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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, October 01, 2008

A leadership test

These are times that separate the men and women from the boys and girls., when politicians show they are leaders or finger-in-the-wind followers. These are the times that will prove the mettle of Deval Patrick and Barney Frank.

The Newton Democrat has high marks so far, taking the lead in crafting an ugly but necessary plan to save Wall Street (and us) from greed and excess. Frank is taking some heat at home -- with folks looking back more than 10 years to what Frank did and did not do to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the seeds of this crisis were first planted.

Followership was vividly on display when House conservatives chose ideology over national interest and helped to sink the bailout proposal.

The fiscal meltdown also means that it is showtime for Deval Patrick -- elected on a platform that included a pledge to lower property taxes and restore programs slashed in the last recession and who is now facing a nightmare scenario of budget cuts triggered by falling state revenues and the federal fiasco.

And that's the good scenario. A little more than a month from now we could be talking about another $12.5 billion in budget cuts -- and a rush of Proposition 2 1/2 overrides -- to fill the hole created if the income tax repeal passes.

Patrick's plight rings very familiar to someone who lived it:
"Nothing is more difficult for a governor," said former governor Michael Dukakis, who faced two economic crises. "Believe me, nobody's going to give you a medal for this kind of thing. It's gonna be painful. It's difficult."
Voters elect politicians on promises -- and cast judgment on the ability to deliver on them. That's as it should be.

But voters often forget to take into account what happens between the elections -- particularly in our current environment where we have been accustomed to elected officials who promise new programs without ever talking about how to pay for them.

The current economic freefall that is part and parcel of that method of governing is taking a chunk of Patrick's financial and political capital. To his credit, he tried to offer an alternative in what turned out to be a politically unpopular solution to the tax crunch by calling for casino gambling.

Without the gambling revenues, facing a drying up of capital gains tax receipts and a likely drop in sales and income tax revenues as people lose their jobs, it's clear his broad goals such as education spending and putting a mechanism in place to allow property tax cuts are now just dreams.

So far Patrick looks ready to face the challenge, just as Frank did. Voters will surely remember the pain that is likely to flow from the cuts just as they will remember the promises not delivered. How and why those two things happened will be forgotten -- particularly if they add fuel to the fire by eliminating the income tax.

The administration did get a rare piece of good news. After long negotiations and swirling rumors that the federal government was going to play hardball on funding the state's health care reform law, Massachusetts will actually get a slight bump in federal aid over the next three years.

But that is unlikely to cover all the costs of that one growing program -- let alone make up for other cuts yet to come.

I hope they have compact fluorescent light bulbs in the Statehouse lamps these days. They are going to be working a lot of late nights in the offices of Patrick and Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan, not to mention House and Senate Ways and Means. They can save a few bucks on the electric bill with the bulb change.

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