Friday, April 29, 2011

Top 10 Reads of the Week – April 29, 2011

Unionsdämmerung – Mark Hemingway [Weekly Standard']

One of the most widely circulated photographs during the Wisconsin union battle was of a protester in Madison holding up a sign that read: “Dear Barack, Please put on your comfortable shoes. Love, America.”

While that sign may not have meant anything to the rest of the country, those in the labor movement were all too aware that the president hadn’t lived up to one of his most explicit promises. “And understand this,” he told a union audience on the campaign trail in 2007. “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself​—​I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America.”… Read the Rest

Obama’s Permanent Spending Binge – John B. Taylor [Wall Street Journal]

Americans are clamoring for a fact-based debate about the budget, but the numbers they're hearing from Washington are terribly confusing. Here's an example: Speaking at a Facebook town hall meeting here on Wednesday, President Obama sometimes talked about saving $4 trillion, at other times $2 trillion, and he varied whether it was over 10 years or 12 years, never mentioning any one year… Read the Rest

The Embarrassed Superpower – Rich Lowry [National Review Online]

When Barack Obama said he’d conduct our affairs with more humility, little did we know he meant he’d humiliate us.

He is allowing a vicious little tin-pot dictator to fight us to a standstill in Libya without bestirring himself to do much of anything about it. His latest initiative is to fly two unmanned drones over Libya to send a signal to Moammar Qaddafi about our seriousness. He must have thought sending three unmanned drones — strong letter to follow — would have been unduly harsh… Read the Rest

President Obama’s Abuse of False ‘False Choices’ – Mary Kate Cary [US News]

Yesterday E.J. Dionne wrote about President Obama’s use of a rhetorical device, the “false choice,” and agreed with me that the “false choice” idea can be easily misused. (I had spoken about it on an NPR interview with White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, from which Dionne had quoted.)

Let me give an example of the “false choice” setup that President Obama uses in just about every speech these days, in the same language I used to explain it to my two teenagers:… Read the Rest

Ten years after 9/11, airport security still not getting it – Patrick Smith [Salon.com]

At the Bangkok airport they took my scissors. This was the second time they took my scissors in Bangkok. I should have learned my lesson.

They were safety scissors, the kind you'd give to a child, about two-and-a-half inches long with rounded tips. (The photo at the top of this column shows an identical pair that I bought as a replacement.) Highly dangerous -- at least as the BKK security staff saw it. My airline pilot credentials meant nothing to them… Read the Rest

The increasingly odd political optics of Barack Obama – Andrew Malcolm [Los Angeles Times]

In politics, what you're really doing is often much less important than what it looks like you're really doing.

And with only 560 days left until the voters' next verdict, President Obama is rapidly painting himself into a public-relations corner with an ongoing series of possibly accidental gaffes that are accumulating in the public mind.

And the biting humor repertoire of late-night comics: "Donald Trump says he's President Obama's worst nightmare," Jay Leno said last night. "No. Having to make a decision is President Obama's worst nightmare."… Read the Rest

The Gas Price Freakout – Editorial [Wall Street Journal]

Man-at-the-pump angst is harming President Obama politically almost as much as gas prices surging toward $4 are hurting the middle class economically, which explains the energy panic that Washington began in earnest this week. The 2011 debate isn't likely to be any more instructive than its 2000, 2005, 2006 or 2008 vintages, but maybe this time politicians can keep things in the general vicinity of planet earth.

They're off to a lousy start. Mr. Obama usually begins his gas price narrative, now a campaign trail staple, by explaining that there aren't easy solutions. That's true—there's not a lot the political class can do to change gas prices in the short run—but then the President goes on to mention that there happens to be one easy solution: raising taxes on the oil and gas industry. This is also his stock answer on the budget deficit, world hunger and everything else…. Read the Rest

Great Leap Backward – Nicholas Kristof [New York Times]

Since China is in the middle of its harshest crackdown on independent thought in two decades, I thought that on this visit I might write about a woman named Cheng Jianping who is imprisoned for tweeting.

Ms. Cheng was arrested on what was supposed to have been her wedding day last fall for sending a single sarcastic Twitter message that included the words “charge, angry youth.” The government, lacking a sense of humor, sentenced her to a year in labor camp… Read the Rest

‘Change’ via executive power grab – Michael Walsh [New York Post]

Having lost the House of Representatives in the last election, the Obama administration is now imposing "fun damental change" via executive order, regulatory fiat and political pressure. Talk about the unitary executive… Read the Rest

The Obama doctrine: Leading from behind – Charles Krauthammer [Washington Post]

To be precise, leading from behind is a style, not a doctrine. Doctrines involve ideas, but since there are no discernible ones that make sense of Obama foreign policy — Lizza’s painstaking two-year chronicle shows it to be as ad hoc, erratic and confused as it appears — this will have to do.

And it surely is an accurate description, from President Obama’s shocking passivity during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution to his dithering on Libya, acting at the very last moment, then handing off to a bickering coalition, yielding the current bloody stalemate. It’s been a foreign policy of hesitation, delay and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) “international community” to do what only America can… Read the Rest

… and finally, the funniest thing I saw this week (caution: language and disturbing imagery).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Voice, Not a Veto

As the battle over collective bargaining in Massachusetts moves to the state Senate, all of the major players seem to agree on one thing: labor unions should have "a voice" in determination of municipal employee health benefits.  The Governor has used the term consistently.  So has Senate President Murray.  So have union honchos Robert Haynes and Ed Kelly, both of whom have claimed rather stridently over the past 36 hours that the House budget provision causing all the stir will "silence" the workers' "voice." 

The State House News Service tried today to gauge the posture of various influential Senators.  Most - including the Senate President - claimed they have not yet read the House language.  That's more than a little bit difficult to believe, but one can hardly blame them for their desire to have a few days to digest the issue before Haynes, Kelly & Co. commence screaming in their faces.  One thing they all seem to agree on, though, is the "voice" thing.  Here are a few excerpts from the SHNS coverage:
Amid the uncertainty, two points of agreement between proponents and opponents of the House proposal appear to have taken shape: Labor unions should continue to have "a voice" in determining their health care costs, and the Legislature should help cities and towns find a way to save tens of millions of dollars on their health care bills. It's the critical details that are still fuzzy...
Sen. Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat and the co-chair of the Committee on Public Service, said senators were reviewing the House proposal...

"I have a serious concern about making sure we giving retirees a voice," she said, Sen. Thomas McGee said he was unaware of the specifics of the House proposal but said he hoped that whatever the outcome of the debate, municipal workers should have "a voice in the process" of setting their health care co-pays and deductibles.
Get it?  Everybody wants to make sure labor has "a voice."  And that's a good thing, because it just so happens that the House proposal gives them a voice.  Here's how the Globe explained the relevant provision earlier this week:
Last night, as union leaders lobbied against the plan, DeLeo offered two concessions intended to shore up support from wavering legislators.

The first concession gives public employees 30 days to discuss changes to their health plans with local officials, instead of allowing the officials to act without any input from union members. But local officials would still, at the end of that period, be able to impose their changes unilaterally.
So if this thing makes it into law, the unions will still have "a voice" - more of a voice than anyone I know in the private sector has in establishment of their health benefits.  What the unions will not have - what they have now and what they are fighting tooth and nail to keep - is a veto over proposed changes that municipal officials determine are necessary to keep their budgets in the black.

The union bosses uses the two words interchangeably, but a "voice" is very different from a "veto."  Right now, with their veto, the unions effectively block any real reform at the local level, no matter how dire the budget situation might be.  In the so-called "negotiations" that they claim as an essential right they have all the leverage.  Significant savings are all but impossible.

And of course the union bosses like it that way.

The House proposal would still require local officials to consult with the unions before making any changes - and it is a safe bet that almost as soon as the change is passed into law the unions will file suit to establish the parameters and standards governing that consultation.  But if local officials and the unions are unable to agree, the local officials will be able to move forward.  The balance of influence and authority will be shifted to the elected officials, who represent the citizenry, where it belongs. 

So as this fight rages on, be sure to weigh in with your Senator.  Tell him or her that you absolutely support giving the unions a "voice" in municipal health benefits. 

But not a veto.

Strange and wondrous happenings in MA...

Several times over the past few weeks I have read the morning papers with a deep sense of unreality.  There is something (some things, really) happening in Massachusetts state government - suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere - that few Republicans expected to see any time soon. 

First and most obvious, there is the throw-down currently raging between House Democratic leadership and the public sector union bosses.  Show me someone who even a month ago would have predicted that union bigs Robert Haynes and Ed Kelly would be at Speaker DeLeo's throat over the latter's effort to curtail collective bargaining and I'll pay big bucks for that person's crystal ball. 

But there are other, less explosive things going on too.  On MCAS - an issue that I for one expected to be lost to conservatives with Governor Patrick's victory last November - it appears that some in the Governor's education policy hierarchy might just have their heads screwed on straight.  Look at this in today's Globe:
State education officials made a forceful case yesterday for tying teacher evaluations to students’ MCAS scores and other performance measures, contending it would root out subpar teachers and lead to better schools.

“We can’t condemn successive cohorts of students to ineffective teaching,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner, who said rigorous teacher evaluations are infrequent.

In two-thirds of urban public school districts in Massachusetts, administrators are not allowed to consider student performance in assessing teachers, Chester said. Many teachers go several years without being evaluated.

At a meeting yesterday of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the first official discussion of the plan since it was proposed earlier this month, Chester and other supporters called stricter oversight of teacher performance an overdue component of school reform.

“This is really a culture change,’’ Chester said. “For students who are behind, not having an effective teacher is going to keep them behind.’’
 It still is not at all clear to me that Chester has his boss's backing, but the more he gets out there with rhetoric like this, the more I wonder if perhaps things on the education front are not so bleak as I'd thought

And then there is this from today's Herald:
Senate President Therese Murray, breaking ranks with Gov. Deval Patrick, is pledging to personally eradicate hack-packed, do-nothing state agencies and taxpayer-cash-blowing government programs by requiring all public entities to undergo regular performance reviews for the first time.

“We want to look at, are they viable? Do we need them?” Murray told the Herald in an exclusive sit-down yesterday. “Has their mission changed, and how much do they cost? Also, is there another agency doing similar things?”

The all-encompassing financial reform package being filed by Murray today is aimed at improving “transparency” in state government, eliminating waste, improving efficiency and wiping out antiquated laws. The key component of the proposal would be to require regular “performance management reviews” of all 200-plus state-funded agencies every five or 10 years.
What next?
Here again we have a Beacon Hill Democrat initiating a policy push that - from initial appearances, at least - is carved directly from bedrock fiscal conservative principles.  Murray's proposal would even implement "zero-up" budgeting, forcing agencies to build their annual budgets from the ground up each cycle, rather than starting from the baseline of the current year's budget and building from there.   This is not small ball.  It is, potentially, a very big deal.  The impact of such a change could be massive. While the Governor changes the signage at the Pike and declares transportation reform substantially complete, Senator Murray's initiative (if implemented) would represent true, wide-ranging reform.  And it is utterly unexpected.  Again, if someone had asked me even a month ago when I thought one of the most powerful Democrats on Beacon Hill would toss zero-up budgeting out onto the table, I would have dismissed the proposition out of hand, probably with a chuckling reference to posterior emission of flying pigs.

It bears notice that the Governor, ostensibly the leader not only of state government but also of the Democratic party, is nowhere to be seen on any of these initiatives.  A Globe article today is headlined "Patrick defends bill curbing union rights," but the article itself belies that implication of leadership.  Asked straightforward questions about his position on the bill and what elements he does and does not want to see in whatever legislation eventually hits his desk, the best Patrick could do was fall back on his usual bromides: Unions should have a "meaningful voice."  There is "room for debate."  Both sides should "dial it down."  "The bill is not final."  While his colleagues in the House and Senate are sticking their necks out and taking real risks for reform, Patrick is on the radio reprimanding the birthers, then heading to Wisconsin this weekend to talk about that state's union issues. 

Reaction on the right to all of this apparent progress has been mixed.  It seems a lot of us have become so accustomed to frustration and political impotence that we are skeptical of - and maybe even uncomfortable with - the notion that our ideas might just be breaking through. 

More than a few conservatives reacted to news of the House collective bargaining vote with an immediate, knee-jerk prediction that the effort to curtail unions will die in the Senate.  It might. But again, show me someone who a month ago predicted or even contemplated that such a bill could pass the House. 

Skeptics fret that DeLeo and Murray are 'stealing our issues,' and speculate that the duo's new-found fiscal conservatism is little more than political opportunism, fronted as a shield against growing public unrest and desire for limitations on government excess.  That may be so, in part or in total.  But... so what?  The budget crisis in this state is real, and dealing with it cannot wait until after we get another crack at the corner office in 2014. 

If DeLeo, Murray and the rest want to score some political inoculation by pushing conservative government reforms, then great.  That means even here in Massachusetts we are winning the argument.  I'll take questionably-motivated reform over status quo all day long.

Of course I could be getting way ahead of myself.  The House collective bargaining provision may well die - or be gutted - in the Senate.  Mitchell Chester's rhetoric on teacher accountability may end up bearing little resemblance to Administration policy.  President Murray might float her budget reform proposal and then leave it to sink.  But for now, at least, we should acknowledge that the strange and wondrous happenings going on all over state government represent a positive shift, and do what we can to see that at least some of the initiatives being tossed out there turn into lasting policy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Don't ever talk to me again!" Union boss meltdown in MA

There it is on the front page of the Globe, above the fold, giving me that BizarroMass feeling again:  House Votes to Restrict Unions.

Late last night, before the union bosses could organize the kind of flash mob that besieged the capitol building in Wisconsin last month, a healthy majority of the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts House of Representatives stepped up, finally, to deal with the out of control cost of municipal employee health benefits.  Why?  Recognition of harsh and simple reality.
"What we've recognized is that unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, that a very large percentage of the monies we commit are unfortunately going to fund municipal health insurance," said House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill). "Now, that's not anyone's fault. We're not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it's a fact. It's a fact. The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it's unfortunately not going to textbooks. It's not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it's going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance." [State House News]
I doubt one can find a more cogent, dispassionate statement of the rationale behind curtailing union influence on local benefits than that one.  Despite union boss rhetoric intended to inflame membership and misrepresent the move as "union busting" or "class warfare," Chairman Dempsey has it exactly right.  Nobody is blaming unionized workers for the cost of their benefits.  But that cost is not sustainable.  Trying to maintain them will lead to layoffs, deeper cuts to essential services, and worse.  And the only way to rectify the current situation is to do what the legislation passed last night would do: release the unions' stranglehold on benefit levels.

My three year old daughter has a fairly limited repertoire when it comes to "debate" over things she wants. When she does not get them, she pitches a fit.

Union leadership uses pretty much the same approach.
“It’s clearly union busting. It looks just like Wisconsin to me. It looks just like Ohio to me. It looks just like Indiana to me. I am profoundly disappointed in every Democrat who voted to do away with collective bargaining here in Massachusetts,” said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO...
“There’s a class war going on this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class,” Ed Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said after the vote. [State House News]
The only tool in the Union Boss box
When one side of a debate turns so quickly to exaggeration, hyperbole and outright falsehood, it is pretty immediately clear who has the better side of the argument.  The House Bill does not "do away with collective bargaining," nor does it herald a "class war."  Following a concession by Speaker DeLeo (who pushed the legislation), the bill would maintain a union "voice" in benefit setting, but would take away the veto power unions currently hold over any changes to benefits, thereby freeing up elected officials in cities and towns to act in the best interests of all of their constituents, union members included.  Far from taking away the unions' "voice," the legislation will, if enacted, restore the voice of the taxpayer - which is currently silenced by the union veto.

Here's more Haynes (still from the SHNS):
“Can you imagine what teachers and firefighters and police officers and public sector workers and nurses and librarians are going to think when they wake up tomorrow morning to find out the Democrats that we elected, that we worked for, that we contributed to their campaigns just snatched collective bargaining away from them, just took the voice, the Democratic voice, away from working people. I say good luck to him. And good luck to the future of this House.”
 It occurs to me that part of the explanation for the Beacon Hill House Democrats' sudden conversion on collective bargaining might be explained right there.  Perhaps some of the Reps got sick of the union bosses' increasingly explicit claims to ownership of their votes?

I can imagine what public employees are going to be told to think by Haynes, Kelly and their cronies.  What they should be thinking, however, is that the steps being taken this week, if seen through (more on that in a second) will stabilize the system, avoid lay-offs, and lay a foundation for sustainable benefits going forward.  This is a good thing for municipal employees, who will continue to enjoy a level of job stability and benefits that far exceed what most private sector workers see.  The only losers here are the union bosses, who will see their own influence - and therefore their relevance - sharply curtailed.

Haynes in a standard pose
[Republican photo]
Their anger is understandable, as is their frustration.  A recent cover article in the Weekly Standard does a good job summing up the "existential threats" faced by union leadership in this country today, and the reasons why so many states - even blue-dominated ones like Massachusetts - are finally tackling the public sector union issue:
It may seem counterintuitive, but the continued growth of public sector unions may have negative consequences for organized labor overall. Some select public sector professions still carry political influence​—​such as police, firefighters, and teachers​—​but on the whole, government bureaucrats are far less sympathetic figures than, say, manufacturing workers. Public sector unions are also much newer, and their very existence has always been controversial. As recently as 1955, no less a figure than George Meany, then head of the AFL-CIO, believed it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
For that matter, the perception is widespread that government workers have never really been able to justify collective bargaining protections. “Government workers were not exploited,” Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton University, told the Washington Post. “They were never squeezed the same way as workers in the private sector were, because they had civil service protections.”
So in an era when state and local budgets are swamped by employee costs, politicians are having to choose between responding to the taxpayers and responding to public employee unions. For Republicans, few of whom get campaign cash from unions, the choice is easy.
Still, what happened on Beacon Hill last night is merely a first step.  Haynes and his pals still have cards left to play.  If this urgently needed reform is to be enacted, our absentee Governor, who has been all but invisible as this contentious issue boils over in the House, is going to have to show some leadership.  More SHNS:
The House’s proposal will soon head to the Senate, which has voted in previous years for union-favored plans for municipal health care. Labor leaders promised they would be knocking on senators’ office doors over the next month to maintain collective bargaining. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer told the News Service Tuesday that a determination had not been made on whether to include municipal health care reforms in the Senate's version of the fiscal 2012 budget, which is due out next month.
Gov. Deval Patrick has also argued that municipal unions should have a seat at the table for their health care negotiations but said they should not have the power to veto proposals to cut costs.
The House plan maintains a union "seat at the table."  The deciding factor will be whether the Governor believes that "seat" should continue to wield disproportionate influence.

Here's one more highly symbolic bit from the SHNS coverage:
[Mass Municipal Association President Geoffrey] Beckwith was one of the few outside supporters of the speaker’s plan who spoke with reporters after the vote in a State House lobby largely crowded with union backers irate over the final tally. As Beckwith spoke with a reporter, Haynes and Kelly hovered closely, watching him speak. As Beckwith walked away, Haynes pointed his finger at him and said, “Don’t ever talk to me again.” As the two passed on the stairs moments later, Haynes waved his finger in Beckwith’s face.
When my three year old pitches a fit, we put her in time out until she calms down.  While we continue to value our public employees, and to fairly compensate them for their work, it's probably time to put people like Haynes and his cronies in permanent time out - where they won't have to worry about talking to folks like Beckwith ever again.   Their vitriol and thuggish tactics add nothing to the debate and do a disservice to the people they supposedly represent.

$igns $igns, everywhere $igns

Government

This is why so many people do not trust government to spend tax money responsibly. Herald:
The cash-strapped city of Boston and two quasi-public state agencies have blown a whopping $1 million for 19 shiny new street signs directing visitors to hard-to-miss landmarks such as the mammoth South Boston Convention Center and the World Trade Center — some of which loom just feet away from the pricey placards.

The city, which is again proposing sweeping cuts that could lead to layoffs, kicked in $400,000 toward the new “wayfinding” signs installed throughout the South Boston waterfront, pointing visitors to the convention center, the Massport Cruise Terminal, the Institute of Contemporary Art and other large, easily located attractions.
Government
 Now, anyone who has spent time trying to navigate Boston by car without - or even with - a GPS might take issue with the Herald's breezy dismissal of the need for better signage.  That isn't the issue.  The issue is the price.  A million dollars for 19 signs?  About $52,000 per sign?  Do they hop in and drive you to your destination?

That's bad enough, but if you read further into the Herald article you'll trip over this jaw-dropper:
The Boston Redevelopment Authority paid $150,000 toward the signs’ design while $250,000 came out of the city’s capital infrastructure budget, BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said.
 What the WHAT?

$400K for design? Of road signs?  I'd love to see the breakdown of that line item:

Color selection services: $75,000; 
Font differentiation and analysis: $97,000;
Overtime: $100,000;
Spell-check: $50,000;
Post-spell check staff party: $78,000 

Government


Just ponder that.  Somewhere along the line, some bureaucrat thought it was okay to sign off on $400,000 public dollars for "design" of a bunch of street signs.  That would never happen with even a modicum of fiscal accountability.


Government


Returning to my initial point, this is why conservatives insist that government takes too much of our money.  Because it does.  Nobody will leap specifically to the defense of the fifty-two thousand dollar road sign, but plenty of big government types can be expected to claim that this is an isolated incident.  It isn't.  Nobody should assume that every instance of government spending is so egregiously wasteful as this one; nor should we assume that the Herald just happened to trip over the worst example. The simple fact of the matter is this: Government is, by it's nature, populated with human beings making decisions about how to spend huge amounts of money that isn't theirs.  Waste is always going to be rampant in such a scenario.  The only way to curtail it is to limit the amount of money available to be wasted.

In that regard, I'd close by noting this blurb from coverage of  the budget debate that kicked off on Beacon Hill this week:
On Monday, the House defeated by a 120-34 margin a Republican-backed amendment to roll back the state's 5.3 percent income tax to 5 percent over a three-year period beginning July 1, 2012. A proposal to reduce the 6.25 percent sales tax was also defeated.
 Of course.  Because without all that tax revenue, how ever could government pay for road signs?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Boston Burrito Battle – “Union Rackets?”

By now you’ve likely heard about the Great Boston Burrito Battle of 2011.  It was covered with a light tone by both the Globe and the Herald this weekend.  If you missed it, here’s the capsule summary:

burrito battleBoston Mayor’s office wants to kick off its new bike-sharing initiative with a public event.  Mayor’s office calls up Boloco, a local burrito chain with a reputation for community involvement, and says something like, “Hey!  The mayah really likes your burritos.  Think you could throw some our way for this bike thing?”  And Boloco responds with something like, “Sure!” and commences assembly of 200 burritos for which the chain sought no compensation other than some free publicity.  All good so far.

But then the day of the burrito drop rolls around, and Boloco gets a call from the City asking if they have a permit to give out free burritos.  Boloco responds with something like “Are you $&!*~(@ kidding me?” at which point the City threatens to shut down the Boloco outlet where the burritos are being assembled. 

This is where it gets really interesting.  It seems Boloco’s CEO has a Twitter account.  And this guy, John Pepper, isn’t one of those CEOs who let’s some kid in the mail room send out Tweets in his name.  Mr. Pepper does his own Tweetin’, and he has no rule against Tweetin’ angry.  Feeling, um, under-appreciated by the city and its overbearing bureaucrats, Mr. Pepper lets fly a stream of frustrated cyber-ventilation, including this gem:

How a city can thank businesses for supporting its civic efforts with rudeness, threats, and disrespect has us reeling today… Not staying quiet any longer. Between the union rackets, bureaucracy, red tape, and lack of graciousness, it’s a wonder anything gets done.

Mayor Menino did not appreciate Pepper’s public airing of grievances.  Commenting to the Globe, Menino did his best Back to the Future Biff impression: “He wants to blog, make news?  OK, you do your blog.” 

No, really, he said that - the clear implication being that Hizz Honah’s response would come via a less public medium.  Sure enough, the two had a telephone conversation and Pepper’s subsequent remarks to the Globe were… somewhat less incendiary than his earlier Tweets.  “I think he thinks I could have gone about this in a more positive manner,” Pepper remarked, referring to the Mayor. 

All of this was fun, and not very consequential in the grand scheme of things.  And I am guessing that after his one-on-one with the Mayor, Mr. Pepper has reconsidered his disavowal of “staying quiet.” 

Still, isn’t anyone in the Boston media interested in finding out what Pepper meant by “union rackets”?  The Globe editorialized about the burrito brouhaha today, but apparently did not think the union reference worth mentioning.

The last thing I'll write about Tim Cahill

There isn't enough oxygen on the planet to fuel the long, exasperated sigh I wanted to let out when I saw the front page of this morning's Globe.  "AG Seeks Cahill Lottery Records." 
Attorney General Martha Coakley has subpoenaed records from the Lottery Commission and the state treasurer’s office as prosecutors step up the investigation of former treasurer Timothy P. Cahill’s $1.2 million taxpayer-funded state lottery advertising blitz. Documents suggest the advertisements were orchestrated and written by his gubernatorial campaign staff last fall.

Officials with knowledge of the grand jury subpoenas said prosecutors from Coakley’s staff are seeking details on the radio and television ads, including particulars about involvement by campaign advisers in creating scripts and schedules of when ads were to run in the weeks prior to the November election. They specifically asked for written and e-mail communications to and from Cahill about the ad buy, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.

The ads, paid for with public funds, were billed as promoting the lottery. But a Globe review last fall of internal campaign e-mails, court documents, and lottery records suggest that Cahill’s campaign advisers had the ads crafted to boost his image as an effective manager, in an effort to benefit his independent bid for governor. As treasurer, Cahill oversaw the lottery.
Here's what I wrote on October 13, 2010, the day after a bunch of Cahill campaign emails were released to the public:
The press is right now digesting the pile of emails the court ordered released today. I've seen them. They leave no doubt whatsoever that Cahill and his campaign did the deed, and that Cahill has been out on the stump lying about it all week (up to and including at a candidate forum this morning).
A mere six months and 13 days later it seems the AG's office has come to the same conclusion.  Well done!

He just kept digging. [Herald Photo]
While it is true that "a Globe review last fall" also came to that conclusion, the review happened only after the Globe - and many others in the press - spent much of the last 6 weeks of the election cycle propping up the brain dead Cahill campaign, giving front page treatment to his increasingly deranged flailings, credulously reporting  his nonsense about stolen laptops, national conspiracies, collusion between turncoats on his staff and the Baker campaign, etc.  All nonsense.  All flak tossed out into the air to divert attention from the illegal activity going on in Cahill's own campaign, and all eagerly snarfed up and regurgitated by the press - Globe included - until finally the court-ordered document dump in mid-October brought it all to an end, far too late to prevent Cahill's impact on the final election outcome.

Ach, I feel myself being dragged into the Cahill obsession that I thought I'd finally left behind... I should stop before it's too late.

But one last thing.

What really kills me is how completely and utterly predictable the end of the Cahill campaign was from the very beginning of the Cahill campaign.  Despite all of his transparent attempts to redefine himself, the man was what he was: a standard-issue Massachusetts Democratic machine pol who found himself a cozy little fiefdom in the state Treasury where his periodic flirtations with patronage, pay-to-play and other fairly pedestrian visits to the wrong side of the law went largely unnoticed - until he made the mistake of inviting the glaring scrutiny that comes with a gubernatorial campaign. 

Once that scrutiny arrived, the true Cahill was right there, out in the open for all to see.

Back in July 2010 I gave an incomplete run-down of all the various Cahill-related scandals and scandlets that had trickled out in the space of a single year.  Breezing over it again now, I am amazed anew at the notion that anyone in his or her right mind stuck with the guy through Election Day.  And quite a few people did.  I know some of them, and they don't seem dumber than stumps.  So I have to assume they just weren't paying enough attention.

A healthy share of the blame belongs to the press.  Sure, some did their diligence on Cahill and aired his laundry.  But then, almost as if they felt Cahill was owed a balancing of the scales, they continued to treat him like a viable candidate.  They included him in their debates, invited him on their talk shows, provided him space for op-eds, and - worst - they served as delivery devices for his kamikaze carpet bombing of the Baker campaign in the waning days of the cycle.  The benefit afforded the Patrick campaign by Cahill's final, month-long explosion is impossible to quantify - and equally impossible to deny.

And now here we are, half a year later, and it seems a few chickens are finally coming home to roost.  Talk about bitter satisfaction.  Heavy on the bitter.

Okay.  That's the last thing I am going to write about the Cahill campaign.

Maybe.

Pretty good illustration of how I feel right now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gov. Patrick un-friends Lantigua

Happier times [Herald Photo]
If only life were so easy as Facebook...

Over the weekend news broke that Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua (who used to be State Rep. William Lantigua... and for a time was Mayor AND State Rep. William Lantigua) and other members of his administration are, as the Eagle-Trib puts it, "the focus of a 'multi-jurisdictional investigation' focused on allegations of corruption involving narcotics, weapons, bid rigging, suspicious out-of-country travel and more."

"Multi-jurisdictional" in this case means local, state, and federal by the way.  Not bad for a guy who has only been in office a little over a year.

Anyhoo, given the extensive political ties between Governor Patrick and Mayor Lantigua (Patrick campaigned for Lantigua, appeared personally at his swearing in, and more recently has defended a $35M state bailout of Lawrence) it is only natural that the Governor is now being asked to comment on Lantigua's current difficulties.  His response is unsurprising.  From Boston.com this afternoon:
Governor Deval Patrick declined today to say whether he still has confidence in Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence, who is being investigated for possible corruption by federal and state authorities.

Asked directly if he has confidence in the mayor, Patrick said: “I know what I’ve read, but we’ve been contacted by no authorities.”
Know what?  I've read the some things - and although I too have been contacted by no authorities, I have a pretty good notion of what I think of Mayor Lantigua.  The Governor might as well have answered, "I had soup for lunch.  I like soup."  That answer would have been no less responsive (and may even have the added virtue of truth).

The Governor obviously had confidence in Lantigua at some point.  He invested a not-inconsiderable amount of political capital in the guy.  Still, Patrick couldn't even bring himself to give his political pal the benefit of the standard "these are only allegations / innocent until proven guilty" response, par for the course in these situations (and also having the virtue of truth).  I could respect that.  There is something to be said for personal loyalty.

But no, the Governor knows what he's read, and has been "contacted by no authorities."  Which, come to think of it, is an interesting non-response.  So far as the public knows the allegations against Lantigua have to do entirely with the City of Lawrence.  Does the Governor have reason to expect he'll be contacted by the authorities?  If so, one can forgive him for being cagey.  One corruption trial at a time is enough for any Governor, especially one whose schedule is already packed with out-of-state travel.

By the by, why do I keep thinking of this?

Maybe Boston.com should ask Lt. Governor Murray what he thinks about the whole Lantigua mess.  After all, Murray endorsed Lantigua too, and even featured the Mayor on an episode of his scintillating online talker, The Commonwealth Report.

What?  You don't watch it?


Ds are going to need more than stale talking points to challenge Senator Brown

"Dems can beat Scott Brown in '12 - here's how." 

That's the title of a column in today's Herald by Doug Rubin, former Deval Patrick political guru and Chief of Staff, current Beacon Hill lobbyist and Dem power broker (but not on gaming. honest. pinky swear.).

Step one, apparently, is to get a column in a prominent newspaper and start churning out talking points.


Despite the title, Rubin's column isn't so much a "here's how" for would-be Brown antagonists as a counter-factual catalog of attacks the Ds would like to make against the Senator, if only stubborn reality would quit intruding.  Case in point, Rubin's repeated assertion that Massachusetts "can't count on" Brown, because his votes have been "all over the map."


A Suffolk poll released earlier this month was the just the latest proof that Massachusetts voters aren't buying Rubin's line.  Brown is the most popular elected official in Massachusetts - surpassing even the President - largely because of those votes that Rubin would like to characterize as "all over the map."  "More than half (55 percent) of Bay State voters said that Brown deserves to be reelected," the poll found, "and 56 percent said they agreed that Brown has kept his promise to be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate."

That's a perception that the Democrats are going to have to change if they are to have any chance at all next year.  Obviously Rubin and the rest of the Beacon Hill Ds know that, but it will take more than repetition of the contrary proposition to alter conventional wisdom - especially if Senator Brown continues to live up to his campaign promise to maintain a degree of independence.

Back in January when Rubin penned a column (also run in the Herald) titled "Bay State needs a stronger GOP," a lot of people wondered if he was deliberately distancing himself from his hyper-partisan pedigree, in an attempt to build some bipartisan cred for his newly-invigorated political strategy and lobbying firm. 

If today's column (and his last one, amplifying the Democratic State Committee's low-rent cake jibe at Mitt Romney) can be taken into evidence, Rubin's earlier columns were intended to create the illusion of dispassionate analysis, so that when campaign season stated to ramp back up he might occasionally manage to sneak a bunch of stale talking points past the Herald's editors and into print.  Like he did today.

I suspect that Senator Brown and his advisers would be the first to insist that Brown's current poll standing - and the Ds' lack of a viable candidate to run against him - are no reason to get cocky.  Brown is himself walking proof of the maxim that in politics anything can happen, and nobody is unbeatable. 

But Democrats in search of a path to victory next November aren't going to find it in today's Herald.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Top 10 Reads of the Week (April 22, 2011)

The Death of Right to Work – Editors [Wall Street Journal]

We knew that Big Labor had political pull at the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board, but yesterday's complaint against Boeing is one for the (dark) ages. By challenging Boeing's right to build aircraft in South Carolina, labor's bureaucratic allies in Washington are threatening the ability of states to compete for new jobs and investment—and risking the economic recovery to boot… Read the Rest

Dodging the Pension Disaster – Josh Barro [National Affairs]

When Dan Liljenquist began his first term as a Utah state senator in January 2009, his financial acumen quickly earned him serious legislative responsibilities. A former management consultant for Bain & Company, Liljenquist was appointed by the Utah senate president, Michael Waddoups, to three budget-related committees; he was also made chairman of the Retirement and Independent Entities Committee. As Liljenquist remembers it, Waddoups pre-empted any concerns the freshman might have had about his new responsibilities: "Don't worry," Waddoups said, "nothing ever happens on the retirement committee."

But then, in the early months of 2009, the stock market went into free fall. Worried about the effects the market crash would have on Utah's public-employee pension plan — which, like most states', is invested heavily in equities — Liljenquist asked the plan's actuaries to project how much taxpayers would have to pay into the pension fund in order to compensate for the stock-market losses. The figures that came back were alarming: Utah was about to drown in red ink. Without reform, the state would see its contributions to government workers' pensions rise by about $420 million a year — an amount equivalent to roughly 10% of Utah's spending from its general and education funds. Moreover, those astronomical pension expenses would continue to grow at 4% a year for the next 25 years, just to pay off the losses the fund had incurred in the stock market… Read the Rest

Government by Waiver – Richard Epstein [National Affairs]

One of the great achievements of Western civilization is what we commonly call "the rule of law." By this we mean the basic principles of fairness and due process that govern the application of power in both the public and the private spheres. The rule of law requires that all disputes — whether among private parties or among the state and private parties — be tried before neutral judges, under rules that are known and articulated in advance. Every party must have notice of the charge against him and an opportunity to be heard in response; each governing rule must be consistent with all the others, so that no person is forced to violate one legal requirement in order to satisfy a second. In the United States, our respect for such principles has made our economy the world's strongest, and our citizens the world's freest. 

Though we may take it for granted, the rule of law is no easy thing to create and preserve. Dictators and petty despots of all sorts will rebel against these constraints in order to exercise dominion over the lives and fortunes of their subjects. But anyone, of any political persuasion, who thinks of government as the servant of its citizens — not their master — will recognize that compliance with the rule of law sets a minimum condition for a just legal order… Read the Rest

Losing the Future – Mark Steyn [National Review Online]

I always enjoy the bit in Planet of the Apes where a loinclothed Charlton Heston falls to his knees as he comes face to face with a shattered Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand and realizes that the eponymous simian planet is, in fact, his own — or was. Also the bit in Independence Day where Lady Liberty gets zapped by space aliens. And in Cloverfield when she’s decapitated by a giant monster. And in The Day After Tomorrow when she’s flash-frozen after polar-ice-cap melting brought on by a speech from Dick Cheney. I’ve been enjoying such moments since, oh, the short story “The Next Morning” in the 1887 edition of Life, illustrated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a headless statue with the smoldering rubble of the city behind her. The poor old girl was barely off the boat from France, and she’d already been pegged as the perfect visual shorthand for societal collapse… Read the Rest

One Year’s Worth of Union Dues Could Support 265,447 U.S. Workers For A Year – LaborUnionReport [Redstate.com]

Union bosses have been engaging in class warfare for so long now that it’s become standard for the media to echo the meme without challenge. An example of such mainstream Marxism is in today’s Bloomberg piece entitled ‘Runaway CEO Pay’ Could Support 102,000 U.S. Jobs, AFL-CIO Says. Bloomberg’s piece relies heavily on the AFL-CIO’s Executive Pay Watch, which was set up years ago to conduct a haves vs. have nots class warfare campaign to eventually have CEO pay limited by law or regulation. This was something union bosses accomplished to some degree with last year’s “Wall Street Reform.”… Read the Rest

Never Let an Oil Crisis Go to Waste – Kenneth Green [Enterprise Blog]

Last June, my colleague Steve Hayward and I published “The Dangers of Overreacting to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.” In the Outlook, we speculated about what the damage might be, and the risks that the government would inflict economic (and environmental) harm by increasing our use of biofuels such as corn ethanol.

How did we do?… Read the Rest

Duck!  It’s the Donald! – Jonah Goldberg [LA Times]

At this point, there's at least one thing you can't blame Donald Trump for: being Donald Trump.

Like the scorpion in Aesop's fables who must sting the frog because that's simply what scorpions do, the world renowned, self-promoting billionaire-clown must tout himself with passion and narcissistic self-regard… Read the Rest

Mitt Romney Haunted By Past of Trying to Help Uninsured Sick People [The Onion]

BELMONT, MA—Though Mitt Romney is considered to be a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the national spotlight has forced him to repeatedly confront a major skeleton in his political closet: that as governor of Massachusetts he once tried to help poor, uninsured sick people.

Romney, who signed the state's 2006 health care reform act, has said he "deeply regrets" giving people in poor physical and mental health the opportunity to seek medical attention, admitting that helping very sick people get better remains a dark cloud hovering over his political career, and his biggest obstacle to becoming president of the United States of America… Read the Rest

Obama’s Likability Gap – Daniel Henninger [Wall Street Journal]

If it is true, as Michelle Obama said in February, that her husband isn't smoking anymore, maybe he'd better start mellowing out with the cigs again before it costs him the presidency.

The Barack Obama we've been seeing lately is a different personality than the one that made a miracle run to the White House in 2008.

Obama.2008 was engaging, patient, open, optimistic and a self-identified conciliator.

Obama.2011 has been something else—testy, petulant, impatient, arrogant and increasingly a divider… Read the Rest

I Hate These Kinds of Stories.  And Yet, They Keep Coming – Jim Geraghty [NRO’s “Morning Jolt” Newsletter]

[Ed. note: This piece is an excerpt from Mr. Geraghty’s daily newsletter.  Since it is not (for far as I can tell) published separately anyplace online, I’ve included the whole thing here.  Subscribe (for free) to his excellent newsletter by clicking here.]

This is one of those stories where I just want to get up from the computer, walk away from the political world, and work on some cheerier topic -- like killing terrorists or something.
I believe it was Dana Loesch who got the ball rolling on the latest outrage, a deeply disturbing fury -- claiming to be "satire" -- targeting Sarah Palin's son, Trig: "The Wonkette brand of Myspace satire strikes again. Calling him the 'greatest prop in history,' Wonkette proceeds to make fun of the little boy on his birthday because that's what good writers who know about politics do. . . . This is what happens when a little-known blogger who edits the literary equivalent of the bathroom wall in Walmart isn't clever enough to either write satire or convey why he doesn't like the Palins. And this is considered acceptable by progressives."
The outrage on the right has been appropriately volcanic and thankfully, in some cases, there are liberals who are declaring the Trig mockery totally out of bounds: "In what galaxy is this funny? Or even satire? Go after Sarah Palin if you must. She's a public figure. Attack an adult. Lash out at someone your own size. Or maybe that's what they were doing," writes Alan Colmes.
At Hot Air, Allahpundit isn't too eager to give the attention-hungry what they so desperately crave: "It's the talk of the blogosphere so I'm obliged to mention it, but it pains me to do so for the reason Ace gives here. It's trollblogging at its worst; there's no way to attack it without inadvertently rewarding it by paying attention to it. So here's all you need to know. One: The site's advertisers have already started bailing out under pressure from outraged customers. And two: From what I've gathered, even most mainstream liberals are repulsed by it, from KP to Alan Colmes to Tommy Christopher to Dave Weigel. Read Weigel and Christopher, especially, for updates on fallout from the incident. And don't feed the trolls!"
Each time we crash through the ever-lower standards of political discourse -- we're now at the earth's outer core, by my measurement -- I try to get my head around why people act this way.
Very few obnoxious people think they're obnoxious, or even recognize that others might have legitimate grounds to think of them as obnoxious. I find they often see themselves as truth-tellers; they assure themselves that they are the rare courageous ones who say what everyone else is afraid to say. They're also convinced that everyone else secretly thinks the way they do; we're all hypocrites for secretly thinking the same ugly thoughts that they express and then put on an act of disapproving.
The desire to somehow "punish" a political figure by lashing out at that figure's child, well, let's just say that there's a moral line that you're crossing that would seem to put you at least in same zip code of child abuse. What the crew at Wonkette are arguing is that children are fair game. They deserve it, if you're angry enough at the parents. The author, Jack Stuef, could just have easily written about Sarah Palin. He could have argued about her policies or any one of a million topics. He chose her child.
I hope when I reached my angriest, I'm not like this, and I hope you're not like this either. I think it's probably a good sign if you still see the other side as human beings, and you refrain from dismissing entire sections of the population as "parasites," as Andrew Sullivan said of people who work on Wall Street this weekend. Here's an example: Early in Obama's first year, NBC did an hour-long prime-time special, entitled, "Inside the Obama White House." Those who feared an hour of propaganda found plenty to object to in the program. But there were two moments that stuck with me. The first was David Axelrod, talking to Brian Williams about living several states away from his adult daughter who has, in his words, "profound problems with epilepsy," and showing a painting she made that he keeps in his office. Then Rahm Emanuel talked about working in Washington while his wife and three children remained back in Chicago, not seeing them for weeks at a time. Apparently, even fire-breathing Rahm had days when he came into Axelrod's office and talked about the difficulty of being away from his family for so long. (This section of the program can be found here.)
Now, regular readers of this newsletter know that derision and mockery of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel are pretty much standard fare. In their professional lives, Axelrod cynically exploited a way-too-friendly media to elect a fundamentally unprepared man to be president; if Rahm Emanuel were not protected by the "D" after his name, the table-stabbing, fish-sending anecdotes would be cited as evidence of him being a raving maniac, not merely a passionate, foul-mouthed operator.
But in those moments, you can see two men, working long hours and away from their loved ones and wondering if they're making a mistake and sacrificing what matters most. They're fathers and husbands. Human. With vulnerabilities and regrets and doubts. Somewhere in Chicago, there are children who miss their dads, kids who have never given you or me any reason to dislike them.
What's striking about this is that we have people -- quite a few people, I increasingly suspect -- in the political world whose entire interaction is based on sticking it to the other side. This is what matters most to them. Vengeance, or lashing out against their political foes, is preeminent in their hierarchy of values, outranking everything.

… and. The Funniest Thing I Saw This Week

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

So much for the Trojan Horse

This is an update to my last post, here, so if you have not read that one take a moment to do so...

Back?  Okay.  It seems I was way off the mark in suggesting that the Commonwealth's public sector unions had decided on a Trojan Horse-type approach to undermining recent efforts to rationalize the union-dominated dynamic by which public employee benefit levels are set and maintained.   I should have known better.  These folks don't do quiet and stealthy.  They do loud and frontal.  Here are some relevant excerpts from the State House News report filed this afternoon (republished here by Wickedlocal.com):
Fifty Democratic lawmakers, including six of Speaker Robert DeLeo’s handpicked committee chairs, have lined up behind a union-backed alternative to a House leadership proposal that would permit cities and towns to unilaterally shift health care costs onto their workers, setting up a high-stakes policy battle during next week’s budget debate.

The issue presents a math challenge for DeLeo and Democratic House leaders, who may be forced to rely on Republican votes to pass their plan, unless they can peel away support from a competing plan offered by Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester) and favored by unions...
Walsh’s plan, backed primarily by rank-and-file House members, including 10 freshmen, would restore some collective bargaining power for municipal unions, granting them a 45-day window to negotiate with administrators over health benefits, and sending the matter to arbitration if they fail to agree.

Under the plan offered by Walsh, who also works as secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council, workers would also share in at least 25 percent of the savings cities and towns realize by shifting health costs. Cities and towns would be guaranteed a quarter of the savings as well, and the remainder would be subject to negotiations. A nearly identical proposal narrowly passed the Senate last year.
Water carrier
Wait a second!  Rep. Walsh "also works as secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council"??  He'd better tell his staff they forgot to include that little detail in his official bio.  Not that I'm suggesting Walsh's side job with a union has anything to do with the fact that he finds himself out in front of the unions' legislative effort to gut health insurance reform efforts, mind you.  

Anyhoo... Walsh's union allies aren't risking the usual MA legislature back-room euthanasia on this bill.  They are putting it right out there and making clear the consequences for Democrats who defy their will.  More from the SHNS:
But union officials have made clear in letters to representatives that they consider the vote on Walsh’s amendment a referendum on collective bargaining and will hold opponents accountable politically.

“You are either on the side of collective bargaining for the workers who have been willing to compromise on this issue, or you are against those collective bargaining rights and want to reward intractable, uncompromising management advocates like the MMA,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes wrote in a letter soliciting support for Walsh’s amendment. The letter included one bolded line: “All votes relating to the matters discussed in this letter may be considered Labor Votes and calculated into Labor Voting Records upon which endorsements and levels of support are determined.”
Completely non-suggestive illustration
That's quite a bolded line! Especially the part about "levels of support."  Endorsements are one thing.  That's core First Amendment stuff, and of course nobody can or should expect the unions to endorse candidates who turn on them.  But "levels of support..." 

Massachusetts law (specifically chapter 268A, section 2 - colloquially known as the public bribery statute) makes it a crime to "offer anything of value" to a public official in order "to influence any official act..."  Voting on a bill, last time I checked, constitutes an "official act" by a legislator.  So ask yourself, when Mr. Haynes writes to our legislative Ds and notes - in bold, no less - that "levels of support" will be determined by their votes on Mr. Walsh's reform-evisceration bill, is he seeking to influence their official acts by "offer[ing] anything of value"?  I don't know.  I'm asking

Those of you out there inclined towards giving Mr. Haynes the benefit of the doubt, ask yourself this further question:  If, say, the Koch Brothers were to wander into Massachusetts and tell a group of our legislators something along the lines of "vote our way on this bill, or we won't send any dollars your way next cycle," would they get a pass?  I don't know.  I'm asking again.

Of course I'm not really suggesting that by making his obvious prediction about union support that will and will not accrue to Democrats in next year's elections, Mr. Haynes is seeking to bribe legislators for their votes.  But golly, he sure is messing with that whole 'spirit of the law' thing, isn't he?

Here's another fun little tid-bit from the SHNS article:
...13 of the 26 Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee signed onto Walsh’s plan to undo the proposal that the committee endorsed last week, although none spoke against it on the day the budget was released and approved by the Ways and Means panel on a voice vote.

Ways and Means Committee members passed on a chance to amend the committee plan. Amendments during committee executive sessions, once a fairly common practice, have become rare over the years, especially given the increasing frequency of committee votes occurring via polling.

The split in the Democratic caucus over municipal workers’ collective bargaining power has been fueled, in part, by union heads, who issued strongly worded rejections of the Ways and Means version of the plan, calling it a non-starter and threatening political retribution for lawmakers who support it.
One has to feel for those 13 Democrats who support Walsh and the union bosses but could not find their voices to say so in the hearing room.  In there, the Speaker and the committee Chair rule with iron fists.  But out there in the real world... Mr. Haynes awaits.  With his endorsements and his "levels of support."  'Tis a quandary, no doubt.

For his part, Mr. Walsh declined to discuss the hot-button amendment that he is sponsoring.  The one that is splitting the Democratic caucus and setting up a very public test of union strength.  Why should he?  Walsh doesn't answer to the press any more than he answers to the voters.  He doesn't have to.  His "level of support" is sure to be plenty high.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If you must join ‘em, kill ‘em

That appears to be the union boss response to the increased momentum behind urgently-needed public employee health benefit reform here in the Commonwealth.  Last week, as budget-watchers (and readers of this blog) know, House Democrats sent shockwaves through the public sector union establishment by including in their draft budget a plan to (Globe’s words) “strip local public employees of most of their rights to bargain over health care.” 

uniontrojanhorseThis proposal, known as plan design, couples nicely with recent support voiced by the Governor and Speaker DeLeo for changes that would allow cities and towns to join the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) over local union objection. 

[If none of this is making sense to you, take a moment to read this and this and this -  the upshot is that both municipal participation in the GIC and plan design authority would radically reduce the cost of public employee health care benefits. The local unions hate both initiatives, because both would pretty much end the stranglehold that they currently have over local benefit levels.] 

Several weeks ago, perhaps sensing coming change in the wind, the union bosses preemptively announced their own “reform” plan – one that would increase union representation on the governing board of the GIC to more than half.  This “if you must join ‘em, beat ‘em” approach was too much even for the editors of the Globe, who wrote that the proposal “would not only guarantee further wrangling, but [it] would give unions new clout to block changes within the Group Insurance Commission…”.  

Since the House Ways and Means Committee filed its budget proposal last Thursday, no fewer than 758 amendments have been offered by the rank-and-file.  One of these, number 700, would enact the unions’ Trojan Horse plan to eviscerate the GIC.  The folks dragging the horse past the city walls (the Reps who filed the amendment) are James O’Day (D-West Boylston), Marty Walsh (D-Dorchester), Colleen Garry (D-Dracut), and Christine Canavan (D-Brockton).  And did I really have to type those Ds? 

As the Herald editorializes today, “[i]f past is prologue (and let’s face it, it usually is on Beacon Hill) the 758 amendments that lawmakers have filed to the 2012 House budget proposal will be dispensed with in a back room, never to inspire a single word of debate on the House floor.”  Ordinarily that process bothers me no end.  But if House leaders want to put this horse down in a quiet back room, I for one have no objection.  As the Globe’s Scot Lehigh wrote recently, the union-sponsored plan “is so silly it doesn’t even merit respectful consideration.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Patrick/Murray clear as mud on MCAS

Okay, what's the catch?

That was my initial thought upon opening the Sunday Globe yesterday morning and taking in the first few paragraphs of the front page article titled "Rating teachers on MCAS results."
The state’s education commissioner proposed a set of regulations yesterday that would radically overhaul the way teachers and administrators are evaluated, making student MCAS results central to judging their performance.

The proposed regulations would reward teachers and administrators whose students show more than a year’s worth of growth in proficiency under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and on other exams, while educators whose students underperform would be placed on one-year “improvement plans.’’ Under the proposal, teachers could face termination if they do not demonstrate progress.

The goal is to fix a long-broken evaluation system that too often fails to provide constructive feedback to educators on how they need to improve and on what they are doing right, Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview.

Evaluating teachers and principals has become a focal point for the state as it tries to reduce high school dropout rates and turn around dozens of failing schools. If done correctly, state officials, business leaders, and educators believe, the job reviews could help advance the academic fortunes of a whole classroom of students or even an entire school.

“Currently, the evaluation system in the Commonwealth is inconsistent and underdeveloped,’’ Chester said. “Unless we have a robust evaluation system, we don’t have a strong understanding of who is excelling and who is lagging.’’
The more I read the better it sounded, and I chided myself sternly for my initial skepticism.  Have I become so politically jaded that I am unable to recognize and appreciate good policy if it emanates from the Patrick/Murray Administration?  After all, if Speaker DeLeo can turn on the union bosses, who is to say Patrick/Murray couldn't belatedly find religion on MCAS? Sure a few of the details set forth by the Globe set off alarm bells, particularly the requirement that districts "negotiate the changes with local unions."  But here is the Education Commissioner talking about test-based evaluation and consequences that include potential termination of failing teachers.  I felt it was wrong of me to quibble.

What's the saying?  It isn't paranoia if they are really out to get you?  Well, it seems when it comes to the Patrick Administration it isn't cynicism if they are really dysfunctional beyond all reckoning.

Just before I hit the sack last night, reality reasserted itself in a bulletin from the State House News (republished here by wickedlocal.com):
  
PATRICK AIDES LEAK EDUCATION POLICY STORY, DISPUTE RESULTS
The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick takes almost every opportunity to promote itself as transparent. While there's some evidence to back up that claim, the general public might be surprised at how secretive administration officials can be at times.

On Thursday, as word spread in the education community about the potentially imminent release of controversial educator evaluation regulations, the News Service placed inquiries with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to find out about changes that might be in the works.

Calls and emails went unreturned for more than 24 hours until the department's director of media relations, J.C. Considine, responded at 5:33 p.m. Friday with an email saying only, "The recommendations are still being finalized."

But on Sunday, there was Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester explaining the regulations in the Boston Globe, which said Chester had proposed the regulations on Saturday, interviewed the commissioner, and reported the plans "would radically overhaul the way teachers and administrators are evaluated, making student MCAS results central to judging their performance."

After the story was published, Considine on Sunday released to the News Service a memo about the regulations but was not available to discuss the manner in which the regulations were released.

But in a later email, he wrote, "The commissioner finalized his recommendations late Friday night. We sent those to the members of the Board overnight Friday in their Board packets for Saturday delivery. To ensure that Board members saw this before any others, I did not immediately release the commissioner's recommendations. We also provided the Globe with an advance copy of the recommendations."

Considine did not explain the rationale behind the transparency-for-the-Globe-only policy, but it seems not to have quite accomplished the hoped-for objective; Considine on Sunday also released a statement from Chester intended to "clarify the headline and article in this morning's Boston Globe around the use of MCAS."
There's a little bit of journalist chest-puffing going on here. There are few worse things that an administration can do to a reporter than to deny him his scoop and then feed the story as an exclusive to another outlet.  But that is hardly the whole story.  It seems these education "reforms" weren't ready for prime time, and Commissioner Chester may have been off the Patrick/Murray reservation with some of his comments. Like, um, all of them.  Here's the statement Chester's office issues to "clarify the headline and article" run by the Globe:
"Both the headline and initial paragraphs of today's Globe story do not provide an accurate summary of my recommendations as they relate to the use of student performance measures. I have proposed that student learning be central to the evaluation and development of the Commonwealth's educators. My recommendations require that for every grade and subject, at least two measures of student learning gains be employed. At the grades and subjects where MCAS growth measures are available, they must be one of the measures -- but cannot be the sole measure. Further, I have not specified the manner by which the multiple measures of student learning are to be combined. Each district will develop and document the manner by which they will utilize the multiple student learning measures to determine whether students are making at least a year's, less than a year's, or more than a year's gain."
Now there's the kind of "clarity" - and the kind of policy - we've come to expect from Patrick/Murray.  "At the grades and subjects where MCAS growth measures are available, they must be one of the measures -- but cannot be the sole measure. Further, I have not specified the manner by which the multiple measures of student learning are to be combined."  Clear as mud.  I liked the Globe's version much better.

So to re-cap this sorry episode, the Patrick/Murray Administration (a) stiff-armed a reporter and fed an exclusive to a competitor; (b) rolled out and substantively retracted a major policy shift in the space of 24 hours; and (c) ordered its Education Commissioner (who it seems might actually be kinda reform-minded) to throw himself under the bus. Yet another illustration of an Administration approaching its sixth year in office that still cannot get out of its own way.

Sweet. Fancy. Moses.