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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into

Another day, another headline, another multi-billion dollar mess.

How did we get here -- and how do we get out from under?

Word that Massachusetts faces a $13.3 billion tab for retiree health care costs is just another straw on a very rickety camel's back. It joins the Big Dig-Turnpike Authority, MBTA, crumbling roads and bridges -- not to mention the tab for health care reform and education reform and, oh, I could go on.

The bills and dire warnings are emerging at the same time the economy is tanking. Housing prices have plummeted, gasoline and heating costs have soared, wages are slowing as people are losing their jobs.

People looking to government aren't seeing any answers. We have wasted human and financial capital fighting a war in Iraq while allowing the threat in Afghanistan to metastasize. Our federal government has allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow by passing tax cuts that mainly benefit speculators who destroyed the housing market.

At home, the lack of leadership has been equally stark. No, this is not Deval Patrick-bashing. The governor was right to tout a successful collaboration with the Great and General Court, no matter how often we got sidetracked over the last 18 months by Cadillacs, drapes, casinos and the friends of Sal DiMasi.

No, the problem goes much deeper and longer. Since 1986, not one Massachusetts governor has devoted his full attention to actually running the state 24-7-365. The gender pronoun choice is deliberate: Jane Swift's attention was not focused on Washington, although we can't be sure quite exactly where it was aimed.

But let's look at the ledger: two presidential hopefuls, including one nominee; two ambassadors or ambassador-wannabes. Despite repeated denials, voters expect Patrick to ride the Washington Express if his pal Barack Obama is elected. And given recent history, who can blame them.

Left on its own, the Legislature has filled the void. Often that wasn't done so well.

During that time, one House Speaker left under indictment, another scooted out the door before the indictments were handed down. There's a lot of smoke, but no fire, yet, around the current speaker. And of course, one Senate President was the focus of in endless speculation of what he knew about his fugitive mobster brother's business.

Also during that time the state budget has grown -- doubled in fact -- according to a MassINC policy briefing (PDF). And that's the on-budget spending and doesn't include lots of expensive items like the Big Dig, the MBTA and school building construction.

The "winners" include education reform, and spending on health care. The "losers" include non-education local aid to cities and towns. The report notes the state has relied on "volatile" funding sources like capital gains taxes -- which have failed to keep up with actual costs, which means we're eating the seed corn.

So here we are, almost halfway through Patrick's term. The stock market is plummeting, meaning that capital gains tax receipts will, er, suck. Corporate tax reform added some dollars to the state coffers, but not enough to really cover operating costs, let alone allow for planning to deal with these major pension, transportation and infrastructure scimitars hanging over our heads.

Patrick's major proposal for revenue relief -- casino gambling -- went down in flames in the House, much to the joy of a large segment of his political base. The result is there is no real way that Patrick could deliver on the major promise of his campaign: property tax relief.

Homeowners could get some small relief when cities and towns do fresh assessments on properties that have lost value. But that's chump change and won't come close to honoring his pledge.

So, Massachusetts voters are likely to be in a churlish mood this fall. The fiscal nightmares on the horizon are obscured by the headaches currently in our doorstep. Egged on by talk radio, voters see government as unresponsive, incapable of delivering on its promises, more interested in jockeying for the next House Speaker or the Supreme Court justice.

So what's the solution? Voters are likely to opt to send a message and repeal the state income tax.

It's a nightmarishly, hare-brained scheme that will do nothing to solve the litany of problems we face, push property taxes to the Proposition 2 1/2-limited maximums and turn Massachusetts into the Mississippi of the North (or the New Hampshire of the South) -- dependent on taxes on booze and butts, lottery sales and the kindness of strangers to educate our children and protect our streets.

But given the sorry reality of today, the failure of a generation of leaders, Democrat and Republican, it's a reality I fear is going to be all too real in the very near future.

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