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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, January 31, 2013

Mo' better senator?

Is William "Mo" Cowan the best choice for interim US senator or is Deval Patrick putting legacy over reality?

That's the mini-debate swirling in the wake of Patrick's choice of his former chief of staff to warm the seat left vacant by soon-to-be-Secretary of State John Kerry. The principal requirement Patrick had laid down was the interim senator have no designs on the permanent job.

In naming Cowan, Patrick has installed the state's second African-American (and the first Democrat) to sit beside the state's first woman US senator. A delegation that once had decades of clout in Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy now measures seniority in hours.

The choice has left some in the punditocracy scratching their heads, wondering if Patrick sacrificed experience for symbolism in rejecting Barney Frank's request for the appointment.

The argument goes that in naming Cowan, Patrick bypassed someone with legislative experience like Frank, or stature like former Gov,. Michael Dukakis.

That line of reasoning ignores the reality that the person standing 100th in the line of seniority is going to have a hard time making a serious contribution, no matter how much political experience they bring to the table.

The exception may have indeed been Frank. But he remains anathema to the GOP and his propensity to throw his weight and experience around in a 120-day job might have had the exact opposite impact, particularly in a chamber that likes to think of itself as a genteel debating society. Frank earned his House clout -- and a raft of enemies to boot.

Cowan is a nuts and bolts man. As a chief of staff his job was to set the table and then make sure things happened as planned. In a chamber of executives, many who fancy themselves as the next president, it could be a bonus to have someone who can translate rhetoric into reality by guiding, rather than leading a process.

And let's never forget this is a temporary job -- over on June 26. Does anyone truly believe the nation's fiscal troubles, decades in the making, will be solved in the next few months? In a chamber that requires a three-fifths majority to get a bathroom break and whose members work a couple of days a week?

Cowan brings a different skill set from the traditional legislators, something that may just be an asset in dealing with a mess created by traditional legislators.

And in the interim, voters can decide which traditional legislator is right to hold the seat until 2014, when we can do the Senate election thing one more time.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Goodbyes -- and hello

John Kerry and a couple of state legislators may have said "adios" yesterday, but it's pretty clear one pol with longevity plans to stick around.

Massachusetts may be looking at a special election to replace Secretary of State Kerry, but voters going to the polls this year in Boston are likely to see a familiar name when they pull their ballot.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino left little doubt he would take a stab at another term as he delivered his State of the City address to an adoring crowd in Faneuil Hall.  OK, he didn't come right out and say it -- and I was honestly waiting for a surprise Lyndon Johnson moment -- but Tommy from Hyde Park left little doubt he would go for a sixth term.

And the movement of a number of Boston politicians -- like Rep. Marty Walz and Sen. Jack Hart -- into the private sector suggests a logjam remains in terms of locally available offices.

Menino's speech was a personal triumph after a very rough few months battling a variety of ailments. The stagecraft, walking down the aisle with just the aid of a cane, was intended to show that he may have been bloodied but he remains unbowed.

The speech itself (at least the last half that I heard) was unremarkable -- a typical list of Menino small ball. Menino continues to mangle the language (woman is NOT plural) but it's not so much the words as the sentiment behind it that continues to get him elected.

That and the lack of any serious, substantial challengers.

But while 2013 may be an off year save for city elections, it seems to be shaping up as a barnburner.  Ed Markey appears to no longer have the Democratic field to himself in race to succeed Kerry and the entry of Steve Lynch, the pride of Southie, could give Menino a chance to get his campaign machine tuned up.

Meanwhile, Scott Brown appears to be inching to yet another Senate run in which the polls show him the early favorite -- from name recognition alone. But will familiarity backfire with a third run in four years?


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

State wrongs

The perils of trying to cut health care costs are on display in state legislatures around the country as industry lobbyists try to sidestep federal law to get a deal that's good for them if not for us.

Pharmaceuticals and biologicals are a huge part of the cost of health care, yet lobbyists have been quite successful at limiting efforts to rein in spending -- from not allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for Part D coverage to slipping in a sweetheart deal for Amgen in the fiscal cliff bill.

Now we are seeing lobbyists descend on local capitals armed with bills, often written by industry, that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to substitute a generic or biosimilar for some of the highest price drugs in physicians' arsenals.

It's not a new fight. Despite generally good FDA oversight, the manufacturers contend the quality and safety of generics is not as good and therefore physicians should not be compelled to substitute the identical alternative made by another company.

The battle is harmful to patients not only in terms of costs but also supply -- as many major pharmaceutical companies are not manufacturing important but low-margin drugs while generic manufacturers find themselves squeezed out of existence.

It's the same old, sad story that those with the means can hire lobbyists to represent their financial interests before lawmakers. The rest of us have to live with the results, whether it is in higher costs or the lack of access to life-saving options.

There is no dispute that pharmaceutical companies can often spend billions in the development and manufacture of drugs -- with a number of costly failures along the way. But they have always been rewarded tax and other breaks over a set and limited amount of time to recoup those costs.

The lobbying efforts are designed to changes the rules to their benefit -- not for the benefit of the patients who need their products to live healthy and longer lives.

Yet it is usually the lobbyists who are heard, not the patient. No reform will work unless lawmakers but patients ahead of their campaign war chests.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Strange bedfellows

Kentucky Democrats have an idea on how to make Mitch McConnell a five-term senator. Join forces with the Tea Party.

It's an unusual coalition that seems to be shaping up in Kentucky to challenge the Senate Minority Leader who will be mostly remembered for his 2010 pronouncement that the GOP's top goal was not to restore the nation's economic health but to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

It's an intriguing tactic, given the Tea Party's penchant for nominating candidates like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Christine O'Donnell who have all frittered away winnable seats.

And with Rand Paul in place in Kentucky, we know the Tea Party sentiment is strong.

You can't blame Democrats for wanting a little payback against the senator who was first elected in 1984. He has stood as a barricade to action for much of his stint as the Senate's top Republican.  They have been making noise about encouraging Tennessean resident (but Kentucky native) Ashley Judd to run for the seat.

But directly injected progressives into a GOP primary can leave a person queasy, knowing turnabout would always be fair play (not that the GOP has not meddled in Democratic primaries in the past).

There's also the recent reality -- infuriating to the Tea Party -- that McConnell is more capable of compromise, not to mention controlling his caucus. We would still be fighting over the fiscal cliff if McConnell had not sat down and negotiated with Joe Biden. That's something John Boehner proved totally incapable of doing.

Ultimately, it would be a lot of delicious mischief against a senator whose dour persona has come to mark the total lack of professionalism of a group that has consistently put party over country.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pundits gone wild!

They say idle hands are the devil's tool. Special elections without candidates serve the same function for political writers.

Need proof? Check out this paragraph stashed in the middle of a Globe story on Scott Brown's silence about mounting yet another campaign this year. The speculation focuses on what would happen if Brown opts to get in and wins:
A Brown victory in June would mean a potential 2014 race against Joseph P. Kennedy III, the newest member of the politically powerful Kennedy family to enter politics. Democrats have said Kennedy would be the party’s most likely choice for that election if Brown were to win the seat this year.
Joseph P. Kennedy III for Senate in 2014? He's been a sitting member of the House for just a little over three weeks! And assuming Kennedy is dumb enough to fall for what could be a call from his party (a dangerous assumption) what ensures that the green-behind-the-ears redhead could muster a majority in state where 40 percent of voters are automatically turned off to the name Kennedy?

Brown's silence is interesting and the thought our Cosmo Man wants to make some money off his brief Senate career is compelling. And the tea leaves do seem to be pointing in a certain direction.

No, it's not the fact Brown hung up on the Globe. Rather it's the Herald's front page treatment of the Hamlet of Southie, Steve Lynch.

The Tea Party Newsletter reports that Lynch has met with Tom Menino, whose support would be crucial for a conservative Democrat in a primary against Ed "Anyone Seen Me Lately" Markey.

In the Herald view, a conservative Democrat is a better bet against an electorally challenged Republican like Kerry Healey.

Fortunately the clock is slowly but surely approaching midnight. John Kerry is likely to be confirmed as Secretary of State next week, triggering his resignation, appointment of an interim senator and a June final election.

After that, we can turn our attention back to 2014. Personally I think JoeKIII's father is a better bet to run for governor than Big Red moving up to the Senate. And that is even less likely than a Brown-Martha Coakley rematch, this time for the Corner Office.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Rest of the story

It appears Tim Murray had more than family time in mind when he stepped out of the 2014 governor's race.

The Globe is reporting the lieutenant governor -- who dropped out of the chase last week "to spend more time with his family" is actually under investigation for campaign finance violations.

And the guy who was involved in the questionable fund-raising has just been indicted with four felony counts of deliberately concealing his inflated salary at the Chelsea Housing Authority.

It's possible, if unlikely, that Murray knew about the timing of the McLaughlin indictments, which were inevitable. But the Office of Campaign and Political Finance office probe was no surprise -- he requested it -- and it's been clear for months that Murray would have a political problem.
In a previously undisclosed letter, sent in September, [OCPF] asked the attorney general to investigate Murray, as well as key members of his campaign team. If eventually charged and found guilty of knowingly accepting illegally raised campaign contributions, the lieutenant governor could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500 for each violation.
And it appears that where there was smoke there may have been fire involving Murray and the campaign finance law, setting the stage for what would have likely been an embarrassing mess smack in the middle of the campaign.

It's important to remember the caveats that investigations are not proof of wrong-doing and everyone has a presumption of innocence.

But Murray at the very least is guilty of not being entirely straight forward in announcing his reasons for opting out of the 2014 campaign.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Untapped treasure

Deval Patrick managed a few more surprises in his fiscal 2014 budget -- sales taxes on candy and soda. But the new spending document was largely silent on a cache of revenue almost as big as the $34.8 billion plan.

The bad news about higher income tax rates and an expanded sales tax did not extend to the tax expenditure budget, the $26 billion (in fiscal 2013) pool of that represents dollars the state is entitled to but does not collect because of tax breaks or special legislative actions.

Scroll through the 96-page document and you will see millions of dollars foregone on the income, corporate and business taxes. It can range from medical expenses to earned income tax credit -- to the much-debated film industry tax credit that the Globe notes was one of the only "losers" in the governor's budget because it was capped.

A look at the federal budget would find similar breaks. Remember that amid the minutiae of the "fiscal cliff" deal that did not include an extension of the 2 percent Social Security and Medicare payroll tax -- a tax hike for most Americans -- was a provision extending a tax break for NASCAR.

The state tax expenditure budget and its federal cousin represent the promised land for industries that have the cash and the wherewithal to hire lobbyists. The tax code is dense and arcane and requires road maps to negotiate, something Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizens cannot afford.

Nor can they afford the campaign contributions that grease the wheels in most legislative bodies.

There has been occasional talk about taking a closer look at who gets what and tighten some of those loopholes, but somehow that talk always gets lost amid the nuts and bolts of the budget and crises du jour.

But as lawmakers ponder Patrick's worthwhile proposals to fix our transportation infrastructure and improve our schools, they ought to consider his plans on how to pay for it. No, not just an up or down vote on a 1 percent hike in the income tax or a 1.75 percent cut in the sales tax.

There remains the nagging feeling that not everyone is paying their fair share and that means digging into the weeds, examining the tax breaks that have favored some industries over another, whether those reasons remain valid and whether or not to end those special deals.

It's a lot more work -- but it is long overdue. And in a Legislature that takes a month to simply get organized, it would be a valuable exercise while twiddling their collective thumbs.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pyrrhic victory

Republicans ought to consider changing the party's symbol to a bat: it is also seemingly blind and in danger of extinction.

Instead GOP pundits are black slapping and high-fiving, telling their echo chamber after Barack Obama's inaugural address that the president really is a closet socialist hell bent on taking away guns and saving the planet.
“The speech should debunk two myths about Mr. Obama and his presidency, both trumpeted by liberal commentators and Democratic activists,” conservative columnist Fred Barnes wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “One is that the president is really a pragmatist and a centrist. Not so. Only an ideologically committed liberal could have delivered the address that Mr. Obama did.
“The other myth is that Mr. Obama is eager to compromise with Republicans but has faced unprecedented obstructionism on their part. The speech told a different tale,” Barnes added. “It showed the president bent on pursuing an agenda with few if any sweeteners for Republicans.”
Obama's left-of-center inaugural address resonated with any American who understands that that Democrats adhere to the constitutional ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For everyone.

His support of and call for action to bring rationality to gun laws, deal with the violent weather swings brought on by climate change, support equal rights and mend but not end Social Security and Medicare was never far below the surface in his reelection campaign.

Barnes equation of "ideologically committed liberal" with a form of radicalism -- while ignoring the ideological commitment of his conservative fellow travelers -- is but one side of the GOP's stunning lack of reality.

It is topped by the familiar and well-debunked view that Obama has been unwilling to compromise, a myth that was shattered in November by the 51.1 percent of the electorate that voted for him,  the first Democrat since FDR to win 50 percent plus on two elections.

Voters clearly saw who the obstructionists were. Now some of those obstructionists are even coming around to realize that continuing that course may not be the best strategy.

But all is not lost for the wayward party: they have symbolic choices other than the bat. They can continue to be like ostriches and stick their head in the proverbial sand. Or they can opt to go the way of the dodo.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"My way"

Has the real Barack Obama finally emerged?  The themes enunciated in this second Inaugural Address would seem to suggest yes.

Obama continued his so-far unrequited call for unity, for setting aside the divisions that have paralyzed us from acting. But in having won the war, his call for action that embraced gay marriage, climate change, immigration reform and income equality is clearly the agenda liberals have yearned for him to champion.

The speech will not go down as one of the greatest inaugural addresses. I fact, it ignored Lincoln's embrace of "malice toward none and charity toward all" with a sharp jab into the ribs of the vanquished opponent who was not there:
“These things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us: They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
In addressing issues important to his liberal base -- the one that has not felt the love in the hammer and tong battles with the Tea Party minority -- Obama was looking to rally the troops for the battles over social programs that lie ahead.

And he chose some of the most powerful symbols of the progressive past to do that: Seneca Falls, Stonewall and Selma.

Perhaps the most surprising element in the address was the love branch to environmentalists. It offered an even sharper slap at those who continue to mock the path laid out by Al Gore and "tree huggers."
Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” Obama said in urging America to lead the search for renewable energy.
Now comes the hard part. After the feel good speech and the warm embrace of supporters who lined Pennsylvania Avenue, it's back to the battles with the Tea Party zealots who would wreck the world economy rather than fund social programs -- but who think spending billions on being the world's policemen is still appropriate.

The warm words about equality and unity were meant to carry us through the long, cold months ahead as the battle is rejoined.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Armed and dangerous

New Hampshire legislator Al Baldasaro has quite a mouth. Too bad it's not connected to his brain.

The Londonderry Republican is in high dudgeon over "insensitive" liberals upset over a plan by the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police who want to raise funds by raffling away 31 weapons during the month of May.
“There’s nothing wrong with what the chiefs are doing,” said ... Baldasaro ... who helped write the state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows those who feel threatened to use force to protect themselves. 
“The only ones who are saying it’s insensitive are these liberals out there who want to take away your guns. The shooting in Newtown had nothing to do with law-abiding citizens.”
Let that last sentence sink in for a moment: is the apparently sensitive conservative saying the 20 children and six adults -- not to mention their families -- were not law-abiding citizens?

In addition to conducting background checks and putting licensing requirements on the purchase of weapons, maybe we should do the same with politicians.

There's a vast treasury to be made from putting requirements to think on politicians' mouths.

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Family time

I believe Tim Murray when he says his decision not to run for governor in 2014 was a personal one. Does anyone think Murray wanted to subject his young family to the taunts and cracks that would accompany a race for the Corner Office?

Murray has been on the hot seat since he crashed his state-owned Crown Vic under mysterious circumstances more than a year ago. He added insult to an amazing lack of injury when the Globe highlighted his relationship with former Chelsea Housing Authority Executive Director Michael McLaughlin.

Any campaign would be a hard one on his family. And I'm not even talking about what it would be like if he topped what appears to be a weak Democratic field and faced a Republican like Charlie Baker or Scott Brown with far greater positive name recognition.

Murray's withdrawal doesn't really change the dynamic of the race either. Only a handful of Democrats, the most prominent being Treasurer Steve Grossman, has floated a trial balloon and he has not sent shivers of fear down the spines of leaders of either party. Pundits keep throwing out Martha Coakley's name even as she pulls it back.

The great mentioning machine, figuring a Kennedy name always sparks headlines, has tossed Joe Kennedy II into the mix.

At first blush, the Democratic pipeline appears to be dry. And that alone seems certain to bring names out of the woodwork.

Personally, the thought of a Coakley-Brown rematch, this time for the top job on Beacon Hill, sets the political taste buds tingling.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Over the top

That sound you heard was the lead balloon of Deval Patrick's tax proposal crashing. Hard.

Even as the governor was discussing regular increases in gasoline taxes, MBTA fares and registry fees, office chatter and talk show yakking focused on the extraordinary size of his propose income tax hike, with little if any mention of the accompanying sales tax cut.

And unlike the $450,000 annual threshold for imposition of higher federal income taxes, the Bay State levy would kick in earlier and harder eliminate deductions that have helped ease the bite in recent years,

The Herald had no problem finding families to share their fears, while elected officials became scarce.

Those voicing fears are not just the usual anti-tax crowd either. Big Patrick fans were walking around in semi-shock after hearing or reading the speech, as fearful of the consequences as the Tea Party crowd was angry.

It's really very simple. While the speech was designed to be inspirational, with visions of happy children and unclogged highways, Patrick did not do enough in the traditional pre-speech run-up to prepare friend and foe alike to the cost of the vision.

He did an even worse job in that 20-plus minute address and the dumping of even more costs the day after borders on full scale public disaster nightmare. Clean up on Aisle 2014!

While the goals are pure, long overdue and there is never a good time to call for higher taxes,  Patrick may have hit the absolute worst time -- in the quiet period between congressional explosions over the economy.

The foolishness in Washington has left everyone on edge about the future of the economy and the remedies that will be needed to make the nation grow again. We are becoming conditioned to the idea we are going to pay more for less on the federal level.

Patrick has his own serious concerns as Massachusetts CEO but his speech and follow-up have turned a blind eye to that anxiety -- and only made it worse.

There should have been immediate examples of what a combined income tax-sales tax shuffle would mean in the wallets and pocketbooks of Bay State residents. Particularly the sales tax cut, which has been virtually lost in the headlines.

The roll-out of this doomed plan will likely become a textbook case in future years in how not to do political communications.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The vision thing

Deval Patrick laid out a bold vision for a new Massachusetts where a well-educated citizenry thrives. But does he have enough clout left to reach the even more eye-popping goal of major tax reform?

That's the $1.9 billion question after a State of the State address that called for not only a larger-than-expected hike in the state income tax but a dramatic drop in the sales tax that would dedicate those resources to transportation.

Without ever saying so, Patrick called for the liberal's unrequited goal of a progressive tax structure not by putting step rate increases into the income tax but by using at blunter weapon with higher overall rates and bigger exemptions for those who earn less.

The Globe chart on the right dramatically spells out how the tax burden would step up by income, with:
... average taxpayers who earn less than $37,523 would see a $100-to-$200 tax cut, everyone else would pay higher taxes. Those who earn more than $102,886 would bear the brunt, paying an additional $3,200 a year in combined income and sales taxes.
To achieve the goal, the Globe notes:
Patrick argued his plan will make the tax code simpler and fairer because he will double personal exemptions and eliminate 45 deductions. His plan ­also calls for changing the corporate tax code to raise $149 million annually. Those changes include ending a deduction for large companies and eliminating a special classification for security and utility firms.
And to sweeten the pot, Patrick talked of bright-eyed four-year-olds who would have a better future through better education and shorter, less-frustrating commutes on better designed, better maintained highways.

But the dream is likely to get drowned out by the tax proposal, which despite today's mild Herald headline isn't likely to get very far.

Because while our sales and income taxes would still be fair and competitive against virtually all of our neighbors it would stand out in even sharper contrast to the Live Free Loader or Die neighbor that shuns broad-based sales or income taxes in favor of nickel and dime (and $100 bill) taxes on booze, butts and property.

For years, the graduated income tax has been the progressives' holy grail and for years it has been thoroughly and unceremoniously shot down. That's because it would require an amendment to the state constitution and those who benefit from the current system have had the wherewithal to mount well-financed campaigns against it.

Patrick's proposal is a grad tax without a constitutional amendment. There would still be a single rate. But as a cushion for those on the lower end, it would offer higher exemptions.

And an even bigger cushion -- one that could be yanked away at any time -- would be a dramatic drop in the state's most regressive tax, the levy on sales. That shows no distinction to income level -- or employment status for that matter.

What was missing from the speech and initial post-game discussion is what about the revenue from that other regressive levy Patrick and lawmakers approved a few years ago as the answer to our fiscal woes: casino gambling. Does this mean those hopes and dreams have already faded? And if so, what does that mean for the latest ones?

As a practical matter, the proposal was dead on arrival. But it will no doubt launch a loud and raucous debate about the quality of life and services in Massachusetts and our neighbors. That alone would be a debate worth having -- and may have been an underlying goal of Deval's Dream Speech.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Battle joined

Deval Patrick certainly plans to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

After two days of highlighting his wish list, Patrick will spell out how he would like to pay for the $2 billion in transportation and education programs that would certainly be the icing on the cake of his two terms in office.

Published reports suggest that would be a boost in the state's income tax from 5.25 percent to 5.66 percent, a call likely to elicit howls of protest. And it is also probably a proposal dead on arrival at the Massachusetts House, where all spending and tax bills must originate.

But lawmakers have not yet slammed the door on any tax increases at all and even ardent tax foes concede a gasoline tax to finance desperately needed infrastructure upgrades is "the lesser of evils."

Not that they are conceding the battle. As the Pioneer Institute's Jim Stergios told The Herald:
“A lot of the state still has double-digit unemployment — Lowell, Lawrence, Fall River. Is this really a time to put these others taxes on the table? It’s pretty unwise.”
Is there ever a good time?

A Patrick spokeswoman counters:
“The governor feels the realities of this economy and knows that families are making hard choices every day. He also knows the best long-term solution is more economic opportunity and easier access to education. He is committed to a solution that is dedicated, comprehensive, and competitive — and being competitive means being fair.”
 The old line is the governor proposes and the legislature disposes. Budgets are historically thrown into the trash and reworked. Lobbyists will be out in force to get their favored provision. Talk shows will squawk about cutting waste, fraud and abuse.

And come July something will likely emerge that will not at all resemble what will be unveiled at tonight's State of the State address but will begin the process of addressing the transportation, education and other issues facing this state.

This is probably the high point of Patrick's clout. As a lame duck his power will slowly ebb. What makes this somewhat less predictable than budget dances of the past two decades is that Patrick says he doesn't intend to walk away -- physically or mentally as his Republican predecessors did. Nor is he grievously wounded politically as his one lone Democratic forerunner was in completing his term.

If Patrick is to be believed, he is not looking for a launching pad for higher office. He is looking for a legacy. And that frankly could be an even stronger motivation for the kid from Chicago.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Taxes on the table

The T word has finally been raised in discussing the state's transportation nightmares. But lawmakers really ought to be looking at taxes that target those who get the most use out of the upgrades.

Deval Patrick unveiled a detailed report on the $1.02 billion that will be needed to bring the state's highway and pubic transportation system into fiscal balance. He will outline his own preferences in tomorrow's State of the State address, but the list includes the usual suspects: sales, income and gasoline taxes; a vehicle miles traveled tax; higher title and registration fees and a payroll tax on workers within regions with public transit.

There's a precedent in place as lawmakers begin their deliberations, one that even appeals to Republicans who consider taxes a dirty word: the heaviest burden should fall on the heaviest users.

MBTA commuters have certainly seen that principle in action with a combination of fare hikes and service cuts last year. Motorists who have paid the same 21-cent per gallon gasoline tax since 1991 have not.

Any rational solution to the crumbling roads, bridges and public transit system will require more from everyone. And higher gasoline taxes are no easy thing for people dependent on a car to get to a service job.

But higher income or sales taxes should only be considered after new assessments on those who have had the fewest skins in the game for the last two decades.

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Regulate guns, not colds

It's easier to purchase guns and ammunition in many states than it is to get non-prescription cold medication. That's an important standard to remember as the Obama administration prepares to unveil new gun control efforts.

The federal government requires positive identification and a signature to purchase pseudoephedrine, the decongestant at the heart of any effective cold tablet. Congress took action based on what it perceived to be a public safety threat by criminals who purchased mass quantities of the drug to boil it off into crystal meth.

It takes about 1,000 60 mg pills -- the average dose for four-to six hours of relief -- to make an ounce of crystal meth.

If only lawmakers would express similar concern over assault weapons, which require far less effort to create as much if not more destruction.

Yes, I know the Declaration of Independence doesn't mention good health, only life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the 2nd Amendment does not mention cold remedies either.

But if Congress can get its act together to impose registration on victims of colds, is it too much to ask for them to at least consider the victims of gun violence?

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Running late

MBTA management is mimicking its own on-time performance in dealing with chronically delayed new commuter rail cars.

A letter threatening manufacturer Hyundai Rotem with cancellation of a $190 million order if they don't get off the stick may have finally gotten the company's attention but you have to wonder why it took so long for that train to enter the station in the first place.

T officials were not talking to the Globe and one can assume there is at least a hat tip to new general manager Beverly Scott for launching the warning shot across the company's bow.

The contract signed in 2008 called for the delivery of 75 coaches, with final deliveries promised by the end of 2012. When the clock struck 12 on the last year, the T had received only four coaches -- all within the previous four months and all now being tested.

While the sleek new cars promise improvements over the ancient, ventilation-challenged coaches now in use, it would be hard for a cynic not to think of one word in response.


Years of delays and excuses produced cars that spent their first months in service derailing and still leaving passengers climbing up and down stairs through narrow clogged aisles, a  real joy when the Green Line refuses to open doors as its primary attack on fare evaders.

Let's think for a second what would happen if the order was indeed cancelled: how may more years (and millions) would be involved, all the while commuters are forced to pay constantly escalating costs for substandard service the breaks down at the slightest hint of bad weather.

I suppose Scott deserves an A for effort on this but the threat seems awfully late -- and hollow.

A bigger test will come in seeing how the T handles the new contract for running the train system.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Storm front

Deval Patrick is about to pick a fight that will reflect just how much juice the lame duck governor has in his final two years.

Patrick is expected to announce an overhaul of the state's public housing boards, a large and unseen layer of bureaucracy that often works quietly behind the scenes to make affordable housing options available in local communities.

And sometime they do not. In a big way.

The consolidation of 240 local boards into six regional ones is sure to raise a hue and cry over the targeting local autonomy in the management of housing for more than 300,000 Massachusetts residents.

And it will set off even more squawking among the more than 1,000 politically appointed commissioners who serve on these boards.

The steps come a little more than a year after former Chelsea Housing Authority Executive Director Michael McLaughlin was forced out after the Globe revealed he was paid $360,000, the highest such salary in the nation, to do relatively little with even less oversight. Similar if not as egregious cases have turned up in other cities and towns.

Adding fuel to the mix was McLaughlin's close political ties with Lt. Gov. Tim Murray.

While the thousand or so local commissioners may not have connections to the executive branch, they do have access to the legislative one, which is likely to have its phones ringing with the announcement.

And lawmakers, still smarting from the probation patronage scandal -- and the loss of potential plum appointments for supporters -- are probably going to be listening carefully.

The Legislature was dragged kicking and screaming into ethics reform, largely because of misconduct within its own ranks. Their appetite for overhauling the housing authorities is likely to be only slighter larger than that for the Patrick transportation package -- and the need for billions in new revenue -- that will face them in this session.

The timing is also interesting in the larger political context as Murray, Patrick's apparently valued No. 2, is beginning to flex his own muscles in what is expected to be a gubernatorial run of his own in 2014.

A public fight over housing authorities -- and a steady reminder of his ties to McLaughlin -- are not likely to do Murray much good.

Patrick clearly is looking at his own legacy when he walks down the Statehouse steps in just about two years. And that appears to trump both personal loyalty or smooth legislative relations.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Citizen politician

Donald Berwick for Governor? That's likely to generate a lot of head-scratching in Massachusetts political circles this morning.

And for all the long shot nature of the trial balloon launched by the Newton pediatrician -- and controversial one-time head of Barack Obama's Centers for Medicare an Medicaid Services -- there's actually an interesting philosophy at play here.

Think Deval Patrick. Or Elizabeth Warren.

He's not the usual suspect, a Tim Murray or a Steve Grossman whose career path has always included a run for the Corner Office. And he's shown a willingness to engage the political system at a time when most potential candidates are throwing their arms up in disgust.

Berwick is well-known and respected in his field of health care quality and patient safety. To others, he is a virtual cipher, except as the somewhat noisy and ultimately unsuccessful effort to permanently install him as head of the agency that oversees the vast bulk of the nation's health care system.

His sin? Showing hospitals how they can save lives and money by using standard clinical protocols to treat patients.

That led ObamaCare opponents, aka the Republican Party, on a jihad to deny Berwick the job on the grounds he favored rationing and death panels.

The path is remarkably similar to the one trod by Warren, who turned Senate opposition to her role in the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into a seat in the very body that thwarted her nomination.

Or the ultimate outsider to the Massachusetts political scene who is finishing up the final two years of what will likely be remembered as a highly successful two terms as governor.

While the tales of Patrick and Warren suggest Berwick may not be not Don Quixote with a stethoscope, they clearly show the pitfalls and barriers along the way.  Like organization, name recognition and financial support for starters.

Or the inevitably that he will stumble and stub his toe pretty hard along the way.

But the fact Berwick is even considering a run for elected office after being chewed up by the Washington meat grinder is an encouraging sign that, no matter how dysfunctional our political system becomes, the notion that people still feel they can do some good by serving in office remains alive.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013


Let me get this straight: Taxpayers who bailed out a moribund AIG cheated the shareholders who ran the company into the ground?

That is the essence of pending legal action that would enrich attorneys -- not to mention an irresponsible CEO who led the company until he was forced out in 2005 amid a fraud probe by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

Maurice "Hank" Greenberg's successor Martin Sullivan then ran the company -- and the world economy -- into the ground in the sub-prime mortgage debacle, necessitating a $182 billion taxpayer bailout to prevent the world economy from crumbling.

Greenberg says the deal "cheated" shareholders --because the 92 percent taxpayer stake in the company deprived shareholders of tens of billions of dollars and violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for “public use, without just compensation.”

He is trying to convince current corporate honchos to sign onto a $25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the federal government.

In a gift of understatement, the New York Times notes:
... such a move would almost certainly be widely seen as an audacious display of ingratitude. The action would also threaten to inflame tensions in Washington, where the company has become a byword for excessive risk-taking on Wall Street.
Ya think?

Five decades ago, John F. Kennedy faced off against the steel industry, which jacked up prices in unison. The president famously declared:
"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now."
The Greenberg lawsuit, particularly if it is joined by the company, offers gold-plated confirmation of the observation -- and why Americans are still upset that no one on Wall Street has been made to pay for the outrageous irresponsibility that fattened bankers' wallets  before wrecking the worldwide economy.

A suggestion to the AIG board: for the good of the millions of Americans who ponied up as 92 percent of the company, just say no. If not for us, Greenberg and your current shareholders would be holding worthless paper.

Oh, and it would be a good idea to pull your TV spots thanking America. On behalf of my fellow citizens, allow me to say "you're not welcome."

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Monday, January 07, 2013

Hagelian dialectic

Senate Tea Party star Ted Cruz thinks Barack Obama has "drunk the tea" with his nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. I'm wondering what he and his fellow Republicans have been smoking.

The Senate GOP has served noticed that Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam-decorated, two-term moderate Republican Senator from Nebraska, is an inappropriate choice to lead the Defense Department in Obama's second term.

Fresh off their success in swift-boating Susan Rice for Secretary of State, the GOP, led by Lindsay Graham and newly elected Texan Cruz are looking to torpedo a former Senate colleague who they allege is soft on Iran and Israel and in a twist of downright chutzpah, offensive to gays.
‘I think this is a president right now who has drunk the tea,’’ Cruz said on ‘‘Fox News Sunday.’’ “He is feeling very good about himself; he is feeling like there can be no opposition to his position. And so, it doesn’t seem — he doesn’t seem terribly concerned that there’s not a lot of support for Chuck Hagel in the Senate.’’
The blunt spoken Hagel has belatedly apologized to James Hormel, Bill Clinton's choice for Ambassador to Luxembourg, for calling him "openly, aggressively gay" in opposing his 1998 nomination. But I'll just let the hypocrisy of GOP senators allegedly caring about gay rights speak for it self.

Of greater concern should be the allegations that  Hagel is somehow anti-Israel or anti-Semitic because he once described pro-Israel lobbying groups as the ‘‘Jewish lobby.’’ Or that he is soft on Iran because he once opposed several bills to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Five former US Ambassadors to Israel have backed Hagel in the fight and supporters note he has backed several rounds of sanctions aimed at preventing Iranian weapons proliferation. He also supported the Iran Freedom Support Act in 2006, which imposed sanctions but also provided funding for human rights and pro-democracy groups.

Graham and the hard right have been manufacturing controversy over Obama's relationship with Israel -- aided and abetted by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and financed by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. It was largely an (unsuccessful) effort to peel off Jewish voters from Obama.

Here are the facts, directly from Obama:
“Israel is a true friend, it is our greatest ally in the region and if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency.”
What's really in play here is a Tea Party Tantrum, with not-so-subtle overtones of McCarthyism, which Graham tries to cover with glib Sunday morning yak show verbiage:
‘‘This is an in-your-face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,’’ Graham said on CNN. ‘‘I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little if any — so I think it’s an extremely controversial choice.’’
I don't know what any nominee's Pentagon management experience is like until they have done it. And the only recent repeater is Donald Rumsfeld, a fact that makes a great argument for a fresh start.

Cruz's comments are far more troubling than loquacious Lindsay's. In declaring there is "not a lot of support for Chuck Hagel" he is either unaware that Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in seats or that the GOP intends to filibuster Hagel's nomination.

The party before country crowd is looking to take the nation hostage for rejecting their candidates and beliefs. That's closer to treason than McCarthyism.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

Best served cold

Senate Republicans may be ruing the day they joined together to derail Elizabeth Warren's nomination to head the new consumer protection bureau.

When she took the oath of office yesterday as the state's junior (and soon-to-be-senior) senator, Warren must have had at least a silent last laugh at upending the GOP master plan to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial services law and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau it created.

And she will not doubt have another chuckle when she sits down for her first meeting as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, whose ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, led the charge against her.

Warren has displayed all the right behaviors of a high-profile woman coming into what was once regarded as an exclusive men's club (think Sen. Hillary Clinton). But there can be little doubt she will raise her voice -- and her passion -- in advocating for consumers.

The bankers represented by Shelby and his colleagues are also sweating bullets these days -- having poured millions into Scott Brown's coffers in exchange for his efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank and keep Warren out on CFPB.

Simply put, the GOP-Wall Street axis may have thought they were simply swatting down a gadfly, only to find that "pest" bigger than ever smack in the middle of the action.

While Barack Obama has accomplished a great deal to fix the nightmare caused by the deregulation of financial services and the Great Recession, his record on holding those accountable has been less than stellar.

After a suitable (and short) warm-up period, it is likely that accountability is going to be sought, if not through indictments at least in the court of public opinion.

Think Shelby wishes he could have that letter back?

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Etch a Scotto

Our soon-to-be-former senator appears ready to launch again, even if his cheerleaders aren't sure what he is running for.

On the same day the Herald bannered speculation that Scott Brown would run for governor in 2014 (how does one unnamed consultant's assessment transform into "Dems fear..."? ), Brown threw his first cheap shot in an potential special election to replace John Kerry.

Nice guy Scott offered this supposedly witty line when he called into the final talk show on WTKK-FM:
“I’ll tell you what; They’re making it awfully tempting. You got Ed Markey: Does he even live here any more?” Brown said with a laugh as he called into the “Jim and Margery Show”.
You’ve got to check the travel records,” Brown added. “I’ve come back and forth [from Washington to Boston] every weekend almost for three years, and I see, you know, most of the delegation, and I have never seen Ed on the airplane, ever.”
Markey, like many Washington elected officials maintains two homes: one near work, the other where he hails from. For many years Markey called his childhood bedroom in his parents’ house, but when his father died in 2000, he bought the Malden house and maintains it as his voting residence.

The Margery portion of the team was quick to follow-up, devoting her Herald column today to interviewing Maldenites about the man the community has elected for 36 years.

Um guys, make up your mind. Governor? Senator?

As for Brown, it was a less-than-masterful performance.

It would be foolish to assume the crack was unrehearsed since Brown limited his senatorial schmoozing to talk radio and was always prepared.

And given the lack of spontaneity, you can only wonder why he thinks attacking his opponent is a good tactic after Professor Warren, the faux Indian, cleaned his clock in November.

Or that none other than Willard M. Romney successfully challenged a Democratic effort to remove him from the 2002 gubernatorial race with questions about where he lived.

You kind of suspect that Brown will be shaking the Etch a Sketch in a few days when he has time to consider the can of worms he opened.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Child's play

It seems appropriate that House Republicans tried to hold their breath until they turned blue. Well, maybe some shade other than a color associated with Democrats.

But the collective irresponsibility of Boehner's Bunch was vividly on display yesterday when a rump caucus of conservatives tried but ultimately failed to recognize the will of the majority -- in the Senate, not to mention the nation -- by trying to derail a plan that pulls the nation back over the fiscal cliff they created in 2011.

It was a fitting end to a mockery of process in which Speaker John Boehner -- the flailing babysitter of the bunch -- offered a four-letter rebuttal to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when the Nevada Democrat uttered what everyone involved in the fiscal farce knew: Boehner was more concerned holding on to his gavel than he was in offering national leadership.

The Ohio Republican's response was not suitable for work -- except in Congress of course.

In the end, Boehner's leadership team abandoned him, but only after trying and failing to sink the deal with a last-minute amendment that would have required the bill to go back to the Senate -- and die.

So now we are on to the next GOP tantrum, holding the nation's credit rating hostage, a move that had bad results when they pulled it in 2011 as part of negotiations that led to the latest fiasco.

We can expect the Tea Party Caucus to be out for blood at the expense of the nation.

While some progressives bemoan Barack Obama's willingness to compromise on a $400,000 threshold for higher taxes, the fact remains House and Senate Republicans have now voted to include higher taxes as part of the solution to a crisis created by their decision to slash taxes on the rich at the same time they authorized two credit card wars.

That violation of St. Grover's pledge will be on the minds of the Tea Party, who will be looking to take it out on senior citizens and other members of the 47 percent who have always been the focus of the Koch Caucus.

And the pettiness of the gang was on vivid display yesterday. Despite authorizing up to $120 billion to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Southern-dominated GOP caucus failed to act on aid for New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy.

George Santayana famously reminded us "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The GOP Caucus has not remembered the lessons of November 2012, not to mention the Civil War. It does not bode well.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Cliff diving

The hangover some Americans are feeling today can't compare the headache foisted on us by Congress.

While millions rang old the old with revelry, your elected officials opted for their favorite game, kick the can. And while we wait with bated breath to see if John Boehner can rein in his lemmings, one thing emerges crystal clearly in the new light of 2013.

Taxes may not be going up on some "job creators" but they sure as heck are rising on those who do the actual work.

For all the pious mewling of Republicans on the damage caused by higher taxes, it appears there will be fewer dollars in the paychecks of those who earn less than $113,700 annually in addition to those pulling down $400,000 annually.

That's because neither the GOP, nor their Democratic colleagues, saw fit to continue the 2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut offered two years ago as an economic stimulus.

There may well be sound reason for collecting upwards of $125 billion annually -- like the solvency of the nation's retirement system.  But the hypocrisy of the tax cut set in remaining mute on a levy assessed on hundreds of millions of Americans while decrying higher taxes on the 1 percent is staggering.

And since the overwhelming majority of Democrats have never signed Grover Norquist's pledge, the opprobrium rests squarely on GOP shoulders.

Obviously there is still a long way to go. There is no guarantee the Boehner Bunch will even go along with this timid stop-gap measure that once again delays final resolution of the nation's budgetary problems.

The Democrats will have a weaker hand going forward having to deal with both the issue of mandated budget cuts (which can always been unmandated) and the reality that another debt ceiling and further GOP calls for fiscal recklessness lie ahead.

Neither party has covered itself in glory in the recent round of Truth or Dare. But one thing should remain obvious as we move forward: Republican concern for the 1 percent is matched (or even exceeded) by their contempt for the men and women who pull down paychecks.

Happy New Year!

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