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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, December 31, 2008

Unhappy new year

So, would you rather layoff firefighters or eliminate home care services for elders?

That's the unpleasant choice facing elected officials as the state looks to cut another $1 billion in spending in the current fiscal year. That's on top of $1.4 billion already axed this year and coming with the fiscal year half over likely to hurt even more than the first round.

And that also doesn't begin to consider what cuts are going to be needed for the fiscal 2010 budget Gov. Deval Patrick is scheduled to unveil in January.

State officials are saying local aid is going to be on the chopping block, much to the dismay of mayors and selectboards that will need to pare back in midyear. The only way to make those sorts of slashes is personnel -- police, firefighters and teachers.

As Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation boss Mike Widmer summed it up:
“It’s going to be a triple whammy. Homeowners will see their property taxes go up, the value of their homes go down and their services will be cut.”
Of course, you could also cut more deeply into human services and spread the pain beyond the mental health services that have already felt the knife.

The call for taxes is rising quickly, with new local option meals taxes and a bump in the sales tax the most prominent targets. But that won't be easy because, as Widmer points out, the pressure on the property tax will also be enormous.

It will be interesting to see how the Legislature reacts to Patrick's renewed request for "9C" powers that will allow him to make unilateral cuts without waiting for legislative approval.

The governor, in effect, is looking to shoulder the entire political fallout in exchange for the ability to act quickly. I'm not sure whether he should be applauded or asked to stop at a sobriety checkpoint on his way home.

Despite all the gloom and doom, a Happy New Year to what has becoming a growing set of readers. As always, thanks for stopping by!

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Bottom of the deck dealing

Just when you thought the Beacon Hill ethics miasma couldn't get any swampier, Thomas Kelly comes through to restore -- or totally shatter -- your faith.

The Globe reports Kelly, a close friend, neighbor and fund-raiser of state Treasurer Tim Cahill was collecting lobbying fees from BOTH sides vying for a contract from the state Lottery Commission controlled by Cahill.

Cahill says he knew nothing of Kelly's activities for Scientific Games, one of the companies vying for the business. The other, Bingo Innovative, ended its relationship with Kelly after learning he was on Scientific Games' payroll and is suing both Kelly and Cahill for "civil conspiracy."

Frankly, this one is tough to follow, involving allegations of laundered payments through third parties. But what is clear is that Kelly has some rather questionable business practices.

And it is yet another reminder that the Massachusetts ethics law -- contrary to some opinion -- are in need of some very serious overhaul.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why mom told you to wear clean underwear

Mothers constantly tell their children to wear clean underwear. After all, appearance counts and you never know when you might find yourself in the emergency room.

By all outward appearances, Richard Vitale and his friend Sal DiMasi are fine men. Successful and imbued with public spirit. DiMasi has spent his prime in public service. Vitale built an accounting business from the ground up and devoted himself to charitable causes.

Both of them apparently also failed to heed their mothers' advice and are dealing with the fallout from some dirty public laundry these days.

Vitale appears to have launched a second business front, advising clients such as the Massachusetts Association of Ticket Brokers and Cognos ULC. He received $1.3 million from them over time through WN Advisers, a company he created as his mandatory retirement loomed at the accounting firm he founded.

Attorney General Martha Coakley has questions about what he did for the ticket brokers. A federal grand jury is apparently asking questions about Cognos.

Why?

It appears that Vitale advised the ticket brokers about legislation then pending in the House that would change the state's ticket scalping laws. Vitale says he is not a lobbyist and certainly never engaged in consulting about legislation long enough to trigger the 50-hour limit required for registration.

DiMasi -- a long-time Vitale friend who also relied on his as his accountant and financial adviser -- says he never discussed that sort of business with his friend.

But here's where appearances come in again. The bill passed the House and will die in the Senate.

Then there is Cognos. It appears Vitale received a payment on the same day in 2007 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid Cognos $13 million for a statewide technology contract.

By all appearances, Vitale has some dirty underwear that needs explaining. And his relationship with DiMasi appears to be a problem as well, prompting one of the Speaker's chairmen to opt to vote "present" when the Legislature formally convenes next week.

The Speaker also has a laundry problem, telling the state Ethics Commission they don't have a right to documents that may shed light on some of these relationships.

And while we're at it, Treasurer Tim Cahill may need a trip to the laundromat to explain about how a lottery contract was granted.

All this means the Commonwealth has an appearance problem too. Toss in the names Dianne Wilkerson, Jim Marzilli, Robert Spellane and Chuck Turner and this is the year of politicians behaving badly.

Some of it has entered in the legal realm but a lot has not. That's because the state ethics law need considerable tightening. Gov. Deval Patrick has appointed a special panel that, hopefully, will report as early as next week on proposed changes.

For starters, there should be some considerable tightening of language that governs the appearance of a conflict of interest. Because, by all appearances, we have a lot of dirty underwear in this state that needs to be cleaned.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

I guess there are no local writers available

The Globe's op-ed page is hallowed ground for local political analysts looking to spread their name and theory. It is a must-stop for any PR person looking to gain traction for his or her client's ideas.

So it's nice to see the Globe turning over precious op-ed space to an aspiring editorialist looking to sway US policy on Russia.
Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, recently returned from a state visit to the Russian Federation.
Say what?

The topic is a legitimate one -- our ever escalating tensions with Russia merits some discussion in the marketplace of ideas.

But it would be fascinating to know how this piece wound up in the Globe. No offense, but how many other newspapers rejected it? Who is representing Gaddafi? How much is the author being paid? Couldn't the PR advisor find a Harvard faculty member the same thing while not stirring up the kinds of comment that have already started to register?

It's probably also appropriate to note that my random musings occasionally appear under the Globe's Vox Op feature. There's no compensation because they obviously don't know who to send it to -- although I doubt my fellow contributors don't mind doing freebies either. After all it is the exposure. Just like Gaddafi.

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It's so funny I forgot to laugh

Almost lost in the hustle and bustle of the long holiday is this fine example of the Republican Party learning its lessons about what worked and didn't work in 2008.

The fact that "satirist" Paul Shanklin's fare was welcome on Rush Limbaugh's program is about all you need to know about "Barack the Magic Negro."
The song is sung to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon” by a character meant to be Al Sharpton, the civil rights advocate and sometime politician. In it, the Sharpton character criticizes Mr. Obama for being insufficiently black, and mocks his white supporters for embracing him to assuage guilty feelings about racial injustice. It was distributed as part of a collection of Mr. Shanklin’s parodies.
Well at least it isn't so subtle that you need to guess.

In that vein, I would suggest a few other "songs," starting with "George the Clueless Rich Boy." I will leave it to Shanklin and his fans to pen the Joe Lieberman "parody."

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Things are tough all over

It could be worse. You could be living in New York.

That appears to be the message MBTA boss Dan Grabauskas is peddling to the Globe.

Smilin' Dan seems to be missing the point that I no longer take the IRT -- and neither do the millions of people who rely on the subway, buses and commuter rail trains that he is charged with running.

The Sox may hate the Yankees and the Patriots may not be feeling too kindly toward the Giants. But whether the MTA is in worse shape than the MBTA is not relevant to the issues at hand -- endless delays whether they involve buses ad subways or station construction.

Any overhaul of the MBTA included in the state's new transportation plan needs to include a provision to hire someone to run the T who actually has a clue.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's a tough life

I'm really trying to get up the requisite sympathy for those poor White House press pool reporters trying to keep up with the president-elect. Heaven knows we wouldn't want another Waikiki-Gate.

It seems Barack Obama gave his press pool the slip yesterday and enjoyed some time -- in peace -- with his daughters at a Hawaiian amusement park.

When the pack finally caught up with the Obamas, they dutifully recorded his sandwich choice (tuna melt on 12-grain, natch). Obama wasn't above ribbing Washington Post pooler Phillip Rucker for his attention to detail about the First Lunch.

Obama was gracious in offering his traveling tormentors shaved ice to cool off, although the pool upheld journalistic ethics by refusing the gift.

The pool is a strange experience. The "body watch" -- often known as the "death watch" is there for one reason and one reason alone.

I did one body watch -- a visit by then vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro for a speech on City Hall Plaza. Along with my Associated Press counterpart, we were stationed on the Logan tarmac awaiting her arrival. Then we piled into buses and, with sirens shrieking -- made a record-time trip through the Sumner Tunnel, then tagged along as she worked her way through the Secret Service cordon to the stage.

Because nothing befouled the trip, we were forced to retreat to the already crowded risers and join the peons, er, our colleagues for the speech. Many in the traveling contingent were probably hearing it for the 100th time.

The big difference between pooling in Crawford Texas and Waikiki is, well if if have to explain...

So naturally, reporters who once slogged through the snows of Iowa and now find themselves in sunnier climes need to make excuses. Said NBC's Savannah Guthrie:

"There's a perception that in between live shots we're sipping umbrella drinks and fanning ourselves and diving into the ocean," she says. "But actually I spend most of my time in my hotel room working on stories."

Someone needs a life. My advice? Enjoy it while you can. Today Hawaii. Tomorrow Kabul.

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Not exactly a trend

Funny, I came to the exact opposite conclusion of Globe reporter Erin Ailworth as I elbowed through the crowds at the CambridgeSide Galleria yesterday.

Trend stories are popular around the holidays -- but they need actual trends and not reflections from one mall that did seem to have a slow pace. And time of day makes a difference too.

Now, if she had simply checked Macy's in Downtown Crossing, there may have been more validity to the observations.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Jeer?

I'm guess I'm starting to take my self-appointed role as a moral arbiter a bit too seriously.

But then, I just can't let pass Jon Keller's un-Christmas-y slap at the late Harold Pinter's politics in noting the playwright's death. OK, he may seriously disagree with Pinter's politics (and he dug up some pretty obscure reference material) but the timing reveals a certain Scrooge-Grinch focus that might best be described as churlish.

And that picture. Did Pinter have horns?

At least he didn't offer a similar treatment for the late Eartha Kitt, who will be remembered for speaking truth to power at a White House luncheon hosted by then First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.

And it is a far better performance than some Lakers' fans displayed in response to my ruminations about Sasha Vujacic (we'll get 'em in June!)

So Jon, in the spirit of the season, how about drinking a cup of kindness? Or maybe just a Harpoon IPA. My treat.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ho, ho, ho, Beat LA!

I was going to get into the spirit of the season and take a day off from snark and snide directed at people I think deserve it.

Then I read Sasha Vujacic's Christmas message for the Celtics and the city they represent.
"I'm not wearing green because of Boston. I don't like Boston at all. You can say hate, I don't care."
You may recall the last time we saw Mr. Vujacic he was searching for a particular part of his sports attire, having been faked out of it by Ray Allen in Game 4 of the Finals.

Hate truly is a strong word for a man whose heritage traces to the Balkans. If you want to see what hate is really like, take a look at a history book -- or even just back issues of modern newspapers.

There's obviously a touch of the absurd in the Laker guard complaining about the Celtics talking trash while spewing garbage well beyond the usual "your momma's so ugly..." And it all comes back around to the fact there is far too much real hate in the world to be running off your mouth about a sports rivalry.

So I'd advise Sasha to get some pointers from his ultra cool Zen master coach and acquire some Southern California mellow.

As for everyone else, peace on Earth and goodwill to all men and women.

And, of course, Beat LA!

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Outrageous Liberal

Mark the date of this historic moment: Barbara Anderson and I agree on something.

"Something" is former State Sen. Jim Marzilli's request to double his pension because he "lost" his reelection bid. Yeah, lost because his name was on the ballot after he was charged with harassing or attempting to grope women.
"They get an additional pension if their constituents get sick of them and throw them out? Am I hearing that right? Only in Massachusetts," said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. "Enough with the pension nonsense."
Truth be told, the real outrage is the law -- although Marzilli's efforts to exercise it based on the nature of his decision to voluntarily leave office to seek treatment is fairly close behind. Right up there with his trip to Germany.

I am not a public service employee basher. Committed and dedicated people work hard, usually at salaries far below what they would receive in the private sector.

But I do have a real problem with a law aimed at elected officials only. The guy in the Highway Department can't apply for this provision because he's not subject to the decision of voters, only his supervisors. Of course he gets paid through the capital budget, but that's another disaster entirely.

The real outrage is the Legislature creates laws that apply only to them. Or, like the public meeting laws, don't apply only to them.

As the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation's Mike Widmer notes, the revelation of Marzilli's request is the wrong message at the wrong time.
"This is another pension excess that is causing increasing outrage to taxpayers," he said. "You have these thousands of employees who earn legitimate pensions and then these kinds of abuses undercut support for the entire system. It is past time for the Legislature and the governor to close these kinds of loopholes."
Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature have some serious work ahead of them to overhaul a creaky system that is bleeding money through many places. Special interest laws -- ones that apply only to those people who get their jobs through the ballot box -- is a great place to start reforming.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Noblesse oblige

I've been silent in the face of all the bah humbugs being thrown around about Caroline Kennedy's interest in the New York Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. After all, it is true that if his name had been Edward Moore, the Massachusetts senior senator would never have been elected -- and that one turned out all right.

But Caroline Kennedy's decision to decline a financial disclosure unless and until she is given the job represents a tin ear as bad as the decision to answer questions in writing and in the third person.

Kennedy has created a solid life for herself as wife, mother and author. There is no question the family legacy is that of public service. I suspect she might eventually make a good senator.

But she has shown horrible instincts as a politician -- and that is a job requirement too. She will need to run for office twice in four years if she gets the job handed to her on a silver platter.

Somehow I suspect her former bother-in-law, Andrew Cuomo, would relish the fight.

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End of an error

Veteran Boston television anchor Tom Ellis may be hanging them up -- and not by choice.

Ellis was a TV anchor legend, but not in the best sense. His heyday coincided with that of Ted Baxter, the bumbling anchor at Minneapolis' fictional WJM-TV.

While he worked at all three Boston newsdesks during their heyday, Ellis often seemed out of place with his Texas twang and his inappropriately timed winks and smirks.

His hiring at Channel 5 was controversial, his pairing with Natalie Jacobson uncomfortable. The joke was that NECN, Ellis' home for the last 14 years, stands for Never Ever Cross Natalie. Ellis, and former Jacobson spouse Chet Curtis did and came to rest at the cable outlet.

Ellis's refusal to go quietly is somewhat understandable. The part-time gig represented a sort of triumph for the one-time king of Boston anchors.

But the industry has passed him by. True his only contemporary -- and WBZ-TV replacement Jack Williams -- still soldiers on. But Williams had been shown the pasture several years ago until Channel 4's abysmal ratings gave him a reprieve.

The news desk likes young and at 76, that's one thing Ellis can't claim. Natalie herself was eased out by Channel 5, Liz Walker is gone from Channel 4. The parade of interchangeable faces at WHDH-TV is considered a key to its success by many. Aside from Randy Price, can you really tell the difference among the neatly coiffed talking heads?

Tom Ellis represents a bygone era in television news. His re-emergence at NECN at the twilight of his career was a rare gift for him. A quieter, more diplomatic departure would have been a better move because Ellis' options for another gig are virtually nil.

And that's the way it is.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Sweet deal!

I've decided I want to work for Massport.

Three weeks of vacation after one year on the job. The ability to buy back three weeks of vacation and add it to the base of my pension earnings.

Heck, my employer rolls my unused vacation time into an extended sick leave fund should I ever need it. They're no fun! Of course, neither am I if I have unused time.

As a one-time public sector employee I have sympathy for them against some of the broadly hurled criticism. The vast majority are honest people doing honest work at a salary lower than they could receive in the private sector.

But abuses like the Massport vacation policy (following on the heels of the Massport sick leave policy) makes it hard for them.

I don't care if no tax dollars are spent to support Massport. There is a bunch of public cash from the Tobin Bridge tolls and anyone who ever uses Logan pays a portion of their airline ticket to feed the beast.

It's interesting that Mercer Human Resource Consulting report that delved into Massport's policies after the sick leave debacle makes no mention of its findings in its final report.

Mercer found no state agency or independent authority with a vacation sell-back benefit, according to Massport records obtained by the Globe under the state public record law.

It also found only two of seven airports surveyed nationally had vacation sell-backs, and both were limited to two weeks, rather than Massport's three-week policy.

Obviously the Globe found them. I wonder why they were excluded from the final report?

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What, no special prosecutor?

US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has already absolved Rahm Emanuel of any role in the Rod Blagojevich scandal. Barack Obama -- also given a clean bill of health -- is now about to do the same for Emanuel, his new chief of staff.

Somehow I suspect that won't be enough for the Republican National Committee.

The Tempest in a Teapot Dome flurry surrounding what did Emanuel and Obama knew about Blagojevich's alleged efforts to sell Obama's Senate seat has been solid grist for the Washington scandal mill. Even Obama's decision to delay his own report at Fitzgerald's request has been subject to second guessing.

That leads me to the sad conclusion that the GOP and its friends in talk radio are likely to question the decision to allow Obama to conduct his own internal investigation. It's the way they have been doing business for decades, after all.

But, as the Washington Post reports, Fitzgerald didn't just come to this investigation at the last minute. His office had been looking into the Illinois governor even as he was off in Washington taking on Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.

Maybe that's why the GOP is likely to be in a snit.

It appears Emanuel had one conversation with Blagojevich during the transition, a fact that prompted ABC's Cokie Roberts to note “It would be political malpractice if somebody from the Obama [team] had not talked to the governor.”

Sadly, Rush and Sean will consider it political malpractice not to flog the horse's carcass. Will their GOP puppets agree to do their bidding -- even as the economy continues to collapse?

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

What's up with this?

I know political polls are "snapshots in time" but can someone please tell me why there's been a huge swing in numbers on Deval Patrick in a month?

A WBZ-TV/Survey USA poll taken between Nov.21-24 shows Patrick with a huge problem: 45 percent of voters approved of his job performance and a full 50 percent disapproved.

But a Boston Globe/UNH Survey Center poll taken Dec.11-18 (page 7 of PDF) show Patrick with a 52-29 job approval rating -- and an overall 64-24 favorable-unfavorable score.

Huh?

Perhaps some wiser in poll methodology can help explain those totally contradictory results?

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Pick your poison

I remember a gag as a kid -- "what would you prefer: a hot stake or a cold chop? Would you rather be burned at the stake or face the guillotine?"

That's the choice facing Massachusetts residents forced to select between a gas tax that covers the entire state or toll hikes that hit a select few very hard.

And the winner is ... the gas tax. I leave to others to decide of it's the stake or the chop.

What's fascinating about the result is that is exactly opposite of the support levels for the politicians on either side of the issue. And unlike the narrow six-point margin on the tolls-taxes issue, the popularity gap is really a chasm. And that may well be because of the size of their potential voting pool.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who has shied away from the broader statewide tax, should consider spending some of the political capital reflected in his 64-24 favorable/unfavorable spread.

House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who backs the gas tax as a fairer option, should be happy he doesn't have to run beyond his North End district.

Let's hope gas taxes are on the table when the long-awaited transportation overhaul and new Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi, are formally trotted out next year.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Crisis averted

It's official. Yesterday's storm hype was overrated.
As snow fell in New England yesterday and last night, it seemed that the worst had been avoided. There was a largely effortless commute, few major accidents, and a palpable sense of relief. The storm, it turned out, dumped less snow than forecast and was more a source of wonderment and holiday delight than headaches and danger.
The Herald concurred, preferring to look to the future:
The Hub is being slammed with a double winter whammy, with last night’s storm just the beginning of a week of wicked weather that will see more snow, rain, sleet, bitter cold and high winds - starting with another storm tomorrow.
Don't get me wrong. My back isn't too happy this morning and the sight of more flakes isn't doing much for my blood pressure. But the build up to yesterday's 8-12 inch snowfall reminds me once again that the single biggest competition in local television news today is weather.

Why else would Channel 5 continue to collect forecasters even as they offer buy-outs and contemplate layoffs? They have roughly five times as many people forecasting flakes as they have reporting on government. Or health. We all are on a first name basis with Harvey and Dickie. The same is true at every other outlet, although for the life of me I can't recall the name of the nameless ones on their competition.

And let's not forget the army of reporters standing along roadsides, sticking yard sticks into snow mounds and modeling silly hats. We all remember Shelby Scott gamely doing the bidding of her Channel 4 editors.

But storm coverage is the one bright economic spot for local broadcasters. WBZ-AM sells its storm closing announcements -- which have been so long lately they drive me in the shower early. Stations were dropping regularly scheduled shows last night to stay "on top" of the coverage.

Not that there was much to say. It's snowing. The showing is piling up. Stay off the roads if you don't need to go out. Be careful shoveling. There. That took about 10 seconds. Next.

No one is really immune. My first day on the job at a major league media operation (well it was at the time) involved storm coverage. A freak April snowstorm brought the skiers out on Boston Common, prompting my new editor to introduce me to the word "skittered" to describe how they glided along paths.

Then there were the overnight chats with the unsung heroes of the forecasting business -- the National Weather Service. Not celebrities, they cranked out the basics, what CNN today uses as the name for Campbell Brown's newscast.

Those chats taught me to rely on the NWS for snowfall totals. No ratings were involved. No need to top the next forecaster with totals -- or snazzy gizmos.

Let's put this in perspective. The ice storm that coated Central Massachusetts and New Hampshire and brought life to a halt along with the power was a serious storm. The words "freezing rain" in tomorrow's forecast make me nervous.

Yesterday? That's called winter in New England (even if we are still technically hours away from the solstice).

Tomorrow? Stay off the roads if you don't need to go out. Be careful shoveling. There. I got it down to five seconds. Next.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Pincers movement

First, as the lawyers like to say, let's stipulate that a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.

Let's also acknowledge that defense attorney Martin Weinberg is offering a Chuck Turner defense for his client, Richard Vitale: I would not be inspired with a lawyer who declares that an indictment involves "no classically criminal wrongdoing,"

That said, the 10-count misdemeanor charge brought against Vitale yesterday is nothing to take lightly. Brought by Attorney General Martha Coakley at the instigation by Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the charges surrounding Vitale's "lobbying" or "advising" relationship with Speaker Sal DiMasi opens the door to a broader action.

For those of you keeping score at home, this one involves the allegation that Vitale represented ticket brokers in an arrangement that ultimately eliminated the state's anti-scalping law.

The reality is this lack of "classically criminal wrongdoing" is just a first step to get Vitale to make a plea deal that would open the floodgates on the more serious charges that are engulfing him and his friend, Speaker Sal DiMasi.

That of course is the federal grand jury investigation into the deal surrounding Cognos ULC. DiMasi has been engaged in a legal battle with the state Ethics Commission over providing documents that could explain what role, if any, he had in the awarding of a Department of Education contract to the software maker.

The scope of those charges could be far more serious -- particularly for Vitale. A deal that would drop the state charges and lessen any federal penalties could be quite inviting for the embattled accountant. And leave DiMasi very vulnerable.

The other side of the pincer movement is the state indictment also turns up the heat on the Massachusetts House in the upcoming vote for Speaker.

Two of DiMasi's lieutenants have been jockeying for the job while the Speaker's political body is still warm. This latest turn is apparently giving some DiMasi supporters cold feet and leaving them to ponder the idea of voting "present" when the House convenes in two weeks.

While not legally troubling, a vote of no confidence would seriously weaken DiMasi going into one of the most crucial legislative sessions in recent years -- dealing with a massive budget fall out at the same time our transportation system is falling apart.

I hope DiMasi isn't getting any neckties for Christmas. I suspect things are a little tight around the collar already.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Panic in the streets

Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a, uh, snowflake.

Yep. Adam has set the French Toast Alert at High as a winter storm heads toward New England with the potential to cover the ground. Jeez, you'd think it was winter in New England or something.

The panic level is exceptionally high as weather watchers, like political reporters, fight the last war. And that was last December, when a Friday storm caused massive gridlock.

Of course, last year city and state officials failed to take adequate notice in deploying sanders and plows.

So this year, schools were closed a day early in Boston (they've been closed all week thanks to a real storm in central Mass.) Tom Menino and Deval Patrick have urged all non-essential workers to stay at home -- something that likely won't make a difference since the City Council and Legislature weren't in session anyway.

I can certainly recall many worse storms -- a little number in February 1978 comes to mind.

Time will tell whether our forecasters are right or wrong. Same holds true for our elected officials.

But the high anxiety is no doubt a marvelous boost to sagging ratings at our local television stations. And a good excuse to start Christmas vacation a day early.

But I'm no fool. I did stop by the store tonight -- for a six-pack of Harpoon IPA. To heck with French toast.

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Who's paying for that Citi commercial?

We're in the home stretch of the holiday shopping season and so our senses are being bombarded as never before with TV ads urging us to buy this -- and charge it.

The ads that ask you to buy your spouse a car for Christmas (whatever happened to perfume and jewelry and plasma TVs?) and stick it on your Citi Card begs an obvious question: who is paying for this advertising?

In particular I'm curious abut the regular full page CitiGroup newspaper ads and the TV spot about the obnoxious seat jumpers who get rousted by a bouncer.

The banking industry does not appear to be scaling back on advertising, despite having gone to Congress with hat in hand and coming away with $700 billion.

That holds especially true with CitiGroup, whose $300 billion bailout seems to hold taxpayers on the hook for much of their bad debt. That leaves them with the funds to purchase advertising and name baseball parks.

Maybe that's something the Herald's enterprising reporter should check out

And one last thought -- why am I still being bombarded with offers to sign up for new credit cards?

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Obama Claus is coming to town

Deval Patrick and the state's congressional delegation are making their lists and checking them twice. It appears Santa will have some competition in the near future.

Obama Claus is coming to town, on a slightly delayed scheduled from the fat guy in the red suit.

The wish list -- all $4.7 billion of it -- roads, school, sewer plants and seawalls -- all non-sexy stuff that has languished thanks to the Big Dig fiasco and its drain on resources.

Of course, one man's pump priming is another's pork, and the Herald's enterprising reporter has singled out four projects that he considers wasteful. I may agree about the radio station, but you know it wouldn't hurt to expand your scope beyond Boston and learn about the problems Worcester is having with beetles.

I guess we know who is the Grinch at this party.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Beacon Hill hot seats

The three most visible figures on Beacon Hill apparently are all getting the same thing for Christmas -- hot seats.

The stakes are highest for House Speaker Sal DiMasi -- a federal grand jury investigation into the state's wheeling and dealing with Cognos ULC. That's the computer software company that received, then lost, a contract for "performance management" software thanks to the efforts of DiMasi friend and accountant Richard Vitale.

While no one is confirming or denying anything about the probe, including whether DiMasi has been asked to chat with grand jurors, the potential for major ugliness exists.

We do know that DiMasi has declined to turn over relevant documents sought by the state Ethics Commission. We also know the federal prosecutor, former Republican state representative Michael Sullivan has subpoena power and had shown a recent hankering to nail elected officials before he gets replaced by a Democrat to be named by Barack Obama.

I bet we know what DiMasi wants for the holidays -- a new prosecutor, pronto.

For Treasurer Tim Cahill, the hot seat is political, not legal. Treasurer Tim has been making a lot of noise about some of the decisions and actions of Gov. Deval Patrick. He has been somewhat reticent when reporters try to pin him down about his interest in running a primary challenge against Patrick in 2010.

So let's just say today's Globe report on his oversight of the state Lottery Commission is not, um, helpful.

Since Cahill took over five years ago, administrative spending has ballooned by nearly 50 percent, with higher costs for advertising, telephones, computers, and lottery ticket printing, including outside contracts signed with some of the treasurer's campaign contributors.

On Cahill's watch, the lottery increased its ranks of employees by nearly 10 percent. It bought 233 cellphones and BlackBerries for employees. It replaced most of its fleet of take-home vehicles for employees, spending $1.25 million to buy 73 new vans, crossover wagons, cars, and a Jeep in the last two years alone.

The lottery also agreed to a more costly lease to pay for $1.3 million in renovations at its Braintree headquarters, including a slick upgrade of the lobby. Visitors can now watch Keno and Mass Millions advertisements on two large flat-screen televisions as they lounge on lime-green art deco couches while a receptionist works under the glow of blue glass pendant lamps.

All the while lottery receipts, an important part of local aid, are down 4 percent while the Legislature is gearing up to slash local aid this year and next. Coming on the heels of reports that Cahill failed to follow through on a plan to a highly touted pension reform "working group," or that he had his own Cognos-like relationship this is definitely not likely to spread holiday cheer across the Commonwealth.

And as for lime-green art deco couches? Who hired that designer?

Finally we come to Patrick, who is being questioned about his commitment to reform after Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen opted to spend more time with his family. The rumored replacement, James Aloisi, would come with the baggage of being a player in creating the fiscal mess at the Turnpike Authority.

Patrick needs to answer why the long-promised effort to produce an overhaul of the complicated and expensive transportation administration hasn't been produced despite two years of discussion.

His view, obviously, has Cohen responsible for failing to deliver. That would add him to a long list of people who have not come through in that arena.

As for the hack vs. reformer meme, well, it's simple. Reform credentials in this case were not enough to get the job done. If it takes a hack to shake things up because he knows how to do it, let's give it a try.

And Jon, you probably should hyperventilate a little less.

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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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Monday, December 15, 2008

Casi-NO

Apparently we can now thank the wretched economy for two things -- plummeting gasoline prices and a temporary end to the debate over casinos in Massachusetts.

The Globe's Matt Viser reports the spirit isn't all that willing to resume the bruising battle that marked the first two years of the Deval Patrick administration. The huge losses being run up by casino owners like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson come in part from a major drop off in business as well as their own Wall Street meltdowns.

And so far the hard times are not proving the old wives' tale about people looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Lottery sales in Massachusetts are down 4 percent, opening up yet another hole in the budget.

Last year, Patrick set the tone by putting casino revenues into the budget proposal. This year aides say it's "premature to discuss" that option. It will still won't be mature in July when, hopefully, a budget has been signed into law.

The political ramifications of no casino debate would be significant. Patrick has slowly rebuilt some political capital lost in the fight, ironically as House Speaker Sal DiMasi has lost a lot of his over ethics issues.

But Patrick has a lot of unfinished business -- looming 10 percent budget cuts at the same time he needs to address urgent stuff like the transportation mess, education and property tax relief.

And that last one gets awfully tough to address when the bottom is falling out of income, sales and capital gains tax receipts. The governor does not need another bruising battle over a revenue source that may now be proving as ephemeral as taxes themselves.

A weakened DiMasi doesn't need another fight. Period. Particularly when the two pretenders to his throne hold a far different position on casinos.

Supporters are likely to raise the flag again, as they have for many years. But without the governor leading the charge, and with the fools' gold nature of the revenue boost exposed, state-sponsored gambling will not likely dominate the political landscape as it did last year.

That is obviously one less distraction in what will be an awful legislative session.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

The $4 subway ride

If state transportation officials handle the growing financial mess of the MBTA the same way they are proposing to bailout the Turnpike Authority, we are probably looking at a $4 ride on the Green, Red, Orange and Blue lines.

And heavens knows what's in store for bus and commuter rail users.

The Globe's Noah Bierman spells out with some detail what everyone knows to be the hard truth: service glitches and construction delays aren't the MAJOR problems at the T. Nope, running out of cash is.

The head of the MBTA advisory board estimates the agency's deficit is on pace to hit $142 million in the 2009-2010 budget year, a year after budget managers depleted reserves and refinanced debt to stave off insolvency.

MBTA officials recently learned that the state sales tax is expected to see its biggest decline since the Legislature began using it to fund the bulk of the T's operations in 2001. That shortfall would not only leave the T without new money to cover contractually required salary increases, it would also force the state to kick in about $86 million more to keep the subsidy from dipping lower.

Meanwhile, Deval Patrick and his transportation team labor endlessly on plans to overhaul the transportation system -- you know the bankrupt turnpike, crumbling roads and bridges and thicket of issues left over from the Big Dig.

The time for planning is long over -- and that may be the one of the reasons that Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen may be heading out the door.

In fairness, the problems are not of Patrick's makings. MBTA boss Dab Grabauskas is a holdover from the Romney administration. The funding problem is the result of another bad deal crafted by the Legislature -- similar to the disastrous Massachusetts Highway System that is crushing the Turnpike Authority.

But we are now two years into the Patrick administration and the problems appear to be virtually untouched. The governor has been unwilling to get behind a funding mechanism -- the gas tax -- that would deal with the overall problems and not saddle select northern and western suburban commuters with the price tag for the Big Dig fiasco he inherited.

He has also had two full years to watch how Grabauskas' reign at the MBTA has resulted in poorly executed construction projects and mangled schedules -- even as gasoline prices sent commuters scurrying for public transportation options.

Patrick needs to have a fully developed plan -- covering highways and public transit -- in the hands of the Legislature when the new session gavels open in January.

Lawmakers are going to be grappling with some agonizingly difficult decisions in a budget that may require a 10 percent whack to the bottom line. That level of pain requires that everything be on the table -- particularly the chronic problem of an underfunded, less-than-successful transportation "system."

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"The middle of nowhere"

Memo to Arthur Young, the "chatty environmental consultant in town from San Francisco for the recent Greenbuild conference." Expect a not-so-nice shot across the bow from Tom Menino as a souvenir of your recent visit.

Young was a key source for the Globe's City Weekly piece on the promise and reality of the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. And in accurately summing of the dearth of off-convention options ringing the hall, Young no doubt irked the Mayor-for-Life. Big time:
"This could be Kansas City," he said. "This could be Dubai."
Today's story redeems the Globe -- at least for one day -- from my criticism over the weekly insert that seems to a fluff feature section.

But while I want to give the Globe the props for a good story I can't help but wonder why this story would not have been a better fit in Metro or Business. (Please tell me the cash-strapped newspaper didn't really pay for a reporter to fly over and stay in Europe to report on gasoline prices and driving habits).

Hopefully the Mayor's response will be on recycled paper. The city could probably get a good deal.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tweet, tweet

It's hard to be considered a technophobe when you do this stuff, but Twitter hasn't been high on my list of challenges to relish.

But thanks to some interest at the office, I've decided to take it on. And when it comes to marketing an anonymous blog, anything that spreads the word is good.

So, there's now one more way to catch up with these scintillating thoughts. And a handy link on the left rail too.

And please feel to let me know if I messed up somehow. On the technical side, of course.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Green with envy

The news today is grim: the auto industry is tanking and is taking the stock market with it. Jobs is/are becoming a four-letter word. Heck, even Prada and Gucci need to run sales for Christmas.

So instead of wallowing in the gloom and doom, I've decided to take on a third rail issue: what does it take for the Boston Celtics to get recognized around here?

Hit the front page of Boston.com and there is Terry Francona modeling the new road uniform. There's even a gallery displaying the alternate road uni and the matching hat. Skip down to the next line (at least if you are an early riser or insomniac) and there, in tiny print you will catch: "C's 122, Wizards 88: Wizardy continues."

Ho hum. Another day, another Celtics blowout.

But go to the real newspaper, you know the one that is slowly drowning in red ink, and you discover:

WASHINGTON - When you play for a franchise that has won an NBA-best 17 titles and boasts Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Larry Bird among many others, it's hard to do something that hasn't been done in franchise history. Well, today's Celtics accomplished that rare feat last night.

The Celtics pushed to a franchise-best 21-2 start by hammering the Washington Wizards, 122-88, at the Verizon Center. With their 13th straight win, the Celtics also tied the sixth-best winning streak in franchise history. With two more wins, the defending champs will match the best 25-game start in league history.

Heck, even the Bruins have made the front page more recently than the C's -- not to denigrate the rebirth of a once-proud franchise.

For all the talk of Title Town, only one franchise currently wears the moniker "defending champions." They have run up 13 straight, 21 of 23. That kind of streak merited the Patriots regular front page attention.

They are also locked in a tight race for bragging rights with the hated Los Angeles Lakers -- the Left Coast equivalent of the Yankees. And don't you love Kobe Bryant as much as you love A-Rod?

Let's not even talk about the Vegas oddsmakers. After watching the whipping the Celtics laid on the Lakers last June (can you say Sasha Vujacic? Well no, neither can I but I do recall how Ray Allen humiliated him the lane) what did they do? They promptly installed the Lakers as the favorites to take the crown from the Celtics.

Despite what is now 17 titles, the Celtics have always been the forgotten team around here. We went through 22 long years in the desert before Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce to create something special. Can't we savor it just a little bit before spring training?

If the answer is yes, I have two last words for you: Rajon Rondo.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The big lie is over"

"The big lie is over." I have to admit the quote is so good that I would use it too -- even with the protection of anonymity.

"One state official" who neatly encapsulated the MBTA's ability to pay for Silver Line tunnel construction project also adequately summed up the commonwealth's overall transportation financing structure.

The system is broken and a major overhaul is needed. Raising tolls to usurious levels isn't the answer either.

The Federal Transit Administration appears ready to declare the obvious -- the MBTA is overextended on capital projects and its ability to pay for even 40 percent for a $1.2 billion tunnel underneath downtown is questionable. Uncle Sucker doesn't want to take that bet.

That of course assumes the project comes in on time and on budget -- a laughable concept when you consider the T Green Line station woes -- including the recent Copley Square debacle.

Not to mention the recent history of digging tunnels under the city.

But the bigger issue is the failure of the state's transportation hierarchy to come up with a timely and realistic plan to address a huge problem that involves not only the MBTA but the Turnpike Authority and roads and bridges in countless cities and towns across the commonwealth.

As a result, we have an outrageous plan to double the tolls on the harbor tunnels and jack up tolls on the Turnpike Extension to pay for the Big Dig. Never mind that regular Pike users generally don't use the new 1-93.

A recommendation by a special commission two years ago called for a 9-cent per gallon gas tax hike and selected tolls increases to pay for a overload of road and bridge projects that are deteriorating as quickly as T service.

Gov. Deval Patrick has been promising a comprehensive transportation plans for more than a year -- while roads and bridges continue to crumble, the T gets so overcrowded it yanks seats to create cattle cars and the Turnpike Authority continues its slow slide into bankruptcy.

This would be the time to offer the rousing editorial recommendation of "the time to act is now." Except the time to act has long since passed.

A kick in the teeth by the federal government -- in the form of withdrawing assistance for that Silver Line project -- MIGHT be enough to break the inertia that is crippling the overall transportation system of the commonwealth.

But then again, this is Massachusetts. If we could tax words, we would be swimming in cash.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Value pricing

I always thought that the corruption allegations against Dianne Wilkerson and Chuck Turner amounted to political chump change. Now I have no doubt.

While Wilkerson was stuffing bills into her bra and Turner took a $1,000 for a nice dinner to expedite a liquor license, the governor of Illinois was putting a US Senate seat up for auction -- all the while knowing he was already under serious investigation for political corruption.

That folks, will earn Rod Blagojevich a picture in the dictionary next to the word "brazen." Or maybe [expletive deleted].

And it will also require New York Gov. David Paterson to conduct a virtually transparent search for a successor to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

The 76-page complaint is amazing (and shocking) reading. The sitting governor of Illinois was also looking for the removal of a Chicago Tribune editorial writer in exchange for a tax break (why do I think Sam Zell might have been willing to talk?)

The fact that the indictments were the work of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald -- he of the Valerie Plame Wilson-Scooter Libby saga -- only adds to the political intrigue.

And intrigue there will surely be.

Despite Fitzgerald's flat assertion that Obama had no knowledge and involvement, Republicans were quick to pounce:
"The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Governor Blagojevich, President-elect Obama, and other high-ranking officials who will be working for the future president," said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the new GOP House whip.
But there is the matter of David Axelrod's apparent Blagojevich ego-stroking comments that the two had talked to deal with.

The Illinois case should actually help efforts here at home to tighten up ethics laws in the wake of indictments against Wilkerson and Turner and allegations swirling around the friends of Sal DiMasi.

The Times reported Obama did intercede in efforts by his former Illinois Senate colleagues to pass a tougher ethics law -- something that apparently sped up the governor's graft grab timetable.

Maybe the President-elect has a few minutes to spare to chat with the Massachusetts House Speaker, who is on record that he feels Bay State ethics laws are among the toughest in the nation.

Our corruption isn't the worst -- but neither is our system to prevent or discourage it. There are lessons aplenty to learn from Illinois.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ugly times ahead

The tsunami is gathering strength off shore.

Local property taxes are rising, even while home values fall. House Speaker Sal DiMasi is talking about a 5-10 percent cut in local aid, cash used to pay for police, firefighters and teachers. Boston Mayor Tom Menino is looking to the tax-exempt as geese that can lay golden eggs.

Meanwhile, Harvard records a 22 percent ($8 billion) fall in its endowment over the past four months. Other universities and tax-exempt organizations like churches and hospitals are getting their own houses in order to deal with the massive cuts in state and federal aid and charitable donations that come their way and help pay for the services they provide.

This is what is known as eating the seed corn.

We haven't really seen the depth of the economic collapse as the ripples spread out like relentless waves. Yet. No one is crying wolf here -- neither the government leaders who say they need the cash nor the homeowners or non-profit executives who say they don't have it.

And that's why President-elect Barack Obama is talking about a massive federal plan to create jobs through public works projects -- a bailout plan for the people who have so far been only handling the buckets.

The needs and excuses are equally valid. There is some serious pain on the government side. Many in the non-profit world are going to feel it as programs are cut and they will be forced to rearrange what they have or continue the spiral of cuts.

But they make an inviting target with their deep reserves -- feel sorry for Harvard lately? Yet they are far less clueless organizations than individuals such as John Thain, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch who thought it was appropriate to keep his $10 million bonus for running the company into the ground.

This is going to get very, very ugly.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Sam Zell's ESOP fable

The decision by Tribune Co. honcho Sam Zell to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy makes for a catchy story in an era where many once-respected US companies are slipping down the rathole.

The reality is the bankruptcy filing should have little day-to-day impact on journalism. United Press International is still around after two bankruptcy filings. It's irrelevance is more due to its current ownership -- the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications -- than to its journalistic chops.

The biggest question for me is about the journalists themselves. White a Chapter 11 filing will toss out union contracts, I'm extremely curious what will happen to the employee pension fund.

That's because Sam Zell ponied up very little of the cash to make the $8 billion purchase -- about $315 million, the bulk of which came in the form of promissory notes.

It was the employee pension fund -- used to finance an Employee Stock Ownership Plan -- that financed the bulk of the deal. As the New York Times noted:
Because of the unusual structure of Tribune’s $8 billion buyout, Tribune’s employee stock-ownership plan holds 100 percent of Tribune’s common equity, regulatory filings show. Common stockholders are generally the first to take a loss in a bankruptcy restructuring, and they usually recover next to nothing.
So in effect, the retirement future of the employees is now toast while Zell personally is relatively unharmed by the strategic business he made to take the company into Chapter 11.

It will take someone far better versed than me in business and law to untangle the implications of this move. Hopefully it will be a Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune business reporter who apparently lost his or her retirement because they bought into Zell's sucker's bet.

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The human Rorschach test

Hey Republicans -- not sure which way to take the party? Can't decide whether the problem was being too conservative or not conservative enough? Trying to figure out how to recover from the 2008 campaign?

Have I got a candidate for you
!

Yep, the history books have yet to record the swearing-in of President-elect Barack Obama -- and the new administration has yet to tackle the twin nightmares of the economy and the wars in Iraq but the Grand Old Party is already looking to the next election.

And who is already there -- offering to be the standard-bearer? Why none other than Myth Romney, the Incredibly Flexible Man. He can be whoever you want him to be!

The Globe reports today that Romney has been soaking up cash -- ostensibly to support GOP candidates in the last political cycle. But in classic Romney fashion, the man from Massachusetts-New Hampshire-Utah-Michigan is saying one thing and doing another.

The former Massachusetts governor has raised $2.1 million for his Free and Strong America political action committee. But only 12 percent of the money has been spent distributing checks to Romney's fellow Republicans around the country.

Instead, the largest chunk of the money has gone to support Romney's political ambitions, paying for salaries and consulting fees to over a half-dozen of Romney's longtime political aides, according to a Globe review of expenditures.

All perfectly legal, say campaign finance experts. And oh, so Myth.

Polls (yes, some bozo has taken them and this bozo has read them) say Romney is running a close third behind Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin for GOP loyalties four years hence.

The two "leaders" ostensibly appeal to the hard core religious wing of the party. Myth, as we know, does not. Could we be witnessing yet another metamorphosis, with Romney blooming as new (pretty) face and voice of the "pragmatic" wing that is expected to emerge?

The only constancy in Romney is his salesman-bred focus of doing whatever it takes to close the deal. Don't be surprised to see Myth tack back to the center to win the hearts and minds of what's left of the GOP faithful.

Of course, it would be nice if we all gave Obama a chance to issue even one executive order before the jockeying begins.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Where's the beef?

So Mrs. OL and I were wandering the aisles of our old Star Market (or is that Shaw's?) wondering how they managed to cram that 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound store.

Of course, that's a totally different conversation from when they completely rearranged the current Shaw's (or is that Star Market?) and moved everything to somewhere else.

I've obviously got a thing about the editorial decision-making at the Globe's City Weakly. But today's story about Roche Brothers sent me searching for the full-page ad somewhere in the section.

It's one thing for bloggers to write about the local market -- that is the classic definition of hyperlocal and it's an important part of why this form of communication is growing. And I'd love to have a store as responsive as Roche Brothers to inspire loyalty in my shopping.

But the folks on Morrissey Boulevard are having a hard time understanding the concept -- or at the very least putting it in place. Why is the Globe focusing on Newton as it "partners" with the Newton Tab at the expense of every other community in the metropolitan area?

The answer just keeps coming back -- there's advertising to be sold here.

Not that there's anything wrong with the Globe actually trying to make a buck so they don't have to keep shrinking the news hole. But there is hyperlocal and there is esoteric -- and prominent stories about the West Roxbury Roche Brothers don't have a lot of legs in Allston-Brighton, Brookline, Cambridge or Somerville.

And when was the last time the Globe did a serious look at anything in the communities in City Weakly?

So guys spread the wealth a little. Maybe you can actually sell a few more ads legitimately and take a look at the trend stories that affect all of our small little group of cities, towns and neighborhoods.

And no, stories about basic begging and dive bars don't cut it either.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Cracker jack job

Glad the MBTA didn't update signs in Copley Station saying the new station will be ready to go in the Spring of 2009.

The roof-to-foundation crack in Old South Church by a contractor allegedly shoring up the structure to allow the installation of an elevator is just the sort of screw up we have come to expect from the T -- although this one is significantly more serious than the five-year delay in Kenmore or the damaged bench outside the historic McKim Building across the street at the library.

And why am I not comforted by the words of a T official saying the contractor, not the taxpayer, will pickup the cost for repairing the church?

The Copley project seems almost as endless as Kenmore and the planning does seem to baffle the average person. If the idea is to make access easier, why not connect the inbound and outbound sides? But most of all, why not sink an elevator on the plaza across Dartmouth Street across from the library?

Losing the ArtsBoston kiosk would not be as culturally significant.

And of course you have to ask what wonders does the MBTA have in store for the Arlington Street Church and the chronically late station renovation under that historic structure?

As long as the T is delaying the Copley project to make sure they understand how they screwed up, perhaps they should do the same one stop up the line and prevent the same thing from happening again.

After all, what's another decade of construction delays?

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Groping for a story

I loved yesterday's Herald story on the new Red Line rush hour cattle cars. It took the MBTA's planned announcement of increased ridership and turned it on its head.

Today -- not so much. Basing an entire story on a quote from an anonymous source? Why isn't the "long-time transit investigator" willing to put his or her thoughts on the record? And if by chance, that source is MBTA Police Chief Paul McMillan, credited a couple of paragraphs later with successfully working "to combat groping on the subway" why not say so?

It's hard to believe the story is the work of two reporters -- good ones at that.

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Great Expectations (II)

It's hard to comment on a story that speaks for itself.

But at the same time it does draw a contrast to the critics up in arms about the "slow pace" of diversity appointments being made by President-elect Barack Obama.

Deval Patrick knows his record is not good. If the problem is a lack of good candidates is a grueling screening process and compensation issues, why isn't there a problem finding white candidates?

Ultimately, he should be judged on his complete record. But his mid-term grade deserves a warning note being sent home

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Great Expectations

I always took offense when former House Speaker Tim Finneran (D-Felon), labeled our side the "loony left." Today, I'm seeing sad signs that there may be some truth to his tag.

Maybe it's been the fact that we've been subjected to terrible leadership on the state and federal level in recent years and are anxious for change. But can we get a grip please?

Let's start locally. While I am a bit troubled by the slow pace at which things percolate through the Patrick administration (still waiting for that transportation bill and the education readiness plan -- realistic about property tax relief) I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon that declares Deval toast after just half a term.

Maybe because I don't like the options.

But I really have an issue with "process liberals" who clamor for swift action in the most unrealistic ways. Take ethics reform.

Patrick has shown considerable alacrity in putting together a panel to find ways to tighten up ethics laws which are not, with all due respect to current Speaker Sal DiMasi, the toughest in the nation.

A special panel convened yesterday for a public hearing and is expected to make a plan public next month. We hope.

But that's apparently not good enough:

Shirley Kressel, a Boston neighborhood activist, said corruption is rampant and called on the panel to hold its deliberations in public. "I think we should establish it's not a problem of a few rotten apples," she said. "The public perception of the problem is that it is business is usual."

The problem is not with the special panel. It is with the Legislature that will be required to enact legislation. Making the special panel deliberations public will only slow down the process. The time for a public debate is when (and hopefully not if) the Legislature take this up.

On the national level, I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I was awake when I read this gem:

Bill Richardson, announced yesterday as the nation's next commerce secretary, became the first Latino nominated for President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet.

Hispanic lawmakers are serving notice to Obama that they don't want Richardson to be the last.

Couple that with all the whining on the left about the "return of the moderate Clintonistas" and you have a think Obama has finished his appointments with an all-white conservative male team.

But I leave it to the President-elect to offer the best counterpoint.
"I think people are going to say, 'This is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time," ... adding "There's no contradiction between diversity and excellence."
The Bush cabinet also offers a great evidence-based argument. Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice will not rank among the top secretaries of state although none of that team will be remembered for its distinction no matter their gender or ethnicity.

In some ways, Patrick is getting a better deal here -- he is being criticized two years into a four-year term. Obama is still 47 days (and counting) away from even taking office.

Some advice to my fellow liberals. Have some spiked egg nog. Do your bit for the economy and buy some presents for friends and loved ones. The difference between an Obama administration and a Bush administration will likely take our breaths away.

We've waited eight years. Let's actually see a full picture before we pass judgment.

Chill out.

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But not for long...

The MBTA is about to announce that ridership remains up, even as gasoline prices continue to fall.

But those whizzes at customer satisfaction have apparently found a way to reverse that trend.

It's not a joke when many people already refer to trains as sardine cans or cattle cars. Sure you can cram a whole additional 27 people into s small space, but how about some alternatives?

You know like reliable, regular service so that people don't stack up like cordwood on platforms waiting for trains that arrive late and in pairs.

What's next, rooftop seating on the Green Line? Hang on tight at the Boylston Street turn!

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sucker's bet

I was only kidding, honest.

As state officials look for a fix to the mess known as the Big Pig they should think back to their last brilliant solution. The Metropolitan Highway System was going to use the flush Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to take on the debt load and make financing the monster project fairer and equitable.

We know how well that turned out.

Now lawmakers are thinking about a new pie-in-the-sky solution to wave our problems away -- privatization.

Let's see now. We currently have a bankrupt public authority -- whose members are accountable to the governor -- proposing massive toll hikes to pay for the bonded debt. But if we sell the bloody mess, we get cash up front and dump the problem into the lap of the private sector.

Yeah and I have a bridge over the Charles River that I can sell you.

Privatization of the Pike is the equivalent of a junkie getting a quick fix. The state gets an upfront high (assuming anyone has a few spare billions to toss around in today's economy). Pay off the debt and have enough leftover to deal with all of our other transportation problems.

No one ever said junkies think rationally.

And what happens when the private entity takes over? Does anyone think it will treat its multi-billion dollar investment as a charity? What happens when the tunnel walls start resembling sieves again?

Tolls will continue to rise. Except this time there won't be the leverage of complaining to elected officials. Nope, instead there will be some faceless entity in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur telling you to pound sand. Politely of course.

So what are the alternatives? Maybe they can sell the naming rights to every overpass and bridge abutment? I really have no interest in driving through the Citi Tunnel.

In the end, we need lawmakers to exercise the Matt Amorello Rule: You broke it, you fix it. Or else get Michael Bloomberg to move back to Medford and pay for it out of his own pocket.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Here, there and everywhere...

Back from a few days of turkey overload...
  • Now that gasoline prices have plummeted, shouldn't Boston taxi fares do the same? Yeah, I know, pretty stupid. Too much tryptophan-induced delirium I guess. But at the very least, shouldn't the increased rates only apply to cabs that don't have a "Check Engine" light illuminating the dashboard?
  • And the same question about the airline bag check charge on the first piece of luggage. I can live with the $1 for the headsets and the pillow-blanket charge, but why should we still be doing propping up their bottom line for performing a basic task of travel? OK, maybe we can level a massive surcharge on those folks who tie up the lines as the frantically try to shift the steam iron from one overweight bag to another.
  • Memo to fellow liberals: when you change from George Bush to Barack Obama that constitutes a real shift in direction. Don't get all hot and bothered by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton or other members of Bill's team populating the new administration. Experience should count for something. Remember Jimmy Carter?
  • Thanks and a shout out to Michael Prager for my inclusion in the Globe Sunday Magazine's list of the Top 64 local web sites. I could try to explain the multiple names (hint: it involves a typo in the original URL request) but being a blogger means never having to say you're sorry -- or explain yourself. But it's also a sign of the times I learned the piece finally ran by reading a fellow traveler, er, blogger (congrats Dan!). Not one e-mail! I guess no one reads the Globe Magazine, certainly not on a holiday weekend. But if you have a dead tree version of the magazine, I'd love a copy!

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