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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Celebrity President auditions postponed

What if you held a candidate debate and nobody with a chance to win came?

That's pretty much the problem Republicans face with Donald Trump sucking up most of the oxygen, a birther-come-lately whose is starting to annoy the folks who really run the Republican Party.

Oh, I forgot there's Newt "I was for it before Obama was against it" Gingrich and Michele "Don't know much about history" Bachmann.

No wonder Tim Pawlenty is looking good these days.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New meaning to the criminal "code"

Glad to see the folks who believe in personal freedom and lower health care costs have come upon a scheme to do neither: requiring you to go to the doctor every time you get a cold.

I've already railed on this a few times, but I just can't help but wonder why the criminalization of the common cold remains in the public arena while we are coping with a shortage of primary care doctors and an abundance of wasteful costs in the health care system.

We are already forced to hand over our drivers' licenses to buy the medication we need to clear stuffy heads and nasal passages. Why in heaven's name should we also be forced to sit in a physician's waiting room with other sniffers and sneezers and share our misfortunes?

Isn't it about time we unclog the heads of those who think the many should sacrifice for the misdeeds of the few?

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Showdown at the GOP Corral

Like the irresistible force slamming into the immovable object, House Republicans are poised to shutdown government, eyes firmly focused on politics and not the best interests of the nation.

Although Democrats have already agreed to $10 billion in budget cuts, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is issuing deadlines for Democrats to cave to GOP demands for another $50 billion or so, while sidestepping public discussion about the major ideological policy changes they also want to ram through in the spending bill.

The changes -- to gut environmental enforcement and wage war against abortion providers -- are ancient battles that appear to have little to do with the alleged small government dreams of the Tea Party activists who took over the House in November.

And they are unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of Americans who are sick to death of the partisanship that has made it impossible to deal with the real issues the nation faces.

There's an undercurrent of suspicion that GOP leaders themselves are divided, with Speaker John Boehner recalling the damage done to his party by the 1995 shutdown. And with Boehner struggling to control his own forces, it's likely we will see a symbolic and unnecessary shutdown of services.

But it's also worth recalling that Democrats historically fail to muster the backbone to stand up for what they believe. And they ought to believe that they have taken important steps to heal the nation from the ravages of the last era of unfettered GOP control, an era when regulations toppled, Wall Street ran amok, the economy tanked and millions lost their jobs.

House Republicans want to return us to those days and it is important to stand firm against that would-be tsunami.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tax breaks aren't forever

The business community is ramping up its defense of tax breaks in advance of today's Statehouse putting Fidelity and Evergreen Solar in the hot seat.

It's entirely appropriate for the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee to conduct some oversight into what happened to the transfer of tax dollars from our pockets to those of a company that apparently took that money and eventually ran.

But a little mirror gazing is also on order since the Legislature, in its not-so-infinite wisdom, chose to make the "single sales tax apportionment" permanent -- but the requirement to create new jobs good for only five years.

The bottom line remains however, that corporations are far better at tax avoidance than tax payment, as General Electric amply proves by managing to get $4.2 billion extra out of our pockets while failing to pay a dime on $5.1 billion in profit on U.S. operations in 2010.

And when corporations fail to behave as responsible citizens, the choices are stark: raise taxes or slash services. Congressional Republicans clearly believe in rewarding bad behavior are are trying to take a meat ax to programs while funneling millions to the company to build a $5.3 billion "spare" engine for a fighter jet.

That's why it is important for Massachusetts lawmakers to revisit their own not-so-handy work on corporate tax breaks. Our businesses do deserve incentives at appropriate times for appropriate amounts when they create jobs.

They do not deserve being allowed to permanently stick their hands in our pockets after they no longer deliver on their promises, forcing us to shell out extra from the other pocket to keep teachers in classrooms and cops on the street.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

The odd couple

It's hard to think of a more mismatched pair than Deval Patrick and Mitt Romney. One a transplant from the wealth of Detroit auto making, the other the son of a Chicago jazz musician who walked away from his family. Their only commonality is the fact they held the keys to the Statehouse Corner Office.

And by the grace (or curse) of politics, they will be running around the country offering alternative visions of Massachusetts, trying to sway voters about what's wrong and what's right about our home state.

We've already seen the Romney version: a home to loony liberals who don't hold the "values" associated with conservative voters. A man who has taken more positions on issues than those issues have sides, who was for health reform before be was against it before he was it, sorta.

Now comes Patrick, secure in a second term and free to tell his story and that of his adopted state. It will surely include talk about implementing the model law Romney helped to author and the gargantuan task of trying to rein in costs after improving access.

Patrick foes, many still scratching their heads in disbelief that he actually won a second term, will try to pillory him for too many out-of-state trips, a dangerously thin line for those who support a man who spent almost three-fifths of his final year in office on the road -- making Massachusetts the punchline of his first White House quest.

There's little question Patrick has been racking up frequent flier miles in abundance this year -- and a 2 1/2-week book tour coming on the heels of a less-than-successful overseas mission doesn't win points in the good timing category.

But the fact remains the initial heavy lifting of this government year has already been accomplished in a system where the executive proposes and the disposes. The fiscal 2012 budget is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, which will likely produce it sometime near the end of the book tour. A final legislative version is unlikely to it his desk before mid-June.

Lawmakers are maintaining their own leisurely pace, gearing up for hearings on the thousands of bills before them. And modern communications means Patrick is never really out of touch with staff or legislative leaders.

So ultimately the issue ought to be which man is selling the appropriate picture of Massachusetts: Romney, who essentially walked away from his job after two years to pursue personal ambition, denying his accomplishments because they didn't fit with the conservatives he was trying to woo?

Or Patrick, whose personal and political ties to Barack Obama offer some real lessons about Massachusetts tat can effectively counter the wrong impressions offered by Romney and his conservative minions?

It will be a fun show to watch.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Florida's loss, our gain?

Call it fiscal prudence or call it Tea Party economics, but Massachusetts may be in line to snag a little more our our tax dollars that are currently being shipped to states that whine the loudest about tax burdens.

The Globe reports Massachusetts is looking for $110 million in federal cash to replace a rickety bridge used by Amtrak to connect Boston and Portland. The money is available because Florida turned thumbs down on $2.4 billion to build a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

I'm not here to argue the wisdom of that decision, but to note it does open the door to a little more tax equity. Massachusetts currently ranks fourth from the top on how much we send to Washington in federal taxes and 39th in how much we get back.

Put another way, we only get 82 cents on the dollar, while New Mexico gets $2.03 for every dollar it contributes.

Maybe we had the right idea with the original Boston Tea Party and the folks in Rand Paul's Kentucky ($1.51) are the ones who should be defending status quo?

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lights on, nobody home

Officials at the state transportation department are starting to drop faster than the fixtures in the O'Neill Tunnel.

The head of Frank Tramantozzi, the state's acting highway administrator, was the first to roll yesterday, falling on the sword over the fact it took weeks to inform higher-ups -- including Gov. Deval Patrick -- that corrosion was to blame for a light fixture toppling into traffic in early February.

But things continue to shift from bad to worse for Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan, who may be looking to revise and extend his remarks yet again on what he knew and when he knew it.

The focus will be on the smoking email, warning the problem was a "big deal" that finally worked it's way to Mullan's attention on March 1, forwarded by a deputy who had to prompt the secretary four days later on whether he had been briefed on the problem.

After that, it took three more days for Mullan to actually be briefed before he finally alerted Patrick, a month after the fixture fell.

We now have three different accounts from Mullan on what he knew and when. It's become pretty obvious whose head should be next to roll.

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Al Jazeera'd up

Since Burlington Vt. is the closest I can get to watching Al Jazerra, I'm in no position to offer an educated opinion on the right's allegation the Arab-centric news channel is biased.

But if American cable companies have vast bandwidth why not let us see for ourselves and offer us another news channel among the numbing plethora of do-it-yourself, cartoon and food channels?

Allegations of bias alone can't possibly be the issue -- how many cable companies carry Fox News Channel? A small subset of that audience believes in the birther conspiracy and "Second Amendment solutions."

Applying the same "logic" used with Al Jazeera, why is Fox alone allowed to spew hatred and violence?

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Friday, March 25, 2011

The wages of sin

I guess we really don't pay our elected officials enough if the strange case of Sal DiMasi is typical. Or that the shakedown he allegedly committed is really small potatoes.

Actually DiMasi is the second former member of the Massachusetts Legislature to need public support in paying for the cost of his defense on charges of public corruption. Former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, now residing in federal housing in Danbury, Conn., also received taxpayer assistance.

No one disputes the right to adequate counsel, even if the proper citation is Miranda v. Arizona and not Joe Friday:

Representative Daniel B. Winslow of Norfolk, the ranking Republican on the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said that if DiMasi cannot afford a lawyer, he is entitled to one, as is anyone else in similar circumstances.

“We have a constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel,’’ Winslow said. “It’s like Dragnet: ‘If you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you.’ ’’

Yet you can't help but alternate between sad and angry that DiMasi has run through $162,000 in legal fees -- paid for through contributions to his campaign spending account -- and doesn't have the dough to pay for the high-priced legal talent working for him at a steep discount.

And when you think that this is all about an allegation of a $65,000 payoff you have to wonder even more why politicians put themselves into such situations. Especially when his alleged co-conspirators took in more.

DiMasi's slightly longer-term prospects are somewhat better. If exonerated, he will again be eligible for his state pension, and will likely have to repay at least some of the public support for his defense.

If convicted, he will also be the guest of the federal government for some period of time.

File this one under maybe crime really doesn't pay very well at all.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Left in the dark

State transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan seems to be channeling Cool Hand Luke in describing the accountability, or lack thereof, in his agency when it comes to explaining why lights fell down in the O"Neill Tunnel.

One week after taking the blame
for leaving Deval Patrick in the dark for a month about corroded light fixtures, Mullan now says he was left out of the loop himself for a month.
“I should have known earlier; no question about it,’’ Mullan said in an interview yesterday. “It was clearly a lapse in internal communication.’’
Ya think?

The old line about the cover-up being worse than the crime springs to mind as Mullan tries to get to the bottom of what did he know, when did he know it and when did he tell Deval. The question is who is covering up -- if anyone -- and why.

But the bottom line is it is hard to conceive of a situation where lower level highway department officials wouldn't think of telling their higher-ups about a problem of this magnitude. You would think and hope that things falling from the ceiling of Big Dig tunnels would register as a Big Deal.

Patrick accepted Mullan's explanation and apparent lapse of personal judgment in telling him about the incident, expressing continued faith in his cabinet secretary. Is that still going to be true after learning Mullan was kept out of the loop for a month himself?

Let's hope some more light is shed on this major bureaucratic foul-up.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Going for the gold

Massachusetts labor has little to lose -- and a potentially great deal to gain -- by setting its sights on Scott Brown next year. But they weaken their argument out of the gate with a less than perfect messenger.

Regular readers know I am unimpressed with Brown's common man touch, the barn coat and pickup truck great symbols that mask a voting record that has consistently favored financial institutions and the wealthy. He has talked the talk of a difficult childhood while favoring tax cuts over unemployment benefits, bank profits over summer jobs for kids.

Polls suggest he is the most popular politician in the state and no well-known Democrat has shown a willingness to even test the water on a potential challenge. Union leaders may be grasping at straws in thinking they can take him on and win.

But that long shot has one straw with the potential to provide traction: Brown's support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to bust the pubic employee unions that did not support him. As University of Akron political science professor David Cohen notes:
“President Obama should send the Republican Party a big thank-you note. Republican governors and state legislatures have done the impossible: woken a slumbering Democratic base, one that slept through the 2010 midterm elections."
Labor is in a fight for its very political life. The Wisconsin episode was more a national conservative effort to weaken its clout as it was to balance the budget, particularly since the teachers who it was aimed at readily conceded on the financial concessions Walker sought.

That success will only embolden the Koch-backed Tea Party to keep trying -- and force labor to fight for its life.

One word of advice for Massachusetts union heads though: Robert Haynes is not the man you want carrying your message. The Massachusetts AFL-CIO chief is very damaged goods after foolishly trying to defend his acceptance of a $72,700 stipend for serving as a member of the Blue Cross Blue Shield board of directors.

That's probably a lot more than most of his members have been pulling down annually during this recession. And to dismiss it as "pennies a year" on health insurance premiums is a tone-deafness that Brown surely does not exhibit.

Of course, now all Massachusetts labor needs is a viable candidate.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here, there, everywhere

Odds and ends while taking a break from three wars and potential nuclear catastrophe:

  • Hooksett, NH can know be known for something other than cheap booze and higher tolls. Our friends to the north, who have literally been giving us crap for years, seem to have kicked it up a notch by befouling our beaches. The silence has been deafening, but I did want to let them know our cities and towns would be happy to take some of their cash to pay for the clean-up of their mess.
  • Speaking of cash, I know the top priority our state and local leaders should have right now coping with budget shortfalls is building a permanent public tribute to former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Might I suggest designers consider the image of Flynn aboard a snow plow, press release in hand? Or maybe holding an umbrella for a Pope?
  • As an AT&T customer, I rejoice at the thought of a merger with T-Mobile. Better coverage anyone? And an end to those annoying rip-offs of the Apple-PC commercials. Higher prices would come no matter with or without a merger.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Green eggs and ham

The jokes are as warmed over as the scrambled eggs and as stale as day-old Irish soda bread. If it weren't for Deval Patrick's ill-timed overseas trip everyone would have emulated Scott Brown with year-old jokes about his 2010 victory.

Once upon a time, the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast was a must-event on the state's political tour. Elected officials worked hard at their routines, often hiring joke writers to polish their routines.

Maybe the luster was lost when the event moved from a hot and overcrowded Southie hall accessible by fire escape into the cavernous Boston Convention and Exposition Center on The South Boston Waterfront. Or maybe they were hard-pressed to keep up with the naturally wicked humor of former Senate President Billy Bulger.

I admit I passed on most of yesterday's time. I tuned in as Patrick raced through his own flat monologue to reach a decent finale -- a poke at House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and himself -- all to the tune of Scotland's Danny Boy.

Thankfully I missed Brown's stale routine about John Kerry's yacht and the people's library and all the Mayor-for-Life cracks directed at the Mayor-for-Life. I didn't miss Kerry himself or the phone call from Barack Obama, no-shows because events around the world are hardly funny at the moment.

What once even was a rollicking good time of self-deprecating humor, recent events have taken on a harder edge, as has the parade that follows. You know the one that had to be split into two because organizers had a problem with people described themselves as veterans for peace.

South Boston has changed along with the rest of the city -- and the political tone. The notes at yesterday's breakfast sound awful flat the day after. Maybe it's time to recall another Scottish classic and raise a cup of kindness to auld lang syne.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Invest in people, not hotels

I know you have to spend money to make money. But you have to spend it wisely. And dropping $200 million in scarce public dollars on a hotel in the hope of attracting more conventions is not wise investment now.

First let's stipulate that the Boston Convention and Exposition Center has been a far better investment than many of its critics predicted and that it has actually returned a small profit on taxpayer dollars poured into the hulking Seaport structure.

That was an investment made in better times, when state coffers could afford to pay for education, public safety, human services and a behemoth building and the infrastructure, like hotels, to pay for it. But even then, taxpayers ponied up their cash -- and continue to do so with higher cab fares, car rental surcharges and sky high rates to park in the area.

Now we're looking at a call for an even bigger convention center because somehow the hulk isn't big enough. And of course, that means more hotels -- never mind the fact the public ponied up for a Mass Pike "slingshot ramp" to make it easier to reach Back Bay hotels (and support high-priced cabs!).

In better times, there might be an argument. But the clearest sign this idea should be a non-starter now is the fact there appears to be no interest among private investors to come to the table. Locally we have no better indication of the dried up market than the Menino Crater in Downtown Crossing.

And if we need additional reinforcement, we need only look to this week's sneak move by Fidelity Investments to uproot 1,100 jobs and reduce its Massachusetts workforce by nearly 50 percent -- after receiving taxpayer largess to boost employment by 25 percent.

Legislators are promising yet another tough year as the end of federal stimulus help means deep cuts -- cuts likely to come in education and caring for our sickest and neediest residents.

That's a much better place to put my tax dollars than in trying to lure a conventioneer to Boston in 2020.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Mullan the consequences of his actions

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan is doing his own big dig this morning after keeping a secret about the lights in the O'Neill Tunnel from Deval Patrick and the public. Whether the hole he has put himself in is too deep to emerge from is an open question.

Reasonable people may disagree on the wisdom of Mullan's decision to keep quiet until conducting a safety review of the fixtures. He claims he erred on the side of caution, wanting to avoid a public panic. Hindsight, he now says, proves that was the wrong decision.

What's mind-boggling, however, is his failure to tell is boss who, one hopes, probably would have told him to go public.

The utter lack of judgment in failing to inform Patrick is mind-boggling. Maybe that's because the Big Dig is the third rail of state transportation policy, harming anyone who comes into contact.

But Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chair Mark Montigny has a good point about another governor who has some questions to answer about the Big Dig. The New Bedford Democrat wonders why the light problem did not come up in the 2006 "stem-to-stern review" ordered after the ceiling came down on Milena Del Valle:
“Those buzzwords are designed to give the public confidence. In my opinion, based upon what we owe the commuter and the taxpayers . . . we should in fact do a stem-to-stern review."
Only this time, maybe we should do it better than the one ordered by a hard-hatted, safety vested Mitt Romney in one of his rare Massachusetts appearances after tiring of his job and deciding to run for president.

Let's hope this latest fiasco will allow us to put the Big Pig in our collective rear view mirror once and for all.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nunquam Fidelis*

Deval Patrick certainly has some bubble and squeak on his face, coming home empty handed from an overseas trade mission days after one of the state's largest employers blindsided him with an announcement that it was moving 1,100 jobs across state lines.

By providing less than 24 hours notice before the announcement -- and with Patrick out of the country -- Fidelity Investments was acting deliberately to ensure no one would be able to stop a process that clearly involved lengthy planning.

If the company had been looking for additional tax breaks, the time for that would have been as company president Abigail Johnson sat with him in the Corner Office recently.
“Massachusetts has been good to Fidelity, just as Fidelity has been good to Massachusetts, and I don’t think I’m alone in this frustration,’’ he said. “Their leadership was in my office frequently, and is in regular touch . . . and yet they gave us little notice of this decision and no opportunity to compete for these jobs.’’
The sneak across the border is especially galling because the privately held Fidelity was the recipient of tax break estimated to be worth $70 million to the mutual fund industry, based on the premise it would increase jobs in Massachusetts.

Instead, Fidelity has reduced its Bay State workforce by nearly 50 percent -- without sacrificing the tax break offered by the hard working people of Massachusetts, many of whom invest their retirement savings with the company.

Jamie Eldridge, the state senator whose district includes Marlboro where many of the jobs currently are, says it maybe time to eliminate the tax break that is based on growing jobs by 5 percent annually over five years.

And it's certainly time for Edward C. “Ned’’ Johnson III, the company’s chairman and chief executive, to explain himself, as Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chairman Mark Montigny suggests:
“I believe that one or both of the Johnsons should come and defend the company, defend the policy, and how they spent taxpayer money,’’ Montigny said. “When a company takes advantage of a taxpayer initiative, they have the responsibility to hold up their side of the bargain.’’
*By the way, the headline is Latin for "Never faithful."

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

While the cat's away

As the Tea Party Newsletter continues to blame Deval Patrick's absence for everything except the Japanese catastrophe, legislative leaders appear to be stirring from their winter's hibernation.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo emerged just prior to the Legislature's Evacuation Day holiday to tell business leaders about his plans for the coming session -- including a change to the open records law that would make all job recommendations for state jobs written documents available to the public.

It's a good idea that could be accomplished in fairly short order when the House and Senate actually meet, something that has been a relatively rare activity so far this year. But what I'd really love to see are the exchanges among lawmakers opposed to bringing some sunlight into the process, something, alas, we will not get to witness.

As for Patrick's trip and the lack of goodies to date, unless there's one last blockbuster waiting it appears the governor made a strategic error in not lining up deals for signature along the way. But I suspect we will see action on that front sooner than we will on legislative transparency.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Massachusetts Dreamin'

Optimism is a good thing in politics. After all, Rick Santorum thinks he can win the Republican nomination. And an obscure state senator did defeat a well-known attorney general for "The Kennedy Seat."

But Setti Warren, Kim Driscoll and Bob Massie are even more unknown than Scott Brown was at the time he entered the race as what was widely considered a sacrificial lamb. And Brown today has the money and name recognition that Martha Coakley had -- plus the awareness of the pitfalls that she apparently did not.

A Western New England College poll offers discouraging tea leaves for Democrats: Brown's 57-24 job approval rating is better than John Kerry's 57-34 results. The potential challengers -- two mayors and a former lieutenant governor candidate -- are even less of household names than Brown was.

Yet the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee appears focused on the fact Brown's deserves reelection number of 53 percent makes him vulnerable. And in the volatile world of American politics of the 21st Century, who's to argue lightning won't strike twice?

The slim reed on which to hang that hope is the fact the Tea Party, which claimed the credit in electing Brown, has grown disenchanted with the Wrentham Republican. The reason? Too moderate.

While that might be an acceptable ground for concern in Idaho or South Carolina, Brown's seeming move to the center is not harmful in Massachusetts.

If Democrats hope to oust Brown, they'll need to focus on what lies behind that "moderation": favoring banks over the unemployed, opposition to health care reform, support of wasteful military spending.

Arrayed against that is a huge campaign war chest that's only going to get bigger.

But hey, everyone loves the 1967 Red Sox and who knows how the continuing ripples in politics will move in the ensuing 20 months.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Slow opinion day

When a major metropolitan newspaper editorializes about neck wear, you have to wonder about the future of opinion-mongering.

Sure there's been no dearth of news recently headlined by the tragedy in Japan and the uprisings in the Muslim world. But the bread and butter, raise a ruckus and shout your opinion stuff has been a bit meager what with Deval Patrick a trade mission, the Legislature slowly waking from its slumber and the Republican dance offering little more than Michele Bachmann history lessons.

But Mitt Romney's neck ties? Puhleeze. I'd rather hear about saving parking spots. Again.

And frankly, the Globe missed the mark in analyzing Romney's sartorial choices on the non-campaign trail. There's a time and a place to doff a tie. An official party function on a Saturday night, when the lack of a tie makes you stand out like a fashion faux pas, would not be it. Besides, Myth offers so many more legitimate targets.

The Herald, as always, leads the way in bad mockery, and it does it in the news section. The Tea Party Newsletter has been chronicling what Deval Patrick has been missing each day on his trade mission. Funny thing though, they appear to be missing the fact people are finally taking up things he left for them to do before he hit the road.

Admit it Globe opinion writers: you can never been as snarky as Herald news editors.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tilting at nuclear windmills

The disaster unfolding in Japan should hopefully put to rest once and for all the idea that nuclear power is "clean, safe, too cheap to meter." So why am I not hopeful?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the "drill baby drill "crowd has already forgotten the lessons of BP and is calling for renewed domestic drilling as a solution to spiking oil prices (although Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski seems to be omitting her home state from the list, thankfully if somewhat hypocritically).

Nor am I real hopeful about the future of wind power given all the opposition stirred up to the Cape Wind project, some of it backed by the Koch brothers.

Let's face it, all forms of energy generation have safety issues (San Bruno, CA, anyone?) But none has the potential to injure or kill quite as many people as "our friend" the atom.

And despite that, we continue to build or support reactors -- from Japan to Vermont or Plymouth -- that just aren't up to the task from the smallest leak to handling what appears to be the worst case scenario playing out before our eyes.

Fukushima Daiichi is destined to join Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as symbols of why we should not be reliant on one of the most destructive forces known to humanity to light and heat our homes.

Let's hope our leaders are watching the same images.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Quake? Tsumami? No football???

The earth shakes, rattles and rolls, triggering killer waves that speed along the ocean floor at hundreds of miles an hour before wreaking havoc on opposite shores. The temblor shuts down fail-safe mechanisms at nuclear power plants, evoking images of the China Syndrome in Japan.

It appears as if the Mayans were right, even if the timing of their prediction was off by a year. What other horrifying thing could possibly happen?

Tom, Peyton and Drew could sue the National Football League
and their billionaire overlords threaten to end football as we know it? Oh the humanity!

But there it is, on front pages all across the America, sharing space with talk of Richter scales, tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns. The boys of autumn need better timing.

The spectacle of labor turmoil in the National Football League is laughable on its face -- the billionaires can't control themselves and overpay athletes, then demand concessions to save them from themselves. Star players take time out from celebrating Carnaval with their supermodel wives to accuse their employer of anti-competitive practices and seek triple damages.

I wish the Wisconsin teachers had thought of that.

Long ago, the initials NFL began to stand for No Fan Loyalty. The men and women who enjoyed the game have had to put down more and more of their hard-earned cash to watch grown men give each other brain damage. Teams change players (and sometime cities) over the flash of green. Owners pack in the fans by selling more tickets than they have seats for, while players pack on the pounds as well as their wallets.

Nothing better illustrates the disconnect from reality in this nation than this public spectacle of rich people squabbling over dollars they are taking from the pockets of those who dream of becoming rich and famous and collecting those same, often tax-free dollars.

What would happen if we ignored both sides -- and went back to paying attention to what counts. like earthquakes, tsunamis and the human anguish they cause instead of worrying about how Tom and Jerry split their spoils?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Winning the battle but losing the war

Pundits and Tea Party leaf readers may very well look back at March 10, 2011 as the day the tide shifted in the demonize government movement.

The partisan decision to strip Wisconsin workers of their collective bargaining rights -- on top of already agreed upon benefit cuts -- revealed the true agenda of the Rabid Right that has seized control of the agenda after the Great Recession caused by the excesses of the Wall Street class.

By striking out at the folks on the other end of the political spectrum -- teachers and public employees in left-leaning unions -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker revealed the men behind the curtain and the real agenda of the Tea Party movement, bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers.

For a moribund labor movement, the Wisconsin vote is like CPR, putting a new face on the movement that has been characterized by burly men in hard hats since the days of Richard Nixon. The "silent majority" became Reagan Democrats and eventually began morphing into inauthentic figures like Joe the Plumber backing John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008.

Teachers, nurses and home health workers present a very different image and it was these folks -- and not the police and fire unions that fashion themselves as the scion of the "silent majority" -- who have been targeted here.

That provides tremendous new political fodder for unions, particularly in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have have rich labor traditions and are politically flexible enough to elect candidates from both parties.

And that's where the Koch's ultimate tactic -- politically weaken the strongest source of Democratic support -- may have gone seriously off the tracks. Instead of delivering a death blow to the labor movement, Wisconsin may have given it the strongest jump start -- uniting two political wings that agree on little else except for the sanctity of collective bargaining.

All eyes will be on Wisconsin to see if the selective punishment of union members who didn't back Walker will bring the fiscal relief he claims it will. And that bar is now very high. When, as is I expect, it fails to achieve Walker's unrealistic claims, the first wave of politics will sweep the GOP out of Wisconsin's office, spearheaded by the groups that labor unions are built to organize.

Pundits suggested we not be in place to have a fourth wave election in as many election cycles. I suspect they are wrong. The question is how large will the tsunami be and who will be swept away.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

I can't hear you

Dear Verizon: If you could fix my dead land line without a service call, why did it take four days?

And when you repaired it, couldn't you have called to let us know? Even a robo call? You have the number, don't you?

Comcast is looking better all the time.

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It's broke. Fix it

There are no winners in the political stalemate that has reached it zenith in the parliamentary standoff in Wisconsin. And until our elected officials learn the difference between campaigning and governing we, as a nation, are the ultimate losers.

If you are keeping score, Republicans beat Democrats 2-1 in the bullheaded department. Gov. Scott Walker used the state's legitimate budget problem to attempt to break the public employee unions that did not support him. Senate Democrats took up temporary residence in Illinois in a parliamentary move to block a vote. Senate Republicans did their own parliamentary move to ram the bill through.

In the process, they did two damaging things: by stripping the fiscal justification from the bill to allow a vote they also stripped the final layer from the facade that said the issue was abut budget-balancing and not union-busting.

And, with the full assistance of Senate Democrats, they gave lie, again, to the mantra of their Washington role models who promised "adult" conversations about our nation's problems.

It's a safe proposition that whatever our political differences, left and right are fed up with elected officials who put partisanship over getting things done. It's worth noting, again, that Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill managed to overcome an ideological gulf and find common ground.

The sides differ on who is to blame for the stalemate, with those of us on the left pointing fingers at Washington Republicans who have been hell bent at destroying two Democratic presidents, using tactics from lies to impeachment to press their agenda. The right has its own grievances that I'll happily allow to be expressed in comments.

But the sad reality is things are falling apart around us. We need solutions that call for both changes in our entitlement programs and new sources of revenue to pay for those programs like Medicare and Social Security that protesters declare the government should keep its hands away from.

History is replete with mighty nations that seemed invincible -- from Rome and the Byzantine Empire to the modern decline and fall of the British and Soviet empires.

We are on that very road and need to get our house -- and senate -- in order. Now.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Unconscionable hypocrisy

I guess it all depends on the meaning of the word terrorist.

Long Island Republican Peter King is dancing on the head of a pin as he tries to justify his witch hunt hearing on Islam and terrorism while defunding his past support of the Irish Republican Army and its sectarian-based attacks in Northern Ireland.

In King's world, the difference is that IRA gunmen and bombers launched forays on military targets and carried out those raids on their own soil. The fact they use violence in an effort to a political victory over religious opponents seems to elude him.
“If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”
Innocent civilians killed when the attacks moved on to London, the capital of the country from which the IRA sought to detach? Perhaps you were wearing moral blinders at the time, Mr. Chairman?

The Republican Party of recent vintage has made electoral gains through divide and conquer -- wedge issues such as abortion and birth control -- gulling the working class into paroxysms of anger while feathering the nests of their wealthy supporters.

This hearing is an attempt to fan the flames once more, turning justifiable anger over the immoral actions of al Qaeda into a broad brush stroke slam against their co-religionists. That is shameful on its face.

Coming from a man who turned a blind eye to the loss of innocents to justify religious-based violence when it served his own political beliefs is unconscionable hypocrisy.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

We're doomed!

If you thought the MBTA has problems now just wait: the Legislature plans to investigate the cause of this winter's delays and disruptions.

Yep, the Great and General Court plans to bring the focus of its Senate post audit and oversight and joint transportation committee onto the problems that have plagued the system this winter and come up with recommendations on how to fix them.

Here's a word to the wise: don't sit up on Beacon Hill and listen to bureaucrats offer apologies and excuses. Ride the system yourself.

Let's start with a basic question: how many lawmakers know what it costs to ride a bus or subway or commuter rail train -- or what it costs to park at an MBTA lot?

After you figure that out, try to catch an early morning commuter rail from Franklin of Worcester, then jam into a Green Line or Red Line car to get to the Statehouse on time. Then do it again at night.

Experience the regular fires caused by a lack of maintenance, whether it involves track switches or dirty stations where the trash piles up. Or ride the overcrowded buses that always arrive in two and threes, followed by lengthy waits (which were often at unshoveled stops this winter). Get irritated by a lack of adequate information about delays.

And then stop to think why you avoid public transportation on a regular basis, probably with the excuse offered by former T boss Dan Grabauskas that the schedule wasn't convenient to his working hours.

After all that, it will become blatantly obvious. The system suffers from a lack of resources, largely because of sporadic legislative interest that follows benign neglect.

The commuter rail problems today are largely the result of an aging locomotive fleet, a problem exacerbated two years ago when Grabauskas delayed purchasing new engines because the system couldn't afford it. Track and station maintenance? Ditto.

A big part of the revenue problems stems from the Legislature's last "solution," earmarking a penny on the sales tax to pay for a system that previously had been "forward funded," meaning it could spend pretty much what it wanted and present an invoice to lawmakers.

Offered an opportunity to fix that two years ago, by raising the gasoline tax to fund the T as well as needed bridge and road repairs, lawmakers opted instead for adding 1.25 cents onto the sales tax, a move that has obviously proven inadequate to meet the increased needs caused by the Great Recession.

So here we are back again talking about problems on the T -- without the ways or means to fix them. Talk about a vicious circle.

Spare us the circus of hearings that will lead nowhere -- and about as quickly as a rush hour commute.

CORRECTION: Thanks to reader Karl C. who noted I got forward funding backward.

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Milk carton Legislature

It's March 7 -- do you know what your full time Legislature has done?

Two months into the first year of their two-year session, the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth has approved exactly one law -- authorizing the Mayor of Medford to appoint a director of budget and personnel. The House and Senate have met -- formally or informally -- 22 times in two months and have held sessions commemorating John F. Kennedy's City on the Hill speech and the 200th anniversary of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Oh, and they took a week off for vacation.

In years gone by, the slow pace would have been attributed to the organizational activities -- naming committee chairs -- it did take House Speaker Robert DeLeo a month or so to name his most loyal members to key positions -- populating the panels and publishing bills for them to consider.

But the 5,097 proposed pieces of legislation are available on computer for anyone to see.

Yet pick up the Tea Party Newsletter today and you would think Deval Patrick is single-handedly gumming up the works by jetting off on a junket with the "potential for corruption" at the hands of some of the state's best known business leaders.

The "complex health care cost reform bill" is the one he has proposed for legislative action and Patrick has been the one pushing for bringing municipal employee unions into the state's health insurance system, a measure that has failed to win legislative approval for the past few years.

Maybe the Herald should be searching for our missing lawmakers? Nah, that would mean the facts might intrude on a good political screed.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

There he goes again

Like the first shoots of spring time trying to burrow through the soil, the quadrennial rites of New Hampshire are slowly stirring, led by the candidate who says he hasn't made up his mind.

We are awaiting the next Mitt Romney flip-flop, although the transition from a coy "maybe" to "I'm in" is one of the accepted frauds of politics. And for a non-candidate, Our Man Myth surely is enjoying a red letter day with front page attention in The Boston Herald and The New York Times.

Word to the wise -- pay more attention to the Tea Party Newsletter.

While Gray Lady chats up the political consultants, the Herald gets down into the grassroots with the folks who will actually vote in the Granite State in 11 months (or less). And it's not a terrific picture for the Winnipesaukee resident.
“Right now, it’s ABR — Anyone But Romney,” said Kevin McHugh, 38, a Salem Tea Party activist who just started the Facebook page “Mitt Romney and His Record,” which enumerates his flip-flops on health-care reform, taxes and abortion. “He’s got a lot of work to do.”
Ah yes, health care reform, the bete noire of the conservative movement and the latest in a seemingly endless stream of Romney um, position shifts. The man who brought the individual mandate to the table is now spinning furiously from his singular contribution to the debate.

It's hard to blame the Man from Michigan-Massachusetts-Utah-New Hampshire-California for his backpedaling. There is a huge target on his back right now, one that always accompanies a presidential primary front runner.

And its especially large right now in a field that contains Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

The Romney brain trust recognizes the Mittser has an advantage over the rest of the field: he actually knows what he's talking about (and not just because he's been on all sides). But in a field that will make the 1988 Democratic Seven Dwarfs seem like giants, they know he may have as many, if different, obstacles to overcome than that year's front-runner, Gary Hart.

And the major obstacle is winning over Tea Party partisans who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid who could sink the only viable GOP nominee. No matter what the paid guns for hire and national big foot political reporters say about it being too early.

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Center of attention

Perhaps it's a sign of how far to the right the pendulum has swung among Republicans that a piecemeal demolition of the health care law is considered a centrist position.

Compared to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to unilaterally blow up collective bargaining rights, Sen. Scott Brown's incrementalist approach to repeal does indeed appear to be more moderate. But the Globe appears to ignore Brown's own words in creating an image of the junior senator as a potential power broker:
"I’d like you to get this very clear: I’m opposed to the health care bill. I always have been. I’ve already voted to repeal it."
And despite the Globe's effort to portray him as attempting to move away from the Tea Party as he faces reelection next year, the junior senator really isn't fudging his stance on a federal law that could again put Massachusetts in the political cross hairs as conservatives rant that there's not a dime's worth of difference between "RomneyCare" and "ObamaCare."
“Do we do nothing? I want to repeal it and until we get to that point I’m going to keep chipping away."
That's a centrist, middle-of-the-road position?

Brown hold a sizable political war chest in advance of 2012 and none of the rumored Democratic challengers strike fear in GOP hearts. But Brown is smart enough to know that he didn't either when he ran in 2010 and that he needs the support from real moderates and not just the Tea Party right.

Stories like this one that trumpet an illusion of moderation go a long way to fulfilling that need.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Available for hire

As Blue Cross Blue Shield continues to be battered by bad publicity over the severance package paid to a former CEO, here's a thought: the Monitor Group may be available to help repair your image.

After all, the Cambridge-based, Harvard-stacked organization that calls itself "among the most prestigious consulting firms" has a little room in its schedule after dropping a client a couple of years ago.

You may have heard of him: Moammar Khadafy? The Monitor Group's crack Harvard team, including the famed management consultant Michael Porter, got paid $250,000 a month
... for a wide range of services, including writing the book proposal, bringing prominent academics to Libya to meet Khadafy “to enhance international appreciation of Libya’’ and trying to generate positive news coverage of the country.
How'd that work out exactly?

Actually Monitor and its band of Harvard "stars" should focus on repairing their own image problems first. The basic question for these so-called "thought leaders: were you guilty of being naive or greedy in offering to write book proposals (and doctoral dissertations) for a dictator and his family who never had a thought or concern about democracy?

The revelation is going to reinforce, in this case justly, the poor reputation of Harvard faculty as elitists with a sense of morality different from the rest of us. The image here is clear cut: supposedly thoughtful people actually in a callous, thoughtless way.

Here's a suggestion, no charge: make like some of the stars, performers like Beyonce, Usher and Mariah Carey, who gave the fees they were paid to perform for the Khadafy clan to charity.

And learn how to pick your clients better.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Cluster fail

The inspector's words were barely audible as a Commonwealth Avenue outbound train disgorged two full cars at Kenmore. Unlike the PA announcement that permeated the ear buds, I could barely hear "switching problem. Go upstairs and take a 57 one stop."

Having just given up on the 57, I knew better than to listen. So I took the Beacon Street train and figured I would have a longer walk, but would beat the B train.

Until the C train stopped at St. Mary's, opened the doors after several minutes to the dreaded "this train is standing by" announcement. OK, an even longer walk.

Turns out the uninformative announcement masked a dead train just ahead at Carlton Street, a train they were in the process of moving to the inbound track.

At this point I was in full walk mode, through the back streets of Brookline and out Babcock at Comm. Ave., where I was greeted by smoke and a backup of outbound trains that were no doubt the "switching problem" mumbled at Kenmore. One jammed bus headed out Comm. Ave. I can only assume lots of folks did what I did and walked.

Things happen -- although with disgusting regularity on the T this winter. What should not happen is incomplete or inaccurate information. Whatever brought out the fire engines on Comm. Ave. was gone by the time I got there.

And so was what little credibility the MBTA has by not telling people there's a fire on Comm. Ave. and we are short buses but we're working on it.

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Blind leading the blind

It's hard to imagine anyone messing up the region's commuter rail system any worse than a company that keeps running locomotives after they break down. But the MBTA's decision to hire a company that mismanaged the Big Dig comes close.

Throwing justified skepticism to the wind, the MBTA Board of Directors opted to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff to assist in the purchase of 20 new commuter rail locomotives to replace engines like the one that stranded Worcester commuters coming and going on Monday.

Exactly what expertise the company has in anything other than collapsing highway tunnels in not readily apparent. But then again, the MBTA has a history of bad decisions.

Let's start with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co., which holds the contract to operate the system. It's boss is James O'Leary, who once ran the entire T system through, um, interesting times during the 1980s. But he's now running the MBCR, home to brilliant decisions like putting an engine that broke down back into service immediately.

The reason, no doubt, is because there is a severe shortage of working engines. And could that have been influenced by the decision of Dan Grabauskas two years ago to delay purchasing 28 locomotives, citing financial problems?

Anyone want to guess how much more the eight fewer engines will set back the still financially-strapped agency?

Upon closer review, Parsons Brickerhoff seems perfectly suited to the task ahead of them. And that's a scary thought indeed.

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Right to speech, not coverage

John Roberts and the Supremes got it right. Now news executives should do the same.

The Supreme Court's strong reaffirmation of the right to free speech, no matter how vile that speech may be, should actually be a small ray of solace for a progressive community that has a great deal of issues with the court's rightward drift.

The ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church is a reaffirmation of the 1977 decision declaring that Nazis had the right to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, home to a large population of Holocaust survivors.

The problem in today's 24-7 news cycle is not the abhorrent message of the "church" and its leaders. It's the encouragement they receive by continued media coverage of their hateful screeds.

There is a 1st Amendment right to speak your mind. There is no similar right to media coverage of that speech. That's the decision of news professionals who have been known to make mistakes in judgment.

The ruling is of small comfort to the families who will be burying their war dead in the near future. But if media executives begin to exercise news judgment in place of ratings frenzy, the bigots who picket funerals will soon be as scarce as Nazis marching in the streets of Illinois.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

It had all the makings of a frothy Herald exclusive: federal bureaucrats running around town measuring billboards and finding fault and generally wasting precious federal resources on "highway beautification."

One problem. Two actually. Perched high atop One Herald Square. One permit, which the feds now want someone to tell publisher Pat Purcell had been issued in error. Short straw anyone? The Herald spokeswoman dodged the question.

Can you imagine if those wayward billboards sat atop 135 Morrissey Blvd? Oh the humanity!

The federal Highway Beautification Act has its roots in the Johnson administration, a project of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. The goal is a noble one, to reduce or remove visual clutter and advance scenic enhancement and roadside development.

It's hard to envision either scenic enhancement or further roadside development along the Expressway, the Zakim Bridge or at Logan Airport, where federal regulators cited some examples. Herald Street underneath the Expressway will never win beauty awards.

You can also imagine the high dudgeon at Wingo Square when the feds singled out developer John Rosenthal's gun control billboard astride the Mass Pike as an example of protected speech. Anyone check the birth certificates of those commie inspectors?

Overall, the feds actually praised Massachusetts for a well-run, if short-handed program and recommended the state should more than double the current staff of four inspectors.

Um, what planet are they on?

In all honesty, it seems federal regulators should have higher priorities these days than assess the visual blight of billboards posted along busy urban streets and highways that most people ignore anyway.

Too bad the Herald can't say that because it is one of the scofflaws caught by federal employees actually doing their jobs.

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