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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hammer and Machete

Now we know what spending political capital looks like.

Deval Patrick is spending a large chunk of the currency he gained in November by telling municipal unions that they either quickly come prepared to talk about paying more for the own health care -- or have the deed done for them.

And oh yeah, we're still going to cut the heck out of local aid for anything other than schools and roads. Which means you may be lucky to have a job, let along health insurance.

The grim message delivered at the Massachusetts Municipal Association's annual convention probably went over as well as the snow that ate a huge chunk of local revenue to remove.

But the move was necessary, given what Patrick rightly categorized as the "veto" local unions have held over the previously voluntarily effort to shift workers into the Group Insurance Commission programs that mean higher premiums and co-pays for employees and lower overall costs for cities and towns.

Savings those communities can they funnel back into police, fire and trash and snow removal services facing new and steep cuts.

There is about to be a lot of unpleasant substances hitting the fan as the slow recovery inches along and the Republican House in Washington rules that stimulus is bad. Municipal employees and the services they provide are ultimately always the target for savings, because that's where the vast majority of the taxes we pay for go.

But there are no choices left and union leaders are going to have to make the toughest one of all, something they have successfully avoided for years: are their members going to pay higher health care costs? Or are they going to have jobs?

We're all better off if the hard-working men and women continue to patrol the streets and pick up the trash. Let's hope their leaders do the right thing.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Friday news dump

There was a lot of sturm and drang in the media last year whenever Deval Patrick opted to release bay news on a Friday afternoon. But it appears what's good for Deval is also good for Bobby and Terry.

The House and senate Ways and Means committee chairs opted for a Friday afternoon statement to alert local officials about a 4 percent, $200 million cut in local aid in the upcoming fiscal year.

Funny, no push back on the timing of the announcement although there was the obligatory effort to say legislative action will wind up putting egg on Patrick's face.

Somehow I think the big headlines about school cuts and library closings aren't about to go away anytime soon.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

And so it begins

The opening salvo in the traditional charge-counter charge budget "debate" has been fired with the Globe's story today that "thousands" of police, firefighters and teachers will be eliminated to make up for more than $500 million in local aid cuts coming this calendar year.

I expect the comment section will be loaded with allegations that state and local budgets are larded with waste and all of this doom and gloom is unnecessary and just an effort to justify tax increases.

Expect Howie Carr to weigh in indignantly in tomorrow's Herald, and be joined by Barbara Anderson in his radio show.

Is there waste in public budgets? Yes. No matter how earnest (or not) public officials are in trimming the fat, stuff, as Don Rumsfeld said, happens.

Is there $500 million -- a half-billion dollars -- larded through the state and 351 cities and town budgets? That stretches credibility.

Are laying out the facts a first step toward a tax increase? Probably. But what taxes and by how much remain very much a mystery at this point. We may get a clearer view when Gov. Deval Patrick spells out the details of both his mid-year "9C" cuts and the fiscal 2010 budget later this week.

And let's not forget that all the uncertainty about the future job prospects of House Speaker Sal DiMasi must enter the equation. DiMasi has been open to a gasoline tax to deal with transportation issues but has been cool to some of Patrick's other revenue raising proposals. Whether he is around to add his 2 cents is crucial -- because all tax proposals must originate in the House.

And despite being the author of House budgets since 2005 we don't know where Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo really stands on new taxes. Or whether he will even be Ways and Means chair if DiMasi sticks around.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Feeding frenzy

The new emanating from Beacon Hill was big. Heck, even the TV satellite trucks were there for the "Breaking News." Must be all that interest in Gov. Deval Patrick cutting local aid by record $128 million and calling for local option taxes.


Nope, the trucks were there for the hot rumor that House Speaker Sal DiMasi is stepping down -- as early as next Tuesday, certainly before Feb. 6 when he would have to file a statement of financial interest.

House Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo says he has the votes to succeed DiMasi. No, House Majority Leader John Rogers says he does.

Welcome to a journalism feeding frenzy -- created by a local press corps that doesn't routinely cover the daily ins and outs of a $26-plus billion industry, prefers gossip and rumor over facts and wouldn't know context if it hit them in the face.

It's telling the Globe put the DiMasi rumor on metro and the local aid story on Page One (it's harder to know with the online Herald since they don't do Page One screen shots any more. Even if the Herald led the dead tree version with local aid, it's in keeping with their model to go with the gossipy DiMasi story online.)

The biggest question surrounding the eruption of DiMasi rumors -- one not asked amid all the frenzy -- is "why now?" This ongoing soap opera has killed a lot of trees and provided me endless hours of fun in analysis (the story, not a shrink!)

After all, he just won reelection as Speaker with a landslide and, with all due respect, he is not the greatest candidate right now to land a cushy rainmaker job. And how many of them are there anyway?

The toxic factor of pending investigations and trials of close associates -- and himself -- isn't the things most employers relish, although that didn't stop the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council from hiring Tom Finneran or Robert Coughlin (sorry Sal, that job is currently filled).

If anyone did want the high profile pick, they would need to wait a year, under state law, before he could start lobbying.

Speculators suggest the latest revelation -- Richard Vitale picking up the legal bills for DiMasi's in-laws -- was the final straw. That would be ironic since that action would be one of the only things Vitale is accused of that is clearly not illegal.

So stay tuned for the continuing saga of "As DiMasi Turns." It's also a lot more fun to ponder than how many police and firefighters are going to be laid off by local aid cuts and how icy streets are going to be when the money runs out for salt, sand and plow drivers.

But then again, maybe there is hope to make this story TV-friendly:
...[T]here was palpable tension in the Hynes Convention Center as Patrick announced his budget-cutting moves. At one point, the governor had a frosty exchange with Worcester Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes, after she appeared to smirk while the governor answered her question.

"Before you make a face, mayor, let me finish my answer, all right?" Patrick snapped.

Once he finished his response, he glanced over at her again and said, "Is that clear? OK. Now you can make your face."

"Mayor disses gov." Quick, everyone to Worcester!

UPDATE: Hat tip to Dan Kennedy for telling me where to find the Herald front (and sports) screen grabs. Glad to see I was right that they had a classic (and good) Herald hit as the lead. Their treatment of DiMasi as a teaser also matches the Globe's Page One treatment in philosophy, if not size.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Bad news, worse news

Gov. Deval Patrick has some helpful news to local officials who hope to finish the current school year without additional chaos beyond the already big problem of too many snow days. He plans to tell them he won't include Chapter 70 school aid funds in his mid-year "9C" cuts.

But the news is hardly good across the board. It means devastating news to mayors, selectmen and city councilors who will be asked to make even deeper cuts in police, fire and public works services -- like trash pickup and snow plowing -- to meet reduced local payments from now until the end of June.

When things will get really ugly.

The Globe reports Patrick will spell out midyear $1.1 billion buts in a speech to the Massachusetts Municipal Association this morning. Those are on top of the $1 billion in cuts he made in October.

The Globe reports his plan is expected to include dramatic cuts to the $5.3 billion the state provides to communities in local aid -- a pool that escaped the initial round. House Speaker Sal DiMasi has suggested cuts could run up to $500 million, but coming at midyear, when half the budget is spent, the impact could be far deeper.

And that's the "good" news. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy center report (PDF) suggests yet another billion needs to be sliced from the FY2010 budget that is also slated to make its debut next week.

That's targeting a $3.1 billion structural gap -- the amount of money needed to maintain the same level of services as FY08.

Don't expect the schools to escape that round of cuts.

What's most interesting right now is the virtual lack of discussion of significant tax changes. The little discussion there has been is centered on local options like meals and hotels and the fair taxation of utility poles.

There's an awful lot of hope being pinned on the federal stimulus bill providing a cash infusion that will somehow magically ease a lot of pain.

Part of it is the reality that this is the wrong time to raise taxes. When the unemployment rate locally is 6.9 percent, the national rate even higher, income and sales tax receipts are already headed downward with people having no source of income. New taxes would be devastating to many.

Yet they will also be seeing devastation in the quality of life in the communities -- hardly a wonderful choice for residents or the politicians elected to do the right thing.

My suspicion is taxes will stay off the table for discussion until the depth of the pain from the cuts become obvious -- and the willingness to consider them in a rational manner increases.

Or the desire for schools, police, fire, trash pickup and snow removal decreases.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Competitive pressures

Like a child with an appetite larger than its stomach, Massachusetts' elected officials think they can have it all -- somehow.

Witness today's front page Globe -- "83 school districts lose in aid plan", sitting right atop "Patrick vows to build Southeast Mass. rail line". Throw in the Herald's "Patrick says help is on the way for Hub" and the scope of the problem is clear: so many needs, so little money.

The solution? From best as I can tell, magic.

The school aid solution is easy, if the funding issue is not: hold communities harmless and give them what they expected from the Patrick plan, whether or not they were premature is setting their budgets. And shame on House Education Committee Chair Patricia Haddad of Fall River for trying to pass this off as a math error by the Patrick administration.

The proposal for Southeastern Massachusetts rail service is tougher. The South Coast is a basket base: unemployment is 8 percent in Fall River and 9.2 percent in New Bedford, compared with the state average of 5.3 percent.

The Patrick Administration's plan, which even they admit has a pie-in-the-sky element, is to use the rail line to generate jobs and taxes. The federal government would fund a piece of that pie too. Win-win, they think.
"If we generate 15,000 new jobs along the corridor, new state revenues from existing taxes . . . would pay that annual cost," said Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen. "Is that going to happen? We're going to try to make it happen."
And the federal government, after sinking billions in the Big Pig, is going to look at more money for Massachusetts for rail? Even a 3-D Washington leadership may have a hard time swallowing that one.

Merited or not, that plan also needs to face up to the cold reality the state doesn't have the cash to pay for what it now has. Although the Herald floats the obvious solution, casinos, the will is about as strong there as it is to overhaul that tax code to make it fair, equitable and capable of meeting our growing needs.

We need to make our eyes match our stomachs and either cut out dreams or get serious about paying for what we want.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

How do you pay for it?

The Herald (you know the newspaper that believes in all tax cuts, all the time) offers a prominent defense today for a program that counsels gamblers and is apparently facing a state budget cut. It follows some impassioned blogging about the future of school sports in Stoneham.

The stories show how advocates of programs and services lobby for their (very legitimate) needs out of context -- and why it is important for the media to provide that basic understanding of how things fit in the larger context.

The Herald offers a solid news hook but a shaky context -- office pools that mostly provide small-change entertainment around the NCAA college basketball tournament -- to make the case for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. The agency draws its cash from the Massachusetts Lottery.
“It’s a particularly bad time,” said Kathleen M. Scanlan, Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling executive director.“There’s increased pressure on the lottery to increase profits. They need to provide some sort of safety net.”
No one disputes the good work the council does. But it is interesting to note that the "cut" isn't really that, at least according to Patrick administration spokesman Kyle Sullivan.
The council is “traditionally” funded at about $650,000 annually. “Last year there was a one-time supplemental appropriation that brought its total budget up to $1 million. Facing a $1 billion-plus deficit this year, the decision was made to fund this program at its normal level,” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail.
What's also missing is any mention of where the bulk of state lottery dollars go -- to cities and towns. The dollars are not earmarked, so communities are free to spend it on their priorities.

In Stoneham's case, the town received $2,166,441 in lottery dollars. On its website, the lottery commission notes the town used FY02 revenues to reinstate two firefighter positions that were cut via an early retirement incentive program.

There is indeed pressure on the lottery to increase profits -- so it can return more money to cities and towns. There's even more pressure on the state to raise overall revenues -- with casino gambling being offered as the prime savior.

Short of those tools, it would be up to Deval Patrick and legislators to raise statewide taxes like sales, income, corporate or gasoline levies. Or cities and towns would need to raise property tax rates to finance police, fire, education and public works programs.

The Herald has long been on record against that type of action. In fact, it has long insisted the state's spending is bloated and taxes should be cut.

So how do you pay for state and municipal services that are important to quality of life? Despite the season, I don't think we should be chasing leprechauns and rainbows in search of that pot of gold.

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