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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anybody seen the bottom?

Anyone seen the lifeboats?

The Good Ship Massachusetts is taking on water, swamped by a national tsunami and more than a decade of inaction on a festering transportation problem. Gov. Deval Patrick is probably wishing right now that old friend Barack Obama had called with a job offer.

Instead, Patrick can only hope that Obama'a bailout plan offers lots of goodies for states like Massachusetts which are reeling from a double blow from the economic meltdown -- deep damage caused by Wall Street's swaption and CDO scams and assorted con artists who triggered the broad destruction of capital that has followed.

And it would be even better if that goodie bag had cash for repairing roads and bridges left in brutal shape after years of neglect while state officials allegedly dealt with the Big Dig.

Remember to put yesterday's Statehouse revenue hearing into context: experts are putting the additional revenue gap THIS YEAR in the neighborhood of $750 million. That is on top of the $1.4 billion shortfall dealt with in October.

Plus, instead of having 9 1/2 months of the fiscal year to spread out the pain, it will likely be closer to five months by the time lawmakers act on the next round of cuts -- which will include payments to cities and towns.

That will only continue the cycle as communities will need to slash their own to make up for reduced state aid.
"The problem is so large, there's going to be a lot of damage," Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said during testimony yesterday. "Damage to the economy. Damage to human beings. Damage to institutions.
And only then do we get to FY10, where estimates suggest the gap could be $3 billion.

The most frightening part is that none of the above-mentioned chaos even begins to deal with the two sinking authorities -- Turnpike and T. Those quasi-independent bodies, while reliant on aid in the form of tolls, fares and, in the case of the T, shrinking sales tax revenues, are not on the state's budget.

There's finally some movement on that front. Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen is heading out the door after two ineffective years. Presumably he will deliver the long-awaited master plan that will attempt to deal with the hodge-podge of transportation agencies that build, maintain and operate services in the commonwealth.

It had become increasingly clear Cohen had lost Patrick's support. While critics snipe that apparent successor James Aloisi was part of the team that created the mess, at least he knows where the bodies are buried.

House Speaker Sal DiMasi tries to offer a motivational speech on the state's steady hand on the wheel, noting "(t)he Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity." Well, we got a lot of the former.

The most significant portion of the DiMasi op-ed is the loud and clear rejection of the current toll hike plan that sticks the solution on the backs of only some of the people who use transportation systems, be they roads or the trains.

What is truly needed is a comprehensive solution -- a total reorganization of the independent fiefdoms that operate without coordination or coherence. And obviously, there is also a serious need for a revenue source to bail both the Turnpike Authority and the MBTA out of their deep holes.

DiMasi talks proudly of the joint efforts to deal with health care and energy. But those complex issues were dealt with by a team that included a politically healthy speaker. Now we have a House leader who is beset with ethics issues and a pair of lieutenants who seems more eager to fight the succession battle that to buckle down and deal with the problems.

I really do wish there was a way to tax empty rhetoric.

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