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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Critical mass

The sour economy has brought out some of the best reporting on public spending that I can recall -- with reporters at the Globe and the Herald singling out police details, public employee benefits and court system abuses just today. (And you can't ignore the good reporting on the probation system at CommonWealth Magazine.)

Based on my own experience of making less as a public employee than I could in the private sector, I was once inclined to tolerate better benefits as a tradeoff for salary. But when Deval Patrick is only the 1,295th highest paid state employee, that argument begins to sink like a stone.

And it become an even more precarious argument when you learn:
... municipal health plans, which cover employees, retirees, and elected officials, provide benefit levels largely unheard of in the private sector. Copays are much lower. Some communities do not force retirees onto Medicare at age 65. Many citizens on elected boards - some after serving as few as six years - receive coverage for life, too.
A lot of these benefits are the result of collective bargaining agreements and a legislature that was more than happy to look after their friends in good times. But it's obvious times are no longer good. Less obvious is that friends may no longer be friends.

A great example are the police unions -- who continue to fight tooth and nail to retain overtime-paying construction details in the face of efforts by Patrick to substitute civilian flaggers. That earned him a threatened picket line at an AFL-CIO conference, prompting a cancelled visit.

Yet, even if Patrick had attended the event, it's doubtful it would have translated into meaningful political support for him. Union rank-and-file has been ignoring endorsements for decades -- most recently turning out for Scott Brown despite the heavy support from the top of the labor ladder for Martha Coakley.

But now it should get really interesting.

Public anger at all things government is threatening to sweep elected officials out en masse. Many are getting the hint and hitting the road. Fixing a continued deep hole in the budget by dealing with some of the repeated and regular disclosures of waste and inequity should seem like a no-brainer for those who want to keep their jobs.

Of course, many voters accuse elected officials of having no brains. And those accusations may be proven again this budget season.

To be fair, many hands are tied because of the collective bargaining agreements that can't be undone overnight even if there was political will. But it's a safe bet when Patrick signs the fiscal 2011 budget into law later this year, lawmakers will have done little, if anything, to fix the problems outlined just today.

And ironically, many of those same beneficiaries of government largess will vote against their benefactors.

Somewhere there might be some justice in that. But the problems will remain and the cycle will start over again with newly elected officials who were courted by campaign dollars and promises of union support from labor leaders who can't deliver their own members.

Is this the classic definition of a vicious circle?

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