Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Morning Miscellany (Four Ps Edition)

I wrote the title of this post after the post itself, when I realized that I had inadvertently and unintentionally poured a pile of my Four Ps (Personal Patrick Pet Peeves) out onto the screen.  None of these are a really big deal in the grand scheme... just a coincidence, I suppose, that so many news items this week hit my sore spots.

What's better?  Jokes or lies?  Defending himself against criticism of his recently-announced plans to travel extensively over the next couple of years, Governor Patrick resurrected one of his favorite stretched truths from 2006 (from the State House News, via the Arlington Advocate):
Asked Thursday to compare his planned out-of-state travels to his predecessor Mitt Romney’s, Gov. Deval Patrick said he intends to promote Massachusetts on the road, suggesting that Romney ridiculed the Bay State as he laid the groundwork for his 2008 presidential run.

“In his last year in office, he was out of the state 270 of the 365 days of the year. That’s a lot different,” Patrick said during a radio interview. “I’m going out promoting the commonwealth while he was out making us a laughingstock.”
Romney's no Rodney
This "laughingstock" line, used heavily by Patrick and others back in the day, never bore much of a relationship to reality.  The meme got its start with a Washington Post article in September 2005.  Click the link and read the article, and what you will find is pretty milquetoast stuff.  "'Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts,' [Romney] told a GOP audience in South Carolina, 'is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.'" 
Oh, SNAP! (and here I'll admit to waiting for an opportunity to type that).  First off, can anyone really argue with the proposition?  As a Republican (and a carnivore who lives with a vegetarian), I certainly can't.  More to the point, the only way Romney's gentle humor could make a "laughingstock" of Massachusetts is if one accepts the proposition that such status automatically adheres to a state whose politics is as Romney described ours.  Hmmmm....  

Anyhow, with bags packed Patrick is again pulling out the "laughingstock" line, deploying it to little effect.  He is a second term Governor enthusiastically hitting the domestic rubber chicken and the international junket circuits.  He is, in other words, deliberately making of himself a political stereotype.  No amount of deflection is going to spare Patrick deserved criticism of that from the people who thought they were reelecting a Governor, not a traveling sales rep.

But look at something else Patrick said yesterday, defending a ten day swing through Israel and the UK, following quickly on the heels of a trip out west to visit the Colorado Democratic Party (same source): 
“It’s not a bad thing to raise our profile, to brag about the fact that our budgets have been balanced and on time,” he said, adding that he also expects to tout Massachusetts’s student achievement and the state’s bond rating.
So it's not okay to joke about the Commonwealth's unbalanced politics... but it's perfectly fine to lie about our budget?  And just how impressed does Patrick expect the Israelis to be at his bragging, anyhow?  
Yeah, we're sitting here in a country roughly the size of New Jersey, surrounded by mentally unstable, hostile, militaristic regimes who want to wipe us from the face of the earth, some of them armed with nuclear weapons.  But please, tell us more about your on time budgets. That sounds really interesting...

Let's hear it for openness in government!  Regarding Patrick's latest DC swing, this weekend, the SHNS writes,
Patrick also intends to host a fundraiser on Monday night at a private home on Capitol Hill, according to a spokesman for his campaign committee.

Steve Crawford declined to say whose home the fundraiser would be held at, but said the event is part of an effort to retire close to $200,000 of debt amassed during the governor’s re-election campaign. He said the fundraiser has no connection to the political action committee Patrick is establishing to help fund his travels to support the president and other Democratic candidates.
So a big dollar funder in DC, at a secret location with an anonymous host.  But other than that it's totally open and transparent.  Piled on top of the travel plans and the federal PAC, though, another little bit of hypocrisy barely registers.

Looks like they'll have to cancel Friday night poker.  With casinos set to dominate yet another legislative session, word comes that Governor Patrick's political guru, Doug Rubin, has signed on to lobby for a major gaming firm.  The Governor says he and Rubin won't talk about gaming.  At least he didn't say he has "no plans" to talk with Rubin about gaming.

Patrick's promise is kind of silly.  Rubin has been hired by G-Tech, a company that is likely to be highly influential in the next round of the gaming debate.  The Governor cutting himself off from their input in service to optics helps nobody.  Patrick and Rubin should do what the law requires - report whatever contacts they have, and how much Rubin is paid for his influence.

Sounds great!!...  What's it mean?  Discussing his return engagement Wednesday at the Quincy IHOP "jobs club" that he made a centerpiece of  his reelection effort, Governor Patrick  commented thusly to the SHNS: "You get a very clear picture and human face on policy, and policy only matters where it touches people."

Classic Patrick.

Now don't get me wrong.  I have no problem with Governor Patrick spending a couple of hours talking to "real people" - people out there dealing with the harsh reality of the economic climate Patrick's policies are perpetuating here.  On the spectrum of ways the Governor can spend his time, the Quincy jobs club sits comfortably on the "worthwhile" end - far away from, for example, "junket to London."  

And I realize that this skill - Patrick's ability to string together words in ways that somehow convey feeling without meaning - apparently appeals to more people than it repels.  But it drives me nuts.  "Policy only matters where it touches people"??  What does that mean?  Nothing.  It means nothing.  It sounds nice, and warm, and well-intentioned, and empathetic.  But it means nothing.  Plenty of policy matters that does not "touch people."  Defense policy, for starters.  Many/most aspects of criminal justice policy (at least with regard to the vast majority of the population).  In fact, a great deal of what government does - or refrains from doing - never "touches' anyone, if it is done right.  But no matter.

After the last two election cycles it is hardly a news flash that a great number of Massachusetts voters react favorably to atmospherics devoid of substance.  I wonder if they will tire of it.  If not, I wonder who the next messenger of meaninglessness will be?

Okay.  I feel better now.  This is hardly a comprehensive list, but I need to stop before I go and ruin a perfectly good (if soggy)  Friday.

Anyone have other Four Ps to add?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Elections Have Consequences: Right from the Top Donkey's mouth

“I think it’s particularly unlikely as long as Gov. Deval Patrick is in office."  
So says Mass state Democratic Committee chairman John Walsh to the Herald about the prospect of  our cash-strapped Commonwealth realizing the sort of cost savings that Governor Scott Walker is about to achieve for Wisconsin.  "Particularly unlikely" so long as Patrick is in office.  I could not have said it better myself.

Awesome
And what kind of savings are we talking about here?  The huge kind.  Herald:

The Bay State’s crippling $1.5 billion budget deficit could be slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars if Beacon Hill legislators cracked down on collective bargaining like Wisconsin’s strong-arm governor, fiscal watchdogs said yesterday.

“Massachusetts could go a long way to resolving the budget crisis if the leaders on Beacon Hill had the same courage as the political leaders in Wisconsin,” said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank...
A similar move in Massachusetts would save “hundreds of millions,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, by decreasing the nearly $2 billion the state pays for pensions, retiree health benefits and other benefits.

“There are many, many impacts of this in terms of savings, but above all it would allow for far greater management rights,” Stergios said. “The potential savings on pensions, (local) health-care benefits and retiree health-care benefits are in the hundreds of millions.”
 That's hundreds of millions per year, by the way.  And what carnage would need to occur in the public sector in order to realize those savings?  Um... pretty much none.  For all the sturm und drang generated in response to Governor Walker's reform proposals out in Wisconsin, the changes he would make do not, when set out on the table, strike the casual observer as all that big a deal.  Under Walker's plan, government union members would pay five percent of their salaries toward their pensions, and 12.6 percent of their health care premiums.  Does that sound apocalyptic to you?  Me neither.

Here is what a similar proposal might mean here in Massachusetts (or, more precisely, in Imaginary Massachusetts, where such a thing might be possible).  Herald again:
Rick Berman, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based union watchdog, said public sector workers get paid 5 percent more in salaries and benefits than their private-sector counterparts.

“The biggest insult is that so many people in the private sector are losing their jobs, taking pay cuts and losing benefits and the very last people to suffer are the ones employed by the taxpayers,” Berman said.

Using the center’s 5 percent compensation differential, that means the state government could save a minimum $250 million a year if its workers got the same pay and benefits as private-sector workers. The state spends about $5 billion a year on employee salaries and benefits.

The potential savings would be even greater for local municipalities in Massachusetts — or about $750 million in reduced costs. Municipalities combine to spend about $15 billion a year in salaries and benefits, according to estimates.
 Those are some big numbers, achievable merely by bringing the public sector more in line with the private sector.

Ah, but that is not the aspect of Walker's proposal that has the frothing masses out in the streets dropping f-bombs.  Walker would also strip some government unions of some collective bargaining rights (though bargaining over wages would remain - a component of the plan you will not hear about in any frenzied street chants).  And what would be the effect of that?  Put simply, government (and the taxpayers) would no longer have to "give something to get something" every time a needed reform proposal is put on the table.  Here in (Imaginary) Massachusetts, that would mean that long-sought-but-repeatedly-killed reforms, like plan design, municipal GIC, real pension reform, privatization of non-essential services, and so on might have a chance of actually happening.  It would be a big, big deal.

And what would that mean to the impacted government workers?  Actually, not all that much.  Sure their union bosses (who often bear little resemblance, politically, ideologically, or ethically, to their members) would no longer have the right to "bargain" with state officials about everything from the length and frequency of bathroom breaks to how many sick days an employee can "bank" toward a retirement bonanza.  But in the day-to-day?  Not such a big deal.  Certainly state government workers would be no worse off in relation to their employers than are their counterparts in the private sector.

Here are some things that would not happen.  We would not see the return of sweat shops, peopled by child workers.  Government would not eliminate weekends.  Anti-discrimination laws would not be repealed.  Nor the minimum wage.  Nor workplace harassment rules. 

Each part of this parade of horribles has been fronted by union advocates in recent days, and each is nonsense.  Nothing Governor Walker is proposing out in Wisconsin would un-do the many positive aspects of the union legacy in America.  Walker would simply deprive some of his unions of the leverage that has empowered a once great and needed movement to seek ludicrous and costly goals at the expense of the rest of society, in an increasingly desperate bid to remain relevant and viable.  This is necessary and long over due.  Here's an excellent little bit from Jonah Goldberg on this general point:
[A]t this point I'm sure everyone is sick of the familiar arguments against public-sector unions. So here's a very quick less-familiar one. I've been reading Tyler Cowen's e-book The Great Stagnation. (I've got some problems with his argument, but it's still a very worthwhile read.) One of the points he makes is that two of the sectors that have been the most immune to great waves of productivity, efficiency, competition, and modernization are education and health care. I don't think any sane person can really dispute that as a broad generalization. And while I don't think public-sector unions are the sole or even chief problem in those realms, it strikes me as near impossible to reform these sectors without breaking the spines of public-sector unions.

And please don't tell me that crushing the unions will mean that jobs in nursing and teaching won't pay well any more. The domestic oil and gas industry pays twice the average national wage and it is largely non-union (which offers one more reason why the Democrats don't care about the oil and gas industry). There will be strong demand for nurses and good teachers. But there will be less demand for padded payrolls full of deadwood. In D.C., at least until Michelle Rhee came along (and was then eaten alive by the teachers' union), there was one education bureaucrat for every teacher in the district.
The fact that all of this is transpiring in Wisconsin, in many ways the birthplace of the American labor movement, lends to recent events a nice hint of poetry.  Not long ago, most would have said what is currently happening in Wisconsin could never happen in Wisconsin.

Now Massachusetts Democratic pols (the ones who aren't too busy screaming for blood, anyhow) are saying it could never happen here.

And for the time being, they are probably right, as John Walsh said yesterday.  At least "not so long as Gov. Deval Patrick is in office."

Because, after all, elections have consequences.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscar worthy?

While I certainly understand and sympathize with the impulse among some of my friends to jump all over the irascible Rep. from Sommerville for "inciting violence," to do so is to at least partly accept the ridiculous notion peddled all over the place in the wake of the tragic AZ shooting that heated political rhetoric is or ought to be somehow out of bounds.  

To my mind, the problem with Capuano's speech to his union supporters yesterday isn't that Capuano was "inciting violence" (though an argument could certainly be made that his call to "get bloody," delivered to an already whipped up group of hundreds of protesters, came much closer to actual incitement than a map on a website).  The real problem, made clear at the tail end of this Boston.com coverage, is Capuano's rank hypocrisy.

But then, what else is new?

Here's hopin'

“Wisconsin was the first place to extend collective bargaining rights to public employees, the weekend, the 40-hour work week, workers’ compensation benefits,” said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, one of the rally organizers. “If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can potentially happen in many other places.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"That's his personal opinion" - MassHealth head tips cards on single payer

"I like the market, but the more and more I stay in it, the more and more I think that maybe a single payer would be better."

That isn't President Barack Obama, or  Barney Frank, or even Bernie Sanders.  No, this latest endorsement by an influential Democrat of a full government takeover of health care comes from Terry Dougherty, the guy Governor Deval Patrick put in charge of MassHealth (the state's Medicaid plan, a.k.a. the source of health insurance for 1.3 million of the Commonwealth's residents). 

Dougherty, who was responding to questions last week at a public budget hearing, continued (from the State House News, via the Herald):
After his remarks, Dougherty told the News Service that he’s learned to appreciate “elements of single payer” during his 30 years in health care.

“It’s got to be better than this devil-may-be marketplace,” he said. “We don’t build big buildings. We don’t have high salaries. We don’t have a lot of marketing, which makes, to some extent, some of the things that we do easier and less costly than some things that happen in the marketplace. Overall, my point is, we have individuals who work in state government in MassHealth ... who are just as smart, just as tactile, just as creative as people who work in the private sector, but they work for a lot less money.”
Leaving aside whatever Dougherty may have meant by "tactile" (keep your stinkin' hands off my state health care workers!), there are a lot of problems with his argument.  One of those things, apparently, is that he was talking out of school.  Dougherty's comment prompted his boss, Patrick Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, to break in with "that's his personal opinion," a CYA interjection that surely induced more than one coffee-snarf amongst the hearing observers. 

Beyond that fun political moment, though, let's look at the reasoning behind Dougherty's condemnation of the "devil-may-be-marketplace," and his praise of those oh-so-cost-effective state workers.  Central to his case is the assertion that government providers, like MassHealth, operate more efficiently - by orders of magnitude - as compared to private sector insurers:
Dougherty noted that MassHealth, by far the largest program in state government, spends just 1.5 percent of its $10-billion-a-year budget on administrative costs – compared to about 9.5 percent by the private market, according to studies by the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy. That figure won plaudits from several lawmakers on the panel, including some who have supported implementing a statewide single payer system.
Right off the bat anyone with so much as the vaguest inkling of how state government works - in the Commonwealth as elsewhere - has to throw a red flag up at the assertion that government is more efficient than the private sector at anything, never mind more than six times more efficient.  "Efficient" is to state government as "cuddly" is to Darth Vader, or as "soft-spoken" is to the aforementioned Congressman Frank.  So something smells pretty funky right away in the argument that apparently so impressed "several lawmakers on the panel" last week.

Turns out it isn't very hard to find the source of that stink. 

Dougherty links his efficiency argument to "administrative costs."  You know, things like information technology (IT), capital costs, rent, health care (irony alert!) and other benefit costs for employees, parking... the list could go on and on, but you get it.  A private health care provider - out there in the "devil-may-be marketplace" - pays for all of that itself.  MassHealth?  Not so much.  None of those costs come out of MassHealth's budget line item.  They are paid for elsewhere in the budget - all by the same taxpayer dollars, mind you.  They aren't on the program's balance sheet.  So when Dougherty argues that MassHealth "spends just 1.5 percent" of its budget on administrative costs, and compares that to the 9.5 percent spent, he says, in the "private market," he is not comparing apples to apples.  More like apples to carburetors. 

Do a little bit of Google research on this "administrative cost" fallacy and you find that Dougherty has hardly conjured an original argument.  This one pops up with significant frequency and, as easy though it is to debunk, there are always single payer proponents ready to throw "plaudits" at the disingenuous comparison. 

You also find - as is often the case when it comes to substantive analysis of health care issues - that Charlie Baker has written on the topic.  Here is an excerpt from a post on the Harvard Pilgrim "Let's Talk Health Care" blog that Charlie penned back in 2007 (he was writing about Medicare, but the argument is the same):
What I’ve heard before is that Medicare only spends 4% of its money on a per beneficiary basis on administration, while the plans spend 14% per member on administration — a big difference. This is interesting, but misleading. Medicare beneficiaries are over the age of 65. They spend almost three times as much money on health care as a typical private plan member — most of whom are under the age of 65. If the Medicare member typically spends $800 per month on health care, and 4% of that is spent on administration, that’s $32 a month on administration. If the private health plan member typically spends $300 per month on health care, and 14% of that is spent on administration, that’s $42 a month — a much smaller difference. But we’re not done yet. Medicare is part of the federal government, so its capital costs (buildings, IT, etc.) and benefit costs (health insurance for its employees and retirees (!), pension benefits, etc.) are funded somewhere else in the federal budget, not in the Medicare administrative budget. Private plans have to pay for these items themselves. That’s worth about $5-6 per member per month, and needs to come out of the health plan number for a fair comparison. Now we’re almost even. And finally, Medicare doesn’t actually process and pay claims for all of its beneficiaries. It contracts with health plans around the country to do much of this for them. That’s not in their administrative number, either — and it is, needless to say, in the private health plan number.
Come to think of it, I probably should have included this post in my "Elections Have Consequences" series...

Now, Mr. Dougherty is certainly entitled to his personal conviction that government run health care is the way to go, just as Governor Patrick is entitled to put a guy who holds that conviction at the forefront of health care policy implementation for his Administration.  But surely a person with Dougherty's three decades of experience in the health care field is cognizant of the unmistakably fallacious underpinnings of his argument. 

And surely no voter with a lick of sense should be fooled by Secretary Bigby's quick-draw clarification of Dougherty's "personal opinion" on the issue.  At worst, Dougherty's statement was a trial balloon; a preview of things to come in the second Patrick term.  At best, it provided a quick glimpse of a vein of thought that reaches to the highest levels of the Patrick Administration's health care brain trust.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sick

“I know people believe it to be excessive and inappropriate, but they should know that it’s no longer the policy at Massport,” said Mullan, who added that he’s not going to challenge or fight Kinton’s hefty benefits package. “I don’t intend to do anything about it ... it feels like a large amount of money, but Tom is owed the money, so whether it’s excessive or not is beside the point.”
 That's Governor Patrick's Transportation Secretary, Jeff Mullan, talking to the Herald about the retirement package about to be reaped by departing MassPort chief Tom Kinton.  And what does  he mean by "a large amount of money?"  He means $200,000 a year for life in pension payments.  That's right - $200K per year, taxpayer money, for not working any more.

Standing alone that is enough to boil the blood.  But in the context of Mr. Kinton's retirement, the $200K annual check is not even the most egregious element.  Kinton is also getting an immediate payout of $459,616.01 for "unused sick days."

And so it goes in state government, where time off for an illness is not a benefit to be taken advantage of when actually needed - it is an entitlement, to be "used," one way or another.  At the end of his career, Kinton expects, based on his contract, to be paid for not getting sick.  
“This is what I’ve worked for,” a somewhat chagrined Kinton, 59, told a media scrum when peppered with questions at yesterday’s press conference. “I’ve committed 35 years here, knowing what the benefits are.”
One imagines that more than a few of Kinton's MassPort colleagues suffered through colds and worse picked up from their dogged co-worker, as Kinton gamely forged on through life's ordinary ailments, all the while eying real estate prices and calculating what level of vacation home he might purchase with his growing retirement payout.   He'll do okay with nearly half a mil on the Cape - if he cares to head north to New Hampshire lake country he'll be set up quite nicely.  And that first pension check will buy some quality furniture.

Fortunately, these sick day payouts - of which MassPort's were always the most egregious - are becoming a thing of the past.  But that does not mean that the "sick day as entitlement" phenomenon is over.  Anyone who has spent time in Massachusetts state government (as I have) is all too familiar with the end-of-year "sick day" vacations.  "I have to use my days" is a phrase oft uttered throughout government's many bureaucracies as the leaves turn and the air chills.  And of course illness has nothing to do with it.

But back to Kinton.  He says he is owed the massive payout for his unused sick days.  I say if he takes that check, Kinton owes the taxpayer some pretty damned serious illnesses.

We have that infectious disease lab over at Boston University.  So how about this?  Kinton can have his $459,616.01.  All he has to do is take a quick whiff off the top of this uncorked vial over here...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Less than a half leaves a hole

"Gonzalez on $1 billion in health care savings: Yes We Can"

That's the headline under which the State House News reports this evening on Patrick budget chief Jay Gonzalez's earnest attempt today to justify the Governor's implausible reliance on a billion bucks that he claims can be wrung from the state's health care system to balance the fiscal 2012 budget.

I am but one among many who have questioned the feasibility of finding a billion bucks in "efficiencies," even in so famously dysfunctional a system as our state's health care morass.  So I clicked quickly into the article to find out how Gonzalez substantiates the number.  Turns out he doesn't.  Here's the SHNS's lede:
Facing questions about the feasibility of Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to shave $1 billion off an anticipated increases in state government health care costs, the governor’s budget chief insisted Wednesday nearly half of those savings would be assured if Patrick’s plan is adopted by the Legislature.

“It’s increasing co-pays. It’s reducing benefits. It’s reducing provider rates,” Jay Gonzalez, secretary of administration and finance, told lawmakers at a State House hearing. “There’s no question about it.”
Read that again.  Particularly this part: "nearly half of those savings would be assured if Patrick's plan is adopted..."  Later in the article this is clarified - Gonzalez pegs the savings attached to the Patrick plan at $450 million.  Which is, for the mathematically-challenged, somewhat less than a billion dollars.  I read the rest of the article closely, waiting to learn about that dangling $550 million - but alas.  So, contra Gonzalez, there is a "question about it."  And that question is: "what about the other half-a-billion?"

This is no insignificant matter.  The Governor is constitutionally obligated to balance the budget.  The document he filed a few weeks back purports to do so based on a billion dollars in health care savings.  Not $450 million.  A billion.  Faced with several weeks of pointed public skepticism, the best the Patrick Administration could do was trot out poor Jay Gonzalez (who must have lost a bet) to insist the Patrick plan will get $50 million shy of half way home.  Only in government.

Suppose you order a pizza, and when the delivery man shows up he hands  you half a pie.  Acceptable?  Or you hire a house painter, and his crew paints the front of the house and then sends you the bill.  A movie runs half way through and then the lights come up and the ushers push you toward the exit.  The barber cuts the hair from half of your head and then pulls out the mirror for your post-cut review. 

Point is, nobody would accept this kind (less than) half-baked nonsense in any private sector context.  But in government, somehow, "we almost get halfway there" is supposed to be acceptable?

The SHNS got its headline wrong.  It should be: ""Gonzalez on $1 billion in health care savings: Yes We Can.  Half way anyhow.  Almost."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Night of the Living Patrick Campaign

My three-year-old daughter woke up at 4 in the morning today, screaming at the top of her lungs.  I have not yet figured out how she got a preview of Glen Johnson's latest blog post over at Boston.com:
Local Democrats and political insiders are holding a fundraiser for Governor Deval Patrick next month — and seeking up to $5,500 per person — despite the Democrat’s assertion he will not seek a third term in 2014 or challenge Republican Senator Scott Brown next year.
This is a backhanded testament to Patrick's campaigning prowess, I know, but I have to type it: I cannot take another Deval Patrick election.  Not yet.  Certainly not before the whole nation is treated to the re-run of his 2010 effort, re-titled "the Obama campaign."

So I really and truly want to believe the explanation that Johnson was given by the state Democratic Committee.  The fundraiser is to help Patrick "retire debts."

Despite that assertion, Johnson's post spends a lot of time on the recent speculation that Patrick will step up/out to take on Senator Scott Brown next year, given the Ds' seeming inability to field a candidate to match Brown's star power (a recent Herald column on the topic by Patrick guru Doug Rubin had people wondering if someone was playing a prank).  And Johnson also focuses on Patrick's stated intention to spend a lot of time over the next couple of years serving as a campaign surrogate for his DC doppelganger. 

Fine.  Maybe we're a little...

... bit alike.
For my part, I
swore off of predictions about Deval Patrick's political future last year, when I was so repeatedly/adamantly wrong about his reelection intentions. 

Forced to guess, I would put my chips on Patrick playing the role of high-profile Obama surrogate, with plans/hopes of spending the last two years of a second Obama term in a high profile appointed post.

If that is the plan, however, Patrick should take a lesson from AG Martha Coakley, who learned the hard way that mixing state campaign funds and federal political ambitions is not exactly kosher.  No exploratory senate race polls.  No plane tickets to Ohio to stump for The One.

I'm sure the media will keep an eye on how Patrick spends the big bucks he is raising (again) this month...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Look, up in the sky...!

As I noted some weeks ago, it seems everyone short of the local Boy Scout Troop has initiated a probe of the Commonwealth's probation department.  The Supreme Judicial Court, the Governor, Speaker DeLeo/Senate President Murray, the Attorney General - even a federal grand jury.  Everyone in and around Massachusetts state government, it seems, wants a piece of the probation department's ragged corpse.

Everyone, that is, except for Rep. David Linsky, chair of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight.  Which is odd, since as the State House News explained recently, the HCPAO is "charged with overseeing the performance of state government."  More to the point, unlike several of the politically-motivated, ad-hoc panels and commissions currently delving into the probation mess, the HCPAO enjoys that most precious of investigative commodities - the subpoena power.  But when he was asked this week at the first committee meeting of the session whether his panel would be joining the probation hunt, Linsky (who was recently rebuffed in his effort to secure a gubernatorial appointment to the suddenly-vacated office of Middlesex County Sheriff), clearly had no interest.  "I am always very careful not to duplicate the work of other committees that are out there," said Linsky, marking the first time in recent memory that government redundancy has been cited plausibly by a Beacon Hill Democrat to decline expansion of his own personal power.  So well done, sort of.

But then, the HCPAO's website is pretty straightforward about the panel's mission:
It shall be the duty of the committee on Post Audit and Oversight (established under Section 63 of Chapter 3 of the General Laws) to oversee the development and imple­mentation of legislative auditing programs conducted by the Legislative Post Audit and Oversight Bureau with particular emphasis on performance auditing.
Whether that "duty" implies a subsidiary duty to take a gander at the "performance" of the probation department is, I suppose, open to debate.  And again, Linsky's stated aversion to compounding the investigative redundancy already swirling around the probation scandal is laudable in the abstract.  But then Linsky kept talking - and it turns out that governmental restraint is not exactly foremost in the Chairman's mind these days (still from SHNS):
Linsky, chairing the committee for a second term, said he intends to research Lyme disease across Massachusetts. “This is something I feel very strongly about,” said the Natick Democrat, whose 17-year-old son suffers from the disease. “Lyme disease is a public health crisis. I am interested in looking at what is government’s role and what can government do.”
Okay... take another quick look at that mission statement above.  Parse those words as hard as you will - you are not going to find a public health mandate in there.  While Rep. Linsky's obvious dedication to his son and his understandable desire to help ease his affliction is - that word again - laudable, what Linsky has apparently set out to do is hijack a taxpayer funded oversight committee for his own personal agenda.

Too harsh?  He kept talking:
Rep. David Linsky (D-Krypton)
At the committee meeting, members adopted a set of rules to govern their work for the session... “This committee is different than any other committee you will sit on,” Linsky said. “We have wide-ranging ability to do almost anything.” Linsky continued, “I see it as a tool for members of the House. If a member of the House has an issue they would like us to look at, that is what we do.”
Setting aside the disturbingly Palpatine-esque nature of Linsky's assumption of the "ability to do almost anything," on the spectrum of issues that "a member of the House" might ask Linsky's apparently omnipotent committee to "look at," I suppose Lyme disease is fairly benign.  But still.  With all of the talk of budgetary Armageddon emanating from the State House of late, perhaps someone should take a look at the HCPAO's line item.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meet the New Treasurer... Same as the Old Treasurer

A Back to the Future type headline on the front page of the Globe today: "Grossman taps donors with state business."  It seems the Commonwealth's investigative reporter cadre, who might have worried about a lack of subject matter with the passing into the political afterlife of the ethically-challenged Tim Cahill, can rest easy.  It is business as usual at the Treasury under Cahill's successor, new Treasurer Steve Grossman. 

The lengthy article could, with a simple name change, be easily mistaken for an eight year retrospective on questionable campaign finance practices under Cahill.  All the usual suspects are there:  Scientific Games, the lottery contractor at the center of a 2008 Cahill scandal, are there for Grossman (via the Democratic State Committee) to the tune of $22,500.  He hit up liquor wholesalers, who are overseen by the Treasurer-supervised Liquor Control Board ($7,500); out of state law firms that seeking fat pension fund contracts ($20,000).  It's enough to make one wonder if Cahill passed along his copy of "Questionable Fund Raising for Dummies" along with the office keys.

Astute readers have by now noted that the large sums listed above far exceed the $500 individual contribution limit that is the law here in Massachusetts.  How was Grossman able to rake in such sums?  Easy - he just washed the dollars at the Democratic State Committee Laundromat. Globe:
State Treasurer Steven Grossman, who won election last fall on a platform of transparency and reform, personally solicited campaign donations for the state Democratic Party last year from lawyers and executives of firms that now have business before him, seek treasury work, or are regulated by his office.  In turn, Grossman received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support from the party.
To be clear, this is not illegal.  It isn't "transparent" either.  Nor does it represent "reform."  It is business as usual (Governor Patrick gets around the $500 limit by doing the same thing).  And yes, Republicans do it too. They just aren't quite so overtly hypocritical about it.  There is a significant distinction, too, when it comes to the office of the Treasurer.  Because his office is responsible for doling out so many multi-million (even multi-billion) dollar contracts, his fund raising correctly comes in for greater scrutiny.  "Pay to play" has for years been the practice at the Treasury.  It seems that practice continues.

Of course Grossman denies any connection between his aggressive fund raising for the party and his official duties.  "Nobody should have any illusion that they would get special treatment from Steve Grossman for contributions to my campaign or the Democratic Party," he told the Globe.  To which a state contractor who just ponied up five figures in response to a Grossman ask might truthfully agree, "there's no illusion about it, pal." 

To anyone out there still trusting enough to give a Massachusetts pol the benefit of the doubt, a few pieces of what might be called circumstantial evidence:

Grossman raised big dollars for the state party last year, and the party spent over $700K on his behalf.  Suzanne Bump, the state auditor candidate, raised nothing for the party and had nothing spent on her behalf.

Globe:
“There was no explicit, ‘You help us, we will return the favor,’ ’’ said state Democratic Party chairman John Walsh.

But some of the biggest bills — $620,000 the party gave to Grossman’s media consultant, Joe Slade White & Co. — were paid about the same time the donations were deposited into the party’s account.
Here is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence (again Globe):
Attorneys at a law firm that has been seeking state pension fund work, Barrack, Rodos & Bacine of Philadelphia, donated $20,000 to the state party at Grossman’s request. Grossman said that Leonard Barrack, the lead partner in the firm, is a longtime friend who worked with him in Jewish philanthropy and Democratic Party fund-raising. Grossman said he had no knowledge of the firm’s interest in contracting with the state pension fund board, which he chairs. But he was adamant that the donations and his relationship with Barrack will make no difference in his decision-making.
 So Treasurer Grossman would have you believe that: (a) his "longtime friend," who resides in Pennsylvania, felt compelled to give $20,000 to the Massachusetts Democratic Party at Grossman's request; but (b) did not give so much as a dime directly to his pal Steve; and (c) it never occurred to Grossman that this odd state of friendship affairs arose from the direct legal prohibition against a pension fund contractor contributing directly to a candidate for Treasurer? 

Come now.  Seriously? 

All of this happened well before Grossman took office and then shortly thereafter took delivery of a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking documents about Tim Cahill's fund raising practices.  One imagines that as he reviewed that subpoena, Treasurer Grossman's thoughts ran something along these lines:

"Oh crap."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday afternoon miscellany

Been locked in a death match with the ice dams currently channeling water into various points of the house (the ice dams are winning).  Time for just a few catch-up items before I implement plan G (involving a hair dryer, a pair of panty hose and a hammer duct taped to an 18 foot pole):

Next stop, study commission.  The State House News reports that Senator Stephen Brewer (D-Futile Gestures) has filed a bill that would require the Governor "to commission a 'comprehensive independent analysis of the costs and benefits' of legalizing new forms of gambling in Massachusetts."  Brewer has recently ascended to the upper levels of the Senate hierarchy, having been appointed by Senate President Murray to chair the Senate Ways and Means Committee just last month. So it is interesting/amusing/a little sad to see him testing the furthest limits of his new-found power like this. With House Speaker DeLeo once again on the 'all gambling, all the time' dietthe chances of a "cost/benefit" analysis prerequisite to gaming legislation going anywhere are about as good as, well, the chances of me besting the ice dams on my roof with this hair dryer. The only real question is whether DeLeo will be cheeky enough to create a study commission to spend a year or two analyzing the costs and benefits of requiring a cost/benefit analysis of gaming legislation.

Redistricting data.  Toilet paper.  Same diff.  Again from the State House News
U.S. Census Bureau officials have begun releasing to states the detailed data sets that lawmakers across the country need to delve more deeply into the redistricting process. By April 1, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico will receive data for broken down by multiple categories, including congressional districts, counties, state legislative districts, school districts, census tracts, block groups and blocks.
That would be great news if, you know, the Democrats taking care of redistricting in Massachusetts gave a whiff about things like "data." Or if they did something wacky like appoint a politically independent redistricting commission.  Ha, as if.  Meanwhile, from WBUR we get this relevant tid-bit:
The state lawmakers chosen to lead the effort to redraw congressional districts and eliminate one district based on the most recent Census have begun seeking input from the state’s congressional delegation.  State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and his House counterpart, Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, traveled to western Massachusetts Friday to meet individually with Massachusetts Reps. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and John Olver, D-Amherst.
Let's see...  "detailed data sets" provided by the Census Bureau, or "input from the state's [all D] congressional delegation" (a/k/a the most self-interested parties imaginable).  Which do you think is likely to hold more sway over Rosenberg and Moran?  Here's an indication:
Rosenberg says the visits help remind him of the importance of the existing districts and how they’re composed. “I’m learning about new communities of interest that may have formed over the the last 10 or 15 years that should be considered as we move from 10 districts down to nine,” Rosenberg said.
Pesky
Certainly there can be no disputing "the importance of existing districts and how they're composed."  They are "composed," after all, with the sole objective of maintaining the aforementioned members of the state's congressional district in power.  And doubtless Senator Rosenberg is learning about plenty of "communities of interest" as he works through the process.  The SEIU, the AFL-CIO, various locals of the IBEW... Just don't bother him with that pesky "data."

Let's hope his plans don't involve a giant laser.  The State House News also provides a handy consolidated digest of last week's wide-ranging skepticism about Governor Patrick's supposed "plan" to balance the 2012 budget with a billion dollars in saving wrung from the Commonwealth's health care system:

After announcing plans to shave $1 billion from projected health care spending next fiscal year, the Patrick administration has provided little insight into how the governor intends to achieve that goal following years of exploding health costs.

Fiscal observers, lawmakers and industry stakeholders in recent days have all questioned the administration’s assumption and said they’re awaiting the details of Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan, which he outlined last week at a State House press conference. Patrick’s annual budget proposal, a $30.5 billion plan, hinges on the billion-dollar health care savings...
Officials in the Executive Office of Health and Human Service and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance – the two agencies with the most direct oversight of the state health care budget – did not respond to requests for comment...
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he has yet to see details of the administration’s plans to curb procurement and capitation costs. He noted that the administration hasn’t yet released a request to procure new MassHealth plans.

“I haven’t seen any details, and so I think it’s exceedingly ambitious to try to achieve a billion dollars in savings and I would say not very likely,” he said. “Not that they shouldn’t try, but I don’t think it’s realistic.”...
“We’re looking for more clarity as to where the administration wants to go with the Medicaid program,” said Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans. “We’re reaching out to officials to get that clarity.”

Health Care for All, which advocates for health care consumers, also questioned the administration’s savings assumptions, particularly for its proposals on capitation cost control and procurement strategies.


“The narrative doesn’t really say what this entails, other than a commitment to reorganize provider arrangements to ensure access and improve quality, at a lower cost. That’s the puzzle,” Health Care for All research director Brian Rosman wrote in a post on the group’s blog last week.
Other than all that, though, the Governor's plan seems real popular.  So popular, in fact, that rumor has it the Governor's budget was handed out in the Democratic caucus meeting last week on Beacon Hill, and members were advised not to waste their time reading it.


Surprising exactly nobody... Congressman Barney Frank (D-Irascible) announced this week that he will run again in 2012.  Why?  Ask yourself this: Can you imagine Barney Frank getting by in a world in which nobody is under any obligation to listen to his rants and put up with his generally arrogant and boorish behavior?  

Neither can he.

Back to the roof.  Apparently there's a chance it might snow next week.