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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Divine intervention?

The Republican Party likes to present itself as having a direct line to a Higher Authority. But there appears to be some static in that connection these days.

Another powerful hurricane is bearing down on New Orleans -- at the mouth of the Mississippi River -- while Republicans are gearing up to meet at the mighty river's head in St. Paul.

How could this scheduling conflict go unnoticed upstairs?

Obviously I'm hoping New Orleans is spared the agony of another disaster. But it's hard not to wonder if this is some form of Divine Retribution -- having the American public relive the second greatest mistake of the past 7 1/2 years of GOP rule just as John McCain prepares to assume the GOP crown from George Bush.

It's also important to remember it was not Katrina herself that caused the greatest damage. No, it was the failure of the levees that surround New Orleans which wreaked the most havoc. That and the abysmal response of Bush and his FEMA team led by Mike "Heckuva Job" Brown.

This time we are being told repeatedly that FEMA is on the case -- and New Orleans is already being evacuated. I should hope so. Its residents are certainly far smarter than the local, state and federal bureaucrats who botched it last time.

But while hoping for the best, you have to wonder if the levees are up to another round. Repairs have be slow and even the Army Corps of Engineers isn't guaranteeing anything.
"There are gaps in the system, but the system is stronger and better than ever," said Bill Irwin, program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with the upkeep of the city's levee system.
Memo to GOP convention planners: have the video link connection to the Bush Monday night speech fail. The last thing you want is Bush bashing the Democrats while New Orleans deals with another hurricane.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Life imitates art

Geez John. If you'd wanted a TV sportscaster I think Lesley Visser has far more experience. Or how about Geena Davis, who's already played this role on television?

A mere 24 years after Geraldine Ferraro broke the gender barrier for a major party ticket, John McCain's decision to select the female governor of Alaska as his running mate seems a tad late.

Like one day after the Democratic Party nominated an African-American man for the top of the ticket following a spirited campaign against a highly qualified woman.

With all due respect to the half-term governor of a state where people outnumber moose by only a 4-1 margin, the selection of Sarah Palin outlines the deep problems faced by the McCain campaign: the need to define himself as a maverick and a need to shore up a base that still doesn't wholeheartedly embrace him.

The McCain team certainly was listening to Democrat speeches that noted he voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. His finessing on key issues such as taxes, immigration and the conservative base's less-than solid assurance he was with them on choice put him in a precarious situation.

With Palin, McCain certainly has some sizzle: a hard right woman sure to make the evangelical base fall in love.

But as every one and their grandmother has already pointed out, by choosing a woman who ran a 8,000-person city and is halfway through her term as head of a 670,000-person state, McCain has forfeited the strongest argument the GOP has been making against Barack Obama.

The right's retort that her qualifications are no different that Virginia Gov. and former Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine misses one major point: Obama did not pick Kaine. Probably just because of those experience issues.

Obama's 3 1/2 years in the Senate and a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee look decidedly more powerful than hers as titular head of the Alaska National Guard. I know relations with Russia have turned rocky, but I don't think the Alaska Guard is going to be our nation's first line of defense.

Palin brings with her an image of an outdoorswoman from an oil-rich state who is unafraid of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. Think that's an accident?

Then there are the red meat issues. I have great respect for the choice made by Palin and her husband to carry a Down's syndrome child to term. The key word of course is "choice," something she and the GOP base want to deny to other women.

And of course there's the blatantly obvious pander in the belated nod to women in the aftermath of the Clinton kerfuffle. Only it's downright insulting to women to think they will select a "hockey mom" simply on gender and accept a man who opposes not only a woman's right to choose but also rejects equal pay for equal work.

The McCain team's timing and selection clearly will reduce thew Obama-Biden post-convention bounce. But as time goes on, the debate will focus on the qualifications of Palin to hold the No. 2 office in the land.

Hey, you want a positive comment? At least she's not Dick Cheney.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Building a bridge to nowhere

The announcement that John McCain has tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate may go down as one of the most-disastrous campaign decisions since George McGovern picked Thomas Eagleton.

On the surface, an interesting move: a 44-year-old "former beauty queen" whose private plane landed amid great secrecy last night in Dayton, Ohio would be the latest effort to lure the remaining disgruntled Clinton PUMA supporters

But even though the GOP soon-to-be-nominee admits he doesn't know how to use Google, surely his crack staff does. Because it's not too hard to do this, and get the following result from the Wall Street Journal:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- When Sarah Palin was elected governor as a Republican outsider in 2006, she didn't just take on an incumbent from her own party. She took on Alaska's Republican establishment.

Ms. Palin vowed to clean up a long-cozy political system that had been sullied by an FBI corruption investigation. She endeared herself to Alaskans by making good on her reform promises and showing homey touches, like driving herself to work.

Now, one of the bright new stars in the Republican Party has suddenly become tarnished. The state legislature this week voted to hire an independent investigator to see whether Ms. Palin abused her office by trying to get her former brother-in-law fired from his job as an Alaska state trooper.

But miss it -- or ignore it -- they did.

Argue all you want about a "partisan" witch hunt. Is it really a swift move to take a running mate who, in the words of a Democratic state senator in Alaska "... could face impeachment, in a worst-case scenario." During the middle of a campaign in which McCain will try and argue his opponent doesn't have a record?

At least McCain's running mate doesn't have one -- yet.

And this only brings into play the case of indicted 86-year-old Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens -- who knows the Internet as "The Tubes" and who is facing trial before his own re-election campaign on charges he used his own office to gain personal favors.

And it also reminds us of Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, he who wanted taxpayers to fund a $398 million "Bridge to Nowhere" between Ketchican (population 8,000) and Gravina Island (population 50).

That move was of course a pork barrel stunner that caught the attention of a certain congressional pork watchdog:

"Maybe if we had done it right, maybe some of that money would have gone to inspect those bridges and other bridges around the country," McCain told a group of people in a town-hall style meeting in Ankeny, Iowa.

"Maybe the 200,000 people who cross that bridge every day would have been safer than spending $233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."

And you will of course note the irony that the collapsed bridgeMcCain was referring to was located in the Twin Cities -- where he and the GOP are headed right now.

All this for a state with three electoral votes that were likely his anyway.

Memo to the McCain campaign: Google is a great tool. Too bad you didn't know how to use it. But will come in handy when you pick Palin's successor.

Memo to the Obama campaign: Michael Dukakis ran a really good campaign spot about George H.W. Bush's veep choice.

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We interrupt this party...

There is a sobering message awaiting Democrats staggering back to Boston after their Denver party even as Republicans mount up to head out to their own bash in St. Paul.

The state budget is tanking (subscription required).

The Statehouse News Service is reporting Massachusetts faces up to $1 billion in shortfalls in the $28.2 billion budget signed less than two months ago. And the source is state officials themselves -- in the form of a prospectus to bondholders.

“In total, these updated revenue forecasts and cost estimates for fiscal 2009 suggest the potential need for approximately $1 billion in budgetary solutions.”

The twin culprits? Soft tax collections and the uncertainty over $600 million in federal dollars to support health care reform.

Lawmakers restored over $50 million in vetoes offered by Gov. Deval Patrick and declined to give him the power to make unilateral mid-year cuts. That means they will need to come back to address the problem -- probably in the fall during the campaign over the income tax repeal.

Now that will be a post-convention hangover. It would be nice if the Boston media noticed it.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tough talk

The change mockers are a little shaken right now.

Barack Obama delivered a classic iron fist message wrapped inside a velvet glove to more than 80,000 in a Denver stadium and millions around the nation.

It will take a little time -- and sleep -- to fully assess the speech. But the directness with which he went after John McCain was a bit surprising -- and highly appropriate. The effort to flesh out specifics at the expense of rhetoric was also a bit unexpected -- and necessary.

After being subjected to a withering mockery, Obama used his national stage to give back as good as he has gotten. Using what will be the Democrats theme, he praised McCain's military service, then lit into him on issue after issue.

There were topics sure to gladden the hearts of diehard liberals. There were also declarations -- about nuclear power, responsible fathers, guns, abortion and same sex marriage -- sure to rile those who make the perfect the enemy of the good.

At first blush, an impressive, substantive performance. It will be interesting to check out the spin -- all the more important with McCain's plans to change the subject quickly tomorrow with the naming of his running mate.

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The audacity of nope

As we get ready for Barack Obama's acceptance speech, it's time to take a look at the McCain campaign's recent tactics belittling the Democratic nominee and his supporters.

I believe Bob Dylan best described it best: "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose"

The kerfuffle over the stage for tonight's outdoor session was only the latest and most ludicrous example of the vacuity and inanity of the McCain strategy. To the casual TV viewer, it looks like a bunch of windows. The Parthenon? Puhleeze.

Yet this is has the strategy since Rove-nik Steve Schmidt took over the campaign: classic Republican Fear and Smear. Tired and discredited arguments leave you little choice but to try, in the words of Lee Atwater, to "strip the back off the ... bastard."

The Obama phenomenon is just that -- his oratory and calls for change have lifted millions from Iowa and across the country. And yes, Europe too. It is a reality that has hard to counter -- except with fear and smear, with belittling references to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

The media -- with little to report from the stage-managed set -- lap it up thanks to ever more accelerated deadlines prompted by the web and the blogosphere.

Polls are part of the same meme. But the latest round of blather about Obama's "stagnant" numbers ignores several important realities, most importantly how wrong the polls have been this year.

Equally undiscussed is the basic problem afflicting the profession. The rise in caller ID and cell phones is making it increasingly harder to come up with a representative sample.

I'd argue a better test of popularity can be found in that dreaded measure -- fund-raising. The astounding numbers Obama is ringing up -- both the old-fashioned way and through his web site -- reflect an outpouring of support that is genuine. And the pace has shown no sign of slowing.

So keep the emptiness of the McCain strategy in mind as we go through the next few days. The GOP campaign is all about changing the subject -- a task that is likely to become that much harder.

Just ask Gustav.

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What are they smoking?

The Globe ignored it (or buried it so deep it would need a diver to find). The Herald opted to focus on 2010. The TV stations dutifully played along.

"It" is the opening of the McCain Massachusetts headquarters -- and the usual claims that accompany such an event. Try this:
"If anyone can do it here in Massachusetts, it's going to be John McCain," said Holliston Rep. Paul Loscocco, R-District 8.
Or this:
"We have them and we're reaching out getting more and more people," state Republican Chairwoman Jean Inman said. "We're ready right now to do that."
Brave words from the incredibly shrinking Massachusetts GOP. Political theater and all that.

But I would suggest political theater of the absurd.

The party is in disarray -- which is nothing new. It's been that way for more than 20 years. After losing the Corner Office and with a Senate contingent that could fit into a phone booth (if you could find one), the state GOP is need of warm bodies to run for office. In 2010, because they couldn't get it done this year.

Then there's the Brotherhood of the Traveling Governors. It was left for Ambassador Paul Cellucci -- who backed Rudy Giuliani in the primaries -- to speak for McCain prospects. Was that because the chief McCain backer, former Gov. Jane Swift has learned her lessons about bad moves?

At least Cellooch wasn't foolish enough to follow the trail blazed by the departing Rep. Loscocco. That's why he was touting Charlie Baker in 2010. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Nor was anyone biting -- at least on the record -- about the speculation surrounding The Man Who Was Not There. No mention of the polls that suggest McCain could lose Massachusetts by an even larger margin if he opts to make Myth Romney his second banana.

After a string of governors who walked away -- particularly Romney's two-year no-show after he failed to bring up Republican legislative numbers -- this is a party that is on its last legs unless it somehow manages to find leadership. At the grassroots.

And it's hard to do that with the work done by George Bush and Co. over the last seven years. Just ask Jim Ogonowski.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Experience counts

So much for the Republican spin (and media babble) that the Clintons didn't believe Barack Obama was ready to lead.

That high wire act named Bill Clinton came through with the ultimate high risk, high reward for Barack Obama tonight:
“Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world,” Mr. Clinton said, speaking strongly and with apparent conviction. “Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”
But more telling was Clinton's comparison of today's GOP rhetoric to that of 16 years ago, when they also called him too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief.

Let's think about it for a second. What was George W. Bush's experience that qualified him as commander-in-chief? Listening to his father?

The depth of W.'s lack of qualifications was exemplified by his decision to pick Dick Cheney as his running mate. Too bad for him -- and us -- that his selection did not believe in the Constitution and basic moral values.

GOP apologists might counter that Obama made a similar decision in his selection of Joe Biden. Big differences though. Biden has never showed anti-democratic tendencies.

And even more importantly, Obama has the intellect and true courage to think for himself.

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Mitt can't handle the truth


If Myth Romney is John McCain's truth squad we are in even bigger trouble than I thought.

In a piece of stagecraft on par with another former Massachusetts governor's tank appearance, the Man from Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire and Utah (three homes fewer than John McCain) stood behind a "Not Ready 08" to question Barack Obama's leadership skills.

The Mittser, who may or may not be on McCain's short list for Second Banana, was the GOP attack poodle, castigating Democrats for every sin under the sun. But truth is a fungible item for Our Man Mitt.

Let's parse this sentence:
"I worked very hard to help people" in Massachusetts, Romney responded yesterday on CNN, taking credit for a bipartisan healthcare plan that has insured nearly 440,000 residents since 2006. "The truth is the first casualty of the new politics presented by the Obama campaign," Romney added.
Yep, truth is a casualty all right, said the man who walked out on the job after two years so he could run for president. Oh, and who was for Massachusetts health care reform before he was against it.

Or this:
Asked during the luncheon whether he had talked with McCain about the vice presidency, Romney said, "That's not a topic we've discussed."
Not even McCain's folks would bail him out of that one:
But a McCain aide who watched Romney's performance said, "I wouldn't read anything into" Romney's comment.
So the man with two positions on just about everything from guns and a woman's right to choose to varmints and his devotion to Massachusetts is auditioning for the No. 2 job on a McCain ticket.

As a blogger, it would be a dream ticket: 11 houses and a vice presidential debate requiring three podiums: one for Joe Biden, the other two for each of Mitt's positions.

As a nation, well, that's another thing.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

'No way, no how, no McCain'

Hillary Clinton sure picked a heckuva time to deliver the best speech of her life.

There was little doubt where Clinton was headed when she offered strong support for Barack Obama within the opening sentences of her speech to a Democratic Convention that was kept alive mainly by the blathering of pundits about whether peace is at hand. (Note to political junkies: watch C-SPAN).

The speech will likely be remembered among the pantheon that includes Ted Kennedy's "Dream Will Never Die" speech in 1980.

But unlike that address, which staked out Kennedy's beliefs in a way that damaged nominee Jimmy Carter, Clinton staked her political claim will forcefully proclaiming that if she can't do it, then Obama will.

Time and again, she told her most diehard supporters that a vote for John McCain is a disservice to everything that she -- and Obama -- stand for. She offered praise for her friend the Arizona senator, while dismembering him politically.

The speech laid bare the childishness and rank amateurness of the McCain strategy to peel off Clinton voters. The foolish Wisconsin delegate who made a McCain commercial will long live to regret her endorsement of a man who won't even support equal pay for women.

So now we are left to see if Bill Clinton can surmount his animus and deliver another home run for Obama.

And then we will be left with the true spectacle of an African-American man taking a huge step in fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream on the 45th anniversary of a speech that truly rates among the American pantheon.

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Can you hear me now -- MBTA-style

Glad to see Noah Bierman is actually talking to MBTA riders and non-transit agency types to produce a front page story on Dan Grabauskas that is far less rosy than his previous efforts.

While the sympathy is still clearly there, this is one of Bierman's first efforts to take a look at the system through the eyes of regular users -- and experts (and who can doubt that Michael Dukakis the the No. 1 expert on public transit around here).

The messy stations (have you seen what the outdoor trash heaps, er, platforms look like along Commonwealth Avenue?), the endless construction, the non-existent schedules and the nasty employees strike me as no different than when Smilin' Dan took over.

Of course, I only use the Green Line and only when the weather sucks. But when you consider I have a payroll-deducted CharlieCard -- and pay the full freight every month whether I use it or not -- I think that also speaks volumes.

Hey Noah, how about checking out the blogosphere too. There appears to be a lot of comment out here -- good and bad -- on the effectiveness of the Smilin' One.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Different church, same hymnal

Taking a few minutes out from the recreating at a secure location...

Is there now a standard text from which to write about politics? See if can can find something familiar in this story from today's Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Kaine says he will finish term
Bypassed for Biden, he cites 'no circumstance' under which he'd leave
With his shot at running for vice president behind him, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said yesterday that he expects to finish his term and thinks the newly minted Democratic ticket with Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. for vice president will play well in Virginia.

"It is my complete intention to be governor through January of 2010, and I see no circumstance under which that's not going to happen," said Kaine, indicating that he would not accept a Cabinet post next year in an Obama administration.

And of course, skip down a little bit into the story and you discover the skeptic:

"I'm sure Tim Kaine enjoyed the attention he received as Barack Obama's surrogate, attending rallies, traveling the country, going on the Sunday morning talk shows and being showered in confetti at each stop," Prince William County Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said in
a statement.

"But Tim Kaine will not be vice president this year, and he must now set aside his ambitions to focus on getting back to work as governor, particularly now, given the budget mess we find ourselves in -- likely a billion dollars in the red."

Where have we heard this before?

About the only difference is Kaine is term-limited where Deval Patrick is not.

And we wonder why people aren't following politics?

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Trend-setting Deval?

Only in Massachusetts can a series of fiscally correct moves be considered a trend.

But that may be exactly what you get when you add the Patrick administration's efforts to roll back the 9 percent pay raise to MBTA executives on top of recent moves to veto an increase for state pensioners and trying to end the police union gravy train around construction details.

OK, rolling back a pay raise may seem like a no-brainer, but the move did elicit the objections of Methuen Democrat Steven Baddour, the House Transportation Committee chairman who saw it as a "cheap political shot" at the Republican MBTA director Dan Grabauskas.

Well, not so cheap -- particularly when Smilin' Dan also decided to skip the $10,000 cost-of-living increase on his $255,000 salary.

Heck, all this good government might even revive talk of "political courage."

I wouldn't go that far. But it is a sign of what we have become used to passing for "governing" on the state and federal level when an executive makes news by making sound fiscal decisions even when they may have political ramifications.

It doesn't hurt Deval Patrick that these decisions are coming at a time when voters are facing a ballot question to eliminate the state income tax. In many ways, they are largely symbolic and will only make a tiny dent, if any, into the tangle of bad fiscal nightmares that Massachusetts faces.

But you have to start somewhere I guess. Why not here?

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The silly season

We're definitely into the political silly season -- Michael Phelps has done his thing and there's very little to talk about other than crab grass, the downward movement of gasoline and of course whether Manny faked his way out of town.

With that void, talk of vice presidential candidacies fill news holes in print and on television. Heck, Anderson Cooper somehow managed an hour on a topic without one solid piece of news to work with.

We know the punditocracy is hard at work with the short lists. For Barack Obama, attention focuses on senators Joe Biden of Delaware, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. I'm here to debunk the rumor (that I just made up) that Globe columnist Kevin Cullen was really in Delaware recently to vet Biden.

For the Republicans, attention focuses on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and our very own Myth Romney.

As a blogger, I ache to reprise all my Myth Romney posts and come up with some new ones. You know, like a vice presidential debate would require three podiums -- one for the Democrat and one for each of Myth's positions. Bah-da-boom.

Of course, it's important to note that pundits all say Romney could put Michigan in play. No mention of the poll that shows he would help McCain lose Massachusetts by an even larger margin than another Republican.

But for pure silly season foolishness, look no farther than the John Kerry for Veep boomlet.

Puhleez!

I can see it all again -- windsurfing and Swift boats. Allusions to two foreigners on the ticket, with a Frenchman as a running mate. Yada. Yada. Yada. The ultimate dream ticket for the GOP smear and fear gang.

No mention of polls that would probably suggest that Kerry would hurt Obama in Massachusetts.

But as the Massachusetts Liberal I would love to have two Bay State pols on the ticket. The Empty Suit against Long Jawn. Comparisons of Myth's homes against Teresa's.

And endless speculation over whether the Red Sox's success/failure would help/hurt Myth/Jawn.

Talk about a silly season. Bring it on!

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hacks on hacks

The MBTA has a far bigger hack problem that a bunch of MIT students who wanted to expose the vulnerabilities of the fare collection system.

We'll skip the obvious reference to the T's problems holding on to cash fares collected by humans (innocent until proven guilty and all that). Or the fact that the Green Line often gives free rides to anyone who gets on at the back door of a crowded rush hour train.

But Michael Levenson skims the surface of the bigger problem by looking only at the hack culture represented by the trio who broke down the card's security flaws as part of a class project (whatever happened to papier mache globes?)

The really hacking problem is the type normally pointed out by Howie Carr -- uninspired "leaders" and unchallenged employees hanging on for their pensions. This is not a blanket condemnation of civil servants. The world would not function, even this poorly, without them.

Rather it is the mindset that Levenson alluded to. The MBTA culture is not open to criticism -- or change.

The student trio have valuable information -- and a flair for the geek chic that put an MIT police cruiser on the Dome.

Rather than accept the challenge in the spirit in which it was offered, MBTA "leadership" went to federal court, found a judge willing to overlook the First Amendment and ignorant about the computer age, and generally failed to withhold their secrets -- or solve their problem.

Typical hack response.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another nail in the coffin?

Carla Howell can't buy herself better publicity.

Pay raises for MBTA executives is surely a great way to start. But how about telling angry home owners that their property taxes are still going up even though their home values are static at best -- or dropping at worst.

And that's because local property assessors can't keep up with the changes in the market. Remember this quote:

"Values go down and tax rates go up and everyone pays a little more and they aren't happy," said James C. Judge, the assistant assessor in Kingston, where the average bill jumped 9.8 percent, following a tax override, and assessed values dropped nearly 5 percent.

If you're looking for the "perfect storm" of events to catapult Question 1 to victory, you may need not look any farther than the twin lead stories of another wise sleepy August weekend.

Long after the feats of Michael Phelps fade from peoples' memories, these two stories and the direct or implied incompetence of public officials will fuel voter anger.

Hopefully those folks who plan to speak out against Question 1 are hard at work for a campaign that will launch right after Labor Day -- you know about the same time the Democratic convention ends, the Republican convention begins and the political media's focus on the presidential race obliterates all other discussion?

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

What a way to run a transit system

I think I've figured it out. Dan Grabauskas is secretly working with Carla Howell to assure passage of Question 1.

How else to you explain this latest round of MBTA idiocy.

Let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate that the cost of living in Massachusetts is skyrocketing. Heck, just T fares alone take a huge chunk out of the average commuter's wallet.

Then there is the cost of gasoline for Smilin' Dan's SUV and the fleet of cars at the disposal of his managers.

Come to think of it -- the T is managed? Really?

We all know Smilin' Dan is crying poor mouth after the Legislature bailed out the crisis-ridden Turnpike Authority. Threatening a fare hike -- or a service cut as an alternative -- is a greater way to get your issue on the public radar screen.

Not to mention helping to push aside issues like late service, bad service and station renovations that are so far over budget and beyond time that you would think they are being run by the Pentagon.

Well-managed companies facing hard times tighten their belts. That means people without union contracts do without. That particularly means managers and executives do without. Some of them often forgo pay or take a cut (I know, not the guys pulling down seven, eight and nine figures).

Maybe a part of the T's problem is its "organization". As the Globe notes:
While technically called executives and managers, not all of the nonunion employees are supervisors, Grabauskas said. They include some secretaries, budget analysts, and medical assistants, as well as the agency's highest paid executives.
Nevertheless, a public agency struggling to make ends meet sets a rotten example by following a poor mouth call with a pay raise.

As the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Mike Widmer put it:
“This was a chance to set an example. The state is undoubtedly going to have to help the T, but at the same the T has to get greater control over salaries and benefits.”
And sadly Smilin' Dan has once again set an example.

Simple solution -- take his SUV away. Better yet, take his job away. That's a neat $255,000 that can be used for better purposes. As this latest round proves yet again, he certainly doesn't manage the place.

Smilin' Dan really and truly has got to go!

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Friday, August 15, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

Defending the Registry of Motor Vehicles seems unnatural. It's like defending the T. Or, gulp, George Bush.

But really:
With young motorists losing their driver's licenses like never before under a tougher state law targeting teen speeders, state hearing officers are increasingly overwhelmed with desperate youths pleading to keep their licenses.

Hearings at Registry of Motor Vehicles branches statewide are up 20 percent since a 2007 law took effect suspending youths' licenses for 90 days after one speeding ticket. RMV hearing officers, who take up cases after suspensions have been imposed, meet with furious teenagers and parents roughly twice as often as they used to, and they say the private hearings often turn ugly.

Kid break law. Kids face consequences. Simple?
"Kids have to work," said [James] Dexter, who will be a senior at Danvers High School this fall. "It's just wrong. They should be able to do that. They should be able to give you a warning first."
Kids have to obey the law. The warning came in driver's ed classes and a lot of stops on the way. Pay attention.

Welcome to the real world James. Hope we don't see you back after caught driving without a license suspended for OUI in a few years.

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Chicken Little may be right this time

Need any more proof that things are shaky in Massachusetts -- even if we aren't experiencing the same level of economic distress as other states. Try this. Or this.

While the Bay State may now loudly proclaim that we have shed the "Taxachusetts" label, try telling that to John and Jane Q. Public who are making less and spending more.

The UMass report on the increasing gap between rich and poor simply confirms their reality. For many people it's a matter of being grateful they have a job at a time when gasoline and groceries are up and raises non-existent.

There's certainly no comfort in the "let them eat cake" words of Beacon Hill Institute supply sider David Tuerck, who says all people at the low end of the economic scale need to do is spend less.
"What really matters is expenditures, what a household can and does spend," Tuerck said. "If Bill Gates's income goes to zero, he could still live a pretty good lifestyle spending his billions."
In fact, that may be part of Tuerck's motives in such a callous statement because he knows Mr. and Ms. Public can do just that by eliminating their income tax burden.

Cynics abound that the threat of income tax repeal is Chicken Little-ism because the Legislature will simply re-enact it. House Speaker Sal DiMasi has virtually promised just that. But that doesn't change the cold, hard reality that things will get very tough, very quickly. Like the next day.

Think we have problems with the Turnpike Authority and the MBTA now? Just wait. Student loans? Fugedabouit. There will be a very hollow ring to the term "full faith and credit" well before a solution is put into place.

Police, fire, education and trash pickup?

Voters are being pinched hard and are very angry. Not even the fact that Carla Howell is using the donations for the Question 1 campaign to support herself is likely to make a difference if you look at the more rational comments left on the Herald web site.

It has taken Massachusetts more than 20 years to dig itself into an incredibly deep hole. It will take a lot longer than two years to get out of it.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that the past two two years is about all the time many taxpayers were willing to wait.

There's a mess of trouble heading our way down the turnpike. And the T. And over bridges.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Friends of Tim Cahill

I think I've been going about this all wrong. Instead of writing about the interrelationship between friends, politics and money I should be in the middle of it.

Then I too could get on the gravy train for $3,000 a month in walking around money.

Oh, and Richard Vitale -- talk to your mutual friend George Regan how you can get the same deal as Treasurer Tim's buddy Thomas Kelly.

At least Vitale appeared to be doing something to earn the money he was pulling in as a result of his relationship with Sal DiMasi. I'm hard pressed, after reading the Globe story, to see what, if anything Kelly did for his monthly three grand other than serve as Tim Cahill's neighbor, friend and fund-raiser.

The recently loquacious treasurer wasn't talking to the Globe about his relationship with Kelly or what role, if any, that Kelly might have had in the state deciding to re-up its lottery contract with Scientific Games -- which generously retained Kelly through the offices of PR maven George Regan.

Regan, like Cahill's office, preferred a written statement about his relationship with Scientific Games and Kelly. More's the pity, because the arrangement is truly a head scratcher.

Cahill, of course, has been making some noise recently by taking on Deval Patrick and staking out contrary positions to Patrick (and occasionally himself) on bonding questions surrounding the Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Education Financing Authority.

What's also interesting is that Cahill appears to have taken an opposite position from Doug Rubin -- then First Deputy Treasurer and now Patrick's chief of staff -- on whether to retain Scientific Games for the lottery contract.

You know what they say about Massachusetts -- it's all about politics, sports and revenge.

Given the state's ineffective laws enforcing lobbying disclosures, it's unclear if we will ever learn what Kelly did for his monthly retainer -- which Scientific Games paid over and above a $5,000 monthly nut to Regan Communications.

But it sure offers some interesting chats on the links or by the pool.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What's going on here?

First pensioners, now police officers? Maybe Deval Patrick really does have his eyes on Washington.

Patrick's plan to put a dent into the archaic and costly system of using only police officers to direct traffic at construction sites is a shot across the bow of one of the most protected and feared special interests on Beacon Hill.

And it will come today, just days after Patrick slapped around another sacred political cow -- public retirees -- by vetoing a cost-of-living increase he felt the state could not afford.

Conventional wisdom would say Patrick has committed two acts of political suicide. After all, the police unions are about to make his life miserable. The state retirees will undoubtedly snap out of their "we rolled the dice and lost" mood and also seek to exact political revenue.

But Patrick has shown some real leadership here -- forget the pooh-poohing of Pioneer Institute head Jim Stergios. It's a foot in a door and it's been put back there after a false start earlier this year. Patrick has House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Terry Murray with him (last we looked at any rate).

Heck, he's even got the gang over at Blue Mass Group keeping score and checking things off their lists (don't hold your breath on the graduated income tax happening guys. It's been demagogued by the best of 'em too many times).

Anyone who has been stuck in traffic at a construction site and spotted the cop in the yellow vest and Dunkin' Donuts coffee knows what a boondoggle the current system is. Yes, some construction sites -- on high speed roads -- MIGHT require trained police officers to direct traffic.

But every other American state appears to have figured out that many jobs are just right for civilians carrying flags rather than professional law enforcement officers wearing guns and earning overtime to sit in their car, read and drink coffee.

We're certainly not done here. When Bill Weld tried this, the Statehouse was encircled in a sea of blue and Big Red ran up the white flag. We've already had one false start by our governor and legislative leaders.

Make no mistake, Patrick has an election in mind all right. It's the November referendum on Question 1, the income tax repeal. Polls suggest voters are unhappy enough that they could vote their wallet and not their best interests. Sacred cows need to fall.

If that means dealing with upset pensioners and police officers angry because they've been asked to do some dieting along with the rest of the state budget (and there will be a lot of that in the months ahead, particularly if the federal Medicaid waiver is slashed) that drama may only help convince fence sitters that Question 1 is a recipe for disaster.

Stay tuned. This is going to get interesting.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fair share

There's an interesting trend developing in these dog days of Olympics, Georgian invasions and rain, rain, rain -- the concept of shared responsibility. Whether it drowns remains to be seen.

You can see the roots in the politically surprising decision of Deval Patrick to veto a legislatively approved pension increase for retired public employees and the potentially desperate move of Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen to try and get the state's other transportation departments to share their wealth.

Of course, you don't see it in the segments of the business community that are digging in their heels at the thought of paying their fair share of the cost of health insurance for their employees.

Tough times make for tough decisions. Patrick's decision to say no to a $10 a month increase that could help pay for retirees' groceries and gasoline has real potential to alienate a key segment of voters. So coming from a governor who is battling negative ratings, it's one of the more courageous political acts I've seen around here in a long time.

As the Globe notes:
The governor had been largely supportive of the pension boosts - and was expected to sign the legislation - but requested that the cost-of-living increases be restricted to workers with pensions less than $40,000. He argued that would make the plan more affordable for the state, while providing pension boosts for those who need it most.
The head of the group that lobbies for retired public employees admits they may have been caught up in bad gamble:
"We rolled the dice and came up empty," said Ralph White, president of the Retired State, County and Municipal Employees Association of Massachusetts. "We were taking a certain amount of risk. Hindsight being 20-20, we underestimated the priority the governor placed on his amendment."
Massachusetts faces a ballooning tab for our children and grandchildren to help pay for borrowing to finance road and bridge repair and spur economic development. It also faces a potential elimination of the state income tax as a revolt. Many of the people likely to vote for repeal probably collect the pensions that Patrick targeted.

Less courageous and more desperate is the effort to have Massport and Mass Highway help kick in and pay for the out-of-control costs at the Mass Pike and the MBTA -- costs largely associated with borrowing money.
Combined, the Turnpike Authority and the T are expected to face about a $200 million hole in their annual budgets, beginning in July 2009, according to some estimates. The T has ruled out fare increases for the coming year, but warns of a hefty increase in 2010 if it does not get legislative help. The Turnpike Authority must decide soon whether to raise tolls in January, as its board looks at a $70 million deficit this budget year and a $100 million deficit in next year's spending plan.
The plan is far from fool-proof. Mass Highway already uses borrowed money to pay for salaries (a stupid move) while Massport's cash cow is Logan Airport and the airlines, hardly a pillar of economic vitality.
"Perhaps they can pull a rabbit out of the hat, but I'm skeptical," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of a bipartisan commission that documented the financial problems of the state's transportation system last year.
But it's at least an example of trying to think outside the box.

Which brings us to businesses digging in their heels against paying more to help meet the health care costs of their employees.

The call is part of a package that added an assessment on health insurance companies' reserve accounts, required additional payments from hospitals, and shifted money from the Medical Security Trust Fund, which is used to pay health insurance for the unemployed.

It proposes to change the either/or provision of the current law that requires most employers with more than 10 full-time equivalent employees to offer health coverage or to pay an annual "fair share" penalty of $295 per worker. It gives companies an option of paying at least 33 percent of full-time workers' premiums within the first 90 days of employment or making sure that at least 25 percent of their full-time workers are covered by an employer plan.

Yes, economic times are tough, particularly for small businesses like retailers. But I'm one of those folks who have been troubled by the idea that the penalty on a person who doesn't buy mandatory insurance is far higher than the one on businesses that don't provide coverage choices.

The medicine being proposed is bitter -- for everyone. Those assessments will eventually come back on the individual anyway in the form of higher prices. But this is a grand bargain and everyone should pay their fair share. Just like the retired state employees, Mass Pike drivers and MBTA passengers.

You have a better idea business folks? We're listening.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Takes one to know one

Well, no one can say George Bush doesn't have a sense of humor -- or irony.
"Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intent in Georgia and the region," he said. "These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world, and these actions jeopardize relations with the United States and Europe."
Let's substitute United States for Russia and Iraq for Georgia. Get the picture.

And get why it's important to have a president who will conduct a foreign policy that restores honor and respect for the United States -- as opposed to a country that is easily disrespected ignored by a tyrant into whose soul George Bush has looked?

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

The whole world's laughing

There are two basic rules involving men: 1) Men are obsessed with sex and will often do stupid, foolish things and 2) men will lie when they get caught doing stupid, foolish things.

But only in the United States are men who are caught cheating on their wives held accountable in the media. Check that: only politicians are held accountable. So if you are a corporate raider of a mass murderer stepping out on your wife, relax.

Let's stipulate a few things: John Edwards is a (fill in your favorite word) for cheating on his wife who has stood beside him throughout her own ordeal with cancer. Let's also stipulate that the political media is totally out to lunch by making this story the lead in major newspapers and broadcasts.

Edwards is a two-time presidential candidate and a two-time loser. In basic terms, his political career is toast. This story, generated by the same National Enquirer that brought you Gennifer Flowers, was a short item in the political briefs section deep in the A-section -- if that.

Spare me the excuse that he was on a short list for No. 2 (though a good case can be made that he is that substance). Does anyone honestly believe he would have accepted a second shot at second banana? Does anyone believe he would have been offered it in the first place?

But what infuriates me is the selective interest the media displays in tracking the foibles of our so-called leaders. Can someone tell me why the same full court press wasn't directed at George Bush's flip admission that "when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." What happened to the candidate "vetting" process then?

Here's an admitted recovering alcoholic surrounded by rumors of worse misdeeds. Not to mention someone who, time has clearly shown, lied about weapons of mass destruction so that he could start a war.

Why wasn't he put on the couch in the same way -- presuming we accept the rationale that the media must vet the moral code of our leaders.

And for that matter, why the short shrift his drunken driving record?

In the spirit of media zest for the truth, I have a few questions: tell me, in full detail, about the admittedly wild days of Naval Academy midshipman John McCain III. Tell me, in detail, about the the circumstance surrounding his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to the heir of a beer distributorship.

I want those stories on the front page and at the lead of television newscasts. Equal treatment and all that. McCain insists that the press treats Democrats differently -- and in this case he is quite correct.

In the meantime, the boys (and girls) on the bus should take a long cold shower and start covering real issues -- are we heading to a military intervention in the other Georgia? Why does Iraq project a $79 billion budget surplus while we are swimming in debt rebuilding their country?

The world is really starting to wonder about our priorities as a leader when we obsess on gossip over policy.

Or is too much fun to chant Johnnie and Rielle sittin' in a tree, kissing...

CORRECTION: Astute reader Dan Kennedy points out it got my supermarket tabloids mixed up. He is of course correct in noting it was The Star, not the Enquirer, that brought us Gennifer Flowers.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Rollin' the dice

It's only appropriate the latest study on casino gambling in Massachusetts emerges during August, when thoughts of shark attacks and other scary things capture the attention of the public and a bored media.

But the details of the delayed report from Spectrum Gaming are less important than the fact it is now out there in the public domain -- after the Legislature has seemingly adjourned for the year. And that's because Massachusetts taxpayers are about to experience some scary moments on the budget front.

Just about every seasoned Beacon Hill observer expects problems with the fiscal 2009 budget put in place before lawmakers adjourn. Many question how well it is balanced. All expect major upheaval if the federal government does not renew the Medicaid waiver that has financed a huge chunk of health care reform.

Then there's the matter of Question 1, which would repeal the state's income tax.

I expect the real significance of this report to surface during the fall -- when that question is being debated. After all, polls show a majority of Massachusetts residents like the idea of casinos, but also think the state is headed on the wrong track.

What better way to turn things around, some may reason, than repeal the income tax and make up for some of the lost revenue through casinos?

Similarly, casino opponents generally cringe at the thought of income tax repeal as much as they hate the idea of casinos. Put the two together and perhaps you strengthen their efforts to work against the ballot initiative?

I'm not going to say the Patrick administration exhibited brilliant political timing here. This report, like the plan to reduce the use of highway flaggers, is just another example of a team that has a hard time meeting deadlines.

But sometime, that can work in your favor.

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Promises, promises

Hey Deval. I hope you got the promise from Tim Cahill not to run against you in writing. And that it wasn't in disappearing ink.

Because Treasurer Tim certainly seems like a man with another agenda as he plots a course that is consistent only in that it is diametrically opposite to that of the governor.

Cahill's latest head scratcher is a decision to speak on behalf of the state pension trustees in rejecting Patrick's proposal that the fund invest in Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority bonds to help raise cash for student loans.

Cahill proposes instead that the Legislature come back in special session to pledge $450 million in taxpayers fund to back the bond sale planned within the next two weeks.

And that is a complete reversal of the stand he took in opposing Patrick's plan to use the taxpayers "full faith and credit" to back Massachusetts Turnpike Authority debts.

Cahill says the investment of pension funds in bonds issued by a state authority would be "imprudent." But putting taxpayers dollars behind them is not. A flip, if you will, from the Turnpike Authority situation.

The logic escapes me, but I'm not into high finance.

What doesn't escape me is that Cahill appears to be speaking for a nine-member board that apparently hasn't discussed this issue. And given the make-up of the board, it appears to be a panel that is likely evenly split, at worst:

"It will help struggling families, and it's a good investment for members of the [pension] system," said Theresa McGoldrick, who represents employee unions on the board.

She said investment in the bonds seemed to fit the criteria of a community fund Cahill fought to establish in 2003 that supports local businesses and community interests. The fund provides investments that generally produce slightly lower returns in order to provide broader social and economic benefits.

Has the board met on the issue? Did it vote? I would presume that its actions are public.

Oh, I see. No need to debate this one -- Thus Spake Timmie.

Let's remember this is the same treasurer whose "working group" on ending abuses in the system that allow "terminated" employees to collect immediately is still working on the issue, four years later.

Better check that pledge governor. It carries the full faith and credit of the treasurer.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Creepy feeling

There's a decided creepy feeling to the news this summer:

In Boston, we're becoming increasingly drawn to the weird story of Clark Rockefeller, which started as a simple Amber Alert parent-child abduction and is morphing into a made-for-TV movie with tales of intrigue branching out to Los Angeles and Connecticut, for starters.

In national politics, we have the emergence of Paris Hilton and tire gauges as the symbols of political combat. What war? What tanking economy?

On Beacon Hill, we have our own little political sideshow, the continued questions that arise about Speaker Sal DiMasi and the increasingly interesting travails of Sutton Democrat Jennifer Callahan.

Remind anyone else of the summer of 2001? Sharks, Chandra Levy and assorted other stories to divert our attention from the reality of economic problems and, in 20-20 hindsight, a presidential daily briefing that our vacationing president seemed to overlook.

I have no special insights, so those Justice Department sleuths who were brought in to crusade against the word "liberal" don't need to worry about me.

But I just can't help but be struck by the creepy parallels. And heaven knows Clark Rockefaker or Crockefeller or whatever his real name is is creepy.

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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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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Your money or your livelihood

Well, you certainly can't say MBTA boss Dan Grabauskas is subtle.

Smilin' Dan told Globe editors and reporters that eastern Massachusetts commuters who rely on the public transportation system are the pawns in his bid to find the needed cash to make his system run.

State bailout or fare increase, and:
"If you don't want to cut service, it's going to have to be hefty"
I've been semi-sympathetic to the bind the T was placed in by the Legislature when it gave it a penny on the sales tax to forward fund operations -- while saddling it with lots of debt.

But, I'm not at all sympathetic to the quality of service under a Grabauskas-"managed" system.

The timing of the threat is especially interesting -- right after lawmakers started to address the mismanagement at the Mass. Turnpike Authority caused by another legislative scheme that saddled the Big Dig costs on a highway system that thought it was good politics to eliminate tolls on most of its users.

Smilin' Dan's threats come as the system is experiencing major increases in ridership caused by soaring gasoline prices -- the perfect time, in his mind, for a blackmail threat like this.

And funny, there is no mention of the quid pro quo that must be demanded in exchange -- cleaning up the T's house -- right at the top.

This is a system that has yet to really offer a full accounting of the results of the last fare increase more than a year and a half ago. It is a system that overextended itself with capital projects that are chronically behind schedule and over budget -- just on the Green Line alone! Every rider has a horror story or two to share of miserable customer service and commuting nightmares.

Smilin' Dan is correct that lawmakers that helped create at least part of the problem must be part of the solution. But holding riders as hostages is not the way for a man who has pretty much failed in delivering quality, dependable service -- and who continues to telegraph his own beliefs on service quality by using a T-owned SUV as his way of commuting.

Any T bailout legislation must include one simple fact: Smilin' Dan has got to go.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Heat or eat

The American Petroleum Institute is running an ad on national news broadcasts that caught my eye: seems those wonderful folks are turning much less of a profit than their counterparts in pharmaceuticals, beverages and tobacco, computers and even apparel.

Noble stuff indeed -- just ask ExxonMobil, which now touts how it is environmentally friendly as it rakes in $11.7 billion in one quarter (that would be more than $45 BILLION in profit annually). Pity those poor investors who can't count on continued growth!

It's that time of year -- for oil and natural gas giants to try and inoculate themselves in advance of the reality that this year more Americans are likely to freeze to death because they won't be able to heat their homes.

Bitching about the price at the pump is one thing. We can try to cut down on our driving and for many people there are alternate forms of transportation.

But for many people, there aren't a lot of options, particularly elders living on fixed incomes of people losing their jobs in today's economy.

Chew on these facts:
The increase will have an especially dramatic impact on the nearly 1 million households that are heated with oil, which now sells for about $4.70 a gallon, up from $2.59 a year ago, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.
I seem to recall the days when heating oil cost less than gasoline. And those were the days when we set aside $20 a week to pay cash so we could get a discount on the tank that was a major setback for people barely out of college and into the workforce.

Or this:
Natural gas customers also are expected to see significant price increases - about 15.6 percent from 2008 to 2009, UMass researchers said. In May, natural gas sold for $18.49 per thousand cubic feet, up from $17.03 a year ago, according to the US Energy Information administration, a statistical agency of the US Department of Energy. The institute based its findings on several sources, including US Census and federal Energy Information Administration data.
Yeah, pity the poor struggling oil and gas industry. The cause of the run-up is not directly their fault, but they have to sit back and rake in billions. And take political potshots at alternatives, like Joe Kennedy's Citizens Energy, which gets some of its stock from, gasp, Hugo Chavez's Citgo.

Howell Raines, he of the Jayson Blair New York Times fiasco, takes an interesting look at media coverage of the oil and gas industry, and how reporters are also gulled by the industry's propaganda machine.

Makes for some interesting reading. And you can always toss the hard copy of the magazine into the fireplace for some extra warmth this winter.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Can you hear me now?

Memo to Verizon: Cell phones make it far less necessary to maintain an expensive landline in your home. So don't offer incentives to people to drop the service.

Case in point -- voice mail hell to report a lack of dial tone. Voice mail hell that doesn't include the single best option for restoring a dial tone -- unplugging the phone and then trying again.

And when you do eventually get a human being, I would suggest a rewritten script so they don't ask "are you calling from that number?" Duh! If it worked it wouldn't be calling in the first place.

I'm obviously old enough to remember the old 611 repair number (Why obviously? I still have a landline.) But try finding the all inclusive 800-number in the Verizon Yellow Pages (not to be confused with the Yellow Book or the Verizon White Pages among the various tree killers still be dumped on doorsteps for people to use as doorstops).

Once you eventually find it, you are run through a voice recognition software prompt system asking (endlessly) for the number you are calling about. The system is sensitive enough to pick up the sighs of exasperation you exhale while repeating the number it can't seem to recognize.

Once it finally figures that out, the "helpful" voice suggests you fix it yourself -- by schlepping down into the basement or outside to find the Network Interface Device. The helpful voice suggests you don't touch the device if it's raining. That's encouraging.

When you pass on that one, it offers a second do-it-yourself option, which I admit I didn't even bother to listen to. It then immediately wants to set up a repair appointment and wants to know if someone over the age of 18 will be home.

To which I ask the obvious question -- when? Helpful voice mail system can't cope with that question and asks for my number again. Another sigh and finally a human being.

After we get past the question of whether I'm calling from the number I'm reporting, we get the first glimmer of help -- a question that somehow included the words "unplug the phone."

Eureka! A light goes off (no, I didn't need to call NStar.) Running around to all the phones (this time remembering the antiquated fax machine) I find -- and fix -- the problem.

Glad I rejected the voice mail offer to get text message updates of the progress on my repair project (usual charges apply).

I have stayed with AT&T as my cell phone carrier through its various blips in quality and changes in name. Why? I didn't want all my phone service dependent on Verizon. Smart move

Hey guys, can YOU hear ME now?

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Who you calling brainy?

Did the Globe really call Bostonians dumber than the folks on the other side of the river?
Two key bridges aren't exactly falling down, but they're shaky enough to prompt the question: What if Boston lost its links to its brainy northern neighbor?
That could be a gap the folks on the other side may say is Cantabridgian.

Cue the hisses and boos.

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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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Friday, August 01, 2008

Bizarro World campaign

No, no, no John. Barack Obama will play the age card, not the race card.

With unemployment rising, retirement accounts tumbling with the stock market, gasoline and food prices jumping at a pace that will make extend the heat or eat dilemma to millions more Americans, John McCain thought it was time to pull out the Lee Atwater Campaign Handbook -- with a twist.

He's accusing Barack Obama of playing the race card
.

You know the guy who has been the subject of e-mail smears all year about his name, his former pastor, his religious beliefs. The guy whose middle name rolls off the tongue of talk radio hosts with a verbal sneer.

Oh, and the guy pictured in a McCain ad with two of the leading white women pseudo-sexy airheads of today's American culture.

Can you say Harold Ford?

This has been standard GOP campaign fare since Atwater -- adopted and adapted by Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt, who now runs the McCain effort, if you can call it that.

The smear tactics prompted Obama to respond:
Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.
Sure sounds like standard GOP tactics. Think Dukakis in the tank. Al Gore's sighs. John Kerry windsurfing. Attack the character and personality and ignore the issues.

But rather than fess up to the truth, the candidate's manager (what is he, the third?) offers this:
Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck,” Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, charged in a statement with which Mr. McCain later said he agreed. “It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.
Divisive, negative, shameful and wrong. All hallmarks of Republican smear campaigns.

No, if the Obama camp wanted to play by the same rules, the would focus like a laser beam on McCain's age -- and his inability to apparently know the difference between Sunnis and Shias, or recognize that Czechoslovakia hasn't existed in more than a decade.

He would focus on the fact that McCain doesn't know how to use a computer or get onto the Web.

Or then he could focus on how McCain is truly Johnny One-Note, whining about how Obama won't acknowledge the surge has "worked," or how the media that he has called "my base" actually plays favorites.

Finally he could note that has no solution for the economic problems facing this country other than to endorse one of the things that got us here -- the Bush tax cuts. And he could also note how McCain has flip-flopped on that score.

But no, McCain would rather play the Atwater card.

Can we trade him for Manny?

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The real Mr. Grumpy

Every now and then I throw together a bunch of random thoughts under the Mr. Grumpy headline (something I apparently stole from someone else).

But I must now cede the Mr. Grumpy title to Mayor-for-Life Tom Menino.

Let's see now -- his office is in a public building overlooking a public space. I didn't realize balloon artists were so noisy, although I admit to occasionally getting chills when you twist a balloon and it makes a little squeak.

Yeah, the "Bucket Boys" can get a but tedious after awhile, but it's not random noise. It's music. And some people got very rich on Broadway with a musical on the same theme.

Lighten up Tommy. You are not master of all that you survey.

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