Saturday, July 31, 2010

Casino licenses at bargain basement prices!

It is looking like the casino push for this year is about to go down in flames, with the House and Senate having reached an agreement late last night that Governor Patrick pre-deemed unacceptable earlier in the week.  As the Boston Phoenix's David Bernstein pointed out yesterday in a Facebook post, it seems now the jockeying is geared mostly toward assignment of blame for failure.  To which I say, if it is true, "good."

Here's a little nugget worth pointing out, though, and socking away for the next casino go-round.

A couple of years back, the last time three casinos were on the table, it was assumed that license bidding per casino would start at $200 million and go up from there.  This was a big part of the political sell - casino licenses would, advocates said, result in an immediate infusion of at least $600 million, and possibly $1 billion or more, to the Commonwealth's coffers.

As anyone who has followed the abbreviated 'process' this year knows, our esteemed legislature declined to publicly update those revenue projections, preferring to hold their deliberations in an alternate universe, one apparently free of the effects of the recent and lingering recession.

But it looks like they updated their estimates in private.  The casino authorization bill that emerged from conference late yesterday would require developers to pay license fees of... $85 million.  That's a reduction in value of 55.5% right off the top.

During the course of the non-debate of the last couple of weeks, was any legislator heard to admit that revenue estimates had plunged by more than half since the last time they were bandied about publicly?  Of course not - though in fairness, not much at all by way of specifics was heard to emanate from the cloistered chambers where the deals were being made.

There's no telling what that reduction in initial licensing fees means for all the other grand numbers tossed around by casino advocates - jobs to be created, tax revenues, etc.  It's a pretty good indicator though.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Paging Dr. Nicholson

Lawyers are often asked a variant on the question, "why can't the laws be written in plain English?"  It's a good question.  Take any random provision of the Massachusetts General Laws, and what you are apt to find is a tangle of cross-references, non-sequiturs, and just plain gobbledegook.  "Except as stated in chapter __, section __ __, or as specified in section __ (a)(2) thereof, all events covered by this section shall be subject to the exceptions set forth in chapter __, section __, as amended by section __ of the Acts of 20__, except at expressly stated herein, or exempted from the provisions of this section by operation of chapter __, section __ as amended."  The regs are even worse.  Following those threads can be like a dive down the rabbit hole.  Often as not, the reader winds up at a dead end reference to a long-since repealed provision of law, or tangled in a hopeless mess of contradictions and legal cross-purposes.

"Why?" is a perfectly reasonable question to ask.  "Why are our laws drafted this way?"  Well, here's as good an explanation as any (from the State House News):
Democratic legislative leaders scrambled Friday to salvage major policy proposals, hoping to put far-reaching initiatives before the House and Senate for up-or-down votes prior to a midnight Saturday deadline.

Rank-and-file lawmakers roamed the State House hallways Friday afternoon, awaiting word from special committees largely operating in secret and charged with forging agreements on economic development, criminal justice, wind energy siting, health care and expanded gambling bills...

But most lawmakers remained in the dark about the prospects for the major bills, when or if they might come to the floor, and even broad details.  If accords are reached, lawmakers will need to vote on complex proposals without much time to review details or even debate them, since time for debate will cut into time remaining to process bills.
So the short answer to the "why" question is this: our laws are a mess because more often than not they are written in the manner of a snowball rolling downhill.  "Major bills" are slapped together in hurried, slip-shod fashion, usually (as is happening today) without the opportunity even for review, much less proofreading and revision.

Which leads to another "why": why is it that year after year, "major bills" that have sat dormant for months on end are slammed through in the waning hours of the legislative session?  Bear in mind, we are one of only a small handful of states with a "full time" legislature.  Our legislative sessions here in the Commonwealth run two years.  Yet still, year after year we get the same mad rush to midnight, with the same frenetic, chaotic scramble to draft and pass laws that - like the casino disaster still being cobbled together behind closed doors this afternoon - will have long-ranging implications for the entire state.

Perversely, this rush becomes its own justification for the worst excesses of the small group of democratic legislative leadership who by themselves take on all of the powers and functions intended by the constitution for the legislature in its entirety.  Bills are crafted behind closed doors because the end of the session is approaching and too many voices would slow the process.  There is no debate because there is no time for debate.  Members are asked to vote on legislation that they have not even seen because, hey, it's almost midnight on the 31st, and if they don't vote now they won't vote at all.  The press and the public?  Sorry - no time.  These deadline-based excuses role easily and automatically off the tongues of legislators and staff alike.  But ask them the follow-up - ask them why it always comes to this spasm of last minute legislating - and you'll get a blank stare at best.  Behind that blank stare is the unstated truth: it always comes to this because that's just how they do things in the Massachusetts legislature.

True fact: 99% of the people - maybe more - have no real idea whatsoever what goes on in state government.  Another true fact: 100% of the people will be impacted to one degree or another by the various laws that will be passed by our legislature in the next 24 hours of frenzied close of session activity.

There is no reason for things to be done this way, but for the fact that the individuals who currently drive the process have been in their offices for far too long, and have grown accustomed both to legislating by drag race and to a public that never holds them accountable for the inevitable messes they create.

All of which brings to mind a famous Jack Nicholson line from Tim Burton's Batman:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On the other hand, maybe they are doing us a favor with that closed door.

A couple times in the last few weeks (here and here) I've railed against closed-door government on Beacon Hill, a long time favorite rant topic of mine.  What is taking place now in connection with the casino "bill" (not really sure it can be called a "bill" yet, for reasons explained below) is causing me to re-think my previous aversion to the practice.

Everyone knows the adage about government and sausage-making.  I'm not sure anyone who has not experienced the process of law-making up close can truly appreciate just how appropriate the comparison truly is.  If they did, like as not we'd descend quickly into anarchy as the people reasoned, not irrationally, that laws produced in such gruesome and bloody fashion cannot possibly merit following.

Right now, as I type, there is some particularly grotesque sausage being made 'under the golden dome,'  as this excerpt from last night's State House News makes all too clear:
Gambling bill conferees professed increasing optimism late Wednesday about an entente by Friday, acknowledging continued division over slot machine licenses but claiming enough progress to instruct staff to begin drafting legislation.

Democratic conferees emerged from two hours of negotiations shortly after 7 p.m. Sen. Steven Panagiotakos and Rep. Brian Dempsey said the chief disagreement - whether to permit slot machines at non-resort gambling facilities - remained, leaving significant doubts about the bill's prospects.

The close of formal legislative sessions July 31 provides both an obstacle and an impetus, a foreboding roadblock against dicey negotiations while also prodding lawmakers to hasten their work. The conference committee agreed to shoot for an 8 p.m. deadline Friday to file an accord, the last hour by which parliamentarians can receive the report to allow both chambers to vote on it Saturday...

"We want to be in a position that when we get the final agreement done that the bill's far enough developed that we'll be able to get it filed by 8 o'clock on Friday in the House and that it's a bill that both branches can support," Panagiotakos said.
Of course, as Panagiotakos well knows, the question of whether "both branches can support" whatever pile of legislative dreck is excreted by the conference committee at 8 p.m. on Friday evening is utterly immaterial - few if any of the members of the broader House and Senate will bother (or have time) to read it before they are called upon by leadership to cast their votes for passage.  And God knows the public and the press will not have an opportunity to understand the "bill" (heh.  as if that ever mattered).

So what is going on, right now, is this: legislative staff are trying desperately to cobble together a piece of hugely important legislation, lacking any instruction whatsoever on a key element - whether the law will include slots at the tracks.  Bear in mind, what these people produce, uninformed and under stress and duress, is very likely to become law and to remain on the books for decades.

Through the course of this process, legislators have correctly remarked on the need to 'get it right,' on the complexity of the legal and regulatory structure that must be built from scratch in order to properly oversee casinos, appropriately route revenues, etc.  Now all of that caution and purported attention to detail has been thrown to the wind in an utterly irrational rush to enact a bill.

"Details don't matter, pass a bill."  Those are the words of AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes, the state's number one union poo-bah, and the guy who more than anyone else is providing the impetus for the aforementioned irrational rush.  He isn't shy about it either - no effort whatsoever to hide the strings he is pulling.  Here's how Haynes describes meetings he's had in the past week with Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Murray (again to the State House News):

"They both say to me: 'Can you talk to the other one?' I say, 'Yes, I can. I don't care what the formula is, do an expanded gaming bill by July 31'," state AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes said late Wednesday.

"Here's what I want you to do," Haynes said he told Murray. "I want you to pass expanded gaming legislation. That's what I want you to do. I don't care whether it's your formula or his formula."

Haynes, who boasts of 400,000 members, said he favored neither the Senate's proposal of three casinos or the House plan for two casinos and four racetracks with slot machines. He said he had told legislative leaders he wanted some form of expanded gambling passed.

"I'm the guy that gets to put the political legislative strategy to work," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm not the guy that writes the bill. I'm the guy that asks them to do their job."
Subtle, isn't he? Humble too. If we return for a second to the sausage-making analogy, Haynes is the hulking, sweaty guy dressed in a head-to-toe white rubber apron, face and torso smeared in blood, fat and muck, arms shoulder deep in a vat of eyeballs, beaks, hooves, feathers and fingers.

Interesting phrasing, too.  "I'm the guy that gets to put the political legislative strategy to work."  Again, the aversion to facing such naked, ugly reality; I'm not sure I want to know what he means by that.

But at least Haynes has done us the favor of explaining, finally, this mad scramble to pass some form of casino legislation by midnight on Saturday.  "And if you don't do it, then I guess you suffer the consequences."  That's still Haynes.  Seriously.  No word on whether he was fingering a butcher's knife at the time.

All of which brings me back to my initial point.  Maybe we don't want to know what goes on behind closed doors up there on Beacon Hill.  Perhaps it is better for the polity if we are able to maintain some vestige of the delusion that government is rational, driven by good intentions, and accountable on some level to the voters.  The reality - glimpsed for just a second through the window cracked open by Haynes' momentary fit of candor - may be just a bit too nauseating for folks in the real world to bear. 

96 days, by the way.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Informal legislative tradition"

I don't have much to add to my previous screeds about the farcical casino "debate" entering its 11th hour on Beacon Hill this week. With the Governor noting yesterday that a "chasm" remains separating house and senate negotiators with a mere three days left of their back-alley negotiations, I am cautiously optimistic that this unseemly rush to foist casinos on the Commonwealth will be pushed back until at least next year.

I did, however, want to point out an illuminating observation embedded in last night's casino update from the State House News:
Most Senate Democrats have stayed clear of the conference committee, observing informal legislative tradition of not injecting outside voices into closed-door dealings.
Beacon Hill democracy, ladies and gentlemen!  Where even elected representatives in the majority party are deemed "outside voices" who dare not inject their thinking - or that of their constituents - into "closed-door dealings."  What a fine, if "informal" tradition! 

There are a lot of contested legislative races out there this year.  It might be worth asking the candidates in your own local races whether, if elected, they will observe this "informal legislative tradition."  Knocking on that closed door every once in a while to weigh in on an issue of crucial importance to voters well beyond the boundaries of the tiny number of legislative districts actually represented behind those doors does not seem too much to ask of an elected representative in a supposed constitutional democracy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unsupervised Probation

Anyone who takes the time to plow through the lengthy investigative articles published by the Globe yesterday and today about the state's waste and patronage-laden probation department is going to come out the other end feeling angry, frustrated and more than a little bit disgusted.  This week's installments continue an ongoing examination of the department by the Globe, the first part of which two months ago first brought to light the connections between the department's entrenched director, John O'Brien (since suspended and under investigation by a special prosecutor), and a bunch of high-profile political patrons including House Speaker Bob DeLeo and "independent" gubernatorial candidate(ish) Tim Cahill. 

You know there are some serious toxins turning up in the soil when a struggling newspaper like the Globe sees fit to task a whole team of investigative reporters to a single state department for months on end, producing multiple, lengthy, front-page exposés.  And today's installment promises more to come, noting that the independent prosecutor appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court in the immediate aftermath of the initial Globe report in May is due to issue his report toward the end of August.

I wonder, though, how many voters who grunt, moan and sigh their way through these Globe articles end up connecting the dots of this scandal to the bigger picture of state government. 

You've heard Governor Patrick's favorite line about budget cuts.  "We're through the fat and muscle and into the bone," he likes to say, meaning that his administration has lopped all that it can off the corpus of state government without making cuts that will do real damage to important programs.  Legislative leaders routinely make similar, if less colorful pronouncements, all to the same end: convincing you, me and the rest of the electorate that they are doing their darndest to cut spending and save money before they turn inevitably to yet another tax increase.

The next time you hear a line like that, consider this (from today's Globe):
Corbett said he has already determined that the agency under O’Brien was doing some basic things wrong. For example, he said, the method that O’Brien has used since 1999 to measure the probation agency’s workload is misleading. O’Brien claimed a caseload of 258,667 last year.
“I don’t think that’s the right number to use,’’ Corbett said in his first interview since he was named acting probation administrator by his judicial superiors.
In 1998, probation officials reported they had 61,621 people under supervision. A year later that number more than doubled, to 157,977, when O’Brien quietly employed new caseload calculations to include every person who rotated in and out of probation over the course of a year, instead of a snapshot of those on probation at any one time.
The real workload number is 92,000, Corbett told the Globe.
And this, from yesterday's installment:
In O’Brien’s first year on the job, 1998, the agency reported supervising 61,621 people. A decade after O’Brien’s arrival, the probation population had reached 256,952 — more than four times more.
But there was no crime wave: The number of people arraigned on criminal charges of all kinds remained about the same the whole time.
Instead, O’Brien and his staff rewrote the way the Probation Department tallies its work, adding categories his predecessors thought were too trivial to count. They began listing every person who had even minimal contact with probation during the entire year — and sometimes listed them twice, according to a recent state audit.
So, you get it - O'Brien pretty egregiously inflated his workload figures.  Self-aggrandizing, sure. But what's the practical impact to those of us who manage in our day-to-day to avoid contact with the state's probation department?  Well,
Probation’s dubious workload claims have political implications, too, giving legislators justification to dole out more money to the department at a time when crime rates are stagnant. The Legislature has overridden gubernatorial vetoes of probation budgets nine times since 2000, often portraying the department as overworked and understaffed.
“I spoke with the chief probation officer in Wrentham,’’ declared State Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat, according to a transcript of a 2008 override debate. “They are at 1970s levels of staffing. In the city of Attleboro, we have people in the hallway. That’s a microcosm of the entire state.’’
In fact, the district courts in both communities have below average workloads compared with national standards, based on their monthly reports.
With such enthusiastic legislative backing, the Probation Department’s state funding rose by 163 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to a study in December by the Crime and Justice Institute, a period in which budgets for prisons, sheriff’s offices, and other public safety agencies grew by no more than 20 percent.
(emphasis mine).  As the Globe mentions in passing above, the explosion in reported probationers ought to have raised red flags about a surging crime wave in the Commonwealth... but it didn't.  Why?  A cynic like me might note that O'Brien, again according the Globe, "hired or promoted at least 250 politically connected job seekers, [and] routinely sent his subordinates lists of his preferred candidates for probation jobs from the Berkshires to Cape Cod...", and that
[t]he Globe investigation found that probation employees routinely give campaign contributions to top legislators such as DeLeo and [Rep. Tom] Petrolati in hopes of winning promotions. Once hired, politically connected employees often go unpunished for poor performance, even for serious breaches such as leaking police information to criminals or simply not showing up for work.
And excess staff is not the only probation sinkhole into which scarce tax dollars have been pouring for the better part of 12 years. 
The acting probation administrator is also examining one of O’Brien’s most prized initiatives, the network of 25 Community Corrections Centers that provide drug treatment and education to more than 4,000 offenders a year. The Globe reported yesterday that for years, probation officials failed to examine the effectiveness of the $19.5 million program. The centers’ enrollment has been declining as many public safety officials concluded their programming is lackluster and sometimes useless.
[a]ny claim that electronic surveillance saves money is undercut by the fact that probation has hired more employees to provide the service — 59 — than any other state, a Spotlight Team survey shows. Many of them are politically connected job holders, including the godson of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and the wife of DeLeo’s deputy, State Representative Thomas M. Petrolati...
Conway said Massachusetts’ staff seemed much larger than necessary, contending that six staff members can adequately monitor 1,000 offenders. By that standard, Massachusetts, with 1,750 bracelets, would need nine or 10 staff members, not 59. Most states don’t have any staff at all, hiring private companies to provide monitoring services at lower cost, a Globe review found.
So it seems there's quite a lot of fat still clinging to that "bone" that Governor Patrick is always talking about.  And that fat is not exactly well-concealed, either; no government girdle packing the cellulite into a slim profile.  Given all the familial connections between high profile elected officials and the probation department, one would think the department's excesses would be well known to the legislature, even absent a formal inquiry - the subject of idle banter at the family BBQ, or even (blegh) pillow talk.

But then those connections are exactly the point, aren't they?  One more from the Globe:
But one senior probation official who asked not to be identified said there’s no mystery why the Legislature has lined up so consistently behind O’Brien.
“It’s patronage,’’ he said. “I’ll bet an arm or a leg that everyone in the Legislature has someone in there . . . This program that they put out there was all about jobs.’’
"all about jobs..." I haven't yet heard anyone on Beacon Hill defending the excesses of John O'Brien's probation department as part of some economic stimulus package, but don't be surprised.

In any event, here we have tens of millions of dollars in wasteful spending on a single mismanaged department, brought to light only because the Globe decided to sic a group of investigative reporters on John O'Brien.  Given what is already known about the shenanigans in that department and why the mess was allowed to happen, what's your guess?  Exception, or rule?

Yeah.  Mine too.

Here are a couple of ways you can do something about it, come November:

Charlie Baker for Governor.
Mary Connaughton for Auditor.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

There is no Cahill, only Zuul

Any child of the 80s fondly recalls 1984's 'Ghostbusters' (and any true cinephile will acknowledge the  injustice and tragedy of Oscar's snub.  I mean come on, The Killing Fields?).

Anyhow, a pivotal moment in the film comes when Bill Murray's Peter Venkman realizes that his love interest, Dana, who has been behaving strangely of late, is in fact possessed by a demon.  "There is no Dana!  Only Zuul!" she/it rumbles, then levitates, thrashing, toward the ceiling.

I was put in mind of Dana and Zuul yesterday as I perused Red Mass Group and happened upon an excellent post by Rob Eno, titled "Tim Cahill's Suddenly Missing Position on Abortion."  Click on over there and read the whole thing, then come back here.  The images that accompany Rob's post are a must-see.

Back?  Okay.  So Mass Citizens for Life, one of the Commonwealth's major pro-life groups, endorsed Cahill on Tuesday, apparently based on nothing beyond his responses to their candidate survey. One wonders what they are thinking as they catch wind of Eno's detective work.  I won't re-hash Rob's post, but for anyone who didn't bother to click to his piece (and you should), the upshot is this: As of May 25, 2010, not even two months ago, Cahill's "core values" posted on his campaign website included this statement: "I believe in and support a women's right to choose. I also believe that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."  Not exactly what groups like MCFL look for in an endorsee.

But no matter!  Now that he's pandered successfully for a conservative group's endorsement, it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Cahill v. 2010 that all mention of abortion, and his pro-choice position, has disappeared from Cahill's campaign site.

This continues a pattern for Cahill (no, not that one.  a different one).  In myriad ways and on multiple issues, his Quixotic quest to define himself as "the real conservative" in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race has required Cahill to change positions, disown his record, and essentially twist himself into a pretzel of contradictions.

A lifelong machine Democrat and incumbent two-term constitutional officer suddenly became an "independent" and an "outsider."  The "Commonwealth's CFO" suddenly lacked sufficient insight into the state budget to propose so much as a single money saving reform (and in a related example of another Cahill website scrub, he attempted even to shed the self-titled "CFO" designation).  Opposition to a tax rollback flipped to adamant support in a mere two weeks. 

With each shift, twist or flip, the man running for Governor this year becomes less Tim Cahill and more an amorphous political construct.  The guy who was elected statewide twice in the last decade, as a proud Democrat, is no more.  He has been replaced by a mindless mouthpiece for his imported consultants, obediently parroting whatever lines they determine are most likely at any given time to appeal to the audience of the day.

There is no Cahill.  Only Zuul.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why the rush, Governor?

The invading army swoops unexpectedly across the border, pouring from the hills and into the village as a roaring sea of pounding horses, hollering men and flashing weaponry.  In its midst, two men hold aloft a banner that reads, "Don't worry.  Our rule will be just as good as the other guys'.  Even better!  You're going to love us."

So it is with Governor Patrick's hurried push this week to slam a vote through the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a first step toward eliminating the MCAS and putting the Commonwealth's cutting-edge public education system at the whim of yet another Washington, DC bureaucracy.

Let's review the chronology:  On June 16, Governor Patrick emphatically told a statewide radio audience that "NOOOOOBODY is talking about walking away from the MCAS!"  Last Monday, July 12, Patrick was endorsed for reelection by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), one of the most powerful unions in the state and a group that hates the MCAS like Lindsay Lohan hates her alcohol monitoring anklet.  On Friday July 16, Patrick's Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Ed sent a memo, with eleven sometimes-lengthy attachments, to the Board, recommending that the board vote to adopt national "CORE" educational standards being pushed by President Obama - a move that will lead inevitably to abandonment of the MCAS.  He released this memo on a Friday afternoon, traditional Beacon Hill dump time for news that the Administration does not want widely noticed.  Presumably all of the students, parents, teachers and others with a stake in the Commonwealth's public education system were expected to spend the weekend digesting the Commissioner's memo (were they lucky enough to happen upon a copy), because this morning - a mere three business days after the recommendation was issued - the Board is convening in Malden to take a vote.

Unless the Patrick-controlled board heeds bi-partisan calls for a delay in the vote to allow for full public education (ahem) and debate, that's five weeks from "NOOOOOOOBODY" talking about it to done deed.  Five days from recommendation to execution of a policy that could un-do a system that has made Massachusetts public school students tops in the nation for the better part of the past two decades.

Set aside the merits of the policy decision itself for a moment.  Charlie Baker and others have in recent days hashed through that.  I happen to agree with Charlie and other critics who believe abandoning MCAS and putting ourselves at the mercy of a DC bureaucracy run by Obamaites and beholden to teachers unions who loathe the very concept of educational standards is a terrible idea that will cost the Commonwealth one of our few remaining competitive advantages in the national economy.  Others disagree.  Fine.  So have the debate.  Give parents, students, teachers, employers and everyone else with a stake in public education a chance to understand the changes you propose to make before they are made.

Patrick's Education Secretary claimed yesterday, absurdly, that this debate has already taken place:
But Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said the public has had ample opportunity to comment over the past several months and he called the request for a delay “absurd and politically motivated.’’
“The last resort when you have lost the battle for substance is to attack the people in the process,’’ Reville said by phone.
 In case you've lost the thread, what the secretary is saying here is that while the Governor was insisting adamantly that "NOOOOOOOBODY" in his Administration was so much as talking about a move away from the MCAS, you should have known better and taken the opportunity to "comment" on the "battle for substance" that was apparently going in in secret.

Hey Trojan, I don't know what you're whining about. You should have attacked the horse!  How could you have failed to realize it was full of Greeks!?

It might be fun to flesh out the implications of this statement by a cabinet secretary, which all but frontally acknowledges that the Governor's indignant declaration on WRKO last month was transparently false.  Another day.  For now, back to the point:

Five weeks from denial to deed.  Five days from announcement to vote (at an early morning meeting in Malden).

Is this how government is supposed to work?  Is this the "transparency" and the "accountability" that candidate Patrick promised in 2006?  Conversely, is this the best argument since the 25% sales tax hike was rammed through last year for restoration of some sort of balance on Beacon Hill?

If the CORE standards are so great, if replacement of our MCAS with Washington's CORE is so fine a proposition, if the arguments in favor are so clear and so plain, then WHY THE RUSH, GOVERNOR?

By the way, Charlie Baker (who was on the Board of Ed back when a true battle - to implement MCAS in the first place - happened) is in Malden this morning, testifying before the board and urging rejection of the move to abandon the MCAS.  Meanwhile, Governor Patrick is literally MIA.  (UPDATE: Turns out he was in Iraq, visiting MA troops.  Feel like I just got hit with one of those "my mother DOES wear combat boots" type situations.)

UPDATE:  And there you go.   Vote taken, measure passed. "However, state officials emphasize they have no plans right now to replace MCAS with the new test."  Anyone who has tracked Deval Patrick for the past five years understands perfectly well that in Patrickland, "have no plans right now to __________" is nearly a guarantee that whatever falls in that blank is firmly on the agenda.  The MCAS is on its way out.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A few things you should hear and read from Charlie Baker

Sunday evening on WRKO's Pundit Review Radio, audio here.

Monday morning on WAAF's Hill-Man Morning Show, audio here.

Important op-ed by Charlie on the MCAS roll-back.  Whole thing here.  Teaser:
For the past 17 years, education reform in Massachusetts has been based on four key elements: equitable funding for school districts, high standards for kids, regular and rigorous student testing, and an open invitation for innovation and creativity through charter schools. The funding commitment was huge and battles over the standards and the curriculum frameworks that I, among others undertook on the Board of Education, were intense. The debate about regular student testing as a graduation requirement for high school was a tenacious fight, and almost every charter school has been put through the gauntlet.

But it has been worth it. The public school system built by these reforms is ranked among the very best in the country, if not the best, based on what matters most -- the performance of the students. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System has elevated our students and our schools, and we have earned our top ranking... The Patrick administration is on the verge of putting much of this hard work and success at risk.

Friday, July 16, 2010

By "nobody" he meant "my education commissioner"

A couple of weeks back the major candidates for Governor (and Tim Cahill) got together at WRKO for a gubernatorial debate.  Pretty quickly, Charlie Baker raised recent rumors that highly-ranked Patrick Administration officials were toying with the notion of abandoning the MCAS.  Patrick's response was immediate and emphatic.  "Nobody is talking about walking away from the MCAS."  More accurately, "NOOOOOBODY is talking about walking away from the MCAS!" in that indignant, wheedling, "Mom! Tell Johnny to quit poking me!" voice that the Governor uses when he's really worked up about the injustice of something he's just heard.  (If you suspect I'm exaggerating, listen for yourself here: the pertinent exchange takes place at the nine minute mark).

Flash forward to today, and we get this from
The state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education will recommend that Massachusetts replace its highly regarded academic standards for English and math with a uniform set of national standards that could ultimately lead to replacing the MCAS exams in those subjects.
 So by "NOOOOOBODY," Governor Patrick apparently meant, "MY COMMISSIONER OF ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCAAAAAATION."  Either that, or on an extraordinarily important policy matter our Governor has no idea what his top policy-makers are doing.  Troubling, either way.

Here's what Patrick will tell us when he is challenged on both the move away from the highly-successful MCAS, and his prior statement: don't worry, the new national standards are just as good.  Better, even!

If you believe that, I have a clunker to sell you (but you have to pay cash).  The highly-regarded Pioneer Institute has done several lengthy studies of the national standards that Governor Patrick and his pal in the White House want to replace the MCAS, with predictable conclusions.  The national standards fall short of the MCAS on almost every measure.

Set that aside, though, and assume - against all logic - that the standards emanating from Obamaworld are in fact "just as good as" the MCAS.  So what?  The quality of our education system in Massachusetts is one of our huge competitive advantages.  Why would we wish to give up control of that system and open ourselves to the whims of a national bureaucracy centered in Washington?  As the editors of the Boston Globe put it on May 4 of last year (when talk of replacing the MCAS first started to circulate):
Massachusetts stands apart in public education precisely because it created high academic standards, developed an objective measure of student performance and progress through the MCAS test, and required a passing grade in order to graduate. Students, as a result, rank at or near the top of standardized testing not just nationally but on tough international achievement tests in math and science. Any retreat from this strategy would be a profound mistake.
The MCAS is a key - perhaps the key - to the outstanding results Massachusetts schools have achieved over the past decade plus.  It is entirely understandable that at a national level there are people seeking to establish a system of standards to achieve similar results, and we in Massachusetts should applaud that. What we should not do is dilute our own standards to help the rest of the nation catch up.

But giving a leg up to the other 49 states is not at all what this is about. This is about union and election politics. There is but a single constituency in Massachusetts that stands four-square against the MCAS:  the teachers' unions. And in a remarkable coincidence, the heftiest of those unions just this week endorsed Governor Patrick for reelection, despite the fact that under his watch, approximately 3,000 Massachusetts teachers have lost their jobs...

... all of which goes a long way toward explaining why Governor Patrick was okay with his education commissioner trotting out a major policy shift that directly contradicts his own unequivocal, emphatic statement to a statewide radio audience just two weeks ago.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Collective bumbling

From the State House News Service:
BILL CURBS GPS TRACKING OF STATE EMPLOYEES: The state would be banned from unilaterally deploying GPS technology to monitor or track employees, under legislation that has reached the House calendar and could surface for a floor vote Tuesday. Sponsored by Rep. Steven Walsh (D-Lynn), the bill is based on legislation filed by the late Rep. Robert Nyman and supported by public employee unions like NAGE and SEIU. The bill (H 4789) allows the use of GPS to track employees if such tracking is permitted under a collective bargaining agreement. GPS systems have emerged as a public policy tool in the transportation sector as a method of monitoring winter road-clearing crews. Sandwich Republican Rep. Jeff Perry voted against the bill at the State Administration Committee level.
It should be noted that the use of GPS to track snow plows, emergency response vehicles, etc. is primarily useful to coordinate and thereby render more efficient the provision of these services.  Sure, it also lets the bosses know if a plow driver decides to pull off for a snooze, but that is not the main purpose of the technology.  But no matter.  If this bill passes, and the MassDOT wants to track its plows, it will have to "give something to get something" in the collective bargaining process. 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts votes in 112 days.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"This really gets into transportation pricing..."

A little-noticed missive published last week by the State House News bears a closer look by anyone who wonders if a second term for Governor Patrick will translate into additional tax hikes - specifically, his long-desired gas tax increase.  The article, which bears the innocuous title, "State plots path to emissions reductions" also ought to send shivers up the spine of anyone who thinks government ought to stay out of our lives as much as possible.  Here's the intro:
Introducing electric cars and charging stations, retrofitting diesel vehicles to capture harmful emissions, and accommodating cyclists and pedestrians in new infrastructure projects are among the methods to reduce the Bay State's carbon footprint, state officials said Wednesday.

But nearly two years after Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law requiring substantial, long-term reductions in statewide greenhouse gas emissions, transportation and environment officials are still a little foggy about exactly how to achieve those standards. Ian Bowles, the governor's top energy aide, is tasked with formulating a legally binding implementation plan by Jan. 1 for reducing emissions 10 percent to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and up to 80 percent by 2050. The state is already on track with existing policies and those close to implementation to reach an 18 percent reduction by 2020, state officials indicated in February.
So let's be clear on one thing right up front: these targeted standards for emissions - "10 percent to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and up to 80 percent by 2050" - are nonsense.  Complete bunk.  Absent some game-changing technological advance (which, admittedly, could happen), we have about as much chance of reaching those standards as I have of achieving Brad Pitt abs by next month's beach trip (or ever, for that matter).  The Governor might as well have signed a law two years ago mandating the posterior emission of flying pigs by 2020, followed by flying monkeys by 2050.

Not that optimistic aspirations cannot be a good thing.  No doubt 'cleaner energy' and 'reduced carbon emissions' are both eminently worthy goals, to be pursued (and being pursued, by the way) aggressively by both the private and the public sectors.  The trouble comes with the whole "legally binding" thing.  What Governor Patrick did two years ago was sign a bill that obliges bureaucrats in state government to come up with a "legally binding implementation plan" to achieve a wholly fantastical goal.  That's one hell of a dangerous mandate.

To return to my Pittian abdominals illustration for just a moment: it's all well and good for me, as an individual, to aspire to Brad-Abs. I might alter my diet, cut out fried foods, start exercising more, purchase an Ab-Roller - all to the good.  But what if a piece of legislation says to some guy in government, "Your job is to make Dan achieve Brad-Abs by next month's beach trip.  Have at it."    What might that "legally binding implementation plan" look like?  I'm cramping at the thought of it.

To get a sense of the metaphorical tummy-crunch regimen that the Patrick Administration is cooking up to get us marching toward those ridiculous reduction targets, one need only read deeper into last week's SHNS article:
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan and Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Assistant Commissioner Nancy Seidman discussed their strategies for promoting smart growth, clean energy and alternative forms of transportation during an informational hearing of the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee Wednesday morning...
Mullan said the department is concentrating on restructuring its own operations and has not considered how it can influence consumer behavior.  "We're not there yet," he told the News Service. "That really gets into transportation pricing and we have not given enough thought to transportation pricing as we focus on reform."
And there it is.  "Transportation pricing."  Now what could Jeffrey Mullan, Governor Patrick's Secretary of Transportation and one of the guys in charge of the aforementioned "legally binding implementation plan" mean by "transportation pricing?"  Two words: Gas. Tax.  In the carbon-reduction crowd, "transportation pricing" means "gas tax," pure and simple.

The notion is straightforward: the only way to make any real progress in twenty-first century America toward the sort of draconian emissions reductions envisioned by the law Governor Patrick signed two years ago is to get people out of their cars - "influencing consumer behavior," in the Orwellian parlance of the meddling bureaucrat.  And how do bureaucrats "influence" you and me out of our cars?  By rendering driving cost-prohibitive.  Gas tax hikes.  Toll hikes. 

But that's not all.  Even pricing you and me out of our cars will only get Patrick & Co. part way to their goals, at best.  So what's next?
Aggressively concentrating new housing and jobs in urban areas will have new households logging 1 million fewer miles per year, according to a Metropolitan Area Planning Council model. But even that modest savings, which roughly translates to 160,000 of the 380,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year that greenDOT aims to eliminate via smart growth by 2020, is unlikely unless municipalities and state agencies join forces to dramatically change the way the state is growing, said MAPC Senior Regional Planner Tim Reardon.
And how might state government "aggressively concentrat[e] new housing and jobs in urban areas..."?  God only knows, but you can be sure that however "municipalities and state agencies join forces to dramatically change the way the state is growing" [aside: the state is growing?], it will involve new ways of pricing individuals out of the choices that we now take for granted.  Where to live.  How to get around.  Where to work.

If you think I'm slipping into Black Helicopter territory here, I don't really blame you.  So let's step back to the immediate issue.  Follow this logical progression:

  • Governor Patrick tried in his first term to increase the gas tax, and recently lamented his failure to do so at a gathering of supporters in (where else?) Cambridge;
  • Governor Patrick signed a law obligating his Administration to churn out regulations to achieve wholly unrealistic emissions reduction targets;
  • Patrick's Secretary of Transportation has now openly acknowledged that changes in state operations cannot come close to realizing said targets; and
  • The aforementioned Secretary of Transportation has started to deploy euphemisms like "influencing consumer behavior" and "transportation pricing"; ergo
  • A vote to reelect Governor Patrick equals a vote to increase the gas tax.  At least
Anyone want to point out a flaw in that logic?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Maybe he reads the newspapers...

Reacting to the latest independent television ad being aired by the Republican Governor's Association, which - as usual - he cannot rebut factually, Treasurer Tim Cahill is lashing out at Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi in bizarrely schoolyard-esque terms.  "If he (Barbour) ever wants to see me, he can come to Quincy. I’m here anytime," Cahill tells the Herald.  And "When I’m governor, I’ll come down to Mississippi and straighten out his state as well."  And "I'll be behind the back-stop at 3:30.  If he's not chicken, he'll show up and we'll settle this."

Okay, I made up that last one.

But not this: "How would a guy from Mississippi know what my record is?"

Leave aside the kind of silly proposition that Governor Haley Barbour is himself, individually producing the independent ads that have been taking Cahill to task for his well-established record of smarmy, Beacon Hill politics.  So far as I know, the good folks down in Mississippi do have access to the internet, and therefore to our newspapers.  So to answer Cahill's question, Barbour probably knows about Cahill's record from:

This Boston Globe article on his 2009 ethics issues; and

This Wall Street Journal front page article that used him as an example of state-level pay-to-play government; and

This Globe front page investigative piece on his campaign fundraising, and its accompanying flow-chart; and

This Herald article on the SEC's indictment of one of  his top fundraisers; and

This Globe article on his questionable fundraising practices; and

This Globe editorial titled "Cahill donations raise specter of pay-to-play government"; and

This Globe investigation of rampant patronage in the state's probation department; and

Yet another Globe piece about the huge contributions Cahill gets from firms that do business with the agencies he oversees; and

This Herald front-page about Cahill's cash haul from firms that receive massive SBA contracts; and

This Herald piece about Cahill's cash haul from firms who do business with the alcohol and gaming agencies that Cahill oversees; and

Today's Globe piece about the RI gaming company that is alleging in court that it missed out on lucrative contracts because its competitors fed Cahill's campaign coffers (though in fairness, because the ads came out yesterday, "Barbour" probably couldn't have relied on this article for information about Cahill's record).

The old maxim, "where there's smoke, there's fire" does not quite do it when it comes to Cahill, does it?

UPDATE, 7/14: And this one, about a Cahill bundler who just agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for breaking the law in connection with his contributions to the Treasurer. You might want to keep checking back.  This list is likely to keep growing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Two new videos from the Baker campaign

One practical (watch this one if you've been asking yourself, "how can I get involved?)"...

... and one fun.

"Free of public scrutiny"

News of the goings-on in our state legislature more often than not bring a fleeting grimace to my face.  Rarely, however, does a bulletin cause my stomach to knot in frustration the way it did today.  From the State House News:

A six-member panel of legislators shuttered negotiations Thursday on dueling gambling bills approved by the House and Senate, with one of the members saying private negotiations would be the most expedient way to "get to yes" on a compromise proposal.
A bit of background for anyone just stumbling into this particular issue: After resoundingly defeating a proposal by Governor Patrick to legalize casino gaming in Massachusetts just over two years ago, a healthy majority of the Massachusetts state legislature this year executed a snappy about-face at the behest of new, casino-friendly leadership.  Both the House and Senate have passed casino bills, but with important differences - primary among which is the House version's provision authorizing slot machines at the state's floundering race tracks ("slotsattatracks," in the local vernacular).  That's a big deal to House Speaker Bob Deleo, who derives much political support from the operators of the two tracks located in his district.  Governor Patrick and Senate President Murray are generally opposed to slotsattatracks, believing (among other things) that they will detract from the profitability of the full-blown, Foxwoods-style casinos that each favors.  Hence, the disjointed House and Senate versions, and the need for the above-mentioned "six-member panel of legislators" who today unanimously voted to conduct their negotiations in secret (on a bi-partisan basis, by the way - shame on you, Republican conferees). 

Okay, so here's a disclaimer: I do not like casinos.  I do not like casinos for two reasons, one practical and the other sort of hypocritical. I've explained why, at length, here, here and here.  I do not like casinos for what they have come to represent in the Massachusetts non-debate over whether we ought to have them here: namely, a false panacea for the Commonwealth's fiscal difficulties.  There is simply no precedent - none whatsoever - for the assumption, which underlies much of the limited public debate on the issue, that "new revenues" from casinos will either outweigh their costs or solve any part of the state's budget problems.  On the other hand, there is plenty of precedent for the argument that states that lean on casino revenues tend to simply spend those revenues and land themselves back in the same fiscal suck-swamp from which they'd hoped to escape by legalizing casino gambling in the first place.  See, Exhibit A: Connecticut.  See, Exhibit B: California.  And so on. 

As to the hypocritical, additional reason for my opposition to casinos in Massachusetts, I'll acknowledge that  I've darkened the doors of my share of casinos in my day, in Vegas, in Atlantic City, in New Orleans - even at a rest stop in California, a mind-numbingly depressing experience that I fear will become all-too-familiar to Massachusetts residents in the foreseeable future.  Generally I go to these places at the behest of friends who enjoy them a great deal more than I do.  I have fun for a while, then I want to leave - usually before said friends.  The point is, I recognize that a lot of people have a good time at these places.  I do too.  I'm okay with the fact that they exist out there, far away.  I do NOT want one in my backyard. As it happens, there's an out-of-state developer chomping at the bit to put up a casino almost literally in my backyard.  As much as I oppose the misplaced hope for casino-spurred economic revival, I REALLY oppose transformation of my bucolic little home town into Vegas East (or, worse, Atlantic City North). 

So ends my lengthy disclaimer.  Now back to the topic at hand.  There are a lot of people out there who oppose casinos, either passively or actively.  Many of the latter are motivated by the same NIMBY-ism that has me all worked up over the issue.  There are also plenty of ardent supporters of Bay State casinos.  Do these people - taxpayers, voters - not deserve a window into the deliberations of the legislative panel that will determine the parameters according to which gaming emporia will come to the Commonwealth?  Here's the next paragraph of that State House News article quoted above:
Conference committees are typically closed, permitting members to negotiate free of public scrutiny, but opponents of expanded gambling said lawmakers should have made an exception for a bill with major, long-term implications for Massachusetts, and one that would affect how billions of public and private dollars will change hands.
Just so.  The bill being "negotiated" in the dark this week will have "major, long-term implications for Massachusetts."  As to the communities that will host the envisioned gambling megaplexes, "major" is a huge understatement.  Those communities will be altered fundamentally and irrevocably. 

"Conference committees are typically closed, permitting members to negotiate free of public scrutiny...."  Senator Stanley Rosenberg, one of the principal shoulders behind the gaming push, said a closed door conference would be "the most expedient way to 'get to yes.'" 

That's what has my stomach in a knot.  The head-slammed-on-the-table arrogance of it.  At the risk of drowning in my own flood of cliches: these people are elected to represent us!  We pay their salaries!  What right do they have to take an issue of tremendous, lasting importance, and presume to "get to yes" through horse-trading and arm-twisting conducted in secret?  And by the way, who says casinos - which the Commonwealth has managed to get by without since its founding - need to be authorized "expediently"?

The frustration I feel is tempered only slightly by my new-found hope that finally, at long last, Massachusetts voters are tiring of the arrogance and presumption so starkly on display again today.  Quite a few sitting members of our sclerotic legislature have decided to retire this year, so whether or not the voter revolt that some sense coming actually transpires, there will be more new faces in the House and Senate next year than have appeared in a long while. 

Here's hoping enough of those new folks dedicate themselves to transparent government to make a difference in a legislature still dominated by people, like today's door-slamming panel, who shun "public scrutiny" and prefer to do their dealing in the dark.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Where can I get a cap like that?

Under the ominous headline, "State borrows more than $3 billion in two years to meet cash needs," the State House News reports that here in Massachusetts
[s]tate government has turned to historically high levels of short-term borrowing to meet payroll and cash needs, including local aid payments like Wednesday's quarterly delivery of $1.17 billion to cities and towns.

According to state documents, short-term borrowing, a method of generating cash in anticipation of expected tax, reimbursement and bond revenues, totaled $3.25 billion over the past two fiscal years - $1.5 billion this year and $1.75 billion in fiscal 2009...
Anyone who has ever run a balance on an Amex can probably appreciate - if not truly understand - the magnitude of those numbers.  Three billion, with a 'B'.  But that isn't the fun part of this news flash.  The fun part comes when the SHNS notes that this three billion bucks has been borrowed to support Beacon Hill spending, "despite a self-imposed cap on such borrowing of $1 billion at the state Treasury."

Well now that's strange.  Where I come from, a "cap" means a limit.  A brake point.  The max, beyond which one may not go.  So I'm immediately curious about what a "cap" of $1 billion means in the context of three times that amount in reported short-term borrowing over two years.  As usual, the State House News makes things abundantly clear.
On Wednesday, James MacDonald, assistant treasurer for cash management, called the cap a "target" and said no progress had been made on indexing it. MacDonald said the Treasury makes decisions around short-term borrowing based on the state's ability to pay notes off quickly.
So on Beacon Hill, a "cap" is a "target."  I wonder if that one would work on a consumer credit card company.  "I know, I know Mr. Visa Bill Collector.  I blew way past my credit limit.  But I thought that was a 'target,' more than a 'cap,' you know?"

But wait, there's more.  A "cap" can also be an "understanding."
A Treasury spokesman, David Kibbe, told the News Service earlier this week that the Treasury does not have a cap on short-term borrowing but declined to respond when asked when the cap was eliminated, ceding to MacDonald, who called the cap a target. "There was an understanding of a billion," MacDonald said.
So to re-cap (ahem): in Massachusetts we have a "cap" at $1 billion on short-term borrowing.  That "cap" is really just a "target" and/or an "understanding," neither of which, apparently, has much in the way of restraining power, since current short-term borrowing for each of the past two years has blown right past the cap.  And what is all that borrowing for?  It's for paying the Commonwealth's bills.  So one might assume that this tripling in short-term borrowing is indicative of, I don't know, maybe a spending problem?

Hell no, says Governor Patrick's office (again from the SHNS):
A spokeswoman for Patrick budget chief Jay Gonzalez... defended state spending levels during the Patrick administration.

"Short-term borrowing has nothing to do with spending," said the spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy. "The fact of the matter is we have a balanced, responsible budget for the fourth year in a row. Cash flow is about the timing between when bills are due and when revenues are collected. That disparity has been exacerbated by the volatile fiscal situation we have been in, which the governor has managed. The actions we have taken are smart, prudent and fiscally responsible."
In other words: Nothing to see here.  Move along.