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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tradition!

Forgive me if I'm skeptical about the prospects for serious legislative reform of pensions and ethics, not when a majority of the Massachusetts Senate can't seem find the resolve to eliminate two Suffolk County holidays and save a paltry $5 million.

Rather we are treated to the histrionic excess of South Boston Democrat Jack Hart taking to the floor to question what treachery lies ahead:
"If we eliminate these holidays today in Suffolk County, then what's next?" asked Senator Jack Hart, a Democrat, during last week's budget debate. "Do we eliminate maybe Presidents' Day? Do we eliminate July Fourth? Why don't we get rid of Thanksgiving? Why don't we think about getting rid of Christmas?"
And not to be outdone by his own excess, Hart threatens Massachusetts Civil War, a challenge to those west of Worcester who are already being asked to pay for the ineptitude of management at the Big Dig and the MBTA.
"I don't know what kind of history you have outside in Ham[p]den and Hampshire [counties], but we have real history here in the city," Hart said. "We have great history here in Suffolk County, and we are not afraid to celebrate it."
On the public's dime.

I never used to get overly worked up over Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day -- even if I was amazed at the purely historic coincidence that the British chose to evacuate Boston on the same day St. Patrick is celebrated from driving the snakes from Ireland. Government employee get paid less than those in private sector, so what's the difference?

But today the state is bleeding cash and many of those same public employees are pulling down pensions those of us in the private sector can only dream about. Lawmakers show no inclination, at this point, of ending their pension perks anytime in the next quarter century.

The difference is now important. These two days reportedly cost about $5 million in salaries and overtime -- and inconvenience if you need to get a driver's license to transact some other form of public business in Suffolk County.

The lack of perspective by Hart -- the current host of the increasingly unfunny St. Patrick's Day breakfast -- is bad enough. The fact that Democrats outside of Suffolk County failed to see the symbolism is just as galling.

I hope we start to see county-specific holidays sprout up across the Commonwealth (although I thought we abolished counties years ago as a cost-saving measure?) For instance, Treasurer Tim can celebrate his Norfolk County roots with a day off to celebrate the birth of John F. Kennedy in Brookline.

Failing that he can move to restore Roxbury and Dorchester to Norfolk County and get into the fun too.

And Hart would also do well to remember a bit of Massachusetts history. After all, Shay's Rebellion was centered in Hampden County. Or was school closed on the day that lesson came up?

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Groping for answers on the MBTA

I don't know which is a bigger surprise -- that the MBTA has its own police academy or that there are allegations of misconduct surrounding it. Wait a minute. Am I really surprised that anything surrounding the T is run poorly?

Another week brings another federal investigation into the MBTA. First its was the National Transportation Safety Board looking into the Green Line accident caused by a texting motorman. This week it's the FBI looking into allegations of sexual misconduct involving female cadets and superior officers.

When is Smilin' Dan going to go?

I suppose the smart aleck response is the allegations are really training for what is apparently the most popular crime on the T -- groping. But the allegations under review are too serious for smart aleck responses.

While that investigation is, happily, out from under the jurisdiction of the MBTA Police, I have a bigger question -- why is there a separate training academy for T cops, which, the Globe reports, opened in 1998 and usually trains two classes of about 100 students each year for 800 hours over six months.

The answer may be this:

More than 100 police departments have sent recruits to the academy. Outside agencies pay the MBTA $3,100 per candidate.

The Globe reported on Monday the existence of yet another police training academy, this one for municipal police officers that hasn't launched a training class in more than six months. And these two are on top of training academies in Boston, some larger cities and the State Police.

As the legislative conference committee sits down to close a chasm of a fiscal 2010 state budget gap -- and the T threatens to cut 20 percent of its workforce to close its own $160 million shortfall -- isn't some consolidation in order?

Maybe we funnel all the business to the MBTA academy to head off a fare increase? And we could also keep the Green Line groper-free.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

32 Words

The punditocracy has spoken: the full legal portfolio of federal Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor is irrelevant. It all comes down to 32 words.

Let's start with Newt Gingrich, remember him? He's the conservative former House Speaker who carried on a jihad against Bill Clinton over the ex-president's affair with Monica Lewinsky -- while having an affair himself. And that wasn't the one where he stepped out on his cancer-stricken wife.

But the Newtster -- who along with Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh pass for leaders of the Republican Party -- is bent out of shape over 32 words in a Sotomayor 2001 speech from 2001:
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Why she has empathy! Off with her head! Why can't she be more like a white male who cheated on two wives but was in high dudgeon when another white male of a different political party did something similar.

Yep, Newt is opting for the ultimate affirmative action -- keeping the Supreme Court safe for white men.

But Gingrich could not succeed without the indulgence of the Washington press corps -- always on the prowl for the "gotcha" story -- because it is so much easier than doing the digging to get at her record.

Witness this piece of opinion by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank who, since we are into gender issues, is the snarky male version of Maureen Dowd. He thinks it falls to Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs to single-handedly save the nomination:

Gibbs ducked again, telling the reporters that the speech was "about the unique experiences that she has" and again recommending people "look at her whole record" in its "totality."

"You're not spinning us," [ABC News White House Correspondent Jake] Tapper complained. "We're asking you, spin us! Explain what you think she meant."

"I have done that," Gibbs said.

But he'll have to do better to make the 32 words go away

There you have it -- from Newt's mouth to Milbank's word processor. It doesn't matter where she stands on abortion, guns, presidential power or business regulation. If the Obama spinmeister can't convince the denizens of the press room, she's doomed.

And you wonder why newspapers are losing circulation? They've tuned out this trash passing for analysis.

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Beacon Hill Amateur Hour

Looking for a silver lining amid all the clouds that are making it feel more like November than May? How about the fact that when it comes to brazen, incompetent politicians, we have a long way to go?

Sure the state's transportation system is circling the drain as our legislators preen. Yes, lobbyists are far from "irrelevant" in anticipation of Senate President Terry Murray's "ka-ching" moment. Uh-huh, Rep. Gloria Fox seems to be writing a new definition of "constituent relations."

But at least we're not Illinois. We have people gearing up for U.S. Senate seat vacancies the traditional way, by raising their profile. They are looking for people to write checks to them -- not the other way around.

I'm not sure there is a pol in Massachusetts brazen enough to be caught on tape talking about vacant Senate seats and writing checks to the appointing authority -- and then claim the tape is vindication.

Sen. Roland Burris, who sits in the seat once held by Barack Obama, looks to be ready to prove correct another high-profile senator from Illinois who moved into the White House. After all, it was Abraham Lincoln who said:
"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."
Let's go to the tape:

In speaking with Robert Blagojevich, who served as his brother’s top fund-raiser, Mr. Burris seemed to contemplate ways to raise money for the governor without creating a public perception that he was trying to buy the Senate seat. Perhaps he could write a check, he said at one point. At another, he said, “I might be able to do this in the name of” his law partner, who, he added, “is not looking for an appointment.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what the best way to do where it won’t create any conflict for either one of us,” he said, ultimately pledging that he would “personally do something” and “it’ll be done before the 15th of December.”

Yes, that does appear to be smoke coming from the barrel of that weapon.

So cheer up. We may have fun with the missteps of Deval Patrick or the friends of Sal DiMasi and Tim Cahill, but we haven't come close to having a clown like Burris. Yet.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

45 seconds for safety

Gov. Deval Patrick has ordered a long overdue review of the MBTA's safety practices. Hopefully it will include the No. 1 safety problem: T General Manager Dan Grabauskas.

Smilin' Dan insists an automated crash avoidance system will slow down operation of the Green Line during peak periods -- when trains enter and leave stations every 30 seconds. As a non-rider, Grabauskas can be forgiven for not knowing that usually happens only when trains bunch up because nothing has entered or left a station for five minutes before all coming at once.

As a Green Line rider, I'd prefer a system that smooths out the gaps in arrival times and ensures that the trains don't bunch up and crash into each other.

The Globe also reported that, after some initial kinks, light rail vehicles in San Francisco's Muni system now enter and leave stations 75 seconds apart. I'd be willing to linger an extra 45 seconds in sumptuous Boylston Street station to make sure my trolley isn't going to ram another one.

What I really would like to see is a system that changes the rule of thumb that says the slowest line is the one you are riding. One that prevents a stream of Heath Street cars in a row when you are heading to Cleveland Circle.

I'd even pay a higher fare for that one. Talk about a safe bet I won't need to deliver on.

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Refreshing candor

Senate President Terry Murray is speaking her mind again, with a bit of refreshing if infuriating candor: the 25 percent increase in the sales tax is not going to be a solution to the Mass. Pike problems and toll hikes are still likely.
“It’s not going to be enough for really anything going forward.”
So, like the Massachusetts Highway System and the penny-on-the-sales tax earmark for the MBTA before it, the Legislature is proposing a stop-gap expediency that will punt the essential reform down the road.

It also appears likely to be a pooch punt. Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundations President Mike Widmer estimates the "solution" is only good for two years.
“It would head off the need for this toll increase, but not toll increases going forward.”
Do lawmakers think the economy will improve enough in two years so taxpayers/toll payers will tolerate another increase? If so, they must reading something different from the rest of us. Or are they just looking to dodge the reform bullet yet againn in the hope something magical happens again?

Isn't time for a solution that really solves a problem?

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The hits just keep on coming

Let me see if I got this straight: The Herald randomly selects 30 MBTA operators under the age of 30 and 29 of them have accidents and violations on their records?

Does that organization do any employment screening in a key area of interest?

Heaven knows bad driving is a way of life around here, something we almost wear as a badge of honor. But should the people who operate our buses, trolleys and trains be among the leaders in that dubious distinction?

I mean isn't that the 180-degree opposite of hiring the right person for the job for an organization that is supposed the safely transport people from Point A to Point B?

It's not a lot of comfort to me that the Herald selected operators under 30. After all, depending how old they were when they were hired, many of them can depart for greener pastures at the age of 43.

It's a sad statement that so many of us driving badly as a badge of honor. But should those Massholes be responsible for the lives of innocent people on their vehicle -- and those of other people on the road?

What are the hiring standards related to moving violations anyway?

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Enough already!

Why is it that the MBTA has billions set aside for a tunnel no one wants but can't seem to come up with the cash for a safety program?

These are trying times for Smilin' Dan Grabauskas, what with Green Line crashes and total system power failures. And while the MBTA's general manager had excuses for each inexcusable screw-up, he seems to have nothing to say about the latest piece of news: a plan to install anti-crash technology on the Green Line is already six months behind schedule.

Must be because he figures that any story about delays on the Green Line is not news.

The failings of the regional transit authority in general and the Green Line in particularly sadly does amount to old news. Delayed or non-existent service. Surly "service." Costly overruns in rebuilding underground stations.

But we achieved a watershed in the May 8 crash that sent almost 50 people to the hospital because the Green Line operator was too busy texting to notice a train stopped in front of him. The tally for that mishap -- where thankfully no one died -- is pushing $10 million in medical claims and damaged equipment.

But Smilin' Dan firmly believes banning cell phones from bus, subway and trolley operators is the simple, cheap -- and only -- solution.

We hear constantly that the Green Line is an ancient and complicated system that can't readily adapt to modern equipment. Only problem is the failsafe device in question has been around for 30 years. Isn't that enough time to adapt?

Not when "internal politics" enters the fray.
...The day after a MBTA operator Ter'rese Edmonds died in a crash last year, retired MBTA engineer John Weiser wrote a letter to Grabauskas, urging him to consider an updated signal system.

Weiser said he had helped investigate more than a dozen Green Line crashes in his time at the T from 1978 through 2004, and more than 1,200 derailments. Often, his recommendations for an updated signal system were scrubbed from the final report "due to internal politics," he wrote in his letter to Grabauskas.

Grabauskas did not respond to the letter; [Spokesman Joe] Pesaturo said he did not have a record that he received it.
Maybe Smilin' Dan will be able to find the pink slip that is long overdue for his pay envelope?

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Clean your moat sir?

Dianne Wilkerson has nothing on the British Parliament.

Heck Massachusetts legislators deliver horse manure free of charge from the lectern during debates. Who needs to ship it?

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Mommy, Deval hit me!

Senate President Terry Murray apparently has a simple explanation for the battles taking place on Beacon Hill. It's not about taxes and spending and reforming policies long in need of repair.

Nope, it's personal, she tells the Globe's Joan Vennochi.
"The governor has decided he doesn't like us."
If that's true he has a lot of friends.

Murray is a thoughtful, passionate advocate who has done some good things in her years in the Massachusetts Senate. But she has stuck her foot firmly in her mouth twice in the last week and is on course to unravel a legacy. This latest remark is about as conciliatory as calling Gov. Deval Patrick "irrelevant."

Murray apparently feels betrayed that Patrick had the audacity to lobby members of the House and Senate directly over the sales tax versus gas tax debate that lawmakers firmly resolved with, as Murray noted, a "veto-proof" margin.

In the insular world of Beacon Hill, it's apparently inappropriate for the governor elected by all of the people to deal with 200 members elected by people in House and Senate districts across the state.

Vennochi reiterates the argument that House and Senate leaders -- backed by "veto-proof" majorities -- regularly ran roughshod over Republican governors for 16 years. The balance of power shifted away from the Corner Office and into the palatial offices of the Speaker and Senate President.

The GOP governors didn't adopt the same tactic as Patrick. They walked away. The voters -- those people in those 200 districts -- were the ultimate losers as lawmakers turned a blind eye to structural problems like transportation, a tax system that relied too heavily on capital gains and a pension system designed to benefit them in their dotage (which in legislative terms came in their 40s and 50s).

Everything was fine until the money ran tight. The disaster of the Massachusetts Highway System, which dumped costs from the mismanaged Big Dig onto the Turnpike Authority? Funding the MBTA with a penny from shrinking sales tax receipts?

What? Me Worry?

Now, in a classic bully response, lawmakers are crying foul when the latest focus of their tactics -- the men and woman who sat in the Corner Office -- decided he wasn't going to take it anymore.

Last session, former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was the heavy -- until questions about his relationships with friends and lobbyists brought him down. The mantle was picked up this year by Murray -- who while personally clean has had some serious ethical problems in her own chamber.

As is often noted, people like their own legislator but have little use for the body as a whole. And they love benefiting from public programs until the tax bills come due. That enabled lawmakers to lead a charmed life in the good times, aided and abetted by governors who lost interest in upholding the co-equal status of the executive branch.

That's why the current battle is a good thing -- even if lawmakers are having a hard time with a taste of their own medicine.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Backing up the headline

If I were a Globe editor, I would have sent the headline on Matt Viser's Page One story back for something more accurate.

Stashed somewhere near the top of a story about Democratic factions feuding is a quote from the latest state Republican Party talking head:
"It's an exciting time," said Nick Connors, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. "The Democrats are creating opportunities for us all around the state. It shows a definite need for two parties and a different vision for where we can take the state."
The sentiment is not new. It's been uttered regularly -- from Andrew Natsios, Ray Shamie, Bill Weld, Joe Malone, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney. What's missing is action.

Massachusetts Democrats have always been a fractious bunch. Remember when Tom Finneran called Scott Harshbarger the "the loony left" and damaged the Democratic gubernatorial candidate? Or check out this prescient piece by the current spokesman for Speaker Robert DeLeo discussing how Finneran would likely have preferred to back Jane Swift because it would have boosted his authority?

The problem has not been the inability of the GOP to field successful candidates for statewide office -- four on that list won voter approval. What the GOP is apparently incapable of doing in Massachusetts is consistently recruiting and electing a farm team, people willing to run for state representative and senate.

Two recent exceptions to the rule are also instructive even as they appear contradictory.

A similar wave of voter disgust brought on by the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s not only brought Weld into office but also a significant enough slate of Republican senators to give him a veto threat. In 2004, Romney fielded a slate of legislative candidates that actually managed to lose ground for the GOP.

The common thread? Both governors lost interest in the job and put personal gain over creating a team that could actually develop into a credible minority party.

Some of the blame for the local GOP's ills also result from the national party and its kamikaze lurch to the right. The GOP tradition in Massachusetts was ably carried on by Saltonstalls, John Volpe, Edward Brooke, Frank Sargent and Frank Hatch.

The party of Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh is alien to the New England tradition. Just ask the surviving members of the US congressional delegations, Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

There's been some realization of this disconnect from Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei. But the bombs being hurled out of the GOP headquarters don't seem to match the message.

Next year is another one of those rare chances for the state's GOP -- provided it can recruit a vibrant cadre of candidates in tune with Bay State voters. The results of 2006 and 2008 legislative races -- with the continued slippage in the size of the delegation -- raise serious doubts.

Connors is right that Massachusetts needs two parties. The Democrats have provided that "balance" for years. Finneran is the classic leader of the legislative branch. Patrick represents the left side of the party, which traditionally has had its ins and outs with the legislative party.

It's up to Connors and his cohorts to translate the rhetoric into reality. Just because a Globe headline writer thinks they can do it doesn't make it true.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Tongue Wars

Memo to Senate President Terry Murray: You don't have the winning side in the fight when Herald headline writers declare: Deval Patrick stands firm against solons' barbs" (even though nine-tenth of the readers would say what the heck is s solon?)

When a leader elected in one of 40 Senate districts labels a man elected by the entire state "irrelevant," then wishes he would be more "conciliatory" to the Legislature we have a perception problem.

And that perception is that is that Great and General Court is relevant to the people who pay taxes and vote.

Yes, people vote for their senators and members of the House and have loyalty and affinity (or disdain) for them, But the entire body? Well, for most folks I suspect it would be "a pox upon their house (and senate)."

Like Congress, the General Court is an amorphous body. The perception is they come to work, collect their pensions and go home. As for the Senate in recent months, they stuff bribes in their bras and grope women.

To the vast majority of resident, Patrick is far from irrelevant -- he IS government. To a vast majority he is also a Cadillac, drapes and cushy patronage jobs.

But right now, he is also the guy who says "reform before revenue" (too bad you gave up the line Terry) and is standing up against a sales tax proposal many people feel was hatched behind closed doors and came from out of the blue.

Murray seems confused that lawmakers and Patrick are fighting because this is the first time we've had a Democratic governor in 16 years.

That assumes the views of the 200 people elected in clumps by the Commonwealth's voters outweigh the view of the one elected by the full group. That's a little understandable because it certainly did when we had Republican governors who lost interest and walked away.

But Patrick appears intent in standing up for, at the very least, a fair process and the appearance that government is hearing people on the issue of ethics, pension and transportation (way to go MBTA and Turnpike Authority) before they raise taxes.

And to the folks who live in Newburyport, Greenfield, Pittsfield and Monroe, far away from Murray's Plymouth roots, he is far more relevant than someone who flings rocks from inside a glass house -- or Senate.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strange times

Tough times put everyone on edge, wondering if there job will be there tomorrow and if it is, whether there will be belt-tightening that will force them to cancel a vacation or postpone a repair to themselves or their home.

So it's only natural to grumble when something goes up -- like the cost of a round of golf or the price to park at the beach. But that grumbling is a sign of the major disconnect in the concept of government services and who pays for them.

Ponkapoag golf course may not be in PGA Tour shape, but I can't help but compare its $30 weekend greens fee against the Globe's recent look at public course that "break 80," as in dollars.

Nor can I ignore the fact there are beaches that can be reached by bus or subway -- and usually for more than it costs to park a car in a beach lot.

We've been somehow conditioned to the idea that government services should be free. I frequently rail that is the ultimate mantra of the era ushered in by Ronald Reagan, aided and abetted by the talk show society that caters to the anger of the underdog.

It's the same mindset that says don't tax the super rich because someday that might be me.

We need a better connection with reality.

At the same time, Massachusetts lawmakers need a better connection too. The decision to raise the sales tax may not be a bad one at the end of the day. But the process, such as it is, has stunk.

To many people, it came out of the blue, with little discussion or justification, other than the fact it wasn't a major gas tax hike (although, ironically problems at the Turnpike and the MBTA are going to linger).

Gov. Deval Patrick, a late arrival to the "reform before revenue" mantra first embraced, now abandoned by Senate President Therese Murray, is threatening to send the sales tax back to lawmakers despite the fact Murray noted it passed by a veto-proof margin.

If he wants to maintain even a shred of credibility, he has to follow through on the threat. The Herald's Wayne Woodlief has more on that.

I don't have a lot of sympathy to complaints about raising fees for the cost of providing specific services. I do have issues with tax hikes that seem rushed, politically inspired and not clearly reasoned or explained beyond "because we say so."

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Revenue before reform

The Massachusetts Senate has offered a loud rejoinder the Gov. Deval Patrick's recent public campaign to put reform before revenue. It's not a phrase usually accepted in polite society.

The Senate vote to raises the sales tax to 6.25 percent means we are looking at a fait accompli. House and Senate negotiators will set down to address differences in their respective budgets -- like the local option 2 percent hotel and meals tax they Senate OK'd. But there will be a 1.25 percent hike in the sales tax.

That is the only certainty so far in a year that began, ironically, with Senate President Therese Murray calling for reform before revenue.

We've come a long way from the original context -- which was Patrick's call for a 19-cent increase in the gasoline tax to pay for a restructuring of the state's transportation system. We certainly won't have a gas tax hike dedicated to fixing the messes at the Turnpike Authority and the MBTA or repairing and rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges.

Instead, we will see an undetermined hunk of the sales tax tossed at the issues at the same time lawmakers continue to iron out differences in their view of what a new transportation administrative structure should look like.

It's a "solution" that will lead to toll hikes on the Turnpike and fare increases and service cuts on the T. And fewer local services as sales tax money goes to plug only a portion of the local aid cuts approved by lawmakers.

Oh and as for reform in pension and ethics (if what the Senate passed can be called reform), lawmakers appear to be saying "we'll get back to you on that."

The one absolutely clear lesson is that lawmakers have stuck their thumbs in both of Patrick's eyes. No gas tax (and he doesn't have the votes to override a sales tax veto.) An ethics bill that has been twisted 180 degrees from his intent. Pension bills that don't address the most egregious abuses.

The quick rebuttal would likely be there is a lot of time left between now and the end of the session in November to get it all done. There is even more than a month (including Memorial Day and Bunker Hill Day) before the brutal budget needs to land on Patrick's desk and conferees can multitask.

But public image counts after a grandstand call for "reform before revenue." We haven't seen it. And when lawmakers thumb their noses at the public in other ways too, it doesn't make you feel good about the eventual outcome.

If Patrick intends to run against the Legislature next year, they're giving him lots of ammunition.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Signs of intelligent life?

Health warning: Regular readers with certain medical conditions may wish to consider whether this column could be hazardous to their health. It contains content that suggests not all Republicans are terminally clueless naysayers.

For those of you who remain, a quick caveat. That disclaimer doesn't mean I'm jumping ship. Or that all the money-saving ideas offered by the minuscule Senate Republican caucus have merit. But I am impressed they have actually offered some ideas, any ideas instead of the usual GOP "No."

Fear not, the "welfare car" brouhaha is not being endorsed here --although I would support any GOP move to eliminate their own transportation per diems. I'm not holding my breath.

But as the Senate considers such oldies but goodies like racinos and sales tax increases, it would be worth taking a closer look at some ways to close the ballooning gap between revenue and spending.

The GOP agenda has some oldie, moldies too, including vaguely worded calls to eliminate "prescription medication waste." And it does suggest that not all tax breaks are created equal because they call for the end to the film industry tax credit and the life sciences "biotech bailout."

But two suggestions seem worthy of at least discussing: repeal of the Pacheco Law and a statewide wage and hiring freeze on non-essential government employees.

The Globe's Scot Lehigh discusses the pros and cons of the Pacheco Law, which limits the state's ability to contract with private firms for services they can deliver more efficiently than state workers.

A wage and hiring freeze would match the action of virtually every other employer in the commonwealth.

In the end, the GOP package, even if it was adopted in its entirety with its fair share of stale clinkers, would not close the gap. Taxes, as much as we don't like them, are inevitable in an economy that has collapsed along with the rest of the nation and world.

But there are a couple of worthwhile reforms other than pension, ethics and transportation that ought to be addressed. And the phone booth-sized caucus deserves some credit for putting a couple of ideas on the table instead of mimicking its DC counterparts and just bellowing "No."

You may now return to normal reading of this blog.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Thanks guys

You started to get hints, even before Kevin Garnett limped off the floor in Utah that February night.

Mostly it was the strange way the season unfurled -- a 27-2 start where they appeared invincible followed by swings of inconsistency. Slipping to third seed in the East, even momentarily, didn't augur well.

So congratulations to the Orlando Magic for dethroning the champs. The loss of Garnett and Leon Powe certainly hurt the Celtics as they tried to handle young Dwight Howard.

The wear and tear of playing shorthanded down the stretch of what amounted to almost two years of constant competition was too much to overcome. The absence of James Posey and P.J. Brown was just as important in the pressure cooker of the playoffs.

But don't shed a lot of tears. If, as we assume, the Celtics had a three-year window after the creation of the new Big Three, rejoice that they did it in one.

And rejoice in the fact that with a healthy Garnett next year, we could rightfully be talking about a Big Four thanks to the emergence of Rajon Rondo. And Big Baby Glen Davis certainly did a lot of growing up too.

Repeats in the NBA are not easy. And this one would have been tough anyway for 23 reasons -- the awesome presence awaiting the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.

LeBron James has been pretty much unstoppable -- and so have his Cleveland Cavaliers. They represent a city starved for a champion (believe me I know!). I comfort myself in knowing that a Celtics loss last night avoided a date with a juggernaut that would have run them over, probably in five.

So, as it always comes down to in the NBA, the chant is Beat LA. And a McGrady-less, Yao-less Houston Rockets showed it can be done.

I revert to rooting for a Cleveland basketball team -- for the duration on the 2009 playoffs only.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Afflicting the comfortable

One word for Yvonne Abraham this morning: Bravo!

The Globe's Metro columnist did exactly what she is supposed to do when she skewered two-faced GOP "leaders" Brad Jones and Scott Brown (not to mention Democrats Steve Brewer and Steve Baddour, who at least had the guts to talk to her).

At issue was the grandstanding over a state program providing transportation assistance to welfare recipients. Brown and Jones were in high dudgeon about the waste of taxpayers dollars in actually paying for someone to get to work!

You mean like legislators who collect a per diem to cover their transportation costs? Brown collected almost $4,000 on top of his salary in 2008. Jones took in about $3,200. Lawmakers collectively took in $534,000. The disputed car program costs $400,000.

She reports. You decide.

The hypocrisy is just another example of GOP-onomics, the "you can have it all but no one needs to pay except certain scapegoats" philosophy that started with Ronald Reagan and has led us to where we are today.

But to be fair, today's Herald does offer a good example that there is no free ride, noting the likelihood of higher fees in cities and towns to pay for "extraneous" local programs like trash collection.

Two reminders that good journalism is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And tell the full story, not just selected snippets offered by politicians.

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Live longer and prosper

I approached the new Star Trek movie with some trepidation.

I grew up with Kirk, Spock and Bones. I had initial skepticism about Picard and Riker and Data but was eventually won over by their respect for that which had come before them. Same for the other series which followed, even the late and somewhat unlamented Star Trek: Enterprise.

But in the back of my mind I remembered what happened when James Bond was given a makeover. Gone was the charming, cunning secret agent saving the world from SPECTRE and SMERSH. Instead I saw a self-destructive, sullen homicidal character who was more sociopath than savior.

So would JJ Abrams do to Kirk and company what Martin Craig did to Bond. James Bond?

Heck no!

Chris Pine had the legendary Kirk swagger. Karl Urban was most assuredly a young Leonard McCoy. Zachary Quinto may not have had the same eyebrow control as Leonard Nimoy but that's a quibble.

Frankly, this was the best Star Trek movie of them all. May we continue to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Showdown at Beacon Hill Gulch

Leave it to Sal DiMasi's former spokesman to succinctly encapsulate the looming battle over ethics on Beacon Hill.
Globe sez @MassGovernor will veto ethics bill if it "guts" ethics comm. May play great w/public but Gov better keep left up with Legislature
Yep. A move the public would widely hail as the type of reform they are looking for would generate scorched earth warfare among politicians allegedly elected to do the public's bidding.

Patrick's threat is aimed at the Senate version of "reform" which would gut the Ethics Commission and close a fund-raising loophole exploited by the governor. It would do away with a Patrick call to limit gifts to lawmakers, a loophole that enabled Dianne Wilkerson -- right into federal indictments.

Why? Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry declared the Ethics Commission has been "overzealous" in enforcing Chapter 268A, a contention many who don't earn a paycheck on Beacon Hill would consider ludicrous on its face.

The governor has been raising his profile lately -- an appearance at Greater Boston with Emily Rooney, inviting Statehouse reporters into his office for a Friday afternoon availability timed to give lawmakers no time to respond.

And while Patrick demurred, as he did on Greater Boston that it's "not my way or the highway," he is certainly asserting to lawmakers that they at least need to consider his way. And that he is prepared keep his left up while he jabs with his right.

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Feeling the pain, Nantucket style

Buddy, can you spare a Nantucket Peppergun?

Where would we be without the the Boston Globe's regular reports about the pain in the lifestyle of the rich and infamous? Oh, the angst in learning that a $980 upholstered bench sits abandoned in a corner. Or that the new police station is going to have some USED furniture when it opens?

Won't some generous soul donate the upholstered bench? Won't someone else explain what a Nantucket Peppergun is?

And of course my heart goes out to the poor hedge fund managers and investment bankers who snagged a multi-million "cottage" on the island as a getaway from the hustle and bustle of Greenwich and are now having trouble making the mortgage.

Here's a novel idea for the lifestyle beat. Can we hear a word about the lives of the dwindling native island population who have been up against the gun for years as the off-islanders came in and jacked up the cost of everything?

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Don't get around much any more

To watch Deval Patrick speak with Emily Rooney is to remember how he got elected.

Alternately serious and glib -- always direct, even under the sometime sharp-edged questions from Rooney -- the man who beat the pols to win the Corner Office came through.

And not the frequently tone-deaf pol who currently occupies that office.

It makes you wonder why he doesn't get out more often.

It's a battle as old as politics and journalism. Politicians seek media attention to put their views across. It's usually a mixture of public service and self-service and journalists are rightfully wary of allowing any grandstanding.

Patrick seems to relish doing battle with the media, starting with a combative speech to the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association shortly after his election. His body language during media events and his occasional Q &A sessions with reporters is striking in comparison with his relaxed demeanor with Rooney.

Aside from one town hall forum broadcast on NECN, which has the air time, I recall very few extended opportunities to watch him. And while Patrick's communications folks avail themselves of everything from the Eagan and Braude radio show, web videos and Twitter, the man doesn't seem to be getting his message out there.

So here's a challenge -- for both sides. How about a 30-minute (or commercial shortened) prime time no holds, barred go-round? To make it more challenging for Patrick, have WBZ-TV's Jon Keller ask the questions. To make it more news-based and less of a campaign forum, do similar sessions with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray. Heck, let's even throw in Treasurer Tim Cahill.

The ultimate winners would be the public that gets to see its leaders talk about real problems the Commonwealth is facing and what is being done. That would be a real public service.

Hey, I can dream can't I?

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Misplaced priorities

There have been two accidents involving Green Line trolley operators in less than one year where the common theme was running a red light.

And while there appears to be a simple solution to prevent trolley cars ramming each other, injuring dozens and costing millions, there has been no movement in that direction by MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas, who prefers to focus on one incident and not the broader picture.

And no movement on Grabauskas, because firing him would cost too much.

Is there something wrong with this picture of "fiscal responsibility?"

While Smilin' Dan is correct to ban cell phones from the cab or driver's seat of any MBTA vehicle as a distraction to operators, talking about a solution to a recurring problem is definitely not a distraction in the pursuit of a safe Green Line ride.

The solution is automatic fail-safe sensors -- installed on the Red and Orange lines -- that would stop a train that runs a red light.

Smilin' Dan says he'd love to have them, but there are already three "fail-safe" devices on a Green Line trolley: a deadman switch, a pedal held down by the operator that pops up if he’s suddenly stricken; a button called a “plunger” they can push that will halt the trolley; and finally, the train’s brakes.

None of them work too well if the operator is speeding or simply not paying attention, as has been proven conclusively twice in a year.
“They should have learned their lesson,” said Rene Nardones, a member of the T Rider’s Union. “This is a safety issue. It needs to be a priority for the authority to provide that system because people’s lives are in their hands.”
Then there's the matter of fiscal priorities. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steven Baddour of Methuen seems more concerned with the cost of buying out Grabauskas than the poor record for T service on Smilin' Dan's watch.
“One thing we don’t have is two nickels to rub together,” Baddour said.
But we do have the money to pay the costs of a full emergency service response and a hypothetical $10 million for the replacement of the cars damaged in this crash?

It's time to put rider safety first. And Smilin' Dan has got to go.

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Sports, politics and revenge (II)

Massachusetts lawmakers may be having a hard time reaching consensus on how to handle a gaping budget deficit, but they surely have no problem in sticking it to the man who is planning to run against them next year.

The"reforms" contained in the Senate version of an ethics bill -- demanded by Gov. Deval Patrick after the 2008 troubles of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi and former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson -- seem to be directed in an entirely different direction that Patrick was headed.

In addition to aiming at stake at the heart of a new fund-raising gimmick devised by Patrick, senators are looking to gut the authority of the Ethics Commission -- a tenacious but already virtually toothless panel that drives them crazy.

The Patrick bill started with beefing up the commission's authority by giving it subpoena power and other tools that would have enabled it to carry out investigations. The bill was written with the Richard Vitale case in mind -- where DiMasi eventually won a battle with the commission when he refused to hand over documents deemed legislative work product.

But senators -- who now face what amount to major annoyance and niggling fines from the commission -- appear to be headed in the opposite direction. The proposal would actually strip the commission of much of its authority and toss in yet another agency to adjudicate allegations.

I'm surprised senators didn't claim this is consolidation aimed at saving money by eliminating the need for an ethics commission whose work duplicates that of the administrative law judges.

If Patrick is waiting for reform before revenues, we may be waiting a very long time.

Joan Vennochi has more on this too.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sports, politics and revenge

There's an old line that the three things Boston loves most are sports, politics -- and revenge. The ethics law proposals unveiled by the Senate cover two out of three.

Not that there's anything wrong with the campaign finance reform provision that would close the loophole that has enabled Deval Patrick to raise major sums of cash in one check -- a combination of $500 for the governor and $5,000 for the state Democratic Party.

The 71st Fund give shim a fund-raising advantage over his legislative colleagues who are also trolling for special interest bucks.

But it's interesting that the Senate, like the House before it, failed to address the issue of gifts, That includes not only the ability to receive, but to give.

It's the receiving part that has attracted far more attention, thanks to the financial woes of former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

While it's heartening to think there could be some form of ethics reforms enacted this year, it's troubling that both House and Senate members see the bill more as a vehicle for settling political scores than for satisfying public sentiment for change.

That's why Patrick's apparent plan to run against lawmakers next year is a sound one -- if he can stop tripping over his own feet.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"We tried to get him to see the wisdom..."

No matter how tough things get for Deval Patrick, he's got one major thing going for him as he ponders a 2010 reelection campaign.

He's not Tim Cahill.

I'm really not sure which story today is more devastating -- the Page One story on Patrick's work schedule or the Metro front story on Cahill's flip-flop on pension reform. In terms of political commercial potential, a Patrick spot on Cahill would be devastating.

Conjure up all the stereotypes you want, but the decision by then-House Speaker Sal DiMasi to dispatch Ways and Means Chairman John Rogers and Quincy representative and Cahill friend Ron Mariano to chat with the treasurer has Hollywood overtones.

"We tried to get him to see the wisdom," Mariano said. "We just laid out our position, saying to him, you have a lot of big salaries over here and the legislators who are only making $50,000 or $60,000 a year need those benefits."

Cahill, who had championed pension reform in 2004, got the message. Today he's accusing Patrick of "grandstanding" when the governor calls for lawmakers who collected "early retirement" bonuses to give them back.

Patrick is clearly setting up to run against the Legislature in 2010, much as Cahill is planning to jump in against the incumbent. Neither brings great cards to the table.

But Patrick's hand would surely win over the image presented by Treasurer Tim when it comes to acting independently of the Great and General Court.

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Part-timer -- or short-timer?

The Globe's look at Deval Patrick's schedule shows he puts in more time in the Corner Office than Mitt Romney did while pursuing the presidency.

And his work habits seem more on the heavy-lifting side than those of the Great and General Court.

But that's called damning someone with faint praise.

Brian Mooney's look at the Patrick schedule can't be called anything less than politically devastating. For a governor with a popularity rating as low as Patrick's the only thing that could save his skin, if the election were held today, is for him to single-handedly restore the world economy without lifting a single tax.

I'll be the first to agree to public schedules are less than ideal measures of job activity. But that is all the public has to gauge an elected official's productivity.

It's nice that he spends more time in western Mass. than any predecessor than Jane Swift -- and doesn't take a helicopter to get there.

And we all know that there are days when we can be more productive from home -- wearing slippers and sweats -- than if we trudge into the office.

But we aren't elected to lead a complex state apparatus.

Appearances count -- and it's a part of the job Patrick has utterly mishandled. From the drapes and Cadillac, to the visit to the New York book agent on the day of the House casino vote, Patrick has muffed the symbols.

Those are what voters remember when it comes time to assess job performance. Think Christy Mihos and Tim Cahill aren't jumping for joy this morning?

Patrick also muffed the response to the story. It's all well and good to have Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan say he's in constant touch with her. Where is Patrick himself?

I know there's a tenet of public relations that says a spokesman should take the heat on a bad story. But when the story is the person's work habits, it would have been wise to offer Mooney an interview at Patrick's desk, preferably with budget documents all over it. Or in the car during a busy day of out of office meetings. And a visit to the home office at Sweet P Farm. Again, a messy desk would have been a plus.

Deval Patrick has a remarkable story to tell in his rise from the South Side of Chicago to the corporate boardrooms to the Corner Office. He did it his way through perseverance and determination.

And in carrying that independent streak into the Corner Office, it's likely it will land him back in Milton and Sweet P Farm far sooner than he planned.

UPDATE: Fox 25 reports Patrick is not the only one with interesting work habits.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Premature victory lap

At least House Speaker Robert DeLeo got one day to savor his preemptive claim to the reform mantle.

One day after the Globe runs a DeLeo op-ed patting the House on the back for moving forward with pension, ethics and transportation reform -- before any final legislation has been enacted -- the newspaper comes back with the reminder that reform is in the eye of the beholder:
The task of cleaning up pension abuses has deeply divided Massachusetts lawmakers, who are not only wrangling over sweeping reforms, but also confronting whether they should give up pension enhancements for many members of their own chambers.
And guess which branch is on the side of grandfathering current lawmakers to protect their claims for early retirement bonus payments?
State Representative Robert P. Spellane, chairman of a conference committee that is trying to forge a compromise and may issue recommendations as early as today, said last week that he believes the law requires the Legislature to exempt current members from elimination of the benefit.
The Worcester Democrat is relying on the goodwill of his colleagues to just say no:
The Globe checked legislative biographies and found that more than 45 percent of legislators are presently qualified for the benefit or will be qualified while still in their 40s or early 50s if they keep their seats. Spellane said he would expect very few legislators of that pool of 93 to take the termination pensions. "In the eight years I have been in the Legislature only three put in for it."
The honor system. Good luck with that.

While Spellane cites a 1973 SJC advisory opinion, the Senate is equally adamant: "You can't justify them," says Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steven Panagiotakos.

The conference committee report should be interesting reading, particularly in light of DeLeo's victory dance.

The only question is who will win -- legislators or taxpayers.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Teflon Mayor

Bostonians are concerned about the quality of their schools. There is open warfare between City Hall and the firefighters union. A group of Harvard students can find cost-wasting inefficiencies without breaking a sweat.

But Bostonians just love their mayor.

Go figure.

At a time when politicians don't get a lot of love (I'm sure you would agree Deval), Tom Menino keeps humming along. Three would-be challengers -- this time with credentials more substantive than the sacrificial lambs from previous races -- and Menino swamps them all.

There has to be more than the fact 57 percent of all Bostonians have met him. Sure, he's nice enough a guy (OK, maybe a little thin-skinned) but is that the prime requirement for being elected?

If Menino gets an unprecedented fifth term, let's hope the Gang of Three can at least generate a little bit of substance on where Boston has been and where it is going.

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Half-way House

Nice op-ed effort today from House Speaker Robert DeLeo (channeling his communications director Seth Gitell.)

Taking on critics who say the Legislature has been slow to the draw on ethics, pension and transportation reforms, the Speaker lays out action to date -- in one chamber.

But the important thing to remember is the Senate has also passed ethics, pension and transportation reforms. And there are pieces of both bills that don't go far enough to address the concerns.

Let's see what the final conference version contains before handing out legislative kudos.

But as PR spin, an A-plus effort.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Bizarro Times

I continue to see the future of news in New England if the New York Times ever carries through on it's now-suspended threat to close the Globe:

Here's the headline of a national brief in today's Times: "Charges Dismissed for Big Dig Company".

Here's the soon-to-be shrunken Globe: "Big Dig company pleads guilty".

Huh?

Whether the blame lies with the Associated Press for focusing on five dismissed charges and not the 39 to which Modern Continental pleaded guilty -- or the Times' copy editors for not paying attention to the phrase "pleaded guilty to lying about construction defects in another tunnel" -- isn't the issue here.

We know the Time editors actually do read the Boston stepchild: how else do we find a Page One story that once again regales us in "gritty" Allston's battle against the only institution of note in Boston -- Harvard.

But you must ask: If Man's Greatest University didn't exist, would Boston -- particularly in the eyes on 8th Avenue?

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The self-importance of being a BU student (II)

Larry Bird. Steven Spielberg. Mike Capuano. And the winner is...

As someone who can't remember who spoke to my Boston University commencement (I think it was some poet known to John Silber and some of his sycophants) I can only laugh at the reaction of some seniors to the choice of U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano as the speaker.

But I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at the reaction of Katie Koch, a senior journalism and political science major, who objected to the choice because Capuano has worked to steer dollars to BU for the rehab of Comm. Ave. and the BU Bridge and for the construction of the controversial biolab at BU Medical School.
"He's a poor choice because the money ties he has to the university are through taxpayer dollars, and it makes the university look tacky" by inviting him to speak, said Koch, who created a Facebook group called "Your Money is Not as Important to BU as Mike Capuano's."
My initial reaction was "no kidding? Welcome to the real world." And that's a dose of reality you desperately need if you majored in journalism and political science. Since you didn't get that lesson, how about the appropriate speech lesson you will need for your first job?

"Would you like fries with that?"

But if you are thinking about either of those areas as a profession and you didn't know that money, politics and serving constituents are integrally related -- and not necessarily in an evil way -- you should probably not be getting that piece of paper.

I'd echo the thoughts of Capuano press secretary Alison Mills.
"If this is the most important issue facing some graduates, they must be doing OK."
Oh and Katie, if you do show up, prepare for a surprise. Capuano is a heckuva good speaker. You will learn more from him in that one short address than you obviously did not learn as a journalism and political science major.

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Send him the bills

For once I agree with Dan Grabauskas.

The 24-year-old bozo who was texting while be was supposed to be operating a Green Line train should be more than fired.

He should be held responsible for the cost of the massive police, fire and EMS turnout. He should pay the medical bills of everyone injured. He should reimburse people with tickets to the Red Sox or other events for the events they never got to.

But I do have one question. I thought there was no cell phone reception in the Green Line tunnels?

If it's a little secret, maybe we need the same bozos who knocked out service in the O'Neill Tunnel to hit the T. If we can time a little time in our lives not to yak on the phone or fiddle with our BlackBerries maybe we can actually also learn to be nicer (and considerate) to others.

Is that asking too much? Probably.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Weasel words

It's really easy to make bold statements and offer opinions when you have no power. I know, I do it once or twice a day right here.

But I really expect somewhat more from people elected to do the people's business and who collect pay checks with the name Commonwealth of Massachusetts on it.

That's why I marvel at the decision by Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, normally a fairly level-headed chap, to make one of the cheapest political stunt statements in a budget nightmare that has had more than you can count.

Asked about the situation facing Gov. Deval Patrick over collective bargaining agreements signed with state employees in good faith, Tisei offered this gem.
"You're asking taxpayers, many of whom have no job security right now and are taking it on the chin, to foot the bill. The governor is obviously planning a reelection campaign and trying to curry favor with the unions. There's no other explanation."
To be fair, maybe reporters Andrea Estes and Matt Viser didn't tell Tisei the story would focus on how Patrick is going to try and wring concessions from the freshly-signed union contracts. After all, that's not what candidates seeking re-election think to be a wise course of action in currying favors with union leaders.

Tisei's logic is beautifully muddled. Many of those taxpayers are state or municipal employees who have no job security as pink slips head out.

Their negotiators worked out deals that gave them no raise this year, one percent next year and 3 percent in two "out" years when one might have hoped the economy would have improved enough to support a small bump.

Only now that doesn't seem to be the case and Patrick is looking to re-open the contract. Seems like an appropriate decision -- even though it is doubtful it will win him many votes among public employee union members.

Tisei's response, straight out the state GOP talking points, ignores the real next step in the process. Legislators need to approve the cash for the 1 percent increase negotiate in good faith for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

In other words, it's in the hands of the Great and General Court to determine whether a less-than-modest raise for folks "taking it on the chin" should be funded.

We know the state GOP's cadre of elected officials has shrunk to phone book size proportions after 16 years of Republican governors convinced the party the grassroots didn't need attention.

And we also know that Democratic lawmakers are hurling barbs at Patrick because he doesn't believe in following the example of his GOP Corner Office occupants in rolling over and playing dead with lawmakers.

As I said, it's really easy to make bold statements and offer opinions when you have no power. Much easier than trying to roll up your sleeves and offer an alternative.

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Puppetmasters of 8th Avenue

If I were Globe publisher Steve Ainsley, I would be packing my bags right now. His credibility -- with both his bosses and the newsroom he oversees -- is shot. Gone. Kaput.

Asked by his own reporter to provide a "tick-tock," an accounting of what happened over time that prompted the Overlords of 8th Avenue to slide from a round of buy-outs and layoffs straight into an Armageddon showdown with unions while threatening to shut down one of Boston's power broker institutions, Ainsley could only say:
"That wasn't my call, that wasn't my decision. That was made at the upper reaches of the company so you'd really have to ask them."
The buck stops elsewhere. The most important decisions surrounding the future of one of Boston's iconic institutions were made 200 miles away in the Renzo Piano-designed monument on 8th Avenue, without his input.

In Japan, corporate leaders have committed hari-kiri to atone for such loss of honor.

I'm not suggesting the same fate for Ainsley. But I would suggest he pursue his own buyout options. The troops left standing at the Globe will have no use for someone deemed so insignificant by Times brass as to not be in the room when their fate was decided. And heaven knows, they are looking for scapegoats.

As for Young Arthur and CEO Janet Robinson, they've made their opinion of Ainsley widely known too. And it's about the same as the one in the newsroom.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Best frenemies

There was never much doubt that the New York Times would succeed in wringing major concessions out of the unions representing Boston Globe employees. After all, the Overlords of 8th Avenue held all the cards.

But management had a secret weapon in the composition of the Boston Newspaper Guild, a fractious group with conflicting jobs and philosophies who would be naturally wary of each other in the best of times. And ready to tear each other apart under stress.

Not surprisingly, the Herald prefers to tell that tale in relaying why reporters on a newspaper that prides itself on digging out the facts were left in the dark about contract details. And it sounds like one hand doesn't understand what the other hand does.

The Globe's Guild bargaining unit has a second major split beyond the one that pits those with lifetime job guarantees against those without. It is what amounts to an unholy alliance between newsroom and advertising employees.

Guild President Dan Totten comes out of the advertising side of the house -- the paid media section if you will. The key communications tools, aside from selling space to enable customers to get their message out is to retain public relations professionals to try the same thing with a slight twist.

So instead of relying on colleagues trained to tell a story, the Guild opted for the services of O'Neill and Associates, a highly visible PR and lobbying firm. A company that many Globe reporters may be wary of to begin with. To double the tension, O'Neill put Cosmo Macero Jr., a one-time Herald business editor and columnist, out as its front man for the client.

Macero's ostensible job? Preventing details from leaking to the Herald.
"The ongoing leaks to The Herald throughout the negotiating process did absolutely nothing to enhance our position at the negotiating table,” Totten wrote to union delegates yesterday.

“The last thing we need at this point is to have any member read details of The Times’ proposal in the Herald or any other media before they hear it and discuss it with the Executive Committee in person.”

It's a questionable strategy, to say the least, to withhold contract details from your own members -- people trained to dig out facts -- because you are afraid the other guy will get them first. It reflects a mindset fairly divorced from a newsroom.

Not surprisingly, details did leak out. Fortunately for Totten, his members ferreted them out before the Herald.

But the rift over this strategy looks to have ripped open wounds only slowly mending thanks to the Times' own tactics.

It's possible the Times deliberately messed up to the tune of $4.5 million to test the union's mettle. The 23 percent pay cut put forward as the not-so-last, not-really best offer was a pure power move to remind employees who held all the cards.

In any case, the two events did manage to temporarily unite the two factions. But there are plenty of ugly times ahead as Guild members deal with the wage cuts and layoffs that will now come to pass.

And no doubt we will read all about it in the Herald.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"I think it's fair to say it's a catastrophe"

Who would have thought the Boston Globe was in better financial shape than the Commonwealth?

The words coming out of Beacon Hill yesterday were beyond sobering.

The problems are expected to be so widespread, the solutions so elusive, that the state may have to rethink the size of its commitment to big-ticket programs such as its landmark healthcare coverage plan, aid to cities and towns, and education funding, the specialists said at an emergency budget hearing convened yesterday by members of the state Senate.

Several economic specialists who testified advised state officials to prepare for at least four years of budget problems, foreshadowed by dire records: State revenues declined 35 percent this April over last year, the worst ever. The fall in state revenues for this year, projected to be $3 billion less than budgeted, will probably also be the steepest in state history.

"This is going to be the worst fiscal crisis in the state's history," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "I think it's fair to say it's a catastrophe. That's not an overstatement."

If you are someone who believes government can play a positive role in people's lives, it's impossible to even get your head around the concepts and what is coming.

We are looking at deep cuts in education, public safety, health care and the social safety net. Not to mention higher taxes of one sort or another, increased user fees and, in all likelihood, some form of state-approved gambling.

Painful, painful decisions are ahead. Thankfully, the man who runs the state treasury has the answer:
"We just have to make cuts," he said. "We're spending more money than we're bringing in. We have to stop spending."
Who's grandstanding now?

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Wrong type of transparency

Who says politicians don't have a sense of humor? Treasurer Tim Cahill is accusing Gov. Deval Patrick of political "grandstanding."

The man who once said declared "Quitting or leaving is not being terminated" (registration required) when it came to state legislator pensions -- and promised to take a leadership role in straightening out the Retirement Board under his control -- is now singing a different tune.
"I know it would make people feel better to go back and pull this money back. But at the end of the day, we have to go by the rule of the law."

Cahill pointed out that Governor Deval Patrick, while calling for speedier approval of pension law changes by the Legislature, has not introduced his own legislation, even though he is publicly taking on individual retirees.

"I think the governor is grandstanding on this issue," said Cahill, a potential 2010 primary challenger of the governor. "He's the only one who hasn't filed legislation to change this. The Senate has, the House has, and we've been filing some form of pension legislation for the past couple of years."
Let's see now -- critical of Patrick for not filing pension legislation and supportive of the House and Senate bills -- one of which grandfathers current members pension perks. Could Treasurer Tim be trying to curry favor with legislators who are mightly pissed at Patrick these days?

I know transparency in government is a good thing, but this is carrying it a bit too far.

And I'm still waiting for Treasurer Tim's solutions on school construction costs, Mass. Pike bonds and the life sciences bill.

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The darkest hour is just before dawn

All eyes will certainly be on the details of the agreement reached between The Boston Newspaper Guild and the New York Times later today.

It's a safe assumption that there have been no demands for the sacrifice of first born children. But after that, who knows. Guild President Dan Totten told his members that massive layoffs are coming -- also a fairly safe assumption.

But was the Times' "last, best offer" of a 23 percent wage cut -- which was certainly not the last -- also not the best? Will those with lifetime job guarantees be among the ones to feel the ax?

Stay tuned to the next episode of As the Globe Wobbles on its Axis. With the comfort of knowing something will be there. We don't know how good, but it will be something.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

What, no sacrifice of first borns?

The New York Times' decision to propose a 23 percent wage cut as its "last, best offer" suggests the Overlords of 8th Avenue are looking for nothing but abject capitulation in its talks with the Boston Newspaper Guild.

When compared to the Guild's layered proposal to shave $10 million from costs, it's hard to take seriously the notion that what has taken place over the last month was anything more than a sham setting up for any number of options -- from declaring an impasse or moving toward a bankruptcy filing as a way to abrogate its contract with the Guild.

And in light of the seemingly easier talks with craft unions -- who gave up the lifetime job guarantees that Guild President Dan Totten said were non-negotiable -- you really have to wonder how many times the word "punish" entered the discussions of the Times' team.

A 23 percent cut would likely void the lifetime guarantee clause anyway -- as Guild members bail. And this way there wouldn't be the need for a severance package.

It's just hard to take this stance seriously -- even though the stakes are just that.

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The glass is half broken

It's a pretty twisted scenario to be sure, but there's a case to be made that the Boston Newspaper Guild won a victory for its members when the New York Times rejected its alternative $20 million concession package early yesterday.

In that brief moment, the Times blinked -- proving the endless sessions were not designed for negotiation but capitulation. Other unions gave up their lifetime jobs guarantee while the Guild held firm. The Times, which had been waving a 60-day plant shutdown notice, stuck its threat back into its briefcase.

Except of course that the 8th Avenue Overlords sill hold all the cards. And that many members of the Guild have no use for President Dan Totten's negotiating ploy.

And, with the Herald reporting that Totten has gotten raises while they've received bupkis over the last few years, they may have little use for Totten either.

Times brass appears ready to explore other options besides shuttering the Globe. Not content with the Guild's call for mediation, they are scouring the contract for the language they need to plow ahead and unilaterally eliminate the guarantees. And it is fairly plain, as Adam Reilly notes:
In the event of a dramatic and apparently irreversible downturn in the Globe's business, placing in jeopardy the continued existence or survival of the Globe, the parties will meet to discuss what reductions, if any, are necessary to this no-layoff list.
Dramatic downturn? No question. Apparently irreversible? That's where the debate will take place. Hopefully the Times' book are in better shape than when they made their $4 million oopsie last week.

In the end, the Guild will lose its lifetime job guarantees, more heads will roll and the paper will survive as a slimmed down shell of itself. Totten will be able to claim he stood up for his members -- and he may be allowed to leave the job with dignity. Or not.

And the Times? Its story today reflects the true bottom line: it's all about them. The story dealt almost as much with its own "sacrifices" and woes as it did with recounting the rubber truncheon "negotiations."

If you want a good outsider's perspective, check out the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. That's where you'll find all the news that's fit to print on this subject.

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Look out below

To say the bottom has fallen out of state finances would be an understatement.

Let's put it another way: Massachusetts collected nearly a half-billion dollars less than expected in April. In one month. And the collapse was pretty much across the board:
April 2009 withholding taxes totaled $665 million, down $20 million or 3.0 percent from a year ago, $28 million below the benchmark. Income tax payments with returns and bills totaled $864 million, down $681 million or 44.1 percent from a year ago and $292 million below the benchmark. Income tax estimated payments were $169 million, down $125 million or 42.4 percent from a year ago and $35 million below benchmark.
With the April 15 tax filing deadline, the month should be one of the more lucrative -- you don't wait until the last minute to claim a refund, after all. So the impact of a 44 percent drop in income tax collections and a $2 percent drop in estimated taxes shows just how deep the drop in employment.

That will bring the total budget shortfall, since last July, to an unworldly $4 billion on what started at around $28 billion. Wall Street is not the only thing that crashed.

The alternatives are not pretty in closing a $1 billion gap with less than 60 days left in the fiscal year. The state is likely to come up short with the cash it needs to pay bills -- like local aid to cities and towns.

No matter how much Deval Patrick and legislative leaders say they want to protect cities and towns, there isn't enough cash available to avoid -- unless they pretty much zero out the rainy day fund.

And with downpours expected next year, that doesn't seem like a grand idea.

It doesn't get uglier than this. Even the crash in the late 1980s looks like a walk in the park. And Michael Dukakis' name is still taken in vain after that one.

I bet Patrick is hoping for a Supreme Court nomination right about now.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

A losing hand

If Deval Patrick holds the winning hand in the debate over enhanced pensions for state legislators who voluntarily leave office, the Boston Globe unions hold the ultimate losing hand in their talks with the New York Times over the paper's future.

Do it our way, or take the blame for the closing of New England's largest newspaper.

And while no one will shed a tear if or when the Times sells the Globe, the Overlords on 8th Avenue hold a card almost as powerful as Patrick. It's hard to muster sympathy for lifetime job guarantees in an era when jobs are disappearing as Young Arthur Sulzberger's reputation.

Yes, I am well aware the guarantees were accepted by the Times as part of collective bargaining. But as it has often been said, there is a difference in winning in a courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

Holding on to the promise of lifetime jobs in the face of threats to end everyone's jobs is the ultimate losing hand. And slowly but surely, craft unions are reaching the same conclusion.

Newspaper Guild President Dan Totten can proclaim the guild has offered a package of $20 million in savings without shedding the guarantees. But his protest is in vain. Symbols matter -- and the 60-day notice required under the plant closing law is a more powerful symbol, one with real teeth.

The Times will emerge from this process with a battered reputation, both as a corporation and as a news operation. Their failure to cover this story with the same intensity as other troubled newspapers is a subject for a long and deep analysis.

Their use of hardball negotiating tactics could bring comfort to critics who view the newspapers as a liberal menace -- although more likely it will just reconfirm conservative biases that liberals say one thing and do another.

Closing the Globe would be the worst outcome of all -- and one I still believe won't happen, even if they file the plant closing notice.

But New York holds all the cards in this showdown. The guild and other unions must now decide how much better no paycheck is than the loss of job security.

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A winning hand

Deval Patrick knows a winning hand and when he sees one. And he is betting heavily in a showdown with the Legislature, knowing the end game is virtually impossible to lose.

Patrick is calling on lawmakers to rescind one of the more egregious perks they have -- the ability to collect an enhanced pension after they leave office -- even voluntarily.
"This must end. It is exactly the kind of special favors, gamesmanship, and insider maneuvering that the public is fed up with."
He was referring specifically to the most recent Globe story noting 10 lawmakers who left office voluntarily but, under a 1950 law, were able to put in for increased pension benefits originally designed to help out legislators who lose an election.

Leaving aside the extreme special interest nature of the original legislation, today's interpretation to include anyone who steps down, is a major league boondoggle.

And the likely reason it was discovered in the first place was the fact that former Arlington Sen. James Marzilli sought to collect at the same time he was fending off court action on groping charges.

This does get tricky. The 10 claim they were simply doing what they thought was their right and the retirement board approved the claims. So the public's beef should be with the board, not them.

And the current crop of legislators. While both branches included revocation of the perk in pension reform legislation, the House grandfathered current members, in effect closing the barn door only after they step down. And no one has been in a rush to resolve differences between House and Senate pension reform plans.

The issue resonates for Patrick because it also places his chief critic and potential 2010 primary foe, Treasurer Tim Cahill, smack in the middle.

As the chairman of the retirement board, Cahill could be in the position to prod, push and tug to get action. And there is a nice little wedge in the admission by the board that it could find no legal opinions or findings to back up the interpretation that had been using -- until reversing itself as a result of a Globe inquiry on a pending request for former Rep. Paul Casey of Winchester.

No less than Senate President Therese Murray has given Cahill an opening, telling the Globe:
"If the Retirement Board determines that any of the lawmakers in question were not eligible for these pensions under the old law, then they should be rescinded."
Yet the treasurer has been passive, telling the Globe he thinks the interpretation is a stretch but offering no leadership on the question of whether the board could rescind the 10 enhanced packages in much the same way it rejected Casey's request.

For Patrick, a chance to stand up against Cahill and the Legislature in championing a cause where public anger is righteous and rising is the ultimate winner.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Flush with coverage

I don't want to read too much into this but...

How come the Times' dead tree sports section -- which has regaled us with stories about Harvard's 20-year-old NCAA hockey title and MIT's decision to drop eight sports -- couldn't find room in their New England edition for a brief about the Celtics win over the Bulls?

But those New England-loving editors did find room for a lengthy expose on the toilets the Red Sox bought for the Seibu Lions thanks to their Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Just saying...

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Speaking of rocks in the head

What is it going to take Massachusetts legislators to understand that the time for change is long overdue?

The image of healthy lawmakers retiring with early, enhanced pensions in their 40s to pursue a second career -- after they decided to leave office (or have voters toss them out) -- just is not going to fly.

I have frequently defended public employees from the bile heaped their way. Most are civil servants or public spirited people who work for less than they could command in the private sector. An extra holiday here or there or a break on the health insurance premiums was a reasonable perk.

Gaming the system for pension benefit
s no one else is capable of collecting is not reasonable. And the "reforms" passed by lawmakers don't seem to do much to stop it.

And a special No Profile in Courage Award to Treasurer Tim, who proclaims "I can say that we will not shy away from making difficult decisions" but ducks a live interview with the Globe to respond by e-mail.

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