term incumbent Tim Cahill, for his part, personifies that culture.  If that were not apparent from his public record, Cahill underlined the fact himself recently by opposing the sweeping pension reform plan offered by Charlie Baker, and even the much more limited reforms proposed by Governor Patrick.  So far as Tim Cahill is concerned, the public pension system - which even the Globe knows is bankrupting the Commonwealth - is just fine.

So start at the top of the ballot, and vote against incumbent Beacon Hill Democrats Deval Patrick and Tim Cahill, and for the only candidate in the race with a record of reforming government.  Then work your way down the sheet.

And stick to the rule.