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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, June 13, 2010

Elephant's memory

Conservatives like to chide the Massachusetts gubernatorial nominee as a RINO -- a Republican in Name Only -- because his positions are not as doctrinaire as they would like.

But I'd like to offer a different take: the party's symbol, the elephant, is supposed to have a steel trap memory. And the nominee certainly doesn't have one -- at least when it comes to his role in creating the financing for the Big Dig.

The Globe dug through documents to produce a story that clearly shows Baker was offering a revisionist history when he insisted he did not play a major role in the machinations that helped finance the project. Faced with the facts, Baker comes clean, sort of:

“There were a lot of other people involved in it, all the way through,’’ he said. “And I was looking to build consensus with all those other people who ultimately had to sign off on whatever we were doing, including the Legislature and the governor and the Turnpike Authority and Massport and all these other folks.’’

Ironically, the answer highlights what is truly one of Baker's solid traits -- consensus builder. But the story also reflects the fact that there were things he could have done to make the mess a tad more palatable had he been willing to play hardball politics.

Baker's bosses -- Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci -- built their political personae as tax-cutters. And the immediate political benefit of lower taxes and tolls at election time clearly drove the debate, according to the documents the Globe excavated.
In 1996, Weld knocked down three turnpike tollbooths during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against John F. Kerry, eliminating a potential source of Big Dig revenue. Weld also oversaw the elimination of some motor vehicle registration fees, another potential source of direct funding.
It was high political drama although in the end it did Weld no good in trying to unseat Kerry. And Big Red quickly lost interest and abdicated to his No.2, who also had other things on his mind:

At the time, Baker could have relied on the money overflowing from state coffers. In June of 1998, Baker was presiding over a $1 billion budget surplus, with state income tax collections rising.

But with acting governor Paul Cellucci campaigning on a pledge to cut more than $1 billion from the state’s revenue stream by slashing the state income tax rate, there was little enthusiasm in the administration for diverting surplus funds to the Big Dig.

To be fair, Baker was a bureaucrat, highly regarded to be sure, not someone with whom the buck stopped. And so it was that the commonwealth squandered billions of dollars that could have mitigated the overruns produced by the out-of-control transportation secretary James Kerasiotis.

But instead of standing up for principle and walking away, Baker soldiered on -- and spent a good part of his current campaign for the Corner Office denying any role in the debacle.

Elephant's memory indeed.

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