Friday, December 31, 2010

Life or (nothing) like it

The last paragraph of an article in the Globe today following up on the recent, tragic and totally avoidable killing of a Woburn police officer by a career criminal who was set free by the unanimous vote of the state parole board despite having been sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison struck me as simultaneously encapsulating a serious problem and at the same time suggesting a solution:
The board paroled about two-thirds of the inmates who appeared before it each year since 2005, according to agency statistics. The percentage of so-called lifers who requested and received parole was 40 percent in 2009; 27 percent in 2008; 27 percent in 2007; and 31 percent in 2006.
I love that term.  "So-called lifers."  How about we save the system and society and whole lot of effort and grief and just lose the "so-called" part?

Think about what those percentages imply.  In 2009, 40 percent of petitioners adjudged guilty of criminal offenses serious enough to earn them sentences of "life" behind bars were set free into society by the parole board.  The late and unlamented Dominic Cinelli, who took the life of sixty year old police officer Jack Maguire on Sunday, was supposedly serving not one but three consecutive life sentences handed down as the cumulative wages of a young life spent as what the system calls a "career criminal."  Instead of dying in prison, Cinelli died on a sidewalk outside of s department store, surrounded by spilled diamonds and spilled blood, in a scene straight out of any number of movies.

The Globe also re-caps the story of Edward Corliss, a convicted murderer paroled from his "life" sentence who last year murdered an innocent clerk during a convenience story robbery.  As the Globe notes,
Both alleged killers were recent parolees and one-time drug abusers serving sentences of 15 years to life for violent crime. Both had histories of escaping from custody. Both persuaded the Parole Board they had changed.
The obvious question arises: why were such men given the opportunity in the first instance to dupe the parole board into believing they had been rehabilitated?  Why does "life in prison" not mean "life in prison?"

A post at Red Mass Group, citing to a 2009 Lowell Sun article, points out that the parole board as currently constituted is comprised of 5 members appointed by Governor Patrick and two Romney holdovers, and is chaired - in a bit of unfortunate imagery that Patrick must be thanking his lucky stars did not become an issue two months ago - by Patrick's former campaign driver.  The board vote on Cinelli was unanimous, an observation sure to be repeated in the coming days and weeks as tragedy gives way to anger and political recriminations begin to fly with more force.  That is so.  The two Romney appointees were apparently as taken with Cinelli as their more recently appointed colleagues.


I recall that in 2005-06, we were told repeatedly that efforts by candidate Patrick's opponent to focus on his inexplicable advocacy for the release of a convicted rapist constituted the worst kind of "fear-mongering."  Admittedly, the Benjamin LaGuer line of criticism eventually overwhelmed itself; the message was consumed by the atmospherics.  The message was and is highly relevant, however.  Deval Patrick expended a good deal of effort (and money) on behalf of a convicted rapist.  He did this not as LaGuer's attorney, but of his own volition.  Patrick struck up a personal correspondence with the man, contributed to his defense fund, wrote letters on his behalf.

Should anyone be surprised, then, that the parole board appointed by Governor Patrick displays lenient tendencies that in at least two cases have already led directly to two murders that indisputably would not have occurred if the perpetrators had in fact served out the "life" sentences they were given for previous crimes?  And does that not matter?

The Herald tacks some raw numbers onto the Globe's percentages:
The rate at which the state parole board doled out “get out of jail free” passes to lifers skyrocketed by 50 percent last year — a shocking spike that enraged state legislators who proposed tough new laws after the tragic shooting death of a Woburn cop.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s seven-member parole board sprang 35 out of 88 convicts serving life sentences in 2009, or 40 percent, a Herald review found. By comparison, the board paroled just 29 out of 108 lifers, or 27 percent, the year before.
Thirty-five people convicted of crimes serious enough to get "life" sentences, now out walking the streets. 

Is that kind of frightening?  Or am I just "fear-mongering"?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Did someone say "envirocrusade"?

Yeah, I did.  Further to my last, it seems that the Octomommification of Cape Wind was only the beginning of the Patrick Administration's second term greening of Massachusetts (or de-greening, if the 'green' in question is of the monetary variety).

Step two was announced today by outgoing Patrick Enviroguru Ian Bowles, who seems to have saved up all of the major items on his four year to-do list for his last week in office.  From the State House News:
Massachusetts will seek to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels over the next 10 years, giving the state one of the strictest emissions codes in the country under new regulations to be set by the Patrick administration.

Energy Secretary Ian Bowles announced the legally binding targets Wednesday after a two-year review process, choosing the most stringent emissions control level available under the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which set the parameters for reductions by 2020 of between 10 percent and 25 percent...
"Establishing this statewide GHG emissions limit and outlining the specific and practical policy measures that can achieve that limit is a milestone in the Commonwealth's ongoing efforts to create a vibrant clean energy economy, reduce energy costs for consumers, increase energy independence and contribute toward stabilizing our climate," Bowles wrote in his letter of determination. He called the target "responsible and achievable" and said it "will not have an undue economic impact."
That last part is rich, calling to mind Obi-Wan Kenobi's famous line, "these aren't the droids you're looking for." Imposition of the strictest emissions standards in the nation "will not have an undue economic impact," proclaims Secretary Bowles, just before the door connects with his tuckus.

But consider this: Massachusetts already has the fifth highest energy costs in the nation, according to a recent ranking by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council.  Business leaders routinely cite that comparative factor as a major disincentive to relocation to or expansion in the Commonwealth.  Secretary Bowles' Jedi mind trick notwithstanding, establishing the strictest emissions standards in the nation will undoubtedly increase the cost of energy here, no matter how many Cape Winds the Governor manages to build off our shores. It will also give a handy argument to each and every other state that competes with us for corporate investment.

In response to my post yesterday about the aforementioned multiplication of Cape Wind, a friend wrote, "...consider China, which not only leads the world in carbon emissions, but now leads the world in the production of wind energy equipment. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if those products were made in Massachusetts?"

To which the answer is, of course, "sure it would."  Unfortunately, in large part due to our high cost of energy we no longer manufacture much of anything around here - as the much-ballyhooed Evergreen Solar illustrated in day-glo color last year when it decided to take its tens of millions in state aid and move its manufacturing operations from Devens to China, in part due to the high cost of energy here.  How's that for irony?

But hey, any sacrifice of jobs and economic growth is worth it to fight the menace of Global Climate Change, right?  And if Massachusetts can strike a decisive blow in that fight by imposing standards that will accelerate the already-steady outflow of businesses from the Commonwealth to lower-cost states, then who can argue with the need to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good (or for "the children," if you prefer).

The only problem is, even according to its champion this move is largely symbolic in the grand eco-scheme of things.  Again from the SHNS:
Massachusetts accounts for roughly 1.3 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, but state energy officials believe the state is in a position to "show the way to a clean energy economy."

But wait.  It gets better. 
Current emission levels are roughly even or slightly below those of 1990 already thanks to a transitioning of the Massachusetts economy from industrial to service-based industries and a shifting away from oil to natural gas power, which now accounts for up to 40 percent of the state's energy portfolio.
"A transitioning of the Massachusetts economy from industrial to service-based industries" is a nice way of saying "the slow and agonizing death of our manufacturing base."  But let's not quibble.  The point is, even in the best case scenario from Bowles & Co.'s perspective, the draconian measures the Patrick Administration is about to impose on our economy will reduce the nation's carbon emissions a whopping 0.33 percent (that's zero point three three percent, for anyone inclined to suspect a misplaced decimal point).

But hey.  At least we'll get to "show the way to a clean energy economy." 

Or maybe to a jobless economy.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

EHC: "Is Massachusetts ready for eight cape winds?"

"Elections Have Consequences" - posts in this series concern topics that would not have arisen but for the Commonwealth's decision to maintain the status quo in the November 2010 elections... 

Is Massachusetts ready for eight Cape Winds?  

No joke, that is the first sentence of an article published by the State House News Service this evening. 

So let's think about that for, I don't know, about a nanosecond...

No.  Massachusetts is not ready for eight Cape Winds.  Massachusetts - particularly the about-to-be-reamed Cape and Island rate-payers - is barely even ready for the one Cape Wind that the Wind Cult worshipers in the Obama and Patrick administrations are about to foist on it, never might Cape Wind times eight.  But there it is in glowing black and white on my computer screen tonight:
The federal government on Tuesday initiated its offshore wind energy leasing process and state officials in Massachusetts simultaneously expressed interest in helping to develop enough wind energy in federal waters off the state's coast to power 1.7 million homes, a goal that state officials admit will require advances in all aspects of generation and transmission systems.

Also, outgoing state Energy and Environment Secretary Ian Bowles, facing criticism over the state's approval of above-market energy prices in connection with Cape Wind, announced the state will partner with research institutions and offshore wind energy experts to win federal funding with the goal of reducing the cost of offshore wind by 40 percent by the 2020 and 60 percent by 2030.

A state supplement, offered in connection with a U.S. Department of Interior's request for interest to measure the industry's appetite for offshore energy projects, expresses interest in development of up to 4 gigawatts, or 4,000 megawatts, of installed power generation in federal waters off the coast of Massachusetts "provided such resources can be developed in a cost effective manner."

To put that capacity estimate in perspective, Cape Wind, the wind turbine farm marked for Nantucket Sound, will generate about 468 megawatts of power if the project is built -proponents have cleared major state and federal hurdles but opponents have not given up their fight. Alternately, 4,000 megawatts equals the electricity produced by all coal-fired plants in Massachusetts.
I used the term "Wind Cult" above pointedly.  The words fit.  These people really are like members of a cult, doggedly oblivious to stubborn reality in their determination to use their fleeting hold on the levers of governmental power (and its associated purse strings) to advance the wind agenda at any and all costs.  When Governor Patrick first boarded the Cape Wind express, the central proposition was straightforward and appealing (once one got past the whole 'industrial installation in the middle of Nantucket sound' thing): clean power at competitive rates.  Who - other than a Kennedy - could argue with that?

Somewhere along the line between proposition and reality, though, that second prong fell off.  With nearly every hurdle to initiation of construction now cleared, what businesses and consumers on the Cape and Islands are about to get is clean power... at roughly double the current cost.

Having seemingly achieved the dubious goal of bringing the nation's first offshore wind farm to Massachusetts, one might imagine Governor Patrick and the rest of the Wind Culters would be content to take that honorific to the cocktail circuit and bask in the adulation of their like-minded peers.  But no.  Governor Patrick and the rest of the WCs will not rest until they have imposed over-priced wind power on the whole of the Commonwealth.

Go back to that excerpt from the State House News above, and you'll note that even the administration's cursory nod to Cape Wind's price-conscious critics (a.k.a. troglodytes/Tools of Big Oil) is oozing with the same kind of windvangelical wish-fulfillment.  Secretary Bowles "announced the state will partner with research institutions and offshore wind energy experts to win federal funding with the goal of reducing the cost of offshore wind by 40 percent by the 2020 and 60 percent by 2030."

As if all that is needed to reconcile the fairy fantasy of wind power with the stark reality of technology and cost is a little goal re-jiggering.  As if Cape Wind would have worked out just fine if only its architects hadn't set out to double the cost of energy on the Cape.

Look, if Massachusetts could meet its energy needs with a bunch of windmills, I'd be the first one in line to (invest) support it.  But if the Cape Wind saga has taught us anything, it is that the starry-eyed projections of the Wind Cult must be taken with a big old shaker of salt.  Right now - before a single pylon is in the water, with contracts being signed that will double (double!) the current cost of power for those unlucky ratepayers destined to buy their energy from Cape Wind - is not the time for the Commonwealth or anyone else to octuple down on wind power.

But such is the hubris of Governor Patrick.  Coming off a reelection in which everyone else could see Tim Cahill giving him ten fingers, Patrick thinks he just pulled off the political equivalent of a Jordan foul-line dunk.  With this move, any speculation about a moderated second term should end.  Governor Patrick is going to push his agenda, and push it hard.

Rabid duck on steroids
If Patrick is a lame duck, as some have prematurely suggested, then he is the most dangerous kind of lame duck.  The kind on steroids.  With rabies.

Of course nobody should be surprised by the Governor's new ideological aggressiveness.  After all, elections have consequences.

Friday, December 24, 2010

EHC: Oooooo. Governor Patrick is gonna be soooooo pissed

"Elections Have Consequences" - posts in this series concern topics that would not have arisen but for the Commonwealth's decision to maintain the status quo in the November 2010 elections...  

Boy oh boy, I would not want to be Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester this week.  Mitch is going to be in big, huge, gimungus trouble when Governor Patrick gets wind of his plan to phase out the MCAS - Massachusetts' highly-successful educational achievement standards - in favor of a generic mish-mash of national standards imposed by a faceless, playing-field-leveling bureaucracy in DC.  

 After all, it was only six months ago that Governor Patrick emphatically (adamantly/indignantly/insistently) proclaimed that "NOOOOOOOBODY" in his administration was "talking about walking away from the MCAS".  

So just imagine the Governor's outrage when he read in the State House News earlier this week (reprinted here by the Swampscott Reporter - which is highly appropriate to those who followed this issue through the recent campaign) that 
The state Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously signed off on efforts to incorporate national standards into the state's public education curricula, with plans to fully weave the so-called Common Core standards into English and math testing by 2013.
 Chester, who apparently missed the Governor's crystal-clear declaration back in June, seems pretty psyched about the new national standards.
“My sense of talking to folks around the state ... is overall a lot of excitement, a lot of energy around the step forward these new standards represent,” Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said at a board meeting in Malden.
He'd better enjoy his excitement and energy while it lasts, because once Governor Patrick hears about the move, he's sure to come down on Chester like a ton of bricks.  After all, it isn't like the plan is ambiguous when it comes to the short-term phasing out of the MCAS.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials said schools will first be asked to emphasize the standards that overlap with Massachusetts’s existing curriculum and to begin phasing out standards that will eventually be eliminated. By 2012, school districts will be asked to fold in new standards into their framework, and by 2013 or 2014, they said, those standards would be reflected on the MCAS, Massachusetts primary standardized test.
So current standards will "eventually be eliminated," leaving an MCAS that "reflects" the new national standards.  This is like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers method of incremental reform.  Sure Mr. MCAS will still be walking around, looking much the same as he always did.  He'll just be all buggy-eyed and screeching like Donald Sutherland.

So why does any of this matter?  Supporters of the move to Common Core standards inevitably insist that we in Massachusetts aren't lowering our standards... we're just making them the same as everyone else's.  Which is not to say everyone else has adopted Massachusetts' standards, mind you.  Oh no!  That would have been the easy way to make sure that our standards - which routinely produce the highest-achieving students in the nation - were not dumbed down in the course of this great national leavening.  No, rather than keep our standards and help bring our brethren in the other 49 up to our standards, we participated in a national mash up that, according to critics, will have the net result of weakening our own standards.
James Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, said the federal standards are “much improved” from original drafts but “did not measure up to what Massachusetts had before.” Stergios said he believe the English language arts standards took a “pretty significant” hit.

Stergios said he does not believe the state and its school districts will meet the goal of aligning curriculum and instruction in the “short window” before the 2012-13 school year, noting that 70 percent of districts had aligned state standards with curriculum over the past ten years. He said he’s concerned students will end up being tested on matters they have not studied in school. “At this point it’s done and we are very concerned about the practical effects on the kids in the classrooms,” Stergios said.
Those "practical effects on the kids in the classrooms" were undoubtedly what Governor/Candidate Patrick had in mind last year when he stood up courageously for the MCAS and drew a line in the sand against "walking away" from our unrivaled success in educational achievement.

Which is why Mitchell Chester is going to be in soooo much trouble when Governor Patrick finds out what he and the Board of Education did on Tuesday.

Either that, or Governor Patrick was full of it all along.  But that can't be the case!  The voters of Massachusetts are too smart to fall for a candidate willing to act so quickly and crassly in diametric opposition to his clear and unequivocal campaign proclamations... Right?

Elections have consequences.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Elections Have (Collateral) Consequences

I read the headline, "Mass. to check immigration status of those arrested," and I think, "well good for the Governor.  Maybe he IS going to moderate himself in his second term."  I click into the article, thinking this might just present an opportunity for me to store up some centrist credibility chits by writing something supportive of Governor Patrick for a change.

Then I read the article (which is about the federal Secure Communities program, by the way.  You may recall that Patrick's refusal to join the program earlier kicked up some dust during the gubernatorial campaign).
Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said Massachusetts will sign an agreement to formally join Secure Communities, a federal program that screens all people who are arrested and fingerprinted to determine who is an illegal immigrant. Those here illegally will be reported to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will decide whether to detain and deport them.
So far so common sense ("you mean they don't already do that??" is always the most frequent man-on-the-street reaction to this issue). But what occurred to prompt Governor Patrick to back off of his earlier reluctance?  Turns out this is a command performance.
State officials said they agreed to sign up because the Obama administration has demanded that the system expand nationwide by 2013... “Over the last year we have received conflicting information from ICE relative to the program. It has become clear now that this program is going to be mandatory for all communities in the near future,” Heffernan said today in a statement. “With that knowledge we will sign the (memorandum of understanding) with ICE. We will also work closely with all communities to monitor the implementation and share with federal officials any concerns that are raised.”
 So this move is not so much about our Governor Patrick (who won reelection comfortably) moderating himself as it is about President Obama (who the voters treated like the Pats have been treating opponents lately) tacking to the center in response to the national Republican resurgence. 

I suppose here in Massachusetts we Rs should take what we can get and not spend too much time poking at motivations - but perhaps someone should point out to Governor Patrick that his Maxi-Me in the White House also just signed on to a major tax cut...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oh good. We were about due for another round of legislative indictments.

Seems like the whole DiMasi/Wilkerson/Marzilli/Galluccio series of perp walks happened a million years ago.

And heck, we couldn't let a whole election cycle pass without at least one good grand jury investigation targeting members of the Massachusetts state legislature, could we?  We have a reputation to defend, what with Illinois and New York working  so hard to build their own cases for 'Most Corrupt and Dysfunctional State Government' status.

So it is good news, you see, to read on the front page of the Globe today that
The criminal investigation into alleged rigged hiring at the state Probation Department has moved beyond the agency itself into the State House, where a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for records and House and Senate leaders are retaining an outside attorney.
 What with the six (six!!!) separate investigations and inquiries about the probation scandal currently getting ramped up, just think of all the jobs that are being created.  It's a win-win.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elections Have Consequences: "Prediction? Pain."

The second in an ongoing series that I'm calling "Elections Have Consequences" - posts in this series concern topics that would not have arisen but for the Commonwealth's decision to maintain the status quo in the November 2010 elections... 
“It’s a $2 billion gap, and the difference between that and the past is, that’s a real gap,’’ said Steven C. Panagiotakos, the Senate’s outgoing budget chief.
Senate Panagiotakos (it kills me that just as I've finally managed to successfully store the correct spelling of his name, he is retiring) is talking here about the Beacon Hill Democrats' sudden discovery this week of a $2 billion structural gap in the 2011 state budget.  The Globe headline, "Budget leaders forecast more pain" calls to mind Clubber Lang:

Even casual observers of the 2010 Massachusetts gubernatorial race will recall, perhaps with some measure of chagrin, that Charlie Baker somehow managed to discover that gap nearly a year ago, and proposed a "Baker's Dozen" of proposals to begin to deal with it.  Meanwhile, Governor Patrick (as the Globe puts it today) "repeatedly sidestepped questions about how he intends to close a massive budget hole next year, saying that rising tax collections suggest that the gap is shrinking."  But hey.  Water under the bridge.

And anyhow, if Senator Panagiotakos is to be believed that big ol' gap that Baker was railing about for months was... I dunno... imaginary?  Only with the campaign over is the gap is now "real," you see.  So the Gov is off the hook for his dogged evasions and free to commence the entirely predictable evolutionary process that begins today with dire predictions of budgetary "pain," and will end some weeks or maybe months from now with the tax hikes that Baker supporters predicted all along would follow Patrick's reelection as surely as day follows night.

I pity the fool who voted for Governor Patrick on the belief that he won't raise taxes.

Hell no, he won't go!

"Probation head won't go willingly," reads the Globe headline.  "Dismissal process could take months," the sub-head continues.

Members of that diminishing sub-set of the working population who have never toiled outside the private sector might well scratch their heads in mild puzzlement at the news that John O'Brien, the long-embattled head of the state Probation Department, to this day retains both his title and his full salary.  As the Globe succinctly describes the situation,
While it might seem that independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr.’s findings — that O’Brien engaged in “pervasive fraud’’ in hiring — would be grounds for termination, the state’s Trial Court must follow elaborate due process rules before it can fire any employee.
 The term "due process rules" is misleading, lending to O'Brien's situation a false patina of Constitutional protection - the notion, all too common in the public sector, that he has a "right" to his taxpayer-funded salary that ranks right up there with the whole 'life / liberty / pursuit of happiness' package.

Neither the Massachusetts nor the United States Constitution confers a "right" to a job (however fervently some on the left-most end of the political spectrum might wish that were so).  O'Brien's ability to cling to a position - and a six figure salary - that would have been lost to him at the first drop of the words "pervasive fraud" were his employer of the private persuasion is entirely the cumulative result of decades upon decades of concessions to public sector union negotiators that have created a system that puts dismissing a public employee up there on the difficulty scale with pinning Brett Favre to a retirement date.

In their mad rush to do something - anything - to create a perception of leadership and action on the probation issue, Governor Patrick, Senate President Murray and House Speaker DeLeo have jointly proposed subjecting the probation department to civil service rules.  They correctly point out that such a move would ensure that political patronage would be purged from the department's hiring process, since all candidates would be ranked and hired (or not) on the basis of a standardized test.

That is fine as far as it goes, but it is the wrong move.  By rushing to "reform" the hiring side of the equation, the proposal would only make things worse on the other end of the employment cycle, by making it even harder to fire under-performing, corrupt or even criminal employees.  Anyone doubting that assertion need only read this recent editorial from the Salem News, titled "Another Civil Service Commission Travesty."  An excerpt:
Once again, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has made clear that no public employee can be fired for any reason, ever.

In a ruling even one of its own members found "absurd," the commission determined that even a school janitor guilty of working on an illegal gambling operation while on duty, has a right to return to his job.

Eugene Casey, a former Methuen elementary school janitor, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of using a telephone for gambling. Casey was part of a gambling ring that was handling up to $500,000 in wagers a week.

Casey received two years of probation and a $2,000 fine. The then superintendent of schools fired him in 2007. He appealed to the state Civil Service Commission to get his job back.

And in a 3-2 ruling earlier this month, the commission amended Casey's firing to a one-year suspension. While the commission did not order that Casey receive back pay, he can appeal that decision.
 The Law of Unintended Consequences seldom applies with greater force than when politicians rush to create new law in response to the political imperatives of the moment.  Subjecting the probation department to civil service rules might prevent future reestablishment of Jack O'Brien's patronage fiefdom, but no better than would just a modicum of competent oversight of the department's hiring practices.  It would also add more cement to the already high and thick bunker walls that the unions have built up over the years to protect public sector jobs at all costs and in all circumstances.

On that general topic, today's column in the Wall Street Journal by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is a must-read.  Highlights:
The rise of the labor movement in the early 20th century was a triumph for America's working class. In an era of deep economic anxiety, unions stood up for hard-working but vulnerable families, protecting them from physical and economic exploitation.

Much has changed. The majority of union members today no longer work in construction, manufacturing or "strong back" jobs. They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming "industry" left in our economy. Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000.

Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector. And across the country, at every level of government, the pattern is the same: Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.

How did this happen? Very quietly. The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions...

Reformers would be wise to adopt three overriding principles.

First, we need to bring public employee compensation back in line with the private sector and reduce the overall size of the federal civilian work force. Mr. Obama's proposal to freeze federal pay is a step in the right direction, but it falls well short of shrinking government and eliminating the pay premium enjoyed by federal employees.

Second, get the numbers right. Government should start using the same established accounting standards that private businesses are required to use, so we can accurately assess unfunded liabilities.

Third, we need to end defined-benefit retirement plans for government employees. Defined-benefit systems have created a financial albatross for taxpayers. The private sector dropped them years ago in favor of the clarity and predictability of defined-contribution models such as 401(k) plans. This change alone can save taxpayers trillions of dollars.

The moral case for unions—protecting working families from exploitation—does not apply to public employment. Government employees today are among the most protected, well-paid employees in the country. Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them.
Well said.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Beacon Hill self-parody (part deux)

Okay, okay.  I realize I've already typed at least one post too many about the Jobs Commission That Wasn't, a non-story of relative non-importance in the grand scheme of the universe (or even the Commonwealth).  But Beacon Hill pols keep falling over each other to say HIGH-larious things about it, and I just cannot resist...

This headline from the State House News today caused a painful coffee snarf: "Jobs Panel Chairs Defend Late Start, Weigh Statewide Tour."

A statewide tour!!  By a commission that does not even exist!  The idea is just too toe-curlingly exciting to ponder.  Reserve your tickets today to beat the lines.

By "late start," of course, those defensive chairs mean "non-start," but why quibble when they are apparently planning to make it all up to us by taking their hypothetical show on the road? 

The article is even better than the headline.
“Moving around or going to various regions may provide us with more information, more opportunities to hear from people,” said Rep. John Scibak, co-chair of the jobs commission, who added he would like to “hear from people who are actually involved in [job creation] on a day-to-day basis.”
On this point Rep. Scibak is undoubtedly correct: by "moving around" the commission members (assuming they are ever appointed) will most certainly get "more information" than they have been able to gather by way of their previous strategy of not forming and not meeting.  It's inevitable.  And talking to "people who are actually involved in job creation" (meaning "people who are not members of an imaginary Beacon Hill jobs commission") is an excellent idea.  So good plan so far.  But Rep. Scibak isn't done yet.
“Job creation is important. I believe there’s been some things that we’ve tried to do to address it. What I’m hoping is that this commission will come up with some strong and helpful recommendations. It’s not going to be a review or study that collects dust on a shelf,” said Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat.
Hell no!  If the commission continues its ephemeral existence and steadfastly refuses to meet, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever that it will produce "a review or study that collects dust on a shelf," thus achieving the dual benefit of sparing said shelf its weight, and sparing low-level Massachusetts political beat reporters the thankless task of reading a bunch of "job creation" ideas hatched by the aforementioned non-job-creators.  He's on a roll, and he keeps on rollin'.
“If the criticism that’s been directed this week gets more people focused on this issue and energizes participants as well as other people across the commonwealth, that should be a positive thing.”
Brilliant!  By failing to constitute itself or meet a single time for two full years, the non-commission has brought focus and energy to the issue of unemployment in the Commonwealth!  These people, the ones whose identities have been established that is, are geniuses.  Now if only we could convince them to share their thoughts on job creation...

But Rep. Scibak is not alone.  Senator Karen Spilka is also on the case.
Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), the Senate co-chair of the commission, said she plans to solicit ideas from other commission members before deciding how the panel proceeds.
That's great!  Doubtless they will have many ideas.  Of course first she'll have to ascertain their identities.  But how hard can that be?  We should check back with her in another 24 months or so.
“I would certainly suggest that we go and do a listening tour,” she said, comparing it [to] hearings around the state that the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which she co-chairs, conducted two years ago.
Two years ago!  Right around the time the jobs non-commission was first established.  Well, that explains at least part of the delay.  A "listening tour" is clearly called for (Rep. Scibak and Sen. Spilka are very clear on that point).  And nobody could have reasonably expected Senator Spilka to embark on another listening tour so quickly after completing the rip-roarer that the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies (which she chairs, by the by)  wrapped up in 2009.  You remember that one, of course.  Who doesn't?
Spilka said the commission hadn’t met because lawmakers opted to “take action” rather than study job creation measures.

“We really felt action over a study was what was called for,” she said.
Absolutely!! Action was called for.  And now that two years of Beacon Hill lawmaker action has resulted in sustained record high unemployment for most of those two years, it's high time for a study.  Spilka's reasoning is undeniable.

Stay tuned, folks.  We could be on the brink of something extraordinary.  Coming soon(ish) to a high school cafeteria/rotary club/busy-body neighbor's basement rec room near you.

Fantastic, must-see tool from the Pioneer Institute

In a news cycle dominated by that preening Euro-douche and his Wikileaks, it is easy to forget that there are still many, many people out there using the endless capabilities of the internet for good and productive endeavors.  Witness the Pioneer Institute's 2011 Massachusetts Budget Map (linked here and embedded below).

As described by  Pioneer:
The map presents hundreds of government departments, agencies, and programs in a visual format, proportionate in size to their funding level. Looking at the whole map, viewers can ascertain the state’s spending priorities. You will also be able to scroll over and zoom into each component for a more in-depth examination of the number of agencies and departments that exist, and easily identify bureaucracy, inefficiency, and unnecessary duplication.
Excellent stuff - crack for government junkies.  Check it out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beacon Hill self-parody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

There Oughta Be A(nother) Commission!

Today comes news that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) "has named a high-powered panel, including figures from the worlds of business, law, and government to probe hiring and promotion in the judicial branch, in the wake of a scandal involving the Probation Department."  The members of the SJC-appointed panel have 90 days to conduct its investigation and issue a report. 

They'll have to get in line.

Yesterday Governor Patrick, Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray announced plans to appoint their own "commission" to look into the probation mess.

The two appointed groups will be diving into the murky waters where investigators from both the state Attorney General's office and the federal US Attorney's office are already swimming.  It's going to get awfully crowded in that fetid pool.

Appoint a commission.  Or a "blue ribbon" panel.  Or a task force.  That is always the response to a public embarrassment on Beacon Hill.  Leave aside the unintentional hilarity of a legislative commission investigating patronage hiring in Massachusetts state government - which is kind of like me appointing a commission to investigate how my shoes got tied this morning.  A commission is a handy way to satisfy the media's clamor for "action" (or to put off action on popular but controversial legislation) without really doing anything.  Ordinarily these commissions are given deadlines.  Just as ordinarily those deadlines are missed, often without the members of the commission having convened a single time.  Literally as I type this post, the following comes in from the State House News:
A jobs commission ordered almost two years ago by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature to find ways to create and maintain jobs in Massachusetts has never met, causing some to view the panel as a missed opportunity during a period of high unemployment.

In interviews, stakeholders said it had taken them two years to name commission members and said they hoped to meet for the first time in January, more than 18 months after their initial reporting date. But loose ends remain. For instance, those involved in the panel could not provide a full list of its members.
You can't make that stuff up. 

In this case, though, the multiplying investigations are likely to compound the already serious problems created by the probation mess.  For one thing, each of these new panels will have a budget.  More taxpayer dollars down the sink.  For another, each will take up significant chunks of public employee time, as workers in the probation department, in the legislature and across state government are forced to respond to queries from not one, not two, not three, but four separate investigative bodies looking into the same basic issues.

While some petty satisfaction may be derived from the prospect of such repetitive proctological exams being administered across Massachusetts state government, no one can plausibly argue that quadruplification of effort is the most efficient way to get at the underlying issues that gave rise to the probation scandal.

But then, "most efficient" isn't the Beacon Hill way of doing things.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Uh oh - here comes another "adult conversation"

"Patrick says Bush tax cuts for all should expire."  So reads the headline on a dispatch from the Associated Press this afternoon.

The text is even more chilling for the cash-strapped Massachusetts taxpayer:
Gov. Deval Patrick says he has no plans for state tax increases, but he has no problem with the Bush administration tax cuts expiring next month -- or the federal tax increases that will mean for all workers. The Democrat told reporters Monday he agrees with the leaders of the federal deficit reduction commission, who say the government needs to take in more money than it is currently... Patrick says if the country's serious about [the deficit and long-term debt], tax hikes have to be considered.
Sounds like Governor Patrick is gearing up for one of his patented "adult conversations" - you know, the ones that always seem to end with a hand rooting around in our pockets.

Give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did not just wade into a debate over federal tax policy of his own volition.  A reporter probably asked him about it.  Even so, his words - interpreted with the fluency in Patrick-speak that Massachusetts has gained over the four years of his first term - are troubling. 

There's that pesky "no plans for state tax increases" again.  This is a favorite of Patrick's, a temporally-specific non-denial that is properly read as "I am going to raise your taxes.  The only question is when and by how much." 

Then there's the "no problem" thing.  When Governor Patrick says he has "no problem" with something, he generally means he really, really loves that thing.  Like Miss Piggy loves Kermit

Beyond semantics, though, let's take a look at Patrick's reasoning.  The federal government has a large deficit and massive debt. Although Patrick was unwilling to acknowledge it during the recently-concluded gubernatorial contest, the Commonwealth also has a large deficit and massive debt. 

On the federal side, Patrick concludes that the government's money woes compel "consideration" of tax increases on all income earners.  By "consideration," incidentally, Patrick means "implementation" - a conclusion made starkly evident by his support of the huge, across-the-board tax hikes that will go into effect if tax rates are allowed to revert to 2000 levels at the end of this year. One needn't furrow the brow too deeply to recognize the implications of that line of reasoning for Massachusetts state taxpayers. 

Two years ago, facing criticism for his multiple tax and fee increases, Patrick told reporters that "voters knew what kind of financial philosophy they were getting when they hired him to be governor."  He was right.  We knew even better the second time around but, masochists that we are, we hired him again anyhow.  And once again we'll pay for what we got.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

With exonerators like these, who needs prosecutors?

A number of Massachusetts state legislators named in the Ware Report on hiring abuse and corruption in the Probation Department have gone out of their way in recent days to claim publicly that the report "exonerates" them by failing to prove any specific wrong-doing on their behalf.  Speaker Bob DeLeo is the latest; Rep. Tom Petrolati the least convincing.

Here's the intrepid Deputy Independent Counsel Kevin Martin (did he get a badge?), Ware's second and likely the guy who emerged from the probation investigation with the most significant degradation in his eyesight, on the "exoneration" proposition (from the State House News):
"The report does not accuse any politician of criminal conduct in connection with hiring or exonerate any politician. We only drew conclusions with respect to individuals in the Probation Department," said Kevin Martin, deputy independent counsel to Paul Ware, the veteran prosecutor tapped by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate allegations of patronage and abuse in the department. "While we did not find any specific evidence of wrongdoing by Rep. DeLeo, that was not our focus. We leave it to other government agencies to follow up on the statistical evidence we noted with respect to legislators."
So far as name-clearing goes, this is pretty weak beer.  What the dashing Deputy Martin is saying, at base, is "sure, we didn't find any proof of wrongdoing by legislators.  But we weren't looking for any either."  He could have noted further that both the Attorney General and the US Attorney (they do have badges) have opened criminal investigations based on the report and a significant amount of additional raw material provided  by Team Ware, and it's a good bed those agencies do not intend to simply recreate Ware/Martin's work. Specifically, according to the Herald, the criminal probes are looking at "whether politicians provided the agency with an expanded budget in exchange for jobs for their friends."

So claims of exoneration may be a teensy bit premature... or perhaps "preemptive" is a better word.

Another, related distinction with a difference: First Senate President Murray and now Speaker DeLeo have come out in recent days with emphatic defenses of the legislator's prerogative, indeed "duty," to offer "job recommendations" for constituents.  Here's DeLeo:
“We make recommendations for people for jobs,’’ DeLeo said. "It’s just that; it’s a recommendation. What happens thereafter, whether they get the job or they don’t get the job, depends upon the folks making the decision."
 And Murray:
“Every member of the Legislature recommends people for positions. That’s part of what we do,’’ Murray told the Herald before serving food at a charity event in Roxbury. “People call and ask for references and they ask for recommendations, and that’s part of our duties of our office.”
I agree with them, within the confines of the innocuous phenomenon they are describing.  Unfortunately, the reality described by Deputy Dawg Martin and his colleagues in the Ware Report is considerably less benign.  To the precise point, Section III.C of the Report (at page 97) is captioned, "O'Brien Was Communicating Instructions, Not Recommendations."  Later in that section (pages 99-100), the Report describes the harmless practice described by both DeLeo and Murray in their recent statements, in which
The Commissioner's Office received letters of recommendation, some of which (including letters from legislators) reflect first hand knowledge of the candidate of a kind that might be useful in evaluating the recommendation.
The system works!!  But wait - the paragraph continues:
However, there is no evidence that such letters played any role in the Commissioner's identification of candidates whose names he provided to interview panels.

Now to be fair, the paragraph above describes the process by which Commissioner O'Brien communicated "recommendations" to the department's hiring evaluation panels.  The full report, however, makes it quite clear that it was the, um... assertive variety of "recommendation" that probation officials often felt they were receiving from members of the legislature - specifically from members with influence over the department's budget.

And that of course is exactly what those parallel criminal probes are investigating.