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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Democracy takes a hit

I guess it's time up update that old A.J. Liebling line and declare that freedom of speech belongs to those who control the satellite dish.

Caving to pressure from a right wing yakker (who I won't dignify with a link either) Boston College officials who already canceled a planned speech by Bill Ayers on campus -- the title being "The State of Democracy in America" -- decided not to let allow the planned satellite-delivered salternative to go forward.

I guess that Ayers, 1,000 miles away in Chicago, posed a public safety hazard in Brighton.

Let's be clear: the actions of the Weather Underground, even if they did not include the Brighton bank robbery that claimed Boston Police Patrolman Walter Schroeder, were despicable.

But stifiling a First Amendment right -- within an organization that is supposedly the free marketplace of ideas where students can learn from past mistakes -- is despicable in a different sense.

It is spitting on the Constitution Schroeder was sworn to uphold.

So the next time you hear a right wing rant about how those of us on the left choose to spit on the flag and our rights as Americans, think about this incident -- where a campaign of a man aiming to impose his own view of our rights and responsibilities can prevent the free expression of the ideas represented in the Declaration of Independence and Constution.

One fomented terror with bombs. The other fostered terror with words. And was terrified of words that don't fit his narrow world view.

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Maybe 'reform before revenue' does work

We are apparently getting an answer to the question of how many times do you hit a donkey with a 2-by-4 before it moves. In the case of the donkeys known as Democrats in the Massachusetts Legislature, quite a lot.

But even these guys will eventually respond.

Another week, another love-in in the Senate Reading Room -- this time Senate President Terry Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo talking about pension reform. Gov. Deval Patrick was sitting on the sidelines this time around, applauding.

We've now seen the House take up ethics reform and the Senate on the verge of some meaningful first steps in ending pension abuses. The Senate has also done a transportation reform bill. And it's not even April.

For someone who has been highly critical of legislative schedules, that's a pretty good reform too. But there is still the matter of the Senate's apparent coolness to ethics reform.

The 2-by-4s in question come from several sources: mounting public outrage with elected officials in general, those feeding at the trough in particular. The Marian Walsh fiasco is a prime example.

It's even possible that Patrick's Bush-like approval rating may have convinced lawmakers to get their acts in gear even though they, unlike Patrick, have virtual free rides as a result of the Republican Party's heretofore inability to attract candidates for dog catcher.

The Senate pension proposal is a good start, but only that. It takes aim at many of the recent outrages uncovered by the Globe in Revere and other small towns where elected (and sometime unelected) officials took advantages of loopholes to pad their pensions -- arguing they are doing nothing illegal.

Great standard, huh?

The proposal, which echoes an earlier Patrick plan also would end the early retirement free ride at the MBTA and put a stop to politicians staying an extra day to collect an extra year -- or claims "bonuses" because they were kicked out by voters before age 55.

While those reforms are aimed at politicians -- who are as popular as the guys claiming AIG bonuses, there's still a long way to go. Public employee unions are likely to be strongly opposed to changes like reining in the MBTA pension system -- even if it is bankrupting the system and likely to produce service cuts that will result in job losses.

But at least the investment in 2-by-4s known as public outrage seem to have had a stimulus effect.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Inmates running the asylum

Just when you think the Bush administration can't cause any more problems, a new one crops up: the agency that is supposed to insure the pensions of companies that no longer can may need an agency to bail it out.

Well, actually it will need even more of our taxpayer "resources." And the reason? A former managing director of Lehman Brothers -- the company our Wall Street "managers" managed right into bankruptcy -- decided to invest in stocks rather than bonds.

Full disclosure: a company I once worked for went belly up and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. was allegedly going to be writing me checks in my dotage. Thanks to the whiz bang efforts of the Wall Street types and the impact on my 401 (k), that should be sometime north of my 85th birthday.

The PBGC is supposed to be something akin to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., there to protect people against a financial vicissitudes over which they have no control -- or blame. In its own words:
PBGC is a federal corporation created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It currently protects the pensions of nearly 44 million American workers and retirees in more than 29,000 private single-employer and multiemployer defined benefit pension plans. PBGC receives no funds from general tax revenues. Operations are financed by insurance premiums set by Congress and paid by sponsors of defined benefit plans, investment income, assets from pension plans trusteed by PBGC, and recoveries from the companies formerly responsible for the plans.
Those funds were principally invested in bonds -- far less risky than stocks, as any amateur investor thinking about retirement knows. But the former director, Charles E.F. Millard, he of Lehman Brothers, thought better of the strategy, despite some sound advice of people who did not make their living on Wall Street.

So he threw gasoline on the fire and shifted to the kind of portfolio a junior investor with 30 years to retirement might consider. Only he did it as the palpitations from the subprime mortgage fiasco were starting to get stronger, Bear Stearns and Lehman were starting to get weaker and signs of the impending crash should have been visible to anyone who claims to be a Wall Street expert.

Except of course, if your background was Lehman Brothers.

So here's the deal:
Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.

The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest.

No statistics on the fund's subsequent performance were released.
I wonder why?

I know I won't be sleeping better at night. At least I never really think about that pension as much protection. But I did get fond of the cash I was trying to hang on to to get through the next few years.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lessons in democracy

There is just way too much irony in the decision by Boston College officials to cancel a lecture "The State of Democracy in America," because the talk is to be delivered by University of Chicago professor Bill Ayers.

Ayers, if you were asleep last fall, "palled around" with Barack Obama -- at least in the worldview of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. The one-time Weather Underground member hosted a coffee for the then Illinois state senate candidate in 1995.

The encounter in the Hyde Park living room came decades after Ayers' involvement with the radical New Left group. In fact, Obama was a child when Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn committed what many, myself included, consider despicable acts.

Today, Ayers works in an environment that is supposed to stand for the free and open expression of ideas -- a college campus. Which brings us back to Boston College -- and the inability of the right wing attack machine to let go of its own hatreds.

A talk radio show allegedly linked Ayers to local radicals Kathrine Ann Power and Susan Saxe and the murder of a Boston police officer during an Allston robbery in 1970. I leave it to Dan Kennedy to work through and debunk the mythology of that alleged "connection."

I prefer to look at BC's decision to cave into a verbal terrorist assault by right wing yakker Michael Graham and the college's incredibly open and honest response to the action.
A spokesman for Boston College issued a brief statement yesterday, referring to the cancellation as an "internal matter at a private university."
A.J. Liebling once famously said "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” That apparently also applies to university officials who opt to uphold only comfortable speech.

Bravo to the students who have opted to move Ayers speech off campus. They will have an opportunity to listen to him, challenge how his words today match his deeds from yesterday and have the type of learning experience they are supposed to get at a supposedly first-rate college.

And let me give Ayers the last word:
"It's kind of a shameful thing to the administration because one can certainly understand why in Saudi Arabia or Serbia or China why speakers would be canceled for a variety of reasons," he said. "But in the US, in a democracy, that doesn't make sense."

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Next time, try IM

Memo to the Patrick Administration: Next time try instant messaging. Or better yet, try voice conversations.

The midterm slump continues over at the Corner Office -- aided and abetted by one e-mail trail that exposed the game plan for putting state Sen. Marian Walsh into a controversial job and another taking a controversial cabinet transportation secretary to the woodshed for a foolish move to excoriate one of the administration's media critics.

Didn't they teach you guys on day one that all e-mail in a public system like the state's Internet domain is a public record? And even if they didn't, haven't you learned somewhere along the way that e-mails are just as discoverable as any document sought in legal action?

Which also gets to the point -- didn't you learn to be really, really carefully what you commit to e-mail?

I'm not here calling for secrecy. And there is nothing at all extraordinary about the contents of the e-mails describing the Walsh hiring strategy or the dressing down of James Aloisi.

But I know as a basic fact of my own work life that I need to think very carefully what I want to put in an e-mail. It's often better to say it than write it down. Why is that apparently so hard a concept for the governor's office?

Aloisi deserved his dressing down. And it would have been far more effective IN PERSON. Have him stand there and squirm.

The Walsh strategy is tougher to keep out of print. Public relations strategies often need intricate details, including talking points. The lesson here is: remember what you have already committed to paper and don't try to fudge.

It's always easier to remember what you said when you tell the truth. Instead of denying the Walsh process, redouble your efforts to actually use (credible) talking points.

Is that so tough?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Taking on water aboard the SS Deval

Another day, another disaster on the SS Deval. The continuing missteps are certainly a major role for his plummeting popularity. But as the Herald lead notes, Patrick is in the unfortunate position of being the figurehead for a Beacon Hill gone wild.

With anger mounting at each new outrage at the national level, the trickle down is turning into a torrent. And Patrick is also paying for the sins of his amigos, the now-departed House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray, who apparently believes that reform first applies to others and not the scandal-plagued Senate.

That leaves Patrick the obvious target of all the abuse being directed at the dysfunctional system.

But like Jay Fitzgerald, I'm not quite ready to fit the corner office for new furniture and draperies. Treasurer Tim may have low unfavorables today, but it's a long way to September 2010.

And with all due respect to the respected Wayne Woodlief, the Massachusetts Republican Party doesn't appear to have any A-listers lurking in the weeds.

Patrick is presiding over one of the most volatile times in American political life. The economic crash is going to force government to slash services and raise taxes. That is the equivalent of political suicide and I would make sure my eyes are protected during all the fingerpointing.

It's not as if the governor hasn't offered some solid proposals. They just have not been timely and even a seemingly quiet success like auto insurance reform has come loaded with a misstep.

Patrick's biggest threat lies in the next few months, Some very difficult choices are fast approaching. He can right the ship by returning to Candidate Deval and being the comforting leader who appealed to our better selves. Or he can continue to be Governor Deval, who has developed a tin ear and a taste for sketchy deals.

The Cahill challenge may be just the thing he needs -- right down to the fact the treasurer is far deeper into the swamp than Patrick, whose mistakes are symbolic rather than ethical.

And I was worried I would have nothing to blog about.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The 140-character news cycle

The Twitterati have spoken: the president and his agenda is in trouble.

Hey, let's face facts here. He's overexposed. His television ratings dipped 18 percent from his first press conference, all the way down to 40 million. He is taking on too much and being abandoned by fellow Democrats.

The 40-second sound bite of the 1960s -- which shrank to 10 seconds by the turn of the millennium as the 24-hour news cycle required more and more content to fill the cable TV yak wars -- is down to 140 characters. Now the rise of social media, particularly Twitter, has turned everyone (present bloviator included) into an expert who can make their voices heard.

It sucks.

Instant analysis brings with it demands for instant satisfaction, hence the perverse picture of the punditocracy picking over everything from Barack Obama's Special Olympics gaffe, to his inappropriate laughter to his dissing the mainstream media by not calling on the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune Tuesday night.

Heck how come he hasn't been able to rope in Wall Street, fix the economy, put people back to work, pull out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo -- or get his girls a dog? He's had more than 60 days!

The trend is troubling. While Twitter may yet prove to be a valuable news gathering tool, it has become the journalist's new plaything -- reporting on everything from Mumbai to David Gregory's bagel preferences. There is no context in 140 characters -- and a lack of context is the single biggest problem facing journalism today.

Oh well. Nothing important at stake. Let's talk about how safe the Obama girls' swing set will be with a dog running around. And characters to spare!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's not about the cash

Uncle Deval, it's not about the cash. Well, OK, maybe it's a part of it.

Crying "uncle" in admitting he made a major league gaffe in describing the uproar over Marian Walsh's appointment to the Health Education and Finance Authority is only a half step in the right direction. Asking Walsh to cut the proposed salary by $55,000 is also just a baby step.

What's still lacking is a solid justification why the job is needed at all after sitting vacant for a dozen years. Or why there needs to be separate agencies with initials and cute names like HEFA and MassDevelopment at all.

What's the difference in the duties that requires two quasi-independent boards with their own hierarchy, power structure and pay scale? If we can eliminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, why can't we reduce the number of agencies selling bonds to support economic development?

Hopefully that will be the outcome of the review Patrick asked Steve Crosby to make. While ostensibly about salaries and benefits at state public authorities, Crosby should look at the myriad of agencies doing similar things and recommend way for the state to lose some fiscal weight by cutting down on alphabet soup.

Then maybe Patrick will truly be able to hear what people are upset about.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MBTA-onomics

Buried deep in the Globe's look at the MBTA's revenue-raising plan to beautify Massachusetts by erecting billboards across the area is this nugget:
[MBTA General Manager Dan] Grabauskas is hoping for a legislative bailout, in the form of an increased gas tax, but took the first step yesterday toward the fare increases and service cuts that could be necessary if that does not come through. He authorized spending $86,000 to analyze the potential socioeconomic, environmental, and revenue effects of a fare increase - a legal requirement any time the agency raises the cost of commuting.
How many fares does it take to add up to $86,000?

Since the T has gotten good at raising fares, you would think there would be some inside folks who could handle the legal requirement for less than $86,000.

And as for the billboards -- why not plaster a few more obnoxious Legal Seafood ads onto trains? Yes, the T needs to maximize ad revenues. But it seems to me there's an awful lot of vacant space in and on their rolling stock that could be exploited first.

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Stick a fork in him

Challenging a sitting incumbent of your own party -- no matter how unpopular -- is not an easy thing to do. Just ask Ted Kennedy about Jimmy Carter in 1980. You need to run a flawless, mistake-free campaign, declaring your differences with the incumbent in clear and precise terms.

How's Tim Cahill doing so far?

Treasurer Tim's all-but-formally announced run for the Corner Office may well be over before it starts with word the Ethics Commission is looking into his relationship with friend, neighbor and fund-raiser Tom Kelly.

With the usual disclaimer of innocent until proven guilty, ethics regulators are looking at the circumstances that led Cahill to award a Lottery contract to a firm represented by Kelly, over the recommendation of staff.

That company was actually one of two with skin in the game and it was paying Kelly tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees. That's a separate story because the commission is looking at Cahill.

While Deval Patrick won't win many popularity contests these days, he doesn't have that kind of blemish on his record (yes, there is the Ameriquest call and the drape and Cadillac screw ups, but nothing that hints of cash and favors).

A challenger, especially one who wants to run under the competency and effectiveness bandwagon, has to be as pure as the driven snow. Cahill, at least today, more closely resembles one of those disappearing piles of blackened ice at the side of the road.

Aside from the nasty words "ethics probe," he has the burden of the poorly thought out slots proposal and the illegal lottery lease idea. Or the "working" pension reform group that didn't.

Not to mention his chief fund-raiser is neck deep in the details of what the ethics commission is looking at.

He can at least be grateful the Legislature has yet to act on a tougher ethics reform bill.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Pension play

There's a line in golf that you "drive for show and putt for dough." With a little tinkering, that line can be applied to Deval Patrick's decision to hold a media briefing yesterday to talk about the pension reform proposals he leaked to the Globe a day earlier.

The briefing -- attended by weekend TV reporters and a handful of print and radio reporters playing out of position -- was clearly designed as a "drive for show" moment. The governor and his team, in Sunday casual, sitting around the Corner Office hard at work at a problem.

The message was less about the substance of the proposals that he intends to formally file next month and more about trying to recover his footing after dissing voters with the statement that patronage appointments and no-work jobs are "trivial."

The Globe -- which of course led the Sunday paper with the proposals in a story written by Statehouse reporter Andrea Estes -- didn't fall for the underlying message. The story by John Drake ran in Metro.

The Herald, left out of the leak fest, didn't take the bait at all. Search the web site for "Deval Patrick" or "pension reform" and you are treated to snark from Howie or the enterprising reporter.

No matter -- no dough in the line here. The weekend TV folks cover car crashes and fires. Depth on a subject is not their strong suit and that's probably why the decision was made to offer a weekend availability -- away from the tougher questions that would come from reporters deeply immersed in the subject.

That's not to say what Patrick is offering is trivial either. There are some tough proposals sure to set the public employee unions boiling and save some money down the road.

They also fit the Senate President's call for reform before revenue. And they show a TV audience not paying attention to March Madness that the governor can roll up his sleeves any day of the week.

That may have been the most important message he was offering on Sunday.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Time for a Deval-uation

These have not been the best of days for Gov. Deval Patrick -- a man trying to put forward a solid agenda but who keeps tripping over his own feet -- and mouth.

Patrick turned an already bubbling pot to full boil the other day by dismissing as "trivial" public concerns over the $175,000 job for supporter Marian Walsh and the impolitic behavior of his supposedly politically savvy transportation secretary James Aloisi.

(Tip of the hat to my friend Dan Kennedy for including me in his roundup of the governor's horrendous PR efforts. And I agree with Jay Fitzgerald that the past week will be anything but trivial for Patrick going forward.)

So it comes as no surprise that the administration launched a two-pronged response to critics: leaking plans for his pension reform plan to the Globe and dispatching chief of staff Doug Rubin to open a dialogue on Blue Mass Group.

Dan is right that I have been one of Patrick's better friends. I know from real life experience that any governor is at the mercy of a legislature to get things done. Patrick has certainly offered an agenda -- casinos, tax reform, transportation restructuring, ethics and pensions. We may disagree with all or parts of it, but it is real and reflects an active executive.

Patrick's problem has been a disconnect between word and action, There has been way too much time between proposal and actual legislative language. Lawmakers have also taken their own sweet time. Part of that is the normal deliberative process. Part of it is politics too.

Patrick has compounded public frustration with the delay by some very ill-conceived and ill-timed actions. The Walsh appointment to a job that has been vacant for 12 years is hard to fathom. Coming in the context of the various Aloisi (brother and sister) issues, it is just plain dumb.

This is hard to understand after a staff shakeup that followed the drape and Cadillac debacles and suggests that he doesn't listen terribly well to advice.

But to my mind, he still beats the alternative of the Not Ready for Prime Time State Treasurer. And while I respect Harvard Pilgrim boss Charlie Baker, I've really seen no indication he wants to jump into this.

So that leaves us with Deval and Bizarro Deval -- the eloquent reformer of the campaign versus the well-intentioned but tin-eared bumbler living in the Corner Office.

In theory, he has 20 months to show us how his words have translated into action. But since we are also now in the 140-character sound bite era -- with angry mobs sharpening their pitchforks -- that job is going to be even harder.

So let's say I give Patrick an "incomplete" along with a warning that he has his work cut out for him. He needs to work extra hard to resolve the contradictions. And choose his words more carefully.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Another Idiotic Gaffe?

Respectable business journalists like Joe Nocera of the New York Times are now counseling Congress and the American people to get a grip when it comes to AIG.

I agree that a Sopranos-like piano wire fate should not befall most of the folks who received bonuses on Uncle Sucker's dime (which is different than saying they should keep the cash.)

But I have a hard time coming to a reasonable resolution when I see stories suggesting that AIG executives are still not leveling with the American people.

I'm sure the spinmeisters are hard at work this weekend trying to explain why they really meant $218 million in bonuses were paid out instead of a mere $165 million.

But it does get tiresome watching them revise and extend their excuses. So while I don't support the concept of gangland hits on everyone who get a bonus, I may consider using AIG executives and their enablers as test cases to see if waterboarding is really not a form of torture as Dick Cheney continues to insist.

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Phew, I feel better

No, not about AIG, bailouts, taxes and tolls and the general deterioration of civic life.

I feel better about something much more important: KG is back.

No question that Lebron and the Cavs are playing like the Celtics did last year. Or that the blankety-blank Lakers are stronger this year. Or that the Green have been maddeningly inconsistent.

But if Kevin Garnett can shake off his scoring rust after one quarter and get the team to hold its opponent (the not-so-shabby San Antonio Spurs) to 77 points on their own home floor in only 15 minutes of playing time, well, things are looking up again.

The Green have 12 games to get healthy going into the true sign of spring: The Playoffs. I'm liking their chances a little bit better than I did a week or so ago. These guys are truly a team -- but KG is their heart and his mere presence last night proved that.

And I need that to get through AIG, bailouts, taxes and tolls.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Backup at the toll plaza

Hey, move along, nothing to look at here. It's just the Patrick administration in a one-car pileup. The cause of the crash? He blinked at the wrong time.

A bad month for Deval Patrick just got worse with the decision to join with legislative leaders to agree to a delay in a hike in Mass. Pike tolls. While a sound move because it allows for time to craft a good compromise to fix all of the state's transportation woes, the way this came about does bad things for his already shaky standing among voters.

Simply put, he played chicken, trying to force the Legislature to act by creating a crisis. And he lost:
After more than a year of deliberations, the Patrick administration supported a major toll hike last fall, only to later propose a 19-cent gas tax increase designed to avert that toll increase. But until yesterday, administration officials were adamant that some action had to be taken by March 29 to avoid the risk of financial ruin at the Turnpike Authority.
And the decision announced yesterday to use turnpike authority reserves to delay the toll hike and start the clock again was a tactical disaster. Just listen:
As recently as Monday, Patrick's appointed turnpike director, Alan LeBovidge, cautioned lawmakers that delaying a toll increase by dipping into reserves or trying other short-term fixes would be irresponsible. He added that he did not want "to recommend deferring the problem to another day, to another executive director, to another generation."

In an earlier interview with the Globe, he was even blunter: "Some people think we should use our reserves. But if we use our reserves, the credit agencies will downgrade us."
Not only did he blink by contradicting LeBovidge, he's in this pickle because his supposedly politically savvy transportation secretary, Jim Aloisi, dissed Senate President Therese Murray's reasonable call for reform before revenue, by allowing a situation where his sister found herself in the middle of a debacle about a no-work job.

And the fate of the turnpike authority bonds is now in that of rating agencies -- make that Wall Street. A bad, bad place to be.

Patrick came to this job from the world of business, where executives got what they wanted by the sheer force of their will and personality. Some learn that politics is not the same environment and that accommodation is required.

Bill Weld learned that art (OK, some would say it's in his genes) cozying up with Billy Bulger; Mitt Romney did not. Deval Patrick seems to be leaving class early. Bernard Cohen, Aloisi's predecessor, seemed to have no political skills whatsoever. Aloisi lacks diplomatic skills as well as a political tin ear.

In the end, a delay will probably lead to a somewhat palatable compromise that will find a gas tax hike of under a dime, toll hikes and MBTA fare increases as well as fundamental reforms in the way the agencies do business. In effect, everyone will lose.

But the biggest loser will be Patrick, who tried to strong arm the process and failed. In spectacular fashion.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Half a loaf

Here's a simple counter offer to AIG chief executive Edward Liddy's generous offer to return half the $165 million in bonuses paid to retain the charlatans who helped plunge the world into economic turmoil.

Return half your $170 billion bailout.

What's that you say -- you can't? You have obligations to the financial institutions who bought the fraudulent financial markers you dreamed up? Should have thought about that before your started the scam.

The appalling "gesture" has also unearthed yet another example of the lack of leadership of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. It seems the Fed failed to tell the Obama administration of the looming bonus deadline three months ago.

Much of the heat being dumped on Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner then should rest with the Fed chief it seems.

Bernanke, Geithner and Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson were the authors of the AIG bailout and the Obama treasury boss therefore has some culpability in this fiasco. But Geithner was clearly the junior partner as the New York Fed chairman as the Bush team flailed from a page and a half bill giving Paulson all power to something resembling a plan.

And Bernanke's own leadership skills seem to be in question if the Fed chair failed to personally inform Geithner of the looming deadline.

There are no heroes here, including the politically wounded Geithner. But as those fingers keep getting wagged its clear much of the blame should land of the AIG (and other financial) "wizards" who engineer this scam under the noses of Paulson and Bernanke, their bosses who tolerated in the name of bonuses and fabulous wealth.

These guys deserve indictments, not cash. A basic American principle -- you get paid for that you make -- applies here. They made riches out of chaos. The should be joining Bernie Madoff in jail.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Arrogant, Intoxicated, Greedy

I can now see why Tom Wolfe pictured these guys as Masters of the Universe.

The boys at AIG (and Citigroup, and Lehman Brothers and Bear, Stearns and the long list of failed and failing Wall Street ventures) are certainly one for the record books -- ready to replace Nero for as the system of obliviousness in the face of a raging fire storm.

They still think there is a legal obligation to pay them their tainted millions even as the world they created continues to crumble around them. And if the rest of the world has to stand in line behind them, well then that's just the way it needs to be.
"We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."
It is truly hard to believe someone presiding over a company now 80 percent owned by American taxpayers as a result of the actions of the "best and the brightest" can say those words with a straight face. Even knowing they threaten to bring down what is left of the financial system they plunged into chaos.

The Masters of the Universe have built a insular little world of sycophants and luxuries based on buying and selling things few people can fathom. It was all fun and games for them until the house of cards started to fold -- largely because those tools of greed had no basis in reality.

Yet the continue to believe it is they -- and only they -- who can fix the mess. And the government? Take the trillion or so you have funneled our way to prop us up and get out of the way.

Congress. who are you anyway?
The attack by lawmakers on AIG pay has provoked renewed complaints from some financial company executives that federal involvement in business decisions is making it difficult for struggling firms to return to profitability. In particular, executives say they need to offer bonuses to keep and motivate their most valuable employees and are already seeing an exodus of talent
Rather than retain "talent," Wall Street needs to be fumigated, cleared of the arrogant, intoxicated and greedy individuals who have placed themselves above everyone.

The ultimate irony is they are now expecting enforcement of contracts made on the basis of different contracts they wrote which have proven to be not worth the paper they were written on.

The same reality should be applied to the deals they now wish to enforce by dipping their hands directly into the hands of the American people.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reform before revenue

Maybe this is what Senate President Therese Murray had in mind when she was saying the Patrick administration needed to do reform before revenue in dealing with our transportation crisis -- and why Transportation Secretary James Aloisi scornfully rejected the idea.

It certainly wasn't because she was thinking about this day off -- a holiday celebrated only in Suffolk County and giving the Massachusetts Legislature yet another day off while the clock keeps ticking to fiscal Armageddon (not to mention a Mass. Pike toll hike in two weeks).

The no-work job that made Carol Aloisi a chief of staff without staff is exactly the sort of shenanigans that send people into purple rage over the waste of taxpayer dollars. Clearly, former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was looking to do a favor for his pal, then private citizen James Aloisi.

Bad enough. But when Patrick named the controversial Aloisi became transportation secretary the stakes were raised. And they became higher still when the supposedly politically savvy male Aloisi dissed Murray's reasonable declaration that reform precede any new revenue for the transportation mess he helped to create during the Big Dig.

We can't be sure how many other no-work jobs pork up the legislative payroll. The answer should be zero. I bet it is not.

And the timing of this story could have been a whole lot better for lawmakers -- coming on Evacuation Day, the Suffolk County holiday that shutters the Statehouse and City Hall. The day the British left Boston in 1775.

St. Patrick's Day to the rest of the world -- which goes to work after celebrating on the weekend and before chugging green beer at a pub at day's end.

Meanwhile, business goes on as usual on Beacon Hill. At a snail's pace. One month after taking off for school vacation week and one month before another vacation week is upon us.

While pension and ethics reforms await legislative action. While nightmare budget scenarios unfold. While no-work elected officials get a day off.

Maybe reform before revenue is a good motto for the Legislature too.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Declaration of war?

Last week wasn't a good one for Deval Patrick -- even though he was sunning himself in Jamaica -- along with a state police protection unit. The repercussions from naming state Sen. Marian Walsh to a $175,000 job that had been vacant for a dozen years will only continue to echo around Beacon Hill.

But that may be viewed as a walk on the beach compared to Patrick's declaration that reform in the state's transportation infrastructure must accompany higher taxes, tolls and fares.

That stance has prompted public employee unions to go on red alert. To their mind, Patrick's proposals to eliminate MBTA pension perks and shift Mass. Turnpike Authority workers to a new agency without seniority rights amount to a declaration of war. So they're going first. AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes:
"I think the political implications are obvious. If we lose collective bargaining for public sector workers - for T workers, turnpike workers - I can't predict to you how bad this is politically."
Or MBTA Carmen's Union boss Steve MacDougal:

"We understand that this economy and these difficult economic times are going to require, and should probably require, public employee unions to step up, But no one seems to be giving that a shot at the bargaining table," adding if the changes get "rammed" through, "we will view them as a declaration of war against working families in our bargaining unit."

Tough words aimed at a Democratic governor who is standing for re-election in less than two years.

But that inflamed rhetoric may be the exact political elixir Patrick needs to restore is ailing poll numbers.

Can anyone doubt that the public is fed up these days -- whether it is with Wall Street or government in general. People losing their jobs are more concerned with their own survival -- and the sight of taxpayer-paid employees making out better than them only exacerbates their concerns.

There's no question that making changes through the collective bargaining process is better than legislative fiat. But you need to look no farther than the Boston unions -- police, fire and teachers -- to understand why there is skepticism that anything will be accomplished through negotiations. Check out this newspaper editorial:

Even in our 24/7, blog-and-Twitter media world, commentators can barely seem to keep up with the worsening economic conditions. Before the ink was dry on the recent federal stimulus package, experts agreed that another will be necessary. Massachusetts's leaders have revised the state's tax-revenue projections downward, and downward again, and then down even further ...

The only people who seem oblivious to the scope of the problem are the do-nothing right-wing Republicans in Washington — and the greedy, stubborn municipal employees' unions of Boston.

The Herald? The Wall Street Journal? Some right-wing rag? Nope, the Boston Phoenix, aging like the rest of its boomer base for still fighting the lefty causes.

Taking on pension systems that enable workers to "retire" after 23 years and start a new career is going to win Patrick more friends than enemies in the current climate of shared sacrifice.

Memo to Messrs. Haynes and MacDougal: Want to steal the governor's thunder? Invite him to the table with a collective bargaining proposal to share in the reforms necessary to avoid job losses in your own ranks and spare your members higher fees, fares and tolls.

Take the first step and gain the political high ground. The public is demanding sacrifice. You can be a part of the solution and stand up for your members -- or you can be the sacrificial lambs.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Indictments before bonuses

These guys make Manny Ramirez look good.

There is no other way to describe the obtuseness and sheer greed of executives at AIG after they decided to pay $165 million in bonuses to the same con men who brought the company to the federal "too big to fail" trough last year.

In what may be the first effort on the part of the company to keep a promise, AIG boss Edward Liddy says the firm had already committed to the payout, designed to retain the most skilled executives.

The same ones whose unregulated financial wheeling and dealing has caused taxpayers to pony up $170 billion to cover their markers? Let 'em go!

This latest round of fiscal idiocy makes the jokers at Citigroup look good. After all, you and I already own 80 percent of the insurance giant. Does this bozo honestly think a commitment made to people who likely perpetrated fraud is legally binding?

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Ramirez, er, Liddy, wrote:
“We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."
Tell that to the men and women who have lost their jobs as a results of the fiscal nightmare this "best and brightest talent" created.

That's the same brilliant rationalization that somehow federal TARP money is not going to pay for bonuses at companies that don't have enough cash on hand to pay for a coffee cart without taxpayer help.

It's long past time to rev up the Justice Department machinery and go after the crooks and liars who are continuing to loot the Treasury. What exactly is the problem with nationalization anyway?

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Where's my bailout?

OK, this has gone way too far.

The Times' Joe Nocera reports the victims of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme think the federal government should put them in queue with AIG, Citigroup, GM and the rest of the reckless types who have lost gazillions through investments.

And I'm sure those folks, who include really fine and upstanding people like Elie Wiesel, think their pain is greater than that of the folks who gambled and lost on subprime mortgages.

So, as a run-of-the-mill investor who put my retirement funds away in traditional mutual funds that have tanked as the stock market has headed the Hades, I have to ask -- who is going to make me whole?

I lost my money honestly -- not because I believed a true-good-to-be-true investing scheme or home mortgage deal. I did not spend lavishly on corporate jets or luxury cars or lavish spa treatment. I will put off retirement until I can afford it again.

So as the strains of Jimmy Buffett fade from the radio as I type these words, let's me paraphrase as I join Nocera and say "It's your own damn fault."

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The new Straight Talk Express

Hey, how about that Obama Recovery?

What's that you say -- a 9 percent gain on the Dow this week is hardly the sign we've all been waiting for?

I'd be the first to agree. And I'm sure the folks who script and read the GOP talking points may also have their qualms. After all, they are quick to point out he's presided over a stock market tailspin since he took office (conveniently ignoring the deep dive on the Bush watch).

Given the relentless nature and dishonesty of the GOP talking points (he's too calm, he's taking on too much, his wife's arms are inflaming the Taliban) it's good to see the White House is shifting gears and heeding the Golden Rule of Politics:

Do Unto Others As They would Do Unto You. Only Do It First.

As we near the the 30th anniversary of the Reagan Revolution, it's clear the wreckage around us is the result of conservative policies run amok -- government of, by and for the fat cat. Faced with the steaming wreckage, a thoroughly out-of-ideas (not to mention leaders) GOP continues do do the only thing it has uniformly outperformed Democrats at for 30 years: name calling.

The pathetic groveling of Michael Steele, the alleged party chairman, in the face of Rush's bluster, simply highlights the paucity of fresh ideas. and the priority of talking points nonsense.

And the importance of avoiding the mistakes of Democrats in the past -- that of ignoring the taunts and charges.

That's why Obama's refusal to follow the path of Dukakis, Gore and Kerry is refreshing (and not demeaning, as Bush's Turd Blossom has tried to spin):
"By any measure," he said during a March 4 event calling for government-contracting reform, "my administration has inherited a fiscal disaster."
Who is really running the Straight Talk Express these days?

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Bonus-enhancing performance?

Apparently John Thain and his Wall Street cronies are not the only ones who fail to understand the concept behind performance bonuses.

The board of directors of Unitil Corp. a tiny Central Massachusetts utility no one ever heard of until its customers went without power for two weeks after a December ice storm, apparently thought Robert G. Schoenberger did a bang up job. The awarded him a nearly $300,000 bonus for "exceeding" 2008 performance goals.

The nearly $150,000 for week week of the outage that, you may recall, took place in 2008. But it's perfectly logical. The smallest percentage of his incentive award, 10 percent, was based on customer satisfaction, while the largest, 25 percent, was tied to company earnings.

No word on what Schoenberger purchased with the bonus. Or if the bonus would have jumped again if power had stayed out longer.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Beacon Hill Follies

What were you thinking Sal? Or you Deval? And Bobbie makes three.

The commonwealth is sinking deeper and deeper into a sea of red ink, tax talk is heavy in the air even though people are being laid off left, right and sideways. And there's the ever-present stench of the Big Dig debt hanging heavy in the air.

Despite all of this, you guys see fit to go with business as usual -- the kind of business that inflames the body politic in good times -- spending public cash on raises and new jobs for friends and supporters.

The legislative leaders past and present are easier to understand. DeMasi was walking out the door, pushed actually, and he was taking care of his friends. The repercussions, if any, hardly hold a candle to all the other stuff piled up on his ethics plate and Sal is loyal to his people.

DeLeo can mentally justify raises for staff taking on new responsibilities.

But Patrick, placing a political loyalist in a $175,000 public job that has been vacant for 12 years -- a job that carries that salary despite only being an "assistant director"? At the same time you are pushing for a 19-cent a gallon jump in the gasoline tax?

Where did you leave your brains? Here's the Globe:
Governor Deval Patrick, who campaigned on a platform to fight business as usual on Beacon Hill, has given one of his earliest political supporters a $175,000-a-year job as an assistant director at a state bonding authority, a position that had sat vacant for more than a dozen years.
That was the kinder, gentler version, compared to the Herald:
Outrage is sweeping Beacon Hill after Gov. Deval Patrick quietly slipped a $175,000 plum job to a political pal while squeezing taxpayers to pay more for less from the debt-ridden state government.

Asking citizens to fork over 19 cents more per gallon at the gas pump while bracing for cuts of cops and teachers, Patrick awarded supporter Marian Walsh the pricey plum as assistant executive director of the state’s Health and Educational Facilities Authority.

Toss in your Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi mocking Senate President Therese Murray's insistence on reform before revenues and I'd say your chances of getting a tax increase anytime soon is about equal to Bernie Madoff paying back the $50 billion.

No offense to Marian Walsh, who had a solid record in the Senate and always led with her conscience -- until she also displayed an unbelievable tin ear.

But the buck does stop (or start) with Patrick. And the reality is this piece of political folly makes the drapes and the car and the book contract seem minor.

I bet Treasurer Timmie stopped licking his own self-inflicted wounds long enough to chortle.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ditherin' and dawdlin'

I don't get a good feeling watching what's happening on Beacon Hill these days.

The water is starting to pour in through every tiny crack, threatening to swamp the boat and send it plummeting to the bottom of the sea. And the first mate is saying that using a thimble to bail is good enough for now.

I sympathize with the fact that House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy has been on the job for only about a month, thanks to the reshuffle that followed former House Speaker Sal DiMasi poorly timed exit into the private sector.

But time is a luxury, -- as his Senate counterpart Steven Panagiotakis points out -- while the state's fiscal 2009 deficit, already plugged with a $1.4 billion patch and awaiting action on a Patrick administration plan to plug another $1 billion hole, continues to balloon.
"It's a free fall," said Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "The world economy is tanking faster than we can comprehend."
And that's just the current budget.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who has not been known for hare-like speed in crafting legislation, submitted another round of "9c" cuts in late January, the same time that he produced his FY10 budget proposal.

While the hard-working behind-the-scenes analysts at both ways and means committees are no doubt burning the midnight oil crunching numbers, the public face is inaction while the problem keeps getting worse.

We are now close to three-quarters of the way through the year. Patrick's first round of proposals came in the first quarter and were painful based on what had already been legally spent. This round will be worse, with each passing day making it harder still.

Murphy, who "won" the plum assignment when his predecessor, Robert DeLeo moved up to speaker, tries to talk a good game and says he wants to wait for March and April revenue projections.
"It is all about trying to predict the future, and no one can at this point," said Murphy, a Burlington Democrat. "I can't say if it is understated or overstated. We just at this point differ on projections."
That would be May -- with two months or less left in the fiscal year. My 401k may not be as accurate predictor as the models budget analysts use but even I can see a trend line. And if I need reinforcement, all I need to do is look at the Dow-Jones. Or the staggering increases in the unemployment numbers.

Capital gains taxes, which amount to too much of the state's revenue base, are and will continue to be in the tank. Income and sales tax revenues will head down as people lose jobs and pull back on spending. The state's share of the stimulus is not going to make this nightmare go away.

Lawmakers face the ultimate nightmare scenario. They are going to need to slash programs AND raise taxes. In a deep recession there is no political mileage in proposing serious solutions. Just ask Patrick.

But ditherin' and dawdlin' won't make it easier. In fact it will only make it worse. It is long past time for the House to move on the 9C cuts and change from a thimble to major pumps to bail out the sinking ship.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

These are the fiscal experts?

Day after day, hour after hour the conservative commentariat is trying to hang the economic nightmare on Barack Obama. They argue that Wall Street (the men and men who got us into this mess) don't have confidence in the Obama plan as exemplified by the steep dive in the stock market since Jan. 20.

Explain this please.

Citigroup is reporting a strong fiscal quarter, nay an actual profit. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it was taxpayer money flowing into their coffers and staying there instead of going back out in loans, how did this happen all of a sudden?

Was it a result of the money spent on front page ads in the New York Times and full-page ads elsewhere? Solid business decisions in a vibrant world economic market?

Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit offered this vague answer:
He said the bank was profitable through January and February, when it generated a combined $19 billion in revenue thanks to strong trading results and fatter lending margins.
The stock market, the excellent barometer on Obama policies, reacted like a kid on a sugar fix after Halloween.
“We poor investors, we don’t need much to make us happy, we’ve been beat up so hard,” said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research. “At this point we’ll take whatever we can get.”
Yep, a few pieces of candy after a bag full of apples and razor blades.

The market is a barometer of nothing more than the bipolar nature of traders who are out for a buck. It does not offer political analysis, despite Obama's comparison of the Dow Jones to a daily tracking poll -- which by the way has better margins of error.

The GOP's efforts to use the Dow Jones as a political poll is just more of the no-new ideas campaign from "leaders" who have forgotten how to lead.

But how Citigroup could actually turn a profit, even a tiny one, and send the stock market soaring for a day, suggests how we make a huge mistake if we rely on the "expertise" of the folks who got us to where we are now in the first place.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How about a car wash?

Two-plus months into a new year that is destined to go down as one of the most brutal in state budget history, there's finally been some movement spotted on Beacon Hill.

A bake sale. And in the spirit of the times, the House Ways and Means Committee is poised to reject a Patrick administration proposal to tax sweets.

The MBTA Riders Union sweets table was a tongue-in-cheek effort to jump start moribund policymakers who are dithering while the economy continues to circle the drain. But the timing got me to thinking -- particularly after I rode an MBTA bus so dirty that it was impossible to see out the window.

Maybe we are going about this all wrong. Maybe we can all chip and help the T hold a bus wash -- proceeds going to knock down the fare increases being threatened unless the Legislature does something, anything to deal with the transportation infrastructure nightmare this state faces.

Or maybe we can go out to the barn and put on a show. It would still be more than lawmakers have accomplished. Other than running their mouths on why the don't like Patrick's proposal.

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Tanned, rested and ready

Republicans desperate for a candidate to replace Ronald Reagan in 1988 offered up a T-shirt that hearkened to a slogan from a decade earlier: "He's Tanned, Rested and Ready: Nixon in '88."

Instead of Tricky Dick, the GOP tapped George H.W. Bush. It wasn't a happy marriage, but it was successful, at least for a term.

After months in the proverbial GOP weeds (no undocumented alien gardeners allowed), Our Man Myth is hoping to reclaim that legacy. Well, he's certainly tanned.

Although it is entirely too early to even think about 2012, conservative activists are trying to peddle the line that the seven-week-old Obama administration is a failure that will lead their party to better days again.

That early line has focused on promoting such young "talent" as Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal. It's even brought out of the woods a 14-year-old Georgia teen totally lacking in life experience yet being touted as a serious pundit. I guess Alex P. Keaton wasn't available.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So with such a dearth of talent -- Rush excluded -- it's only natural that the man from Michigan-Utah-Massachusetts-Utah-and-California should reemerge from his own cave and hang around hoping to be noticed.

Heck, if nothing else, he'll soon be able to call enough states home that he could challenge in the Electoral College.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and Romney certainly has the money to spend on fostering his dream. It will be fascinating to watch and see how Myth morphs over the next few years to adapt to the political climate.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Class warfare

Times are tough all over -- including in the battle for that ever-shrinking commodity known as newspaper readers. The lead stories in today's Boston newspapers show show just how tough -- as well as the underlying editorial mindset of the Globe and the Herald.

Pick up the broadsheet and you get a look at how municipal employee contracts "put a strain" on local budgets through longevity pay the Globe says is a rare commodity in the private sector.

Pick up the tabloid and you read about business leaders who "self serve" by backing a 25-cent a gallon gasoline tax even though they "won't feel pump pain."

The Globe story is bound to raises the hackles of union members -- assuming they even read what the Herald loves to call The Boring Broadsheet. The attention of those folks will be squarely focused on the fat cat suburbanites (such as Globe editors?) intent on yanking away a collectively bargained perk.

The business leaders who are the target of the Herald story will barely notice -- they probably stopped buying the paper years ago. They know they were interviewed and someone will probably toss a clip on their desks.

Class warfare is nothing new in the news business -- it's been practiced for as long as printing presses have been around. The Herald's brand is more common -- and the newspaper has long had Howie Carr as its (very highly paid) voice of the underclass.

The Globe has also had its moments -- even though Mike Barnicle was often forced to create some of his more "poignant" stories of the little guy getting screwed.

But the Globe has never really made public employees salaries a focus, certainly compared to the Herald's online postings. The editors would likely declare today's story a fair examination of the problems faced by government in attempting to rein in costs.

Herald editors, on the other hand, would suggest it is attacking the men and women at the bottom of the ladder and failing to hold those with real power accountable for the "solutions' they propose. Forgot about the fact they probably include many of those salaries in the databases.

All in all, a very good day to show why newspapers are still relevant -- and why Boston is blessed to still have two of them, no matter how precarious their own finances are.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Shovel-ready reporter

Political reporters pride themselves on their need to carry a proverbial shovel to be able to deal with the ahem, muck, that is often strewn about them.

So it's a bit of a surprise that the Herald's enterprising reporter doesn't understand the concept of "shovel ready" that has been bandied about throughout the stimulus bill process by both Barack Obama and Deval Patrick.

In today's column he waxes pseudo-indignantly that "you may not be able to afford gas or tolls, along with your skyrocketing grocery, insurance and utility bills. But we’ll all be driving on fantastic roads and riding in shiny trains and buses..."

Memo to reporter and desk: these projects will enable some people, particularly those who work construction and read the Herald, to go back to work and make the money for pay for the grocery, insurance and utility bills that went through the roof thanks to the foolish actions of Globe-reading financial services executives.

Did I clear away enough of the muck?

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

RIP Mr. Speaker

George Keverian was as great a public servant as he was a lousy politician.

The former Massachusetts House Speaker, who passed away Friday at the age of 77, had a heart as big as the waistline he battled most of his life. His sense of humor was dry bit very sharp and acerbic. Some newspaper columnists chose to attack him on his appearance, ignoring the underlying goodness.

The Everett Democrat started the recent trend of ousting sitting speakers -- although his predecessor, Thomas McGee of Lynn, did not go willingly, reneging on a promise to turn the gavel over to his majority leader. The fight shook the roots of the House.

I was a political cub reporter in those days. Keverian's successful pitch was based on the shocking concept that legislatures are "small d" democracies and that he would bring openness and debate to the lower chamber.

He did -- and ironically it was his undoing.

His first major test was the economic collapse of the late '80s, the end of the Dukakis Massachusetts Miracle. Since the Massachusetts constitution requires all revenue and spending bills originate in the House, it was the paramount figure in dealing with the crisis.

But Keverian's leadership style -- to let the members and their chairmen and women make the decisions -- was ill-suited to the times. Tough actions on where the cut and what taxes to raise were delayed as lawmakers quibbled.

It was only after the House finally acted after endless squabbling did things start to happen. Why? Because the bill moved over to the Senate, presided over then by the anything but small d Democrat named William M. Bulger.

The Senate President's iron fist broke the logjam (in the now infamous words of then-Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy) and started the state on the road to recovery. The tax package that emerged helped to elect William F. Weld and three more Republicans as governor -- but also gave them the money they needed to get the state moving again.

Keverian tried and failed in a bid for state treasurer, then happily returned to his roots as a local official in his beloved Everett.

I always thought Keverian was too decent a man for the job of speaker. He practiced inclusion in an environment that sometimes demanded quick (and unpopular action). Bulger's tactics were more appropriate for the time and its no surprise that every speaker who followed Keverian had a touch of iron fist. Some of them wrapped it in a velvet glove.

The sharpest irony is that Keverian was the first of the succession of speakers to brush up against ethics laws. His sin -- an appearance of a conflict of interest for hiring a Statehouse employee (at full wages) to do home repairs for him -- was laughable in comparison to the litany that has followed Charles Flaherty, Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi.

And Keverian's leadership style points out a real potential nightmare as the current Legislature fails to come to speedy grips with the crisis Massachusetts faces today. There's no time to leisurely analyze and decide to act.

Rest in peace Mr. Speaker.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Kick 'em when they're down

There's an old line that says if you want a friend in politics, get a dog. The Massachusetts Republican Party should consider visiting a kennel real soon.

Newspapers always insist there is a bright line between news and editorial pages and the Boston Herald proves that today with not one, but two body blows in the news section to the party with which it has editorial page sympatico.

With another one of those stinging staff graphics (above), Statehouse reporter Hillary Chabot first takes on the GOP's Senate "leadership." You know the five guys who make up the entire delegation and could fit in the phone booth outside the fourth floor Senate gallery (if it's still even there).

It seems every member of the delegation carries a "leadership" title -- and the requisite pay increase that goes with it. They even have an "assistant minority whip" (kinky?), prompting some payback from one-time Jane Swift honcho Steve Crosby.
“It’s a joke. There’s nobody to whip. This is the kind of thing where, if the Democrats were doing it, the Republicans would send out a snippy press release.”
You have to give Crosby his moment in the sun on this one. The (most recent) downturn in party fortunes came when a slick-haired businessman swooped in from Utah, stole the Corner Office from Crosby's bumbling boss and -- after a campaign in which his efforts led to a decrease in GOP legislative membership -- headed right back out on a presidential campaign that made Massachusetts the butt of his jokes.

Which brings us back to the question of why a party with only five members needs five leaders raking in an extra $80,000 a year in taxpayer cash to rail against the majority party's spending habits.

To make matters worse, as Chabot reminds us, there is an equally ineffective Massachusetts Republican Party that continues to file ethics commission complaints that go absolutely nowhere. I'm only surprised the usually snappy Herald headline writers missed the obvious: the GOP has loud bark, but no tusks.

Party spokesman Barney Keller, in a bit of irony I am sure was lost on him, blames the lack of action on the fact the commission is short of funding.
“I understand the ethics committee has limited resources, but we feel like every complaint we file has merit,” Keller said. “It’s our job to hold politicians responsible for their actions.”
Like collecting "leadership" pay without providing any?

Hey guys, I may see the light at the end of the tunnel for you: Tim Cahill. He's looking at the Corner Office in 2010 and his media offensive this week has been straight out of the GOP playbook.

Maybe you can bring in national party leader Rush Limbaugh for your next fund-raiser? Or bring back Mitt?

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Not Ready for Prime Time

Perhaps the worst kept secret on Beacon Hill is Treasurer Tim Cahill's political ambitions, followed closely by the antagonism between his camp and that of Gov. Deval Patrick.

So it's hardly shocking that as Cahill offer his semi-annual foray into matters beyond the balance sheet that he was "coaxed" into admitting that his earlier demurrals about challenging Patrick -- perhaps as a Democratic, maybe as an independent -- may be inoperative.

While Cahill dodged the question in a NECN interview with Jim Braude, he was a little more coy with the Globe's Frank Phillips:

...[I]n a telephone interview yesterday, [Cahill] said that he has made no decisions about his future and that he has not discussed his potential plans with what he referred to as his political committee. But he did not close the door on any options.

"Unless the party throws me out, I expect to run as a Democrat, if I run," Cahill said. He also pointed out his sometimes rough relationship with party leaders and activists since he first ran for treasurer in 2002, adding, "If the Democrats throw me out, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Last summer you may recall, Cahill offered commentary on "Taj Mahal" schools, the life sciences bill and the Turnpike Authority. Not suggestions, Just commentary. We also learned he "administrative challenges" in running the lottery and may have what can now euphemistically call a "DiMasi problem." For the full compendium, click here.

Now he's back with a proposal for three slots parlors as a counter to Patrick's full resort casinos. Problem is, the proposal has more holes in it than Commonwealth Avenue: unrealistic estimates on revenues and licensing fees. Not to mention an industry in recession and not looking to pay what it would have even a year ago to set up shop in Massachusetts.
Cahill's numbers for slot machines were based on an underlying flaw, an assumption that each slot machine would produce profit of $275 per day, which is probably too optimistic, specialists said. Cahill used that number in a financial analysis to conclude that prospective bidders would agree to pay between $665 million and $1.1 billion each in upfront fees for a license.
And oh yeah, another oopsie:
Cahill also encountered problems on a second major proposal, a plan to privatize the state lottery that he unveiled yesterday morning. It is a move that has been contemplated by other states, but which the US Department of Justice has said would violate federal law.
If you want to challenge Patrick's ideas, don't make the same mistake of using unseasonably sunny numbers. When gambling guru Clyde Barrow of UMass calls you out on rosy projections you really have a problem.

And definitely limit yourself to legal solutions.

Patrick is ripe for a challenge. His casino proposal generated unhappiness in his base and the coming months are going to be unmitigated hell with everyone from cops to senior citizens hurling names at him for an economic calamity that he didn't cause but is expected to solve without new taxes or service cuts.

His problem solving proposals take too long to come together -- but at least they don't resemble the Swiss cheese options (or non-options) that have emanated from the Treasury.

Cahill is an ambitious pol eying the next rung. He's seeing the end of his second term and anxious to move one. One problem -- not much of a record to speak of, certainly not in areas that will keep voters awake.

And based on the casino and lottery proposals (and last summer's non-solutions) Treasurer Tim still ain't ready for prime time. Right now, I'd take Patrick's tortoise over Cahill's hare.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The lure of the quick fix

Maybe our elected officials aren't as different as we think they are.

Treasurer Tim Cahill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have now joined Gov. Deval Patrick on his previously lonely gambling bandwagon. Cahill in fact managed a backflip while signing on -- seeing quick cash in (sort of) dumping the state lottery he runs.

Politics being what it is -- Patrick is not as enamored as legislative leaders with Cahill's new brain child -- slots parlors -- sticking to his idea of mixing Wayne Newton with his gambling opportunities.

Cahill has proposed that the state sell the rights to as many as three slot parlors, bringing in what he estimates would be up to $244 million annually through a 27 percent tax on revenue from the slots. In addition, licensing fees for 15- to 20-year operating rights could bring in between $2 billion and $3.3 billion in up-front payments.

Treasurer Tim has regularly dismissed suggestions he is gearing up for a challenge to Patrick next year, but his newest foray into making policy rather than managing money leaves few convinced, particularly Patrick.

But he had some eager acolytes at a legislative hearing and at power lunches.
"It's been an issue which I've been talking about for a number of years," he said, before entering a luncheon forum at Locke Ober. "To have the treasurer bring it back to the forefront of the discussion is something I'm very interested in. I've always been in favor of slots at the racetracks."
Murray was a bit more reserved.
"If they're real, I'll take them," Murray said of Cahill's revenue estimates from slots, adding that she was open to looking at the idea further.
The changed economic climate gave Patrick the chance to take the high road he avoided during his battle for resort casinos.
"It seemed like the human costs would be less in the resort setting, and that the benefits would be greater," Patrick told reporters yesterday morning, adding later, "Whatever we do or not do is going to be with us for a while."
Yeah, but is any of this talk real?
"Two years ago they would have been flooded with applications. Right now the people who want to do it - I don't know if they can do it," David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said when told of Cahill's proposal.
What's perhaps more interesting than Cahill's foray into revenue generation is his flip-flop on the State Lottery, the agency is he charged with running. Two years ago, he labeled a Bill Weld proposal to privatize the lottery a "quick fix" and said it would not be in the state's interests.

Today, he touts that quick fix as $1 billion in upfront money and $900 million a year to cities and towns over 50 years.

Not to mention one less agency for him to fret over while running for governor.

Mr. Speaker wasn't buying this one though.
“You have to weigh the short-term benefits with the long-term benefits. I think with respect to the Lottery, once we get out of the economic problem we find ourselves in, hopefully that’s going to turn around and be more fruitful and then in the long run keeping it in state control will be more beneficial.”
You just keep thinkin' Timmie. That's what you're good at.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Time for a dithering tax?

It will cost a whole lot more to drive to the slots parlor if a couple of ideas floated on Beacon Hill come to pass.

On a day that the state posted another plunging revenue collection report, the stock market tanked -- again -- and the Associated Press thought it appropriate to run a story on when recession turns into depression, the state's "elites" came up with two separate proposals to raise almost $900 million annually.

Treasure Tim Cahill says three slots-only parlors across the commonwealth could generate upwards of $244 million annually -- with far less muss and fuss than full-fledged casinos. His proposal was leaked in advance of a speech to the elites at the Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Not to be too cynical about Treasure Tim (OK, maybe a little), the proposal looks a lot like one-upmanship in his "non-challenge" to Deval Patrick. Since the governor may be mulling a restoration of his request for three casinos, why not trump him, so to speak?

This cynicism stems from the fact that Las Vegas is hurting as badly as every other industry and doesn't seem to be in the mood to expansion (and paying state's handsomely for the opportunity).

Or perhaps the treasurer didn't read the Globe interview with Vegas mogul and Massachusetts homie Sheldon Adelson.

But say some form of gambling comes to pass. A 25-cent a gallon increase in the gasoline tax -- proposed by the very same Boston Chamber among others -- would one-up the 19-cent hike proposed by Patrick.

Like the already elitist proposal before the Legislature, this would would also demand serious reforms in the state's transportation management infrastructure as a pre-condition for doing business. Estimates suggest it could generate around $650 million

You see a theme developing here?

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steven Baddour of Methuen (a short drive from New Hampshire) has already labeled the gasoline tax hike a product of the Boston elites. The reaction among Herald readers would certainly back that suggestion up.

But if we are going to make this into a regional and class warfare thing, aren't slots an even greater "voluntary" tax on the any who doesn't raise his or her hand and proudly call themselves Boston elites?

A couple of weeks ago, at the tail end of the hard-working Legislature's school vacation week, I suggested fewer words and more action might be in order. And that lawmakers and elected officials consider a tax on their own verbiage and for dithering while the state slides deeper into the hole.

That tax would be raking in some real great cash today. And it would hit hardest at the "elites."

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Rush to judgment

Glad to see Rush Limbaugh is ever vigilant in preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution.

After eight years of silence as George Bush shredded the document through the abrogation of civil and legal rights (not to mention a few international crimes like torture) the OxyKing thrilled his minions during a 90-minute bloviation in which he proclaimed that Barack Obama has "bastardized" the Constitution.

The leader of the Republican Party continues to happily announce he wants Obama to fail -- his choice. But it would be nice if he offered something other than tired and old failed policies that got us into the mess we are currently in.

And it would also be nice if the "loyal opposition" could come up with something more productive than a cheap stunt like deep frying the Obama budget proposal.

But then again, I guess that's a fair and balanced" analysis.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sticks and stones

Who says Republicans don't have new ideas on how to influence the debate in Washington and across the nation.

Not content to sit on their mantra that this is a center-right nation -- despite the results of the last election -- the GOP has trotted new a new buzzword to replace liberalism as the ultimate evil: socialism.

And to prove conservatives indeed have new ideas, the New York Times introduces us to the big thinker who will lead the movement away from its sticky association with George Bush.

Let's do the time warp again!

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Cars aren't the solution

The Boston Globe focuses on two failed downtowns today (when did Hartford become part of the Globe's Metro area?) I'm not well-versed enough in Hartford's problems to comment, but to answer the other question "Would car traffic bring back the crowds?" to Downtown Crossing the answer is NO.

Jordan Marsh. Filene's. Barnes & Noble. Or for older timers -- Gilchrist's and other names I only heard about. Retail. That's what would bring the area back.

That and taking back bad decisions such as building an urban fortress on Washington Street that housed the uninviting and ill-fated Lafayatte Mall and is now home to an Eddie Bauer outlet and taco shop and heaven knows what else.

It also has a hole in the ground where Filene's used to be, an empty building that housed a major bookstore. One of its principal attraction is a "record store," not exactly a growth business.

Discount clothes and shoe outlets are interesting. But let's be blunt. They don't draw the same clientele as the upscale shops that now populate the Prudential and Copley Square malls where retailers have gravitated.

Downtown Crossing is served by three MBTA lines and has a distinct lack of parking. Add in the narrow sidewalks and Bostonians penchant to think traffic laws apply to the other guy and gal and there's no reason to think cars will make a difference.

Retail options will.

The future of Downtown Crossing should be a prime issue in the 2009 mayoral election -- presuming of course that Tom Menino emerges from his bunker to face off against challengers Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon and Kevin McCrea.

The area has deteriorated under Menino's watch. Not all of it can be attributed to him, certainly not Macy's gobbling up both Jordan Marsh and Filene's. But other decisions made -- and not made at City Hall -- are clearly in play.

Bringing cars back to Downtown Crossing makes as much sense to revitalizing downtown and moving City Hall to the Seaport.

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