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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Battle lines bein' drawn...

Senate President Terry Murray says Gov. Deval Patrick hasn't cut enough from his FY10 budget proposal. House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he's cut too deeply.

The packies and the snackies are up in arms over proposed new taxes, while the restaurant lobby says it is under "assault" and singled out on that front. Must be the soft mood lighting in high end restaurants that make it hard to read menus -- and newspapers.

Bet Patrick is wishing he had gotten a job offer from good friend Barack Obama?

Oh never mind, he's in line for $11 billion instead. But then again, everyone will fight over that too.

Ah yes, it's budget time in Massachusetts!

Here's a suggestion for the media: instead of weighing in with the standard reaction stories with whoever's ox is being gored, how about an in-depth look at the nature of the problem and the reasonableness of the solution.

DeLeo (or his new Ways and Means chief) and Murray will eventually put meat on the bones of their complaints so they are allowed a pass for now.

And yes, higher booze taxes could send some people to New Hampshire. How many? What sort of traffic does the Granite State get from Bay Staters in search of booze and butts? What about the other charges associated with that trip -- like gasoline costs. I'm sure there's some tenure candidate at some university who is studying that question.

Instead of the nanny state complaints about a sweets tax, how about a serious look at the costs of childhood obesity, dental decay and the overall health of young people.

It's curious that Patrick didn't propose a sales tax hike. Is that because people from Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York come here to shop because our sales tax is lower? How about reporting on how our taxes compare to neighbors other than "tax-free (except for staggering property levies, tolls and a bunch of sin taxes) New Hampshire.

Nope, it's easier to pick off the low-hanging fruit. Less taxing, if you will.

I'll be headed out for some R&R and will be returning to this post several days after Punxsutawney Phil tells us whether we will have six more weeks or a month-and-a-half of winter. Stay warm and, as always, thanks for stopping by. Catch you on the flip side.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Like taking candy from a baby

Deval Patrick is reaching for the candy jar -- and from the howls you would think he's calling for higher income taxes.

While the Herald's graphics folks deserve credit for a cute graphic, the gang at Wingo Square misses the seriousness of the issues facing Massachusetts (and the country)-- or the effort to find much needed revenues other than touching the third rail of Massachusetts politics, the income tax.

While I have some quibbles about the proposal -- extending the bottle law to water and juice strikes me as a nickel and dime proposal (pun intended) that won't really generate a lot of cash even if it will serve as a form of public assistance to folks who roam the recycling bins at night and pluck bottles from the trash.

And while I'm personally not relishing the thought of higher meals taxes, I have a hard time taking seriously the laments of Peter Christie of the the restaurant lobby who contends "We think it's outrageous for them to single us out when our industry is reeling."

Have you looked at automobiles, financial services, retail, human services, education or high tech to name a few industries that aren't doing so hot?

And the restaurant lobby is surely not being "singled out" -- with higher fees for longer waits at the Registry as well as deep cuts public higher education that will likely mean tuition and fee increases.

Other areas that will be "singled out" are local schools, where aid will be frozen; the judiciary; Medicaid; libraries that serve the blind in Worcester and Watertown; the mentally and physically disabled would be reduced.

Hey, at least Christie's martini with his meal was already taxed. And the taxes lost if folks drive to New Hampshire for cheaper booze and candy will probably be made up in higher gasoline taxes.

Christopher Anderson of the Massachusetts High Technology Council is correct in saying this is an opening salvo. But it is somewhat surprising in that it isn't harsher -- income and broader sales tax hikes. The cuts are deep but with carrots offered to ease them with new revenues.

Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan deserves credit for not following the script to the letter and coming up with different suggestions like the candy tax.

Hopefully we will see creative alternatives to the administration plan rather than the scripted responses that followed its unveiling.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weather Weenie Alert

Hey kids, when you're sitting in class next July think back to today and thank our overactive weather forecasters and the school superintendents who listen to them.

I'm not saying today has been a lovely day -- just January in New England" slow, sleet and rain in Boston. I'm also not attesting to what I can't see "north and west" of the city.

But I am quoting from the National Weather Service:
"I think it's going to be messy, but it's not overly significant," said Rebecca Gould, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton. "Kind of typical of New England."
But thanks to Dickie and Harvey and Barry and Mish and the anonymous folks over at 7 News we've seen schools close by the score many, including Boston, closing on Tuesday night hours before the first flake fell.

It all comes down to the fact that the last ratings grab-advertiser producing event is winter weather. Think about it. WBZ-AM sells the storm closing announcements, that endless string of names (usually half of New Hampshire) that can also be found (with far less aggravation) on radio station web sites and TV station "breaking news" crawls.

And you know reporters are vying to be the next Shelby Scott, send off to Worcester to watch trucks skid down a hill. Or, like Ed Harding, stick a ruler into a snow mound in the Channel 5 parking lot.

Channel 7 came up with a new competitive twist today, offering up the "Big 10" school systems, a surefire way to annoy the hundreds that don't make it.

So gang, remember today fondly when you are sitting in that unairconditioned room next summer.

And Adam -- how about a Weather Weenie Alert that works in inverse relation to the French Toast Alert?

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The Speaker is Dead. Long Live the Speaker

"Robert DeLeo, you just won the job as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going into a corner to hide and consider why I was crazy enough to want this job!"

Now that the Winthrop Democrat has emerged from the long-running Beacon Gill soap opera "As the Speaker Resigns" and turns his attention to the business that piled up while we worried about Sal, Bobby and John, he may well be forgiven for asking if she would have been better off losing.

John Rogers will have far fewer worries in his sub-basement office than those which confront DeLeo. To be sure, the new boss would have been in the middle of it as chairman of House Ways and Means, but now the buck, literally, stops with him. Actually billions, as the Globe's Matt Viser notes:
By the time DeLeo assumes his post, Governor Deval Patrick will have unveiled $1.1 billion in immediate budget-balancing measures this morning that are expected to include layoffs and reductions in state service, including a $128 million cut in local aid, along with a second budget proposal for the next fiscal year that could expand the total value of cuts and tax increases to $3 billion or more.
We're apparently talking about taxes on booze and gasoline as well higher registry fees and a slew of local option taxes -- all on top of a cut in local services and the likely layoff of police, firefighters and teachers, shorter business hours in cities and town halls.

And if that's not enough to get the right wing talk radio crowd up in arms, DeLeo is tossing in an option that should inflame the left wing blogosphere.
"I like slots at the racetracks," DeLeo said yesterday. "Then, we can have the casinos."
And I was worried I would have nothing to write about after King Sal left the building.

The Speaker is Dead. Long Live the Speaker. Good luck Mr. DeLeo, you will need it.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

None of the above

Massachusetts is swimming in a sea of debt: a budget gaps this year and next that registers in the billions and a transportation infrastructure that is crumbling with no real plans in place to pay for its rehabilitation. And those are only the headlines.

So how is the "leadership" of the House of Representatives, "the people's house," dealing with the crisis affecting millions of Bay State residents? Buy fighting over the job prospects of two of them while things that can affect the rest of us sit on the sidelines.

The hammer and tong war between House Ways and Means Chairman Bob DeLeo and House Majority Leader John Rogers continued it is has for seemingly forever. The people's business has taken a back seat to internecine warfare, but with the imminent departure of Sal DiMasi it has become the full-time occupation of 159 men and women.

The rest of us are just pawns in this high-stakes game -- and that is the exact wrong message our "leaders" should be sending in a crisis.

DeLeo claims he has the votes needed to replace DiMasi. Rogers cries foul -- accusing DiMasi of reneging on a succession deal and asking to delay the vote for one month so that "the people" can decide.
"It’s an important office in Massachusetts and it’s not a coronation,” Rogers, the House’s most recent majority leader, told the News Service during a telephone interview Sunday night. “It’s a public office and the citizens of Massachusetts should have a greater say ... and should have a greater opportunity to weigh in with their respective representatives.”
Guess who has the votes? And explain exactly how and why "the people" should decide what in effect is a glorified class president election when they are not members of the class?

Or what happens to the people's urgent business while the House goes without a leader and without a Ways and Means Chair to work on a budget that really is far more important than the name of the door of either of these guy's office.

The worst thing is the reality that this is the best the House has to offer. No, not the best leaders, just the two who have risen to the top of the leadership fight. And they are not good leaders because they have continually put their own personal careers ahead of the people's business.

Do you really think everyone will just kiss and make up when this is over?

Both DeLeo and Rogers start with ethical skeletons in their closets -- meaning the departure under a cloud of a fourth successive speaker is the only sure result here.

We deserve better than this in a time of crisis. Maybe Rogers is right. Maybe it is time to call your representative and tell him or her that they need to put aside this foolish power game and get onto the real business they were elected to do.

Or they could be looking for a job in 2010.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Denial is a river

The response to House Speaker Sal DiMasi's announced resignation has created a lot of hand wringing in the liberal community about how this accomplished leader was done in by the casino gambling forces.

What that hand wringing -- which begins with DiMasi himself -- misses is the simple fact that the North End Democrat planted to seeds of his own destruction.

It doesn't really matter who pulled the trigger. DiMasi provided the bullets. His dealings with Richard Vitale, which may have blurred the line between business and friendship, brought DiMasi down. Period.

What is the difference -- except in degree -- between the casual attitude of DiMasi and that of former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson or Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner? DiMasi has not been accused of taking cash, hasn't been charged with anything and may never be. But there is certainly the appearance of a different set of rules for him and the average person who needs a mortgage or wants to do some charitable work.

The liberal lament is that we are losing a progressive leader who fought for issues that are important to us. That's true -- and the prospect of either Robert DeLeo or John Rogers leading the House is not thrilling.

But unlike my fellow liberals I can't simply overlook the ugly stuff, saying the ends justify the means. If we claim to want clean, honest government that works for the benefit of all people and not just special interests, we cannot.

DiMasi stood up to one special interest. But go back through campaign finance records through the years and I am quite sure you will find others that he did not rebuff.

As I said before, on substance DiMasi accomplished a great deal. But the careless (and traditional) way he conducted political business is what brought him down.

And for anyone worried about whether the casino industry will now ride roughshod, I simply remind you that Dan Bosley isn't going anywhere.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sal-vaging face

In the end, Sal DiMasi is doing the right thing by stepping down as Speaker of the Massachusetts House at the start of what will be an excruciating budget debate. But he is being less than honest in blaming his downfall on "powerful special interests" in the casino industry.

The "will he, won't he" debate had the potential to stop action on painful budget cuts and potential tax proposals. No need to look beyond the end of the session last July -- when supporters of House Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo and Majority Leader John Rogers dominated member interests.

Whoever is responsible for putting together the House's response to Deval Patrick's fiscal 2010 budget needs the undivided attention of his or her members.

And the new speaker will have enough on his plate -- like tax questions -- that the loser of the battle would probably be well advised to leave the Legislature too.

But while DiMasi is doing the right thing, he's not being honest with himself -- or the public -- by blaming special interests. Sure, casino lobbyists are probably doing a dance right now -- and Patrick may be considering whether to dust off his plans for three "resort casinos."

But DiMasi need not look much beyond his relationship with his former accountant Richard Vitale to understand why it has all slipped away from him. His principal task now is to avoid being the third consecutive House speaker to to be indicted.

DiMasi will leave a positive legacy -- strong support for health care legislation and the end to the divisive battle over gay marriage. He was also behind positive efforts in energy.

But ultimately he will be remembered for the friends he kept -- friends who let him down and who in turn forced him to let down the people who supported him.

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And so it begins

The opening salvo in the traditional charge-counter charge budget "debate" has been fired with the Globe's story today that "thousands" of police, firefighters and teachers will be eliminated to make up for more than $500 million in local aid cuts coming this calendar year.

I expect the comment section will be loaded with allegations that state and local budgets are larded with waste and all of this doom and gloom is unnecessary and just an effort to justify tax increases.

Expect Howie Carr to weigh in indignantly in tomorrow's Herald, and be joined by Barbara Anderson in his radio show.

Is there waste in public budgets? Yes. No matter how earnest (or not) public officials are in trimming the fat, stuff, as Don Rumsfeld said, happens.

Is there $500 million -- a half-billion dollars -- larded through the state and 351 cities and town budgets? That stretches credibility.

Are laying out the facts a first step toward a tax increase? Probably. But what taxes and by how much remain very much a mystery at this point. We may get a clearer view when Gov. Deval Patrick spells out the details of both his mid-year "9C" cuts and the fiscal 2010 budget later this week.

And let's not forget that all the uncertainty about the future job prospects of House Speaker Sal DiMasi must enter the equation. DiMasi has been open to a gasoline tax to deal with transportation issues but has been cool to some of Patrick's other revenue raising proposals. Whether he is around to add his 2 cents is crucial -- because all tax proposals must originate in the House.

And despite being the author of House budgets since 2005 we don't know where Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo really stands on new taxes. Or whether he will even be Ways and Means chair if DiMasi sticks around.

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The Blago defense

So much for the "toughest ethics law" in the nation.

Just when you think the sad story of Dianne Wilkerson can't get any worse, she comes up with a new defense: she took at least $70,000 and it was legal. And like impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Wilkerson is opting to convince the court of public opinion rather than one which deals with laws.

Wilkerson sat down with the Globe for a conversation in which she spelled out that she is basically homeless, working to repay her debts -- and relying on the kindness of others writing checks and offering cash that she can fork over to the IRS.

The former state senator also claims the contributions are legal because they are under the $12,o00 IRS threshold for declaring gifts -- and that the state Ethics Commission has agreed. Her interpretation of a commission advisory opinion:
"As long as I didn't take a vote in my official capacity as senator."
Interesting defense -- even if it appears to falter on the face of a $10,000 "gift" from developer Arthur Winn. He's the prime backer of the controversial Columbus Place project that has raised the political hackles or many a local politician except for, you guessed it.

And the defense also raises the question: if the "gifts" are legal, why stuff the cash in your bra?

At least it's a better approach than City Councilor Chuck Turner availing himself of LaRouche youth to stand up for him.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Feeding frenzy

The new emanating from Beacon Hill was big. Heck, even the TV satellite trucks were there for the "Breaking News." Must be all that interest in Gov. Deval Patrick cutting local aid by record $128 million and calling for local option taxes.

Wrong!

Nope, the trucks were there for the hot rumor that House Speaker Sal DiMasi is stepping down -- as early as next Tuesday, certainly before Feb. 6 when he would have to file a statement of financial interest.

House Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo says he has the votes to succeed DiMasi. No, House Majority Leader John Rogers says he does.

Welcome to a journalism feeding frenzy -- created by a local press corps that doesn't routinely cover the daily ins and outs of a $26-plus billion industry, prefers gossip and rumor over facts and wouldn't know context if it hit them in the face.

It's telling the Globe put the DiMasi rumor on metro and the local aid story on Page One (it's harder to know with the online Herald since they don't do Page One screen shots any more. Even if the Herald led the dead tree version with local aid, it's in keeping with their model to go with the gossipy DiMasi story online.)

The biggest question surrounding the eruption of DiMasi rumors -- one not asked amid all the frenzy -- is "why now?" This ongoing soap opera has killed a lot of trees and provided me endless hours of fun in analysis (the story, not a shrink!)

After all, he just won reelection as Speaker with a landslide and, with all due respect, he is not the greatest candidate right now to land a cushy rainmaker job. And how many of them are there anyway?

The toxic factor of pending investigations and trials of close associates -- and himself -- isn't the things most employers relish, although that didn't stop the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council from hiring Tom Finneran or Robert Coughlin (sorry Sal, that job is currently filled).

If anyone did want the high profile pick, they would need to wait a year, under state law, before he could start lobbying.

Speculators suggest the latest revelation -- Richard Vitale picking up the legal bills for DiMasi's in-laws -- was the final straw. That would be ironic since that action would be one of the only things Vitale is accused of that is clearly not illegal.

So stay tuned for the continuing saga of "As DiMasi Turns." It's also a lot more fun to ponder than how many police and firefighters are going to be laid off by local aid cuts and how icy streets are going to be when the money runs out for salt, sand and plow drivers.

But then again, maybe there is hope to make this story TV-friendly:
...[T]here was palpable tension in the Hynes Convention Center as Patrick announced his budget-cutting moves. At one point, the governor had a frosty exchange with Worcester Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes, after she appeared to smirk while the governor answered her question.

"Before you make a face, mayor, let me finish my answer, all right?" Patrick snapped.

Once he finished his response, he glanced over at her again and said, "Is that clear? OK. Now you can make your face."

"Mayor disses gov." Quick, everyone to Worcester!

UPDATE: Hat tip to Dan Kennedy for telling me where to find the Herald front (and sports) screen grabs. Glad to see I was right that they had a classic (and good) Herald hit as the lead. Their treatment of DiMasi as a teaser also matches the Globe's Page One treatment in philosophy, if not size.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Bad news, worse news

Gov. Deval Patrick has some helpful news to local officials who hope to finish the current school year without additional chaos beyond the already big problem of too many snow days. He plans to tell them he won't include Chapter 70 school aid funds in his mid-year "9C" cuts.

But the news is hardly good across the board. It means devastating news to mayors, selectmen and city councilors who will be asked to make even deeper cuts in police, fire and public works services -- like trash pickup and snow plowing -- to meet reduced local payments from now until the end of June.

When things will get really ugly.

The Globe reports Patrick will spell out midyear $1.1 billion buts in a speech to the Massachusetts Municipal Association this morning. Those are on top of the $1 billion in cuts he made in October.

The Globe reports his plan is expected to include dramatic cuts to the $5.3 billion the state provides to communities in local aid -- a pool that escaped the initial round. House Speaker Sal DiMasi has suggested cuts could run up to $500 million, but coming at midyear, when half the budget is spent, the impact could be far deeper.

And that's the "good" news. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy center report (PDF) suggests yet another billion needs to be sliced from the FY2010 budget that is also slated to make its debut next week.

That's targeting a $3.1 billion structural gap -- the amount of money needed to maintain the same level of services as FY08.

Don't expect the schools to escape that round of cuts.

What's most interesting right now is the virtual lack of discussion of significant tax changes. The little discussion there has been is centered on local options like meals and hotels and the fair taxation of utility poles.

There's an awful lot of hope being pinned on the federal stimulus bill providing a cash infusion that will somehow magically ease a lot of pain.

Part of it is the reality that this is the wrong time to raise taxes. When the unemployment rate locally is 6.9 percent, the national rate even higher, income and sales tax receipts are already headed downward with people having no source of income. New taxes would be devastating to many.

Yet they will also be seeing devastation in the quality of life in the communities -- hardly a wonderful choice for residents or the politicians elected to do the right thing.

My suspicion is taxes will stay off the table for discussion until the depth of the pain from the cuts become obvious -- and the willingness to consider them in a rational manner increases.

Or the desire for schools, police, fire, trash pickup and snow removal decreases.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Speaking of tougher ethics laws

It appears state Transportation Secretary James Aloisi may have the opposite problem from those plaguing House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

Not only does Aloisi "know where the bodies are buried" in transportation-related issues, he helped with the internment. That intimate knowledge is obviously a double-edged sword and if forced to recuse himself from too many decisions, one which will force Aloisi into utter ineffectiveness.

And that's something we don't need in yet another transportation secretary.

Aloisi and Gov. Deval Patrick need to reassess, pronto, whether his transportation chief is hobbled by that past.

And here's a potentially more palatable reason for legislators to act on tougher ethics laws. They will apply to the executive branch too.

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Sweet deal

Hey, Richard Vitale. I have some bills I'd be happy to have you pay off.

Let's start with the acknowledgment that Vitale's assistance to House Speaker Sal DiMasi's in-laws is legal -- because the state's ethics laws don't include in-laws in the scope of relatives of elected officials covered by the law.

Let's also acknowledge that those laws are not, as DiMasi has suggested, among the toughest in the nation.

And let's go to a basic question: would your accountant pay off legal bills for you, your siblings, cousins or in-laws, no strings attached? If so, I'd love the name.

The web of circumstances and questions building around Vitale and DiMasi just keeps getting deeper. It may explain why Vitale's attorney has pushed -- so far successfully -- to keep sealed a list of particulars against his client put together by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

There is no evidence, based on the Globe story, that DiMasi knew about Vitale's generosity. There is no publicly available evidence that Vitale profited from the relationship -- in an illegal way.

But there is plenty of evidence that DiMasi continues to be tainted by the slow drip of information.

It will be fascinating to see who he names as head of the House Ethics Committee when those appointments are revealed. Or how quickly lawmakers take up the proposals authored by a special panel named by Gov. Deval Patrick.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blast from the past

The MBTA must be riding a wave of Green Line nostalgia today.

The official news was renaming the Science Park stop to include the name of a neighborhood that died more than 50 years ago to make way for "urban renewal" and Charles River Park.

Then there was Green Line car 3697 this morning. Not quite that far back, but the fare information posted on the inside door of the operator's cabin -- the side open to the sardines amassed within its narrow confines -- said we were all overcharged.

That's because it listed the fare as $1.25 inbound -- with free outbound service after Kenmore and Symphony.

I want a refund. Even if the posted fares are two years out of date.

At least that explains why the cars are so dirty. No one bothers to look at them.

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Bring it on

Don't let the door hit you on the way out George.

President Barack Obama delivered that message -- in a far more elegant way -- in his inaugural address.

The words may not have reached the heights of the departing Marine One helicopter but the message was clear: our long national nightmare -- war, desecration of the Constitution and financial chaos -- is over.

Not tomorrow. The damage inflicted by the eight years of the Bush presidency is too deep to wipe away quickly.
"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."
Obama's decision to call out Bush while the former president was sitting there may be viewed by some GOP partisans as a continuation of the name calling that has immobilized Washington for nearly three decades.

I prefer to view it as a little "straight talk," telling truth to (former) power and offering as painful and honest assessment of where we are and where we need to go as I have heard from a politician.

No time to worry about bruised egos.

The damage is still highly visible around us. Wall Street reacts by plunging; a supposedly healthy local bank loses 59 percent of its value in one day; a store that is an icon for bargains shutters almost one-third of its locations while the mother ship's fate is tied up in a developer's hopes to raise capital.

Google to the ailing newspaper industry: sorry, we can't help.

While the world rejoiced too, the latest "peace" in the Mideast is tenuous and few can doubt that al Qaeda is hoping to offer the new president an unwelcome White Housewarming gift.

Obama offers a sober assessment of our current plight with enough reassuring words for the future to make the coming uphill slog a little more bearable.
“Now there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”
Again, Obama's message was more elegant than the way his predecessor might have said it.

Bring it on.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dr. Strangelove has left the building


A worthy image of Dick Cheney as he leaves the public stage for the last time -- unless he's foolish enough to travel overseas to a country that would arrest and try him for war crimes.

The resemblance between the former vice president and Dr. Strangelove has always been a bit more than creepy. Both shared a foreign policy vision that was enough to send shivers up the spine of normal-thinking people.

But with Cheney in a wheelchair for the inaugural after hurting his back moving (really, he packed boxes?) the comparison is finally complete.

Adios Dick.

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Speechless

This is my 1,281st post and I am at a loss for words.

There's little doubt I am delighted to see George Bush head off to the Texas sunset.

But I am left with few words to describe how proud I am to be an American -- to see the concept of liberty and justice for all take on a fuller meaning today. And that is from someone who frequently believes that patriotism is the last vestige of scoundrels.

We have been living in ugly times and many things will not get better, at least not overnight. But a nation that can cast aside its doubts and fears (or at least suspend them temporarily) and produce history is a nation worthy of respect around the world.

My thoughts and best wishes are with you Barack Obama. You'll need them -- and those of millions more too -- to succeed in what lies ahead.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Great Expectations





I've never been a fan of Charles Dickens but that book title and the memorable opening line from "A Tale of Two Cities" keep good through my head as we approach the day that W departs and Obama arrives, at last.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."
Toss in the birthday remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and confluence of history of almost overwhelming.

It's not too hyperbolic to suggest that Barack Obama carries the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a world that desperately wants to close the books on eight horrible years; years of war without cause and torture; years where desecrating the Constitution was standard operating procedure; years of total indifference to the plight and suffering of those less fortunate; years of staggering economic inequality that are now devastating rich and poor alike -- the poor a lot more so.

That is the legacy George Walker Bush is attempting to walk away from and which Barack Hussein Obama is being called upon to fix.

People standing for hours in the cold waiting to wave to a train -- or bundling up to hear a concert of hope where liberals sing "this land was made for you and me" -- are signs of pent up demand. Demand for hope, decency and a return to a way of life where fingers are no longer pointed in blame but become hands joined together in common purpose.

It always makes you fear it is too much to place on the shoulders of one skinny African-American kid from Hawaii, Indonesia and Chicago.

But I, like countless millions do have Great Expectations as the Bush Countdown Clock ticks its final seconds. And a fervent hope that the next four -- and hopefully eight -- years can restore luster to an America tarnished by the incompetence and ineptitude of George Bush.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Message for the future

I've never been one to watch the video of the planes slamming into the Twin Towers. I already the outcome and I had no reason to relive the horror.

But I decided to take a look at the video of Flight 1549 landing on the Hudson -- and had an epiphany of sorts. I'm sure I'm not the only to feel this way either.

The Bush era will be sandwiched between two enormous New York airplane-related events. One had a horrific ending, the result of an administration that ignored the warning signs and took the wrong message away from the disaster. The second, a happy ending, the result of the calm and skills of a flight crew allowed to do their jobs.

The only positive comparison between the two is the response of the rescuers. I frankly never knew that water ferries could move that fast. But to see that plane surrounded, literally within minutes, is almost as awesome as the footage of the splash down.

Kudos to the crews of Flight 1549, the ferry boats and everyone else who pulled off an incredible feat. Let us hope it is symbolic of possibilities of the next years.

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Uncle Sucker

Two stories in today's New York Times tell us what banks are doing with the federal bailout cash they've received. Of particular interest is the Page One story that notes the bailout funds are a windfall to the banks if not the borrowers.

In a delicious piece of irony, the Times proves the story just inches below: one of the new 6-column front page ads touting Citigroup, a bank described by Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson just a few sections deeper in the paper as "Exhibit A for the failure of the soup-to-nuts business model."

It would be hilarious if not for the fact you and I continue to pay for Citigroup's unrestricted advertising blitz, including the name of the Mets' new home. Let's see, $100,000 for the ad, another $400 million for the Mets... Pretty soon we'll be talking real money.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

That wasn't easy

I thought the web was supposed to make things easier in dealing with companies. Maybe someone should inform National Grid.

Click the link that appears at the top of a Google search of "National Grid MA" and you are transported to National Grid's Mass Electric web site. All well and good, except for one little thing.

I'm a natural gas customer, a remnant from the day they bought out Keyspan (which bought out Boston Gas).

It was only after several futile attempts to log in to my accounts that my not-so-eagle eyes spotted the words "masselectric" in the URL. Searching high and low, I found no reference to natural gas on the page.

Back to Google, add the word "gas" and lo and behold you are transported to a page where gas is one of the options listed under the image of a major electric power line thingamajig.

I guess gas customers must be less important -- or electric customers have so many more problems that they've pushed the Masselectric link up to No.1 in the search.

I won't even get into the gory details of three separate bills, arriving in three separate envelopes, containing three separate payment amounts to reflect a meter change. Or the fact that they can no longer make my unit bill and the condo bill arrive at the same time.

It will probably take a rate hike to hire a competent web designer (and billing software programmer) to make this work.

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Hard times for hard ball

OK, it's official. We're in a recession. Just ask the president of the Atlanta Braves, who just signed free agent pitcher Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million contract.

"I've also never seen the economy this bad, either," Atlanta Braves President John Schuerholz said. "I don't think anyone has seen the economy this bad since the Great Depression.

"You have to have the money to spend it. We're not selling tickets like we have in the past, and we're not selling advertising like we have in the past. It makes a difference."

Why it's so bad that poor Manny is out there starving, waiting for someone to come along and plunk down bazillions to put up with his antics in exchange for aging bat skills.

And there are certainly hard times in New York, epicenter of the financial meltdown. Just ask CC Sabithia (7 years, $161 million). Or Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million);. Or poor A.J. Burnett (a bargain at 5 years-$82.5 million.) The full list of signings is here.

What this lavish spending ensures is that some dad is going to need to plunk down a week's unemployment check to take his kids to a game, park, and buy the $3.75 bottle of water. Make that two weeks in some states.

If we were ever staring at a bizarro world this is it. The financial world has melted down and Wall Street is taking Main Street to the poor farm. Yet we are still paying men astronomical sums to play a little boy's game -- and to hold out if they don't get what they feel they "deserve."

Remember Red Sox second baseman Jody Reed's horrible tale of being "insulted" because they team only offer him $1.9 million in arbitration?

Better yet, remember Jody Reed?

Athletes argue their skills are limited to a short period of time and they risk injury that could end the gravy train at any second. They need to train constantly (like Roger Clemens).

My skills are not limitless. I risk injury every day commuting to an 8-hour a day job and I need to constantly improve my knowledge to do the job better. I am fairly compensated for my labors. And I don't come close to making 1-1,000,000th the amount of cash these guys make.

I also don't shoot myself in the leg in a nightclub or drive drunk.

We've been all over the Wall Street Masters of the Universe who made millions by wreaking havoc on our lives. That criticism is justified.

But how about some thought to the boys of summer (and fall and winter) and their enabling bosses who continue to heap lavish salaries on them while raising ticket prices to pay the contracts and then look for public help to build a new stadium. And get taxpayers to pay for the naming rights.

And don't get me started on "amateur" athletics like college football.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Hard times

When the most important news out of the Statehouse on an early January night is not the annual State of the State address, you know it's shaping up to be an unusual year.

As promised, Gov. Deval Patrick attempted to play comforter-in-chief by alluding to the massive cuts ahead -- while setting an agenda aimed at long overdue reforms that won't cost money, but could actually save some in the long run.

As was widely noted, the speech from the rostrum of the House chamber was short on specifics -- perhaps mindful that the family viewing hour was not the place to delve into the gory details of how he plans to slash another $1 billion from the budget. Those ugly facts will come soon enough.

But with the unusual opportunity offered by a statewide audience, Patrick sought to return to his campaign roots and urge us to work together to get through the current hard time.
“I still believe that together we can,” he said, echoing his ’06 campaign mantra. “Hunkering down may be good advice in a hurricane, but it is not leadership. I choose a politics less about tactics and more about a vision for how to help ordinary people achieve their potential even when times are tough.”
Pieces of his agenda for 2009 should technically constitute long-hanging fruit -- ethics and pension reform. The public, fed up with what has been emanating from under the Golden Dome in recent years, should be receptive to the call -- even if lawmakers are not. And pension reform could even save money.

The other priorities are tougher: there is hardly an appetite for a needed overhaul of the criminal offender record information system. Boosting the ability of municipalities to fend for themselves is a thinly veiled call for local option taxes.

Tackling the transportation system would be easier if his administration finally offers a long delayed and much overdue blueprint.

More interesting than the lack of discussion of where the cuts will be aimed is the trial balloon floated in the Globe suggesting he will direct some expected federal assistance toward the private sector in the belief that move could jump start the economy.

In an environment where public safety, education and the vulnerable are being targeted for cutbacks, it is not a message which will be received with applause.

But troubled time call for different ways to tackle the problems. Maybe bringing the private sector to the table can bear fruit because, in Patrick's mind, "together we can."

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

That was easy

The most interesting thing about the plan unveiled yesterday by Massachusetts Senate leaders to deal with the state's transportation problem is the fact they did it -- in far less time than the Patrick administration.

A fair amount of flesh needs to be added to the bones -- and there will be a lengthy debate about the need for higher taxes or tolls.

But the proposal authored by Senate leaders offers a road map, something that is still lacking from the administration after nearly two full years.

Despite good intentions, Deval Patrick still seems to be working to grasp the concept that he is the proposer-in-chief, that his ideas are structures upon which the House and Senate build (or in the case of casinos, tear down).

The administration, to borrow the popular catch phrase, is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. While noble in theory, the presumption that anything they craft will emerge intact from a legislative process is naive, to be generous.

The Senate plan offers a perfect example. Look at Senate President Terry Murray's response to questions about the probability of a gas tax.
"Most likely, we will at the end of the day, but we're not willing to go there yet."
It seems apparent, even to an outsider, that the transportation hierarchy didn't work too well. The "resignation" of former Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen is Exhibit A. He was to be a new kind of agency leader, unhindered by ties to past failures.

The new boss, James Aloisi, may be the poster child for those failures. But as noted here, and even acknowledged by Patrick, the new boss "knows where the bodies are buried."

So let's start digging 'em up.

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Ho-hum

Do Boston Globe copy editors read the stories to the end?

"What's new here?" was the question that nagged me throughout Sasha Issenberg's Page One opus on the Obama administration's plan to continue a White House Office of Political Affairs.

Waiting for some revelation that would make this story so newsworthy I kept going -- and got to the penultimate paragraph:
"It's not new anymore; there's nothing revelatory about it," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who has written about the history of the permanent campaign. "There seems to be this irrevocable trend where it just gets more and more sophisticated with every administration, and there's no turning back."
Yeah, and given the fact the Republicans never stop mixing politics with governing it would seem suicidal to stop it.

It appears the only "news" here is that Obama, unlike his predecessors is being open about it. Maybe that's why the story's blog version has exactly zero comments the last time I looked.

How many trees died for this?

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Politics as usual

The likely fallout from the economic crash brought about by the fiscal mismanagement of the Bush administration is all around us: proposed wage freezes, skyrocketing prescription premiums, cuts in public safety and education.

In response, Gov. Gov. Patrick is embracing old ideas with new interest and offering to take the political heat for making another $1.1 billion in cuts to the fiscal 2009 budget.

And as if to demonstrate why the Massachusetts Republican legislative caucus could fit into a phone booth, the hearty band of GOP lawmakers responds in a tired way that adds nothing to the solution.
“He hasn’t provided any information to anyone,” Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei said in an interview. “It’s disgraceful, and he’s not living up to the job. This is not transparent, it’s not an open process, and it flies in the face of everything he said he was going to do.”
Which of course begs the question -- where is your plan Mr. Leader?

The "9C" authorization vote up before the Legislature today is designed to give the Patrick administration two weeks to complete a plan on where and how to cut. Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan admits "We haven't formulated a plan."

On the surface, that sounds awful and begs the question why not. In reality, Kirwan's office is hard at work on a fiscal 2010 plan due in two weeks as well and revenues for FY09 were not firmed up until yesterday.

It is also true that a) the Patrick administration seems awfully slow in putting rhetoric into legislation and b) Senate President Terry Murray, a diehard Democrat laments "...it's hard to act in the dark. We'd like a little bit of light, in terms of what the parameters are."

Nonetheless, if the GOP delegation were sincere about being part of the solution, I would have thought they would couple their partisan blast with their own version of where spending could be cut.

After all, there are folks in each House and Senate Republican's office who spend at least some time on budget matters. They see the revenue estimates that are driving this process and know the broad parameters of where the money is spent.

Once upon a time, we used to see a yearly "A Better Budget" proposal. How better to make their point about Patrick's absence of plan than by producing one of their own? Or at least hold off the whining unless and until they are bypassed for feedback in the next two weeks?

Oh yeah, that would take some work beyond putting together a set of talking points.

Hey gang -- wonder why you continue to caucus in a closet?

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Inching along in the slow lane

Well, I think we're looking at a gas tax increase in Massachusetts. The only question is how much.

At long last, Gov. Deval Patrick is moving toward spreading the pain of the Big Dig by voicing interest in upping the state's 23.5 cent gasoline tax which was last raised in 1991. Regular readers know I have a problem with motorists from the west (and now the north) bearing the burden for road projects that primarily benefit folks from the south.

The long overdue movement (not quite yet a decision) comes with strings: that it be used only for transportation and eliminate the need for future toll hikes -- or even toll booths.

Good strings.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Mike Widmer thinks 20 cents a gallon would do the trick: 12 cents from the billions in necessary repair and construction projects; four cents for tolls and four cents for the T.

Also sounds good.

But is there the political will to do that with the economy crumbling around us -- even with gasoline prices currently sitting below $2 a gallon?

That's the $19 billion question.

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Heckuva job Bushie

I was going to let George Bush slink away, back to Texas to be forgotten and ignored. But since he won't leave quietly, his "ultimate exit interview" needs some truth squadding.

Let's start with the easy one -- mo amount of wistful revisionism will absolve you of the tragedy of neglect know as Katrina.
"I have thought long and hard about Katrina," Bush told reporters gathered in the White House briefing room for his 47th full-scale news conference. "You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge?"

Bush's answer suggested that he would not have done much different in responding to a crisis that even some of his former aides said damaged his standing with the American people. (The White House itself criticized the response in a report in February 2006.) Asked later about what more should be done to help New Orleans, the president circled back to rebut the idea that the initial federal response to the natural disaster was slow.

Plucking people off rooftops, which Bush proclaimed as a triumph, would not have been necessary had the federal government taken proper steps to prepare for the disaster. But more importantly, it ignores the fact that after people were plucked off those rooftops, they were abandoned -- left to fend for the themselves by a government that obviously didn't care.

Since the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree, his attitude can best be summed up by Barbara "Marie Antoinette" Bush:
"What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."
Yep, let them eat cake.

Then there is the soon-to-be-former president's befuddlement over the response to him:
“I don’t know why they get angry,” he replied to a question about those who disagreed with his policies so vehemently that it became personal. “I don’t know why they get hostile."
First, perhaps it had something to do with the way your party set a precedent in the way it demonized Bill Clinton?

Or perhaps it's because you were elected in a controversial and divisive election and, instead of following through on being "a uniter, not a divider" chose to move away from the center and sharply to the right, claiming a mandate that was not there?

Nor can Bush be allowed to bow off the stage with admonitions that people heed his warnings about the dangers of terrorism.

If George Bush had paid more attention to an Aug. 6, 2001 memo entitled "Bin Ladin determined to strike in US" -- or at least not belittled the briefer who he told had "covered your ass" -- we might have taken his words more seriously.

And nothing can justify the use of torture and the trashing of the Constitution. Just ask that noted liberal Charles Fried.
Some argue that torture is justified if our survival is threatened, but even apart from the elasticity of this justification, it is flawed because it depends on an equivocation. Our physical survival is not what is of overriding moral importance (people give up their lives all the time for some higher value) but our survival as decent human beings acting for a decent society. And we cannot authorize indecency without jeopardizing our survival as a decent society.
Goodbye George. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

A rose by any other name

Well, I'm certainly glad Thomas Kelly straightened that out.

The friend and fund-raiser for Treasurer Tim Cahill says he engaged in "business development services" when he worked to bring Bingo Innovative Software's product before the Lottery Commission run by Cahill.

Just like Richard Vitale served as a "business strategist" when he advised Massachusetts ticket brokers on an anti-scalping bill approved by the Massachusetts House.

No lobbying on the part of either gentleman. Nope. Heaven forbid.

Kelly, who was also providing "business development services" to Scientific Games, a Bingo Innovative competitor seeking Cahill's ear on the same subject, was looking at an extremely lucrative payday if Bingo Innovative got the contract.

Almost twice as much as Richard McDonough, another associate of House Speaker Sal DiMasi received for his business assistance involving Cognos ULC.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who regulates "business development services" and "business strategists" is pretty clear on the topic.
"When there is a tie-in to a particularly government decision to the payment of a success-fee, you come perilously close to a kick-back or corruption act," Galvin said. "That's why Massachusetts law has prohibited these types of payment arrangements for more than 100 years."
So I guess the Legislature really doesn't need to tighten up lobbying laws. Only those that relate to business development and strategy involving government decisions.

Glad we could clear that up.

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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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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Say it ain't so

There's an ominous undertone in the coverage of the death of Boston Fire Lt. Kevin Kelley. Did faulty equipment cause Ladder 26 to smash into a Mission Hill building? And will this death -- like the death of two firefighters in West Roxbury in 2007 -- become a political football?

My sense from reading coverage in the Globe and the Herald is that Boston Mayor Tom Menino was less than his usual ubiquitous presence at the scene. I found one standard video clip but little else. Why?

Couple that with the speculation of brake failure coming down impossible steep Parker Hill -- and extensive coverage on the truck's safety history -- and you have the making of a potentially ugly political battle.

As we all know, Menino and Local 718 have been locked in bitter and vocal contract negotiations. A major part of the disagreement is over drug and alcohol testing -- largely because of the likely impairment of the two firefighters who died in 2007.

My hope is Hizzoner was battling a nasty bug but got out of his sickbed to stand in support of some of his loudest critics. Or that he was being logical and knew his presence may not have been as comforting as it might have been at other scenes.

Let's cross our fingers that this latest tragedy doesn't become more kindling for a rather intense political fire that has been raging out of control for some time now.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

I beg your pardon

Former House Speaker Tom Finneran is angling to become the poster child for a massive ethics overhaul on Beacon Hill.

To paraphrase what Ted Koppel once said to a Massachusetts politician who signed a letter supporting Finneran's request for a presidential pardon, frankly Tommy, you just don't get it.

Finneran, you recall, was the tough, law-and-order Democrat who ran the House with an iron fist for eight years. He was so thoroughly full of himself and his power that he lied to a federal grand jury about his role in a redistricting plan. That netted him an obstruction of justice and perjury rap.

As speaker, he was disdainful of the "loony left" for things like going easy on criminals. He was the exemplar of the "if you do the crime, you do the time" lunch bucket voter.

Apparently until the shoe is on the other foot. Now he is asking for special favors, enlisting four former governors -- including one he probably called "loony" -- to support his request to George Bush.
Finneran has already been "severely punished," the governors wrote, citing the loss of his state pension, the suspension of his license to practice law, and his firing from a lucrative private-sector job.

"And he has suffered daily taunts and ridicule of those who believe that every elected official is the equivalent of a common thief," the governors told the president in their letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. They assured Bush that Finneran has "seen the error of this episode" and is truly sorry.
Memo to former Govs. Michael Dukakis, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift: Finneran is not the equivalent of a "common thief." He stole the public trust.

And the idea that a man who now hosts a daily radio talk show -- home to those who toss "daily taunts and ridicule" at those in the public sector who violate trust -- might seem like an appropriate punishment. Except that he gets paid to do it.

It's true Finneran has paid a substantial price in losing his pension, his license to practice law and being fired from a lucrative job he got thanks to the influence he wielded on Beacon Hill. That was all part of the plea agreement to avoid jail time.

The penalties might seem excessive for a "common thief" but that certainly doesn't describe the glib, intelligent Finneran.

As we sit in the middle of yet another ethics imbroglio involving yet another House Speaker (whose alleged "crimes" don't even begin to come close to Finneran's actual one), do we really want to let someone off the hook -- particularly someone who is seeking yet another special favor by asking Bush to waive the normal five-year waiting period?

Here's another rare moment to note: I applaud Mitt Romney for his decision not to sign the letter as much as I question Dukakis for his decision to do so.

Finneran is guilty of something far worse than a white collar crime. He sat before a federal jury and lied about how he used his influence and authority in conducting the public's business.

What message would we be sending by letting him say "I'm sorry" and go back to practicing law and collecting his pension as if nothing had happened?

I guess the left is loony because it believes that all criminals stand a chance to be rehabilitated. Tommy apparently thinks that only applies to those who wear white collars.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

ClusTer-you know what

Another sloppy morning, another disaster on the T. Only it's now become so routine that the media doesn't seem to care. (except for the good folks over at Universal Hub!)

You might be willing to forgive the Green Line for problems on the Boston College line surrounding the surprise overnight icing. You might, that is, unless you were trapped in the pathetic way in which it was handled around 8:15 a.m. Here's the scenario:
  • Arrive at the corner of Harvard and Comm. Ave. The inspector's hulking SUV is parked there but no one seems to be around. Buses with such exotic destinations as Wellington and the Silver Line double buses head in town. Empty.
  • Cross the street over to the Green Line platform as a train pulls up and opens its door. Proceed a short distance up Comm. Ave., just past the former Fordham Road stop. Sit for about 10 minutes before the operator comes on to tell you there is a power problem and the train will let you off at Packard's Corner or Babcock Street.
  • Sit another five minutes before you get to Packard's Corner and rush to catch a bus that actually is picking up passengers.
  • Arrive eventually at Kenmore Station and discover where all those other buses have gone. One is blocking Comm. Ave., trying to turn around. There are probably at least a dozen sardined into the busway. It takes about five minutes to inch into the station so you can actually get off the bus.
  • While waiting to get off, hear the dispatcher call for buses leaving Kenmore to head for Wellington because there are problems on the Orange Line. Maybe those buses I saw at Harvard Ave. were clairvoyant?
  • Go downstairs and find an inbound platform jammed with people. A car marked North Station sits empty on the wall track. The hordes descend on the empty cars that comes in from Comm. Ave. Hey, wasn't that the line that wasn't going past Babcock because of power problems?
The one egregious, absolutely unforgivable part of this episode is being allowed to board at Harvard Ave. while empty or virtually empty buses were allowed to head in town without stopping Where the heck was the inspector? Well, there is a Dunkin' Donuts near by...

The absence of "service representatives" to explain what was going on and properly assist passengers with alternatives like buses that accept passengers once more suggests that the T is totally clueless when it comes to its paying customers.

Smilin' Dan is way overdue to go.

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No time to panic -- yet

Exactly what happened out in LA on Christmas Day?

The Boston Celtics, once known as the team that devoured the NBA, has turned into an alien life form, losing six of their last eight since that fateful day. The Bobcats? The Knicks?

While it pains to me side and cite with such journalistic exemplars as Dan Shaughnessy and Ron Borges, this post-holiday season of giving, while painful, is not cause to cancel plans for a June Duck boat parade just yet (remember the Atlanta series last spring).

The Celtics have not dominated teams this year in the same way as last year in rolling up the gaudy 27-2 mark. Not to mention that teams watch tape and copy things. And as CHB notes, while we are touting Rajon Rondo for an All-Star berth at the age of 22, Hall of Fame enshrinement is a bit premature.

Rondo will adjust to the tactics being thrown at him. He does appear to be the real deal. Shooting slumps will end.

Doc Rivers, for one, has it in perspective:
"I kept saying, 'We're not playing well'; now you guys believe me," Rivers said last night. "You could see where the team was headed. And we're in it right now."
Yes, home court advantage is important and it would be nice to have it if there is another seven-game battle with Cavaliers. But while I get a little queasy reading the stories, I'm not ready to thrown in the towel. It's January -- with three months to go.

We got too high in the 19-game winning streak. Let's not overdue it in the other direction now.

And I'll keep telling myself that every day.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

War of the worlds

Today's a big day up on Beacon Hill -- and the priorities of the leader of the executive branch and one of the legislative branches show just how wide a gulf there is under the Golden Dome.

While Sal DiMasi lays the groundwork for another term as House Speaker, gathering his loyalists by his side in the opening moves of a leadership battle, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to formally file legislation that would take on the culture in which DiMasi has grown and thrived.

Unlike the casino battle between the two last year, Patrick enters the fray with public support on his side. But when the dust settles, expect DiMasi to win again.

That's just the way things happen in The Building.

Patrick's sweeping proposal to give regulators subpoena and wiretap power would make a serious dent in the backslapping, glad handing ways that business gets done in Massachusetts (and countless legislative bodies across the nation).

Take for example, the view from Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who is charged with regulating lobbyists,
"If I had the subpoena and enforcement power, I would have been able to get answers immediately," said Galvin, "instead of having to go through this protracted extraction of information that was never really complete. "
Or Inspector General Greg Sullivan, whose office was created in 1981 in the wake of the Ward Commission investigation into the last major legislative scandal. The IG is appointed by the governor, auditor and attorney general.
"I never thought I'd see this day. If this passes, I think it will be the most significant legislation since I've been inspector general by far."
But note the key words -- if this passes.

That's because the governor proposes and the legislature disposes. And DiMasi, who has been at the center of the controversies over allegations of improper influence, almost seemed to stifle a yawn in reacting.
"Massachusetts faces serious challenges in the coming year - from finding ways to balance our budget amid a crushing fiscal crisis to reforming our transportation system to make it fairer for all," he said. "The best way to maintain and build upon the public's trust is by tackling these problems directly, leveling with people, and engaging them in our solutions."
All quite true. But within the Massachusetts House, where all fiscal legislation originates, the focus has been on the speaker's grip on power. The controversies swirling around him -- and the very public jockeying to succeed him -- has been the main topic of business. That was true at the end of the last session in July, when palace intrigue almost overtook the people's business.

The Globe's Matt Viser paints a superb picture of the alternate reality:
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has made public statements that are directly at odds with the findings of state investigators. His close friends are under scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors, and one has been charged criminally with secretly trading on his connections to the speaker.

Poll numbers say DiMasi's popularity among voters is plunging.But today, with little opposition, he is expected to win an overwhelming victory as the majority of his 159 colleagues in the House re-install him for a third two-year term.
A far different world view from that of the public, which is very concerned about the aroma that has emerged from the House as well as the Senate, where two former members left early because of legal problems.

The governor desperately needs a substantial win in his quiver after losing the casino fight last year and facing nothing but endless headaches over the budget and the subsequent inability to do anything about his campaign promises about property tax relief and improving education.

But in DiMasi's Beacon Hill world, the priority is on controlling the troops. And because that is ultimately who he answers to -- as well as the voters of his North End district -- DiMasi is under no pressure to accede to Patrick. In fact, stalling the proposal curries favor with those members.

I wouldn't bet on the Legislature passing a reform package anywhere near that which Patrick is proposing. It's unlikely legislators will put a gun to their own heads and pull the trigger.

And more importantly, what will happen to them if they don't buy in? The overwhelming majority run unopposed because of the inability of the Massachusetts Republican Party to field even a junior varsity team. And don't forget the old line that people hate the legislature but it's the other person's representative who is to blame.

Ultimately, we are all to blame.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Winning a battle

House Speaker Sal DiMasi won an important legal battle just days before his colleagues are set to vote him in for another term, but I can't help but wonder about the overall direction of the war.

The state Ethics Commission has dropped a lawsuit that would have compelled DiMasi to release documents they want to see in their investigation of his relationship with accountant/lobbyist Richard Vitale. The victory mirror the arguments offered here last November by Rep. Dan Bosley.

But as I argued then, the court of public opinion is where DiMasi continues to lose the battle. And while the public doesn't vote for Speaker the appearance of anything less than full transparency is not good for the DiMasi cause.

Nor are the circumstances surrounding the delayed arraignment of Vitale on charges he failed to report $60,000 he received from an association of ticket brokers to lobby for their legislation.

The Herald reports the delay stems from Vitale's vacation. And then there is the matter of Vitale's attorney, Martin Weinberg, asking to seal the record to prevent additional details from emerging two days before the speaker vote.

Although Vitale is charged with misdemeanors and not felonies, delaying an arraignment to avoid having to cut a vacation short does not look good. Nor does the the timing and effort to withhold details.

It's a safe bet DiMasi was not consulted by Weinberg and has no role whatsoever in those two courtroom maneuvers. But once again, in the court of public opinion, the verdict is harsh.

If I were advising DiMasi I would urge him to say "now that I have upheld an important legislative prerogative that enables robust debate, I will voluntarily give the Ethics Commission what it has been asking. We have far too many pressing issues -- like the budget -- to continue to spend time on this matter."

Of course, I'm not one of his advisers and I suspect he's pretty happy about that state of affairs.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

What is he inhaling?

Proud papas are well and good and it's nice that they encourage their sons to strive to be their best, but puhleeze:
Another President Bush?

Perhaps so, says former president George H.W. Bush, who has already seen one son, George W., serve in the Oval Office. The nation's 41st president said yesterday that he would like to see a second son, Jeb, be president one day.

The likelihood that the American people will turn the keys to the Oval Office over to another Bush would seem to be rather slim today. Can you say a war fought on false pretenses, an economy shattered by a blind eye and a Constitution treated like Charmin?

That would come on top of the legacy of a war and battered economy that marked the first Bush term. Some might argue the elder Bush's decision not to pursue Saddam Hussein left the door open for his son's misadventures. And while he did not destroy the economy as his son did, let's not forget the phrase that got Bill Clinton elected.

Personally, I see a trend that any good candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- could run on.

Best wishes to Bush 41 when he goes skydiving later this year to celebrate his 85th birthday. Just make sure Junior doesn't pack the chute.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

No so Great Places

On a historic level, there are very few places that can match the Massachusetts Statehouse as a "Great Place" in the commonwealth.

The Golden Dome that tops the Bulfinch building is an icon that readily identifies Boston. The history in the marble halls is palpable. It remains the greatest "office" I ever reported to work in.

But in a commonwealth facing a $1 billion budget gap in the current fiscal year, not to mention a crumbling transportation infrastructure and equally steep shortfalls in fiscal 2010, there are hundreds more important decisions for legislators than where and how to designate "Great Places" throughout the state.

In fairness, legislative rules dictate this descent into esoterica. Lawmakers, heeding the public distaste at year-long sessions culminating in lame duck feeding frenzies, shut down early in election years. The schedule now ends "formal" sessions when the clock strikes Aug. 1.

Nevertheless -- whether to meet constitutional obligations or collect per diems -- lawmakers meet "informally" unto the end of the session on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of January. In those sessions, bills continue to make it through the great maw -- unless one member objects.

A case in point -- Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law Chapter 231 of the Acts of 2008 on July 31. Chapter 450 (An Act relative to vacancies on the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission) became law -- without his signature -- on Jan. 2. Though math isn't my strong suit, that's almost as many signed in the first seven months.

The Great Places legislation being pushed by soon-to-be former Rep. Eric Turkington is probably worthwhile --generating some civic pride and maybe even a tourist destination or two (which of course would be funded by a budget earmark).

But playing out the string while the commonwealth teeters on fiscal chaos certainly won't earn the Great and General Court a designation as a "great place."

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Dem newspaper home delivery blues

The Detroit newspapers have nothing on the outfit that delivers the Boston Globe and New York Times. These guys suspend home delivery all the time.

It comes as no surprise to regular readers that I have issues with the way the local newspapers are delivered. What had once been quality delivery of the Times has become as ragged as that of the Globe -- which quite frankly has always stunk.

Latest "service quality" update: two weeks running now, the carrier has seemed to omit the Sunday Times. Last week, that "omission" also included the Globe. A redelivery request was about as productive as the initial effort but this week that Glob did appear on my doorstep. Alone.

What they always seem to forget as that customers pay in advance -- and at a premium -- for the "service." I will save 60 cents by schlepping out the door and buying the Times on the newsstand. I won't see the $5.60 credit for a paper that I paid for last month until sometime around when the crocuses start blooming.

The "concerned" inquiry from the Globe will probably come Tuesday morning when I'm at work -- wondering if I got that morning's paper and inviting me to call if I have a problem on that day.

You wonder why newspapers are dying? Here's a very tangible but often forgotten factor. Especially by the powers that be that are running said newspapers into the ground.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Spare me the rhetoric

I'm so relieved to know the ever vigilant Republican leadership in Congress is ready to stand up to the Democratic plans to revive the economy with a stimulus bill.

Of course, these are the same vigilant Republican leaders who brought us the "Bridge to Nowhere" when they controlled the purse strings.

Ohio's John Boehner and Kentucky's Mitch McConnell are busy insisting they need a place at the table as the bill -- which could now escalate to $1 trillion. Of course, they represent the same Republican leadership that denied the same rights to Democrats -- and which would only advance bills out of the House if they had the backing of a majority of Republicans.

And of course these are the same Republicans who -- faced with the detritus of the economy they helped to ruin -- opted to block action on awful but necessary bailouts until they could exact their own special interest goals.

No one questions the need for vigilance in the allocating of another trillion dollars. The first chunk of federal largess has gone by and large to banks and other financial institutions without a lot of oversight. These are the same institutions that got us into the mess because of a lack of oversight from Republican administrative and congressional "leaders."

Both President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden have said earmarks won't fly -- and their reputations will be on the line if the legislation is porked up. A reasonable, bipartisan review of the bill is appropriate.

But the words reasonable and Republican don't seem to go together to well any more. It would be better if Boehner and McConnell offered to work cooperatively rather than draw lines in the sand.

After all, we saw in November what has happened to Republican lines.

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