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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Saturday, August 02, 2008

What did they do?

The day after the Legislature prorogues is too early to figure out exactly what they did in the wee small hours -- but a picture is starting to emerge.

For starters, lawmakers seem to have come up with a sensible compromise to keep the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority from going belly up. But not enough to keep toll payers from the western suburbs to continue bearing more than their fair share of the mainly north-south improvements.

And in the first of the not-so-pleasant surprises, we learn that lawmakers have boosted pension benefits without figuring out a way to pay for them.

It's important to note the problem is less what they did than how they did it. A large number of state pensioners are the teachers and highway department laborers who punch clocks and do the hard work of teaching our kids or cleaning our highways in some semblance of repair. Note this comment from Senate Republican Leader Richard Tisei:
While it may not be a lot, it's something. You have to treat the people who have worked for the state for decades fairly - a lot of these people worked in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, so they didn't make a lot anyway. Most of their pensions aren't very large.
I'd venture that the "double dippers" the Herald targets -- people who put in their 20 years, collect a pension and move to a second job in the federal system -- aren't a huge problem either. I suspect one of the reasons the Globe doesn't focus on this phenomenon is they have plenty of folks who took buyouts, "retired" and moved on to a second career.

Granted The Globe is not a government agency, but the concept of encouraging older, more expensive workers to step aside in order to eliminate jobs or replace them with cheaper labor is a standard business practice.

No, the problem with the Legislature's voice votes culminating at 9:30 p.m. is they didn't even try to tackle the tougher "double dip" issue highlighted by the Globe in the case of Big Dig employees "fired" -- but not for incompetence.

As the Globe noted earlier, the issue is a 1945 law originally designed to protect public workers from politically motivated purges. Today:
The law has allowed some employees whose jobs are phased out, typically because of money-saving efforts by government, to start collecting pensions immediately. That has enabled some to move on to second careers in their 40s or 50s, with lifetime pensions that are extremely rare in the private sector. The typical profile is midlevel manager, not a rank-and-file worker.
Heck, the Great Disappearing Treasurer has had a "working group" poring over the issue for four years. Where was he on Thursday night?

The little guys who will benefit from this pension increase should not become pawns in the failure of Deval Patrick, lawmakers and constitutional officers (that means you too Timmie) to deal with the broader problems in the retirement system.

And stay tuned for what else emerges from the House and Senate clerk offices in the weeks ahead.

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