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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, January 11, 2009

The Tao of Deval

Heaven knows this isn't a great time for elected officials. The raison d'etre of the occupation is to do good things for people (the public or the special interests, depending on your party affiliation) and a crashing economy doesn't offer a lot of opportunity for that.

We've been watching President-elect Barack Obama gently shift positions during what seems to be the interminable interregnum until W. goes back to Texas. And with two years down and two to go, Gov. Deval Patrick is hard at work on change. His hope is it will be change you can believe in.

With the State of the State address coming up this week, Patrick has embarked on the traditional media roll out, sitting down with the Globe's top dogs for a chat where he presents himself as a friendly shoulder for his fellow elected officials to cry on.
"I am finding myself in the role of sort of comforter in chief or reassurer in chief. There is so much anxiety out there. People are really worried."
And with good reason. The stock market crash has sent unemployment soaring and personal savings plummeting. The combined loss of payroll, sales and capital gains taxes are doing horrific things to the federal budget, 50 state spending plans and thousands of local budgets.

Politicians below the federal level have two choices -- cut or tax. Neither is terribly appealing and elected office is usually lost for that reason.

Obama and Patrick have inherited the logical outcome of the Republican "No Tax and Spend" philosophy. As George H.W. Bush might have said, it's really deep doo-doo, but hey, Patrick and Obama asked for it.

But a few tips for Patrick as he continues his media tour (who is left anyway?) prior to the Thursday night statewide televised address. Shoulders to cry on are nice, but results are even better.

And there is some low-hanging fruit that can make the road a little less bumpy.

Let's start with pension reform. Tackling the bloated public system is not an easy task. Pruning obvious abuses -- like elected officials who bump up their retirement -- will be a popular first step, much like finally taking baby steps to deal with police details.

Then there is ethics legislation -- and it's noteworthy the traditionally tardy administration was right on time with a proposal to overhaul weak ethics laws.

That could earn some brownie points in advance of the hard stuff -- cutting another $1.4 billion out of the current budget, wreak similar havoc on FY10 all the while starting down the road to repair a transportation infrastructure that was allowed to crumble under two decades of Big Dig follies and GOP governors who cast their eyes elsewhere.

Those choice wrapped in that package vary in degree from hard to unconscionable. There will be no winners. How to you choose among public safety, protection of our vulnerable citizens, education and health care?

I can't even begin to guess what are prime symbolic targets in a $26-plus billion budget -- except that I am sure there are a whole host of them. Patrick's budget, due by the end of the month, should take dead aim at them. Oxen should be gored.

Here's where it should get interesting. Logic and common sense -- not to mention a close reading of press statements -- suggests lawmakers aren't enthused about ethics reform or cutting their own perks or earmarks.

Smart politics would suggest now is the time. But if not, Patrick should accept there needs to be more "bad days" when he butts heads with the Legislature.

What Massachusetts -- and the nation -- needs more than anything right now is leadership, a sense that a firm hand is at the controls to guide us through what is looking a lot like The Perfect Storm.

Obama clearly understands and is getting off on that foot. Patrick stumbled out of the gate, but two years into the job he's finally getting the idea that leadership is a multi-faceted thing that includes both words and deeds.

And of course, getting the ridiculously long overdue transportation overhaul plan out for discussion wouldn't hurt.

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