Fiscal Policies Championed by Tom Finneran Helped See Us Through the Great Recession

Thursday, December 29, 2011

As 2011 becomes history, there are definite signs the economy of Massachusetts is moving in a better direction. For example:

- Some 5,000 new jobs were created in November, (the second straight month of employment gains), pushing the state's unemployment rate down to 7%.
- On Jan. 1, the Massachusetts income tax rate will drop from 5.3% to 5.25%, a change that will put an extra $110 to $115 million in taxpayers' pockets next year. (Income taxes are coming down because tax receipts rose in 2011 at a sufficient pace to trigger a mandated decrease that went on the books in November, 2000, when voters passed a tax cut ballot referendum. If our economy had not improved, the rate would have stayed at 5.3%.)

So maybe this is a good time to recognize one of the unsung heroes of the Bay State turnaround: Tom Finneran, former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. How, you rightly ask, did someone who left office in 2004 help our state rebound from an economic crisis that began in 2008 and quickly led to the worst economic conditions our nation has experienced since the Great Depression? The answer is found in three words: Rainy Day Fund.

During the 1990s, and particularly in the second half of the decade, the Massachusetts economy was booming. Revenue flowed into the state treasury like a surging river in springtime. Every year seemed to produce surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars in the budget of the Commonwealth. As tax revenue proliferated, so did the ideas for spending that windfall -- every penny of it -- in the legislature.

However, Finneran, who had mastered the intricacies of the budget as House Chairman of Ways and Means before being elected Speaker in 1996, always insisted that a truly significant portion of those surpluses be set aside in the Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, as it is more commonly known. His strong and principled voice on this matter, coupled with the formidable powers of the speakership, which Finneran showed a knack for making progressively more formidable, were enough to carry the argument year after year. Eventually, the idea that Massachusetts should have the largest possible Rainy Day Fund became Beacon Hill orthodoxy, to the point that the fund topped $3 billion by the time Finneran left office.

At the end of Fiscal Year 2008, (July 1, 2007-June 30, 2008), as the Great Recession was just starting, the Rainy Day Fund stood at $2.3 billion. Over the next three years, the state spent that account down to $700 million as it made up for recession-driven revenue declines and dealt with a host of problems related to the poor economy.

Had the state not had $1.6 billion available to deal with the Great Recession, conditions in Massachusetts would have been far worse than they actually were, which were quite bad enough as they were. Cuts to vital programs, such as Medicaid, would have been devastating, and employment in the public sector would have been slashed much deeper than it actually was. There are literally thousands of teachers, social workers, police officers and firefighters who kept their jobs, and thus their ability to care for their families, because Massachusetts had a big Rainy Day Fund when the economy tanked in 2008-09.

Since Tom Finneran was more responsible than any other elected governmental leader for embedding the Rainy Day ethos in modern state fiscal policy, it is no stretch to credit him with helping to save the state from economic ruin and to make it possible for the state to set a course toward economic recovery, whose signs we discern at the dawn of 2012.

Finneran was never a really popular statewide figure. There are many who consider him to have been an ironfisted, autocratic and needlessly pugnacious. And there are some who relished his fall from grace in the years after his speakership, considering it his just desserts. But there is no critic who can take an ounce of credit from him for having been right in a huge way on how to build a budget and plan for the future. No critic can diminish the satisfaction he is entitled to for having created the circumstances that allowed so many citizens of Massachusetts to dodge the worst blows of the Great Recession.

As Michael Cahill, the former rep from Beverly who served in the House with Finneran, puts it, "He (Finneran), more than anyone else, deserves the credit for enforcing on us the right things -- so many of the right things -- we did on the budget in the 1990s and the early-2000s. You cannot overstate the positive impact Tom Finneran had on the fiscal health of Massachusetts."

So if you and your family are breathing a little easier, feeling a little more confident about the future, this New Year's Eve, consider raising a glass to Tom Finneran.

For Purposes of Prognostication, View Senate Race Through the Prism of High School

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Running for public office is no different from running for senior class president in high school," I remember a legislator telling me years ago.

In reply, I said something intelligent like, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Do you have anything between those big ears of yours? Popularity! It's simple: every election is a popularity contest."

In that context, consider the 2012 election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts as a way to answer the question, "Would Elizabeth 'Professor' Warren have beaten Scott 'Centerfold' Brown for senior class president?" Ask yourself, "Who would have won if Warren and Brown had been in my senior class," and you'll have the answer that everyone else will have to wait until the night of Nov. 6, 2012, for.

I grew up in a city where Republicans were as rare as nuns in a nudist colony, but I'm pretty sure Brown would have beaten Warren at my school pretty easily. And judging by what I heard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin say yesterday on "Morning Joe," I'm inferring that Brown would have beaten Warren at Kearns Goodwin's school, too.

"...we need Scott Browns in this world," said she, who once worked for Lyndon Johnson and used to teach at Harvard, and who is, let's face it, pretty much a liberal darling. "If there were more Scott Browns in more states and more cities, then perhaps this partisanship (in Congress) would not be as dysfunctional as it is because he's able to cross party lines, he's able to think independently."

Within hours of Kearns Goodwin's appearance on "Morning Joe," the Scott Brown for U.S. Senate Committee had issued a press release drawing attention to her comments and using them as a starting point for a proclamation of Brown's bona fides as an Independent with a capital I. The release quoted "Brown's aides" (unnamed) as saying the former state lawmaker "has shown an independent streak since the day he defied political oddsmakers and won a January 2010 special election to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion who had kept the seat in Democratic hands for 46 years."

Elsewhere, unnamed "campaign aides" were quoted as saying, "It's about more than politics for Brown. The moves are part of his campaign promise to be an independent voice and moderate voter in the Senate...Aides rattle off a laundry list of examples showing Brown bucking his party from his earliest days in the Senate: he voted for the new START treaty with Russia, voted to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy banning gays in the military. He also voted against Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan and an effort to defund Planned Parenthood."

And if clueless readers had somehow missed the point that Scott Brown is an Independent guy with a capital I, the release ended on this note: "Scott Brown has never been a right-wing ideologue," said one campaign aide. "He has always approached each issue with an open mind and independent manner, and votes in the best interests of his constituents and state, regardless of party affiliation."

Brown didn't go from the Massachusetts Senate to the U.S. Senate in 2010 because all the Republicans voted for him, and Warren won't move from Cambridge to Washington, D.C. next year if all the Democrats vote for her. There are not enough registered Democrats or Republicans in the Bay State to tip an electoral contest to any of their respective statewide candidates. Independents rule! As of this past spring, 36.5% of all registered voters were Democrats and 11.3% were Republicans, whereas 51.9% were "unenrolled," which is to say they consider themselves independent. And that's a category that has been growing every year for a long time now.

According to the Elections Division of the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, Bill Galvin, independents are heavily concentrated in the central and western parts of the state, and are least likely to be found in urban areas. Every suburban community seems to have a high percentage of unenrolled voters. For example, in Plymouth, the largest community in the state, territory-wise, 60% of voters are independents.

You're bound to see Scott Brown in his pick-up truck cruising the burbs next year, but you'll also see him stuck in traffic in Boston a lot because that's where there are tons of Democrats. He'll want to keep them in tune to his song of independent political expression or persuade them to join his cool kids choir.

Judging by what Boston Mayor Tom Menino, long a poohbah of the Democratic Party, has said this year about Brown, Ted Kennedy's successor has made serious inroads in the Hub. Please recall Menino emerging from a breakfast meeting with Brown at the Parkman House in January and telling reporters, "He's a Republican and I'm a Democrat, but those days are over." And don't forget Menino telling the Boston Globe in early September, "Scott Brown has something about him that people gravitate to," and then wondering if Elizabeth Warren's candidacy is "saleable." He said, "Do I know she can be saleable? I don't know that. But there are some people -- who have greater political minds than mine -- who believe so. But I think you have to be out there and squeeze the flesh and see how they feel."

Saleable. Isn't that a synonym for popular?

The Money We Could Safely Not Spend on Health Care Is Beyond Belief

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for President Obama to nominate a former Harvard School of Public Health professor and former Harvard Community Health Plan vice president as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS), formerly known as the Health Care Financing Administration, in Washington, D.C.

It didn't matter that Professor Donald M. Berwick, M.D., a longtime resident of Newton, MA, was a well respected pediatrician, that he had distinguished himself as a medical researcher, and that he had spent 19 years as head of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nationally respected organization. His Harvard connection probably doomed him from the start with the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, where Dr. Berwick's nomination had to be confirmed.

The Senate Republicans are led by a man from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, who has said his main job is to make sure Obama is a one-term president. They dug deep into Dr. Berwick's record, decided he was not sufficiently enamored of free-market, entrepreneurial health care, and closed ranks against his nomination. To avoid a nasty confirmation fight he might lose, Obama installed Dr. Berwick on the top perch at CMMS in a "recess appointment," meaning the president waited until Congress recessed and gave him the job by executive order. A recess appointment, however, is always limited in duration; Dr. Berwick reached his limit at the end of November, seventeen months after he started.

During an interview granted to the New York Times while preparing to leave Washington and return to Massachusetts, Dr. Berwick was asked what percentage of health care spending in the U.S. he considered wasteful? Between 20 and 30 percent, he said, defining waste as any expenditure that produces no benefit to a patient.

Dr. Berwick enumerated five reasons for what he termed the "extremely high level of waste" in the U.S. system: overtreatment of patients, the failure of health care providers to coordinate all the care given to a patient, the administrative complexity of the system itself, burdensome rules, and outright fraud.

If all that waste were to be eliminated, the federal government could save up to a quarter of a trillion dollars ($250 billion) on the Medicaid and Medicare programs!

Of course, it's unrealistic to think that all of the waste in our health care system could ever be eliminated. But billions of dollars in savings are there for the taking -- and should be taken, if we can finally get serious about critically examining how and what we spend on health care.

CMMS officials should be able to talk, for example, about Medicare reimbursements for treatments of dubious value to terminally ill patients without being accused of setting up "Death Panels." And they should be able to talk about the costs of defensive medicine, i.e., diagnostic tests ordered by physicians worried about protecting themselves from malpractice suits, without plaintiffs' attorney groups crying about the erosion of patient rights.

Ask any adult you know over the age of 40 who has good health insurance if he has ever been sent for a medical test that was, in retrospect, not needed or justified, and the chances are high the answer will be yes. My own personal favorite concerns the time I was given an ultrasonic scan of my carotid artery during a follow-up assessment for an episode of vertigo, a problem that had initially resulted in an extensive work-up, including a CT scan of my head, in the emergency department of a prominent Boston teaching hospital. The co-pay I had to make on that ultrasound was well over $200, which has served to prevent this memory from fading in my mind.

"Unnecessary" is a term that also covers a lot of the medical treatments routinely given to insured people today. Consider, for example, the report in the September, 2011, edition of the American Journal of Public Health, ("The Prophylactic Extraction of Third Molars: A Public Health Hazard").

Ten million third molars, or wisdom teeth, as they are commonly known, are extracted from approximately five million patients in the U.S. per year, at an annual cost of over $3 billion, yet two-thirds of those extractions are medically unnecessary, according to the author of the article, Jay W. Friedman, a retired California dentist.

If Dr. Friedman is correct, we could save $2 billion a year on wisdom tooth extraction surgery, and spare millions of patients needless pain, complications, and the unintended (and sometimes permanent) injuries to the jaw associated with this procedure.

To talk about such a thing would risk the ire of the oral surgeons who make a very good living yanking wisdom teeth from the backs of people's jaws, just as Dr. Berwick incurred the wrath of Mitch McConnell for once having dared to say something favorable about the national health system of Great Britain.

It's a Brain-Killer We Can't Wish Away: Controlling the Cost of Health Care

Friday, December 16, 2011

Five years ago, when Massachusetts made history by becoming the first state to adopt a system of universal health coverage, every mover and shaker at the State House acknowledged the system would last only if they could somehow find a way some day to control the cost of health care. Governor Deval Patrick would like that day to be in January.

"The building is full of good intentions," he told the State House News Service (SHNS) back in October. "We need action."

To show that the public wants action immediately, the governor cited a survey by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation indicating that 78% of respondents considered the high cost of health care to be a "crisis" or a "major problem," and that 88% described it as important for state government to deal with.

The governor filed a comprehensive proposal for health care cost containment in February of this year.

"We've had a bill pending for a year," Patrick told the SHNS. "We've been talking about and worrying about and fussing about this issue for a long time and we need action. The legislature has been working very hard at the committee level on a bill. I've been briefed on where they are. They need to move it to the floor sooner rather than later, and we need to take this up.

"My point," he continued, "is we've been at this for a long time. The consensus in the market is building in favor of moving away from fee-for-service (health care) toward 'medical homes' or global payment, basically whole-person care. And the consensus seems to be not only is that cost-effective care, but better quality care."

Legislative leaders, however, say the House and Senate will not be ready to vote on the governor's bill when the legislature reconvenes in January.

"We're not ready," Lynn Rep Steve Walsh, House chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, told the SHNS. "It's a complicated issue. It affects people's health and it's our largest employer."

Walsh added, "The governor's advocating for something he feels is important. I applaud him. But that public support he's talking about for change will erode very quickly if we don't do this right. We should not put quality or substance off to get something done quickly."

While State House leaders are focused on improving the cost structure of universal coverage, which has resulted in 98% of Massachusetts residents having some kind of health insurance, other players are sharply criticizing the system and arguing it should be replaced by a single-payer system, or "Medicare for All," as it is sometimes called.

A report issued in October by Mass-Care and Massachusetts Physicians for a National Health Program asserted that rising costs tied universal health care have hit poor and middle class families especially hard and have burdened small businesses with expenses unique to Massachusetts, thus putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

The report also found that the new system had: (a) fattened the state's health care bureaucracy, (b) made the shortage of primary care physicians worse, (c) fed the growth of high-deductible health plans, meaning consumers have paid more out of their own pockets for care every year, (d) increased the number of people who are "underinsured," and (e) created a "financial crisis" for hospitals and clinics that care mainly for low-income and minority populations.

Mass-Care and Massachusetts Physicians for a National Health Program would like a single-payer system, i.e., one funded solely by government-collected revenue, to replace the Bay State's universal coverage system, which features a patchwork of private and public insurance products and rests on a mandate on all adults to obtain coverage, the same mandate found in President Obama's national health care reform bill of 2009, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and yes, the same mandate that White House-hungry Republicans will not stop shedding I-fear-for-the-future-of-my-country, crocodile tears over.

Yesterday, there was a hearing at the State House on four bills touching upon single-payer health care, including An Act Establishing Medicare for All in Massachusetts, sponsored by Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, and several other legislators. Everyone who spoke during the three-hour-long hearing was in favor of the bill, suggesting that most Libertarians, Tea Partiers and Republicans had better things to do that day, like Christmas New Hampshire.

Dr. Leo Stollbach testified to the growing support among physicians here for single-payer health care. Today, he said, 41% of Massachusetts Medical Society members favor such a system; two years ago, that figure was 34%. So the new world of Massachusetts health care, born in 2006 during Mitt Romney's governorship and destined to serve as Obama's template in 2009, hasn't made the docs a whole lot happier. (Question: Is an unhappy doc a less-effective caregiver?)

The most significant witness of the day, in my opinion, was Senator Dan Wolf, Democrat of Harwich, one of the most successful capitalists to serve in the Massachusetts legislature in modern times. As co-founder 24 years ago of Cape Air, a regional air line that cornered the market on summertime air travel to the Cape and Islands and currently employs more than a thousand people, Wolf could give lessons in entrepreneurism and job creation to Romney. One of the big reasons Wolf wants single-payer in Massachusetts is the liberating effect it would have on the small businesses that create by far the largest share of new jobs.

"The biggest single inhibitor, the biggest ball and chain around small business growth is the cost and complexity of health care," Wolf told his colleagues.

If a guy who built an airline can see that, why can't the Bain consultants and their ilk see it?

NEXT: Waste in Health Care Spending

With One Last Scheme in Him, Ex-Legislator/City Manager Didn't Get Far

Monday, December 12, 2011

A federal judge made the right decision early this month when he sentenced Bernard J. Tully, a former member of the Massachusetts Senate and Lowell city manager, to four months of home confinement for wire fraud and ordered him to pay $18,000 in restitution. There isn't much point in locking up a non-violent octogenarian who takes five different prescription meds a day.

If Tully had been sent to jail, however, he probably would have become a minor celebrity wherever they put him. The younger convicts, which is to say everyone else, would have admired his brass, if not his brains.

They might have even regarded him as an inspiration. (I can imagine one of them wrapping an arm around Tully the first week and saying, "Gramps, you're the best! Because of you, I now know there's no age limit to being a grifter. I know I can be making scores when I'm walking with a cane and shouting at people to talk into my good ear.")

It is an unusual tale -- the kind that would be dismissed as implausible if it turned up in fiction --that led to Tully pleading guilty to wire fraud in the U.S. District Court in Boston. According to the office of the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Tully admitted he devised a scheme to defraud a Boston area businessman out of approximately $18,000 by falsely representing that he and another co-conspirator were using the funds to bribe public officials to keep the Lowell office of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) as a tenant in a building owned by the businessman.

After the Registry announced in July, 2009, that it would be closing its Lowell office, Tully reportedly approached the businessman with an offer to be the intermediary in a scheme that would deliver payments to a certain public official in the Merrimack Valley in exchange for the official exerting influence on the agency to reverse its decision and keep the Lowell branch open.

It was a total bluff on the part of Tully, who served in the Senate from 1971 to 1979 and basically ran the city of Lowell as its appointed, professional manager from 1979 to 1987.

He had no connection with the public official in question, and had never approached that person about being part of a deal that prosecutors later dubbed "a perverse fraud."

As an engine of deception, the scheme quickly sputtered. And the hapless Tully had no idea it wasn't working. Shortly after his first meeting with Tully, the businessman contacted the FBI, told investigators everything, and agreed to play along until enough evidence could be gathered to charge Tully with a crime.

Sadly, this was not the first time Tully found himself on the wrong side of the law: in 1989, he was convicted of attempting to extort money from a Lowell car dealer who wanted to obtain a piece of municipally-owned land while Tully was city manager.

"It's like you didn't get the message the first time," Judge Patti B. Saris scolded him during sentencing on Dec. 1.

Like all of us, Tully is not a one-dimensional figure; he has a good side. You have to feel bad for him, at least a little bit, what with his poor health, his advanced years (he will turn 85 in January), and the burdens he carries as the primary caregiver to his disabled 59-year-old son, who suffered a bad stroke seven years ago.

Judge Saris made allowances for Tully's obligations when she ruled that he could leave his Dracut home between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. over the next four months only to visit with and care for his son.

With winter coming on, Tully probably would not have been going out much at night anyway, so that was a gentle restriction. Much harder for Tully will be that restitution of $18,000. My guess is, he survives on Social Security and has no money left, which is why he probably came up with the crazy idea of a way-over-the-hill political operative shaking down a landlord and pretend-bribing a public official in the first place.

Taking the Totality of DiMasi's Record, Was an Eight-Year Sentence Justified?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sal DiMasi grew up in a cold-water flat in the North End of Boston, sharing tight quarters with his parents, two brothers and his Italian grandparents, who had emigrated to the U.S. years before. He was a good student and a good athlete.

When he graduated from Christopher Columbus High School, a now-closed Catholic school in the North End, with the Class of 1963, he went straight to Boston College, a Jesuit school, and received a bachelor's degree in accounting in 1967. Three years later, he graduated from Suffolk University Law School and went to work as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting criminals in Suffolk County.

This was an unusual background for someone who would eventually become a champion of liberal causes in the Massachusetts legislature.

Look at the totality of DiMasi's legislative career, (1979-2009), however, and you see he was never afraid to take up a controversial or unpopular cause, nor reluctant to help someone simply because his heart ached for them, not because that person was a big shot or could do something for him in return. He seemed instinctively drawn to the little guy, the underdog.

Arline Isaacson, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Caucus, remembers how DiMasi stepped bravely into the spotlight in 1983, when he was a member of House leadership by virtue of his chairmanship of the Committee on Banks and Banking, to advocate for the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Bill. "This kind of legislation might not sound very controversial today," Isaacson wrote in a pre-sentencing letter to Judge Mark Wolf of the U.S. District Court in Boston, "but in the early-1980s, public officials who spoke on our behalf were frequently the target of scorn, derision and political attack by their colleagues, their constituents and the press."

Sal DiMasi, she told Judge Wolf, "was one of the few legislators in a leadership position willing to step up to the plate and advocate forcefully for the bill." The former House Speaker seemed to be especially attuned to the effects of discrimination, Isaacson came to believe, because of his experiences growing up "at a time when Italians in Boston were still the butt of jokes and ridicule."

For Judge Wolf, Isaacson recounted how DiMasi "was always willing, even eager, to help with legislation that increased affordable housing or supported programs for the poor and the needy" in the City of Boston -- "and not simply for those in his district, but statewide." DiMasi "could have limited his efforts only to those bills that affected his own legislative district," Isaacson noted. "Instead, he went beyond narrow parochial interests to assist with measures that helped the entire city, and most especially people in need, regardless of their address. He did not have to do that. He gained nothing from it. But he wanted to do the right thing."

Similarly, Isaacson said, DiMasi stood by the gay community in the mid-1980s, when the AIDS epidemic struck; voted in 1985 against a proposed ban on adoptions by gay parents; and fought hard to establish the right for persons of the same gender to marry in the mid-2000s. "He derived absolutely no personal benefit by working as tenaciously as he did," she wrote. "He used his political 'collateral' to help a community of strangers, not himself. He could have done significantly less and GLBTS would still have heralded him as a hero. One thing is very clear, we would not have retained the right to marry without Sal DiMasi."

Isaacson began her letter to Judge Wolf, who subsequently sentenced DiMasi to eight years in prison, by asserting the "portrait painted of Sal during his trial, as a legislator motivated by self-interest, varies markedly from my experiences with him," and ended by saying, "Sal was driven by a deep-seated caring and a fervent commitment to a kind of 'Tikkun Olam' -- to make the world a better place."

Last Wednesday, DiMasi entered a prison medical facility in Lexington, Kentucky. He probably won't see the outside for five-and-a-half or six years -- if he gets lucky. If, however, the kind of luck he had with Judge Wolf continues, DiMasi may never get out. He is 66 years old and has a history of heart ills. Eight years could be a death sentence for someone like him.

Is eight years too much for what DiMasi did? One can make that case, especially considering that DiMasi lost his reputation, savings and pension long before he lost his freedom. The government cannot make Sal DiMasi a more destitute or a more broken human being than he is today.

By repeatedly helping persons, organizations and causes far removed from his North End base, and by spending his political capital on unpopular causes and in battles that were not his own, DiMasi proved that he genuinely cared about others, that he had courage, and was not a selfish man. He deserved more compassion than he got in Judge Wolf's court. Better it would have been, in my opinion, for Wolf to sentence him to three years in prison, followed by five years working as a paralegal in an agency providing legal services to the indigent.

J.W. Carney, Jr., now a prominent Massachusetts defense attorney, encountered DiMasi in his (Carney's) early days as a public defender in Boston. Carney attested in a letter to Judge Wolf that DiMasi "was an excellent attorney, who always was well-prepared, knowledgeable about the facts and law of the case, and articulate in his presentations."

When Carney later became a prosecutor, he dealt with DiMasi lawyer-to-lawyer. "...his (DiMasi's) ethics were always of the highest order," Carney wrote. "My colleagues and I could accept his representations without question because they had been proven to be accurate in every instance."

Carney's letter for DiMasi tugs at the heart as it describes DiMasi's meetings with clients and family members in the hallways after court had adjourned. "It was clear," Carney said, that many of DiMasi's clients at that time "were indigent or close to it, and he was not representing them by court appointment."

Carney "often saw his (DiMasi's) clients and their families emotionally giving their thanks to him outside the courtroom after the resolution of a case," he wrote. "It was not unusual for the encounter to end with the family promising to pay Attorney DiMasi, and his replying in a warm way, 'Do what you can, don't worry about it.' "

Three years from now, the Commonwealth would be better served by DiMasi deploying his legal skills for the benefit of the poor of Boston, Springfield, New Bedford or Lawrence, as opposed to DiMasi going down, down, down in the mindless confines of a prison far from home.

DiMasi 'Cared Deeply About the Disadvantaged,' Mayor Mike Readily Attests

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Before leaving office of his own accord early in January, 2004, Mike Albano was one of the giants of Western Massachusetts politics.

In his four terms as mayor of Springfield, "Mayor Mike," as he was popularly known, proved to be both a strong hands-on manager and a high-minded, inclusive leader of his decidedly downtrodden city. He also possessed that most valuable and ineffable of political attributes: a first-class temperament. He was warm, approachable and light-hearted. No stranger was ever afraid to walk up to Albano. In a crowded elevator, he'd be the first guy to get you laughing with a wry comment, and by the time he arrived at his floor, everyone wanted to shake his hand good-bye.

I got to know Albano in the late-1990s when we both happened to be in the gallery of the Massachusetts House on random spring evenings when the lower branch was working through its version of the state budget for the next fiscal year. There's lots of dead time in the budget deliberations, long stretches when nothing really happens, and it seemed to be the most natural thing for Mayor Mike to chat up the people hanging in the gallery with him, waiting for "their" budget items to be taken up. Like all of our older urban centers, Springfield depends heavily on state aid, so Albano was a regular at the State House, a charming and persuasive advocate for his city.

It turned out that Albano, who holds a master's in public administration from the University of Hartford and was a probation officer before being elected mayor in 1995, knew and liked my older brother, Jim, who was a college dean in Connecticut at the time and had hired Albano to teach some courses at night in the state college system. This accelerated the initial conversation, which was already going pretty well, and always gave us something to discuss later when we'd bump into each other at the State House or on the street in Boston. Like me, my brother Jim is a great admirer of Mayor Mike; also like me, my big brother is disappointed Mayor Mike walked away from elective politics entirely. We both think he would have been a good candidate for state-wide office.

While walking the halls of the State House on Springfield's behalf, Albano got to know many legislators well, including Rep. Sal DiMasi of Boston's North End. And, in Sal, he apparently found not just a sympathetic ear but also a man of power who was willing to use it to help a large group of people who could never vote for him, the citizens of Springfield.

As Albano put it in his pre-sentencing letter (Aug. 25, 2011) to Judge Mark L. Wolf of the U.S. District Court in Boston, "While he (DiMasi) had no direct political interest in the day-to-day operations of my city, his involvement at the State House was critical and he always answered the call for assistance."

Albano's appeal for leniency to Judge Wolf continued, "As you know, Springfield, like other urban areas, has a multitude of problems. Representative DiMasi was extremely helpful, along with the western Massachusetts legislative delegation, in assisting the City in areas of economic development; police grants; open space grants; education reform dollars; after-school programs and other human service initiatives which directly impacted the quality of life of our citizens. In many cases, he was the person to whom I went to make things happen for the city. He asked for nothing in return.

"For example: Representative DiMasi played a major role -- in a very quiet fashion -- in the appropriation of funding for the new Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and MassMutual Convention Center -- approximately $75 million of economic development funds creating hundreds of employment opportunities and changing the image of Springfield. There were no lobbyists or corporate bigwigs pushing the agenda -- just Sal DiMasi offering a helping hand to a needy city.

"Perhaps his major contribution to the City, however, was the saving of the Southwest Community Health Center. The Center, which serves thousands of low-income citizens with their health care needs, was on the brink of financial collapse.

"Representative DiMasi was instrumental in putting together a supplemental appropriation of nearly $1 million -- which essentially saved the agency -- and allowed Southwest to continue its health care services to the most needy citizens in the community, which continues to operate to this day.

"Your Honor, the Sal DiMasi that I know is a man who cared deeply about the disadvantaged. He was always willing to assist for the benefit of the citizens of Springfield and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"I have been advised by some to expect retaliation for writing this letter of recommendation for Speaker DiMasi. I put that advice aside, however, because the actions of this extraordinary public servant reveal the totality of the man; the values he espoused; and, his record of accomplishment, all of which are important for your consideration at sentencing.

"Standing up for what is right and for those who are down is something of great value and something I learned a long time ago. I know Sal DiMasi shares those values. Now he is down and needs support from those he supported in the past."

Pre-Sentencing Letters Drive Home the Tragic Dimension of the DiMasi Case

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sal DiMasi, the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, must report tomorrow to a federal prison in Kentucky to begin serving an eight-year sentence for accepting bribes in the Cognos software sale scandal. It will be a sad day not only for DiMasi and the members of his family, but also for the thousands of people he helped during more than 30 years in public life. The man has a legion of friends and supporters.

Before DiMasi was sentenced a couple of months ago, 44 persons took the trouble to write individual letters to Mark Wolf, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Boston, telling him about the Sal DiMasi they know well and asking him please to be lenient in sentencing. It's hard to read those letters and not be struck, again, by the tragedy of a man who did an extraordinary amount of good in his life, became one of the most powerful politicians in the state, was widely loved for his warmth and generosity and ebullience, and threw it all away with one large, stupid mistake.

Because those letters reveal so much about the genuine DiMasi and how he conducted his life, and because they remind us, inadvertently but poignantly, of how far DiMasi tumbled in his fall from grace, I am going to reprint extensive excerpts from three of them this week. I'm starting with the letter from Jim Aloisi, a prominent Boston attorney and former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, and will follow with one from Mike Albano, the former mayor of Springfield, and one from Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"I've never written a letter regarding a proposed sentencing before," Aloisi began, "but I feel compelled to add my voice to those who find the requested sentencing (note added: 11 years) of former Speaker Sal DiMasi to be inordinately harsh, not reflective of the kind of person Sal is, and lacking in consideration of the many good works and positive examples of principled leadership that marked his time in office.

"I have known Sal DiMasi for close to two decades. Sal asked me to write his inaugural address when he became Speaker. I remember clearly, as we spoke about the content of the speech, how deeply focused he was on reminding himself that he came from humble beginnings, and that he would strive mightily to represent not just his district, but those who were chronically left behind by society -- the poor, the elderly, and those who are disenfranchised as a result of race, sexual orientation or other factors.

"I have thought about that experience as I have observed the trial and its aftermath. I don't know anything about the facts and circumstances that were the subject of the recent trial, but here is what I do know: Sal DiMasi was a good Speaker, a thoughtful man, a progressive thinker, a man who had a deep commitment to improving the lives of people who all too often do not have a voice in the halls of our State House. That is why I believe he championed health care reform. That is why I believe he held firm on making marriage equality the law. That is why I believe he held firmly against a gaming bill -- believing strongly, as I know he did, that gaming is nothing more than a tax on the poor and the middle class, simply another way to prey on those who have no access to power, no means to lobby legislators. People in Massachusetts are better off today, and their children will be better off in the future, because Sal DiMasi had the commitment and the vision and the courage to stop gaming, and to enact health care reform and marriage equality.

"...When I was State Transportation Secretary in 2009, I led an effort to raise the state gas tax as a way to increase revenues to support our aging transportation infrastructure. The gas tax increase would have enabled critical state-of-good-repair work, and would have improved funding for public transportation throughout the state -- an important mobility and social and economic justice issue. This was, as we all know, very unpopular politically, but Sal was prepared to support it with all the strength of his office. He would gain nothing but political pain from his support, but he understands that he was chosen to be Speaker to make tough decisions, to risk unpopularity, and to lead. I consider that kind of moral and political courage to be rare, but Sal had it in ample quantity....

"The Sal DiMasi I know is a person who ought to have more to give -- more to contribute -- to society. A harsh sentence in this matter may satisfy some rigid notion of justice, but I am reminded of the wisdom of Shakespeare's Portia, that mercy is 'an attribute to God himself/and earthly power doth then show likest God's/when mercy seasons justice.'

"If ever there was an occasion when mercy should season justice, it is this one. With respect, I would ask for your consideration that such wisdom ought to have a place in the sentencing decision you are about to make -- taking the entirety of the man and his life and his public record into account."

A Real 'Government Takeover of Health Care' Might Have Worked Better for Dems

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out separate but identical press releases earlier this month targeting three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts for their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, although the committee never referred to the bill by its formal name. Instead, it described it repeatedly as "the government takeover of healthcare."

The occasion for the release was the success on Tuesday, Nov. 8, of a ballot referendum in Ohio against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," as Republicans and many others delight in calling it. Sixty-six percent of Ohio voters gave a thumbs-up to the non-binding question against the bill.

The National Republican Congressional Committee built its press release, issued Nov. 11, on the premise that the citizens of Massachusetts need to know that "voters (in Ohio) reject the government takeover of healthcare Keating defended," Keating being the former state senator, former Norfolk County district attorney and current Congressman from the 10th Massachusetts District, Bill Keating. Here's the first paragraph of the release:

"Massachusetts Democrat Bill Keating proudly voted to keep the government takeover of healthcare in place earlier this year (Roll Call #14, 1/19/11), putting him at odds with American voters who continue to voice their strong disapproval. Ohio voters Tuesday sent a message that is having ramifications across the nation after every single one of the 88 counties voted to block the Democrats' healthcare takeover in their state. Keating's defense of the widely unpopular law will certainly strike a strong contrast with voters who increasingly recognize that this government takeover has done more harm than good."

So happy was the National Republican Congressional Committee with this line of attack that it used it simultaneously on U.S. Reps. John Tierney of Salem and Nicki Tsongas of Lowell, and God knows how many other Democrats across the nation, putting all of the same words in each release and changing only the names. Thus, the headlines became, "Voters Reject the Government Takeover of Healthcare Tierney Defended," and "Voters Reject the Government Takeover of Healthcare Tsongas Defended," etc., which showed, I guess, that Republicans are as human as the rest of us, for who among us, after coming up with a such a self-satisfyingly-clever line, can ever restrict its delivery to one occasion?

Each release ended on a mournful note to the effect that Keating, Tierney, Tsongas, et al., aren't "listening" to America. "Americans continue to voice their disapproval of the Democrats' government takeover of healthcare," it said, "but Bill Keating isn't listening. Instead of defending the law earlier this year, Keating should have recognized that the massive healthcare takeover, which is destroying jobs and seeing premiums rise, is making matters worse."

At first blush, one might think the National Republican Congressional Committee's use of the "takeover" formulation was a tad heavy-handed. No fewer than eight times in the 470-word release were the words "government takeover" used. However, I can personally attest to its effectiveness. By the time I was through reading it, my id was whispering insistently to my ego, "Obama seizes health care. Obama bad. Must be stopped."

(Pssssst: Does anyone in the Republican Party remember that Teddy Roosevelt, the rough-riding Republican of Rushmore fame, was the first politician of national standing to advocate for a national health plan? And does anyone in the GOP remember that Richard Nixon had a proposal for national health insurance that might have become law in the Seventies were it not for the opposition of Ted Kennedy and other liberal Democrats in the Congress -- a position that Kennedy came to rue?)

But give the Republicans credit for knowing how to play a good hand. Their relentless, post-enactment campaign against "Obamacare" has worked: a majority of the public dislikes and fears the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. When you're ahead on points, you pour it on.

The irony is that President Obama deliberately avoided a government takeover of health care when he decided to tackle health care reform, a challenge that makes ending the war in Afghanistan look easy by comparison, right out of the gate in 2009. Instead, he decided to work with the essential ingredients of the American health care system as he found it: private health insurance, fee-for-service medicine, employment-linked insurance, etc. The now-vilified mandate on all citizens to purchase health insurance was the big concession he made to the GOP-tilting insurance industry in exchange for the industry's acceptance of all customers, regardless of pre-existing conditions.

If Obama is defeated next November, and if he takes the Keatings, Tierneys and Tsongases of the world down with him, you'll be able to fill the mall in Washington with Democrats screaming how the Republicans jobbed them on health care. If Democrats are smart, they'll keep the crying to a minimum and bounce back quickly with a real plan for a government takeover of health care: Medicare for everyone.

They'll need something that good, that simple and that compelling to fix what's left behind when President Mitt Romney, the once-proud father of universal health care in Massachusetts, gets the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repealed.

Retired Senator's Letter to Editor on Casinos Surely Rankled Ex-Colleagues

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sue Tucker, who retired from her Merrimack Valley seat in the Massachusetts Senate at the end of the 2009-10 legislative session, was never known to mince words. She was always strong in her convictions and blunt in her language.

For example, in her brief, March, 2010, message announcing her intention not to seek re-election, Tucker thanked the voters of Andover, Dracut, Lawrence and Tewksbury for electing and re-electing her to office, reflected on her legislative priorities and accomplishments, and emphasized that, "Above all, I hate rip-offs, whether public or private, and that is the reason I am working to keep predatory gambling out of the Commonwealth."

When Tucker walked out of the State House for the last time as a senator in early-January, 2011, one of the state's most passionate and eloquent opponents of casino gambling and slot parlors left the political arena. Her heart, however, remained in the fight, as evidenced by a letter from her published in the Boston Globe on Veterans Day, Friday, Nov. 11, under the heading, "Unfortunately, it's too late to bar door from wolves of gambling industry."

The letter spanked the Globe for an editorial it published Nov. 8, raising questions about the casino bill subsequently enacted by both branches of the legislature, and blamed the newspaper for helping to create the political atmosphere that allowed the casino bill to move forward in the first place.

That Tucker would take on the region's largest, most influential newspaper was not surprising. She was always pretty fearless. That she would also give a backhand to her former colleagues while hitting the Globe was surprising. Read her entire letter to see what I mean:

"Your Nov. 8 editorial 'Flawed casino legislation leaves public interest too vulnerable' is loaded with irony. Several years ago, it was The Boston Globe that opened the door for casinos in Massachusetts. When your editorial board flirted with casinos, you gave every politician in this state permission to let the wolves in. Although I never stopped fighting the notion that we could gamble our way out of budget deficits, the day the Globe flipped on this issue was the very day I knew that casinos would eventually prevail.

"Tuesday's editorial bemoans the flaws and potential for corruption in the current casino bill. I am not privy to your editorial board's internal debate on this issue, but did you honestly think Massachusetts could do a 'clean' casino bill? It is called an oxymoron. Where in the country has a clean casino bill emerged from the legislature and remained corruption-free through the years?

"The gambling interests have a playbook to get what they want, and the name of the state is irrelevant. They see a market; they buy the political establishment; they hook the state on revenue; and then they own the legislative-regulatory framework.

"Your editorial concludes, 'If Massachusetts marries the casino industry on these terms, it will be stuck with the consequences forever.' Too bad that the Globe helped officiate at the marriage ceremony."

Tucker's main point, that the Commonwealth is about to become a business development partner of the casino industry for purposes of adding to the public treasury and will therefore be susceptible to pressure from the industry down the line, has validity. In testifying against an earlier casino/slots bill a few years back, she raised this same issue, warning that casino operators would be able to eliminate restrictions in any original enabling legislation by claiming those rules were putting them at a disadvantage with competing casinos in neighboring states. A Commonwealth that had grown dependent on casino/slots revenue would be hard-pressed to resist those claims, she suggested.

But the Tucker letter assertion that the casino industry had bought the political establishment in Massachusetts was not grounded in fact, no matter how much the industry may have spent on lobbyists. Knowing as she does that Senate President Pro Tem Stan Rosenberg of Amherst is the Senate's point man on casino legislation, that Rosenberg has studied the industry and its experiences in states across the nation for years, and that Rosenberg is a person of unquestioned integrity and dedication, it was startling to see her make that statement so blithely. Tucker worked with Rosenberg for a long time and knows him well. She had to have known her words would cut him (and other former colleagues) deeply.

Without any sign or evidence that any legislative leader actually sold his vote to anyone in the casino industry, the most anyone can fairly say is that legislators sold themselves on the concept of casinos being a revenue-producer and a jobs-creator. I'm no fan of gambling, but given the recessionary times and the word of independent experts that three casinos and one slot parlor will, when all is said and done, generate roughly $750 million a year for the state, it's not hard to see how any honest legislator could be sold on this bill.

Campaign to Kill Obamacare Is More About Politics than Health Policy

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I am indebted to Rogan Kersh, a Professor of Public Policy and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at New York University, for clarifying something about the well-organized and well-funded campaign to repeal the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which continues night and day under a full head of steam, two years after the bill was enacted.

You may not recognize this legislation by its proper name, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but you surely know it by the derisive label Republicans apply to it: Obamacare.

The PPACA was the cause that Barack Obama gave the first year of his presidency to, at great political cost. Its enactment was an accomplishment of unquestionable historical and social significance, for it brought into existence a program, universal health care, that is every bit as important and far-reaching as Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security was in the Thirties and Lyndon Johnson's Medicare was in the Sixties.

Unfortunately for Obama and his fellow Democrats, universal health care has not been met with universal acceptance. Polls today indicate that more than half of the American population does not like the PPACA, and is so apprehensive about the implications of the bill that they favor repeal, despite the fact that some features of the bill, such as the one that prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to anyone because of a pre-existing illness, enjoy overwhelming public support.

Obama and the Democrats can be faulted for not selling the benefits of the PPACA better to the public. Yes, it's an incredibly large, mind-numbingly-complex program that is slowly rolling out as a result of the bill, but there are some very compelling points that could be made in speeches and in advertisements about the virtues of the PPACA. Where, for example, is the TV ad from the Democrats that has an actor playing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cheerily informs a young cancer patient she won't be able to get coverage when his Repeal-Obamacare team wins the game?

So blame the bill itself for some of its unpopularity and much of the confusion that surrounds it. And blame the innate fears of Americans like me, who already have insurance, who like our health plans, who don't want them to change, and who worry they'll come out of this vast new social experiment with diminished, more costly insurance. But don't forget to blame the Republican Party, too, for doing everything within its power to exploit our fears and undermine Obamacare while never offering a serious alternative.

During a Rappaport Center Roundtable discussion this week at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Professor Kersh pointed out three simple facts about the highly unusual, post-enactment battle that has erupted around the PPACA:

One, not a single Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate voted for the PPACA.

Two, the PPACA, despite its flaws and inauspicious start, has the potential one day to be as popular as Social Security and Medicare are today in the U.S.

Three, Republicans realize that great potential popularity and are deathly afraid their unanimous opposition to the bill will subject their party to a devastating, long-lasting voter backlash, 10 or 20 or more years down the line.

Imagine the PPACA withstands the multiple challenges it now faces, and imagine that voters over time come to understand and experience and depend upon the benefits of the law. If so, voters will come to appreciate the Democrats for making this great, new program possible; and Democrats will be able, as a result, to stick it to the Republicans for years ever after. ("Just remember, folks, the Republicans didn't want you and your family to have health care.")

That dynamic may go a long way to explaining why Republicans are damned and determined to kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in its crib.


Meanwhile, things are fairly quiet in Massachusetts, which has had its own unique system of universal health coverage since 2006, a program, by the way, that has very high favorability ratings despite the fact that it has not brought down the cost of health care.

However, there is a group in Massachusetts that wants to repeal the state's mandate requiring individuals to obtain health insurance and it has reportedly collected the signatures of approximately 40,000 residents who favor putting the repeal question on next November's ballot.

For the ballot initiative to be successful, the group will have to collect nearly 30,000 additional signatures before the filing deadline of Wednesday, Nov. 30. That won't be easy in the diminishing daylight hours of our eleventh month, and if bad weather comes along, it will be especially difficult.

Where is one of those late-fall blizzards when you need one?

James E. Milano Didn't Have to Be in Office to Be THE Leader of His City

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life had been good to Jim Milano, a former mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts, who died Nov. 2 at the age of 102, covered in honors, as the ancients would say. And Jim Milano had been good to life. He was a giver, not a taker.

Milano had been a lawyer for the old Boston and Maine Railroad and a long-time member of the Melrose Board of Aldermen when he was elected mayor in 1972. He went on to serve 10 consecutive, two-year terms as the city's chief executive. When he retired in 1992 at age 83, most Melrosians wished he wasn't leaving. If he wanted to, he could have won another term or two on autopilot. A few years later, they named the city's new senior citizens center in his honor, the Milano Center.

I remember once asking him, "Of all the things you've done and accomplished, what brought you the most satisfaction?" I thought he would say something about the new high school built early on his watch or the rejuvenation of Melrose's downtown, which he instigated.

"The war," he said. "Those years in the Pacific, serving with so many great men and women, that was the best thing I ever did."

Milano enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor and served until the end of the war, in 1945, as an artillery officer in such dangerous locales as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, the Fiji Islands and the Philippines. He was in Yokahama, Japan, on Aug. 14, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito signed the surrender documents on the deck of the nearby USS Missouri. He didn't get home once during World War II, five long, lonely and risky years. Yet 60 years later, his voice would choke as he spoke of the "privilege" of serving with his fellow Americans in the worst war ever known to mankind.

I don't think I will ever know a person of greater fundamental decency, empathy and honesty than Jim Milano. It's hard to be in the rough-and-tumble of public life for two years and not have someone suspect you of trying to deceive or mislead him, but Milano managed to be in public office for 30 years, 1962 to 1992, and never once have his integrity questioned or challenged.

"You were always honest with people," I once declared to him. In reply, he took no bow. Instead, he told of how he learned honesty from the example of his father, Joseph Milano, who had also been an alderman and had represented Melrose in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
One time, when he was a boy and his father was in the legislature, Jim Milano told me that a man stopped him on the street, gave him a carton of cigarettes and told him to give it to his father because his father had done him a favor.

"I remember thinking how nice it was of him to give my father a present and how happy my father would be when I got home with it," Milano said. "But my father wasn't happy at all. He was angry. He told me he could never take anything for doing his job, and ordered me to go to that man's home and give him back his cigarettes. It was almost supper time and I was hungry, but my father made me go right away. It was a mile walk, but of course I wouldn't say no to my father. It made a lasting impression."

After Jim Milano left office, he stayed active in the community and seldom left town. He went to Mass and Communion every day at St. Mary's Church, he faithfully attended the weekly meetings of the Melrose Rotary Club and pulled his weight in every Rotary activity and philanthropy, he tutored students at Melrose High who were struggling in reading and civics, and he socialized almost every night. A lifelong bachelor, Milano had friends of all ages and persuasions: true friends that he ate and drank and shared stories with, attended birthdays, christenings, wakes and funerals with.

You would see him around Melrose every day -- on the sidewalk outside Bread 'n Bits of Ireland, a Main Street coffee shop; waiting in line at the post office on Essex Street; or visiting a friend at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. And you'd see him tooling by in his big, old Chrysler, forever "Mr. Mayor" in the motorcade of life.

Only in recent years did you notice the dents that kept appearing, like shark bites, on that Chrysler and realize that age was finally catching up with him, slowing his reflexes a bit, but leaving his memory, a wonder of nature, intact. About a year ago, he had to forsake his long-time home, the interior of which was an immaculate snapshot of the Fifties, and move to Oosterman's Rest Home, less than half a mile away.

Like a bishop, Milano was waked before the altar at St. Mary's for six hours on Monday, Nov. 7. The next morning, they held a glorious requiem for him, with beautiful hymns from a full choir, ("Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom"), an honor guard of Rotarians, and a church filled with people of many faiths and no faith at all. The burial, with full military honors, took place at Melrose's Wyoming Cemetery.

For a man who never lost an election, it was fitting that Jim Milano was brought to his rest on an election day, and that his eulogy was given by the current mayor, Rob Dolan, who idolized him while growing up.

Dolan recalled that, at the age of five or six, he went "to a political rally in late-October in the courtyard of the YMCA and holding Mayor Milano's black sign with orange letters. It was the first political sign I ever held in my life. And I liked it. It was a cold night, and others complained, but I liked it." So I guess you could say Mayor Dolan caught the political bug from Mayor Milano.
Dolan noted that, "Jim Milano was mayor from the year I was born to the year I graduated college. That is over half my life. There are tens of thousands of men and women that can say the same, living in cities across the country and across the world. If it truly takes a village to raise a child, then we were raised in Jim Milano's village. Jim Milano, together with our teachers, educated us. Jim Milano, together with our parents, taught us right from wrong. Jim Milano's character set the tone in the community, and his heart and his warmth were the foundations of our character. We are, in a very real way, Jim Milano's children. Although he had no children of his own, my generation of Melrosians are Jim Milano's children, and on behalf of them, I say thank you. We can never repay that debt."

Our country was built by givers, not takers.

Jim Milano gave and he gave and he gave, becoming ever larger in the eyes and hearts of his townsmen until he reached the status of living legend.

Mayor Dolan is right: Melrosians can never repay the debt they owe Jim Milano. But like his father, Jim Milano did not want or expect to be rewarded for doing his job.

Salem's New Court House Honors More Than a Politician's Long Hold on Office

Monday, November 7, 2011

Naming public buildings and facilities after elected officials has always made me a little queasy.

Popularity is not reason enough to carve a man's name in stone on a state or municipal office building, a school or a court house. (Such honors, it seems, almost always go to men.)

Priority in naming public properties should be given, instead, to those who have done something truly significant and courageous for the public good: enlisted men and women in the military who have fought or died heroically, practitioners of the healing arts, scientists and inventors who have advanced the quality of human life, philanthropists who have given away their fortunes, and leaders of social causes who have accepted little or no compensation.

I have a friend, for example, who has dedicated his life to building and directing a non-profit organization that protects vulnerable senior citizens from exploitation by lenders and family members when they take out reverse mortgages on their homes to pay for health care and other essentials. This person has accepted low pay in a low-profile organization, and has frequently gone without a paycheck to keep it afloat. His family has suffered because of his decision to serve others rather than to maximize his income, something he could have done as the holder of two advanced degrees. A school should named after him some day, but it will never happen.

The worst example of the abuse of public naming privileges can be found in West Virginia, where there are more than 50 government buildings, roads, highways, bridges, schools, clinics, hospitals, court houses, prisons, office complexes, research and scientific centers, and other facilities named after the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.

"I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home," Byrd once said in a fit of understatement.

This man's drive for self-aggrandizement was actually unlimited. His poor, unassuming, elderly spouse had to share in the spoils, too: there are no less than nine facilities in West Virginia named after the late Erma Ora Byrd!

The "Prince of Pork," as some taxpayer groups dubbed the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, never got over his childhood insecurities.

So when I saw the other day that they are getting ready to open the $109 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in the historic city of Salem, Massachusetts, I reacted first with a groan.

Combining the operations of four state courts in one big, new building, the center is named in honor of the late Mike Ruane, who served as Salem's representative in the Massachusetts House for 30 straight years and died of cancer in 2006 at age 77, two years after retiring from politics. No one else in Salem ever held that position for three decades.

I did not personally know Rep. Ruane, but I saw him in action lots of times, and can attest that he was a force of nature, an old-school politician who instinctively understood political power and how to use it. And use it he did. With intelligence, passion and relentless determination.

"I had to win. I was a hard-nosed kid, and I took things seriously," he once said.

No one ever took Mike Ruane lightly and did not regret it.

Recounting some of his accomplishments when he died, the Salem News said, "Above all, Ruane was devoted to Salem, friends say, and fought for funding for almost anything to do with the city. He lobbied for Salem State College, Riley Plaza reconstruction, Salem Willows policing, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, and local schools, housing, road projects and the courts. He is credited with securing Cat Cove for Salem State's aquaculture program and earmarking $18 million in a seaport bond bill for a new Salem pier and other waterfront projects...Ruane was stubbornly and proudly parochial. He opposed naming the Salem-Beverly bridge -- he never called it the 'Beverly-Salem bridge' -- for a Beverly veteran, and insisted it be called 'Veterans Memorial Bridge.' "

That obituary accurately described Ruane as "an emotional public speaker with a fiery temper, which sometimes got the better of him." In 1979, it said, Ruane "got into a dispute with Marblehead officials over closing the Forest River tidal gates to allow summer swimming in a Salem neighborhood. It ended in a free-for-all at a State House hearing. Ruane's ear got bloodied and, when he tried to retaliate, he mistakenly punched his chief of staff, Sharon Armstrong, in the shoulder. After he apologized profusely, they laughed about it."

Ruane always brought the state bacon home to his town, he was a dervish of constituent services, and he never coasted. He never concealed a lack of action behind a regular barrage of press releases, as some have been known to do at the Massachusetts State House. Ruane, in fact, rarely issued a press release.

But those acts and attributes alone would not justify putting his name on that new judicial center, in my opinion. What could justify it, I have come to conclude, were three things:

One, Ruane's total satisfaction in, and total dedication to, his role as a representative of the people of Salem in the Massachusetts House;

Two, Ruane's refusal to exploit the political fundraising potential that came his way when he became vice chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, (the committee that reporters are obligated to put the word "powerful" before every time they type it); and

Three, Ruane's rather unique place in the history and culture of his community. (Will there ever be another one like him who so thoroughly embodies the characteristics and aspirations of the citizens of Salem and who plays such a prominent role in its politics for such a long period?)

By giving his heart and soul to the job he had for each of the 30 years he had it, and by never scheming to attain a higher, more powerful position, Ruane honored the ideal of public service for its own sake. By declining to build an intimidating campaign treasury when he could have done so with minimal effort, Ruane displayed a sense of restraint and humility that all office holders should emulate. And by immersing himself in the life of the community for so long and by leading countless political battles for his fellow citizens, he came to personify his era in Salem.

Those are reasons enough to look at the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center without groaning.

An Apparent Strong Point: Olver Didn't Come from a Typical Political Mold

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be an effective member of the United States House of Representatives, but it might not hurt to be a chemist, if the example of John W. Olver can be taken to heart.

Before entering politics in his early-thirties, Olver earned his bachelor's degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his master's at Tufts and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Harvard grads serve gratefully as janitors. He was teaching in college when he ran successfully for a Pioneer Valley seat in the Massachusetts House in 1968.

In 1973, Olver moved up to the Massachusetts Senate, and, in the spring of 1991, he won a special election to complete the term of the late Republican Congressman Silvio O. Conte.

I haven't checked the record, but I think it's safe to say that Olver, who will be retiring when his current term expires in January, 2013, is the only Chemistry Ph.D. in the Congress. Men and women with that skill set don't often go into politics, and, if they do, they don't make it their life's work, as Olver has.

He's a very interesting man: cerebral and rather shy in a field filled with extroverts who have scaled the heights mainly on gut instinct. He's quiet in a town, Washington, D.C., where brashness rules, yet he's had more than an average share of "ruling," much more.

It has been said to the point of cliche that, in our nation's capital, there are show horses and there are workhorses. Without question, Olver's a workhorse. He's always gotten the job done, always delivered the goods to his district, by virtue of his smart, steady, unremitting toil.

Until Republicans captured the House in the 2010 elections, Olver was chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation of the House Appropriations Committee, meaning he carried enormous weight for years on every federal dollar spent on highway, airport and rail projects. He remains the highest-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and still has considerable influence in those areas.

Olver is a policy guy to his bones. He lives and breathes the big thoughts. As stated in his press packet, Olver's "top policy priorities include providing new transportation options and maintaining our transportation infrastructure, keeping affordable and energy-efficient housing available, protecting the environment, increasing worker rights and benefits, expanding access to affordable health care and improving education and job training."

Throughout his time in office, and stretching back to his days in the Massachusetts House and Senate, Olver has neatly balanced his policy concerns with the quotidian items that matter most to his constituents, many of whom hail from the small towns and hidden hamlets of the Berkshires.

To give you an idea of how closely Olver has identified himself with the average folks in his district, listen to how they're reacting "out west" to the news that he's retiring and that much of his old territory will be absorbed, as a result, into another Congressman's district due to the mandated shrinking and realignment of Massachusetts seats -- Jim McGovern's (Worcester), perhaps, or Richie Neal's (Springfield).

"It (realignment) would squash the voices of all of the smaller cities along the 1st Massachusetts's corridor," Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto told The Berkshire Eagle last week. "Good God, Worcester? What connection does Pittsfield, Massachusetts, have to Worcester?"

The Eagle also quoted North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright as saying, "I don't want to use the word devastating, but it (realignment) just doesn't feel good. Throwing us in with a district that large and a constituency so tightly populated as in those metropolitan areas, personally, I think it's kind of scary what could end up happening to the representation of Berkshire County."

State Senator Benjamin B. Downing of Pittsfield had the final word in that article. "...the priorities of small towns and cities have been the priorities of John Olver for the past 20 years in Congress, and we're the better for it," he said.

It's a fortunate man that can end his career at age 75 and have the people who know him best truly wish he wasn't leaving and worry seriously about what will happen when he's gone.

With Happy Hour Amendment, Senator Hedlund Played His Cards Well

Friday, October 28, 2011

If there were a "Champion of an Uncomfortable Truth" award in Massachusetts politics, State Senator Bob Hedlund would win it this year.

A Republican from Weymouth, Hedlund wants to amend the casino bill to make it legal for bars and restaurants in Massachusetts to offer patrons free or discounted drinks if casinos are allowed to do the same.

When he proposed it earlier this month during Senate debate on the bill, it looked like kind of a strange move for someone of Hedlund's philosophical bent. He was a lead sponsor in 2005, after all, of "Melanie's Law," which significantly increased the penalties for drunk driving.

And just this week, Hedlund was a featured speaker at a State House event in support of a bill that would require anyone convicted of drunk driving, even first offenders, to have a lock on his car's ignition preventing the vehicle from starting if alcohol were detected on the driver's breath.

Some skeptics immediately speculated that Hedlund was pushing a "Happy Hour Amendment" because he co-owns a Braintree restaurant called Four Square and wants to attract more elbow-benders to his business.

Not at all, Hedlund calmly responded, Four Square has no desire or plan to offer happy hours, which were banned in Massachusetts in 1984 following a series of ghastly drunk driving-related fatalities, and would not do so if they were re-legalized.

His only motive for bringing the issue forward, he explained, was to level the field on which casinos will be newly competing with restaurants and bars for the limited recreational and entertainment dollars of Massachusetts residents. If casinos will be able to feed free drinks to gamblers, as they clearly want to do, restaurants and bars should be able to do the same, he reasoned.

In a legislature where members have an unwritten policy of referring to casino legislation as the "gaming bill" -- never the gambling bill -- most folks were not happy to be discussing how gaming establishments will be loosening up their customers with free booze, even though it's been that way so long at casinos that people seldom comment on the practice.

Hedlund opposes the casino bill, so I think it's fair to surmise he's trying to turn the tradition of free casino drinks, judo style, into a weapon against the bill. For that, I give him a warm round of applause. Because not only is Hedlund smart on the politics, he's also right on the principle:

The Commonwealth should not make it easy for casinos to get their customers stupid any more than it should make it easy for someone to get loaded at a bar before driving home. Unless, of course, casinos want to provide free rides home to every gambler.

Romney Must Fall Asleep Wondering, Why Can't I Shake Herman Cain?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If you understand why the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States is going the way it is, please clue me in.

How did we get to where we are today, with the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, he who holds two advanced degrees from Harvard, running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with Herman Cain, a motivational speaker who's never held public office?

Is Romney such a weak candidate or Cain such a strong one?

If we could make a transcript of Romney's thought bubbles, they might sound something like Jon Lovitz, playing Mike Dukakis in that old Saturday Night Live skit, as he pauses in debate with Dana Carvey's loquacious-but-incomprehensible George H.W. Bush to marvel to himself:

"I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

The New York Times published a great article on Cain this past Sunday, ("Cain, Now Running as Outsider, Came to Washington as Lobbyist," 10/23/11), exploring his success as chief executive of the National Restaurant Association (1996-99).

The former CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain, Cain basically took "a once-sleepy trade group" and turned it into a "lobbying powerhouse," the Times said.

Give Cain credit. He had a plan to take Washington by storm as the tribune of the restaurant industry and executed it to a fare-thee-well. And all the while he was plotting an even bigger move, into politics.

As Boston's Tom Kershaw, who owns the bar on which the TV sitcom Cheers was based, said to the New York Times, "I think what was enticing to him (Cain) was coming to Washington and getting into the middle of the whole political arena. I think he had his eye on politics."

Though he was contemplating in the late-1990s a run for high office, the ultra-confident Cain did not hesitate to take positions that might later put him in an uncomfortable position with the public and the media. He allied the National Restaurant Association, for example, with the alcohol and tobacco industries in opposing tighter blood-alcohol limits on drivers and higher taxes on cigarettes.

"The restaurant industry literally became the alter ego of the tobacco industry during that period of time," Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Times.

If Cain wins the nomination, there will be ironies aplenty to plague the mind of Mitt, who bucked members of his own party back in 2004 and signed into law a bill banning smoking in the workplace. Some Republicans argued that the bill was an infringement on personal freedoms and would devastate the restaurant industry in Massachusetts, but Romney signed it because he believed in protecting the health of those who have to earn their livings in restaurants and bars. Breathing second-hand smoke should not be a job requirement for anyone, he declared.

Hard to believe, but I guess Cain could actually get the nomination in this strange political season, a time of wild gyrations in the nation's troubled soul.

"Bearing is fate," the Romans said, and Herman Cain has the bearing of a leader. His oratorical skills make the rest of the field look like rookies at Toastmasters. His confidence and conviction are dazzling.

If the Republicans do nominate Cain, I hope they'll double-down on the bet by choosing Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, as the nominee for vice president, thus producing the first all-ex-lobbyist national ticket.

As Jon Lovitz might then say, "Herman Cain, Haley Barbour. Yeah, that's the ticket!"

The Harshbarger Way of Influencing the Casino Debate Doesn't Add Up

Friday, October 14, 2011

In the prime of his life, Scott Harshbarger was one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a popular state-wide office holder regarded by many as a likely future governor.

Today, approaching his 70th birthday, he is a lawyer in private practice and a voice crying in the wilderness against casino gambling.

Harshbarger has said that our elected officials are "careening toward a cliff" as they push the casino bill toward enactment on Beacon Hill.

He has said it is "shameful" that "Beacon Hill clearly hasn't learned the lessons of its recent past and insists on moving forward with a bill that will only help casino owners, lobbyists and special interests."

He has said the casino bill "was worked out in secret by no more than three State House leaders and has been proven by the media to be a larded-up, special interest giveaway co-authored by the casino industry to help feather its nests at the expense of hard-working Bay State residents."

And he has harshly criticized the owners of Suffolk Downs, who are itching to compete for one of the new casino licenses, for making contributions to charities associated with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and East Boston State Senator Anthony Petrucelli, calling those donations "yet another instance of the looming shadows stretching into our political, social and now even non-profit culture by the greedy insiders and shady players that dominate the casino industry."

For someone who seriously wants the legislature and governor to reject casinos, Harshbarger's decision to attack publicly the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the governor doesn't add up.

Harshbarger is not stupid. He knows those words are like poison to the folks on Beacon Hill, those both in the leadership and in the rank and file. He also knows that the mayor of Boston will never forgive him for throwing him under the bus like that.

(One can safely assume that Harshbarger has no legal business with the city of Boston, nor does he hope to have a client who one day will need to bring a matter before the Menino administration.)

Harshbarger must also know that the people who do not hold public office and who have the most credibility and the most sway on Beacon Hill would never strafe the decision-makers in public before, or even after, a big vote.

One cannot imagine, for example, Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, accusing the senate president of engaging in "name-calling" rather than "embracing an honest debate on the complex issue of casino gambling," as Harshbarger has done.

So why is Harshbarger waging the battle in such a patently self-defeating manner?

Either he sincerely believes his rhetoric is the best way to rouse the public against casinos, or he just doesn't give a damn. Maybe he's earned enough that he can say whatever he wants whenever he wants, and anyone who doesn't like it can go to hell.

Or maybe he's still hurting over the heartbreakingly close election for governor he lost to Paul Celucci in 1998, an election many believe he would have won, if only the members of the Democratic establishment at the time had genuinely embraced his candidacy and pulled out all the stops to get him a victory.

Way down deep, could he be thinking, the big shots on Beacon Hill never considered me one of their own, and you know what, they were right, so I'd rather lose than ever have to pretend I have regard for any of them?

Prediction: It Will Be a Long Time Before Inspector General Sits for Another Q & A

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I clicked on the CommonWealth magazine interview with the Inspector General of the Commwealth of Massachusetts, Greg Sullivan, last week just to check out what he was saying. I didn't expect to find anything especially interesting, nor did I think I would be startled.

Boy was I wrong.

The interviewer, Colman Herman, opened the discussion with Sullivan by asking if anything had changed in state government since 1980, when the Ward Commission "reported that corruption was a way of life in Massachusetts, that political influence, not professional performance, was the prime criterion in doing business with the state, and that shoddy work and debased standards were the norm."

Sullivan, who served as Norwood's representative in the legislature in the Eighties and Nineties, and has been Inspector General since 2002, answered, "I think they have changed for the better overall. There are safeguards that have been put in place that I think have ameliorated to a great extent the problems that existed at the time of the Ward Commission. The Legislature set up ways to try to catch the crooks. We now have a very robust competitive procurement system for contracts."

"But," Colman persisted, "it's the rare week when you can't pick up a newspaper and read about yet another corrupt politician."

"It's a never-ending battle," conceded Sullivan, "because there is a subculture of corruption on Beacon Hill made up of people who always find opportunities to exploit the system to their advantage, but to the detriment of the public. It's a never-ending battle against the tide of people inside and outside of government who seek to use undue influence to affect government and to capitalize on loopholes. Influence peddling is probably as bad today as it ever was. It is unabated. And there's always a new loophole, a new trick, an artifice someone finds to get around existing law. We are engaged in a constant effort to close new loopholes. People have been able to find more wily, creative ways to do things that are difficult to catch. And it's not just in the Legislature, we see it all over government."

Wow, I thought, this is huge!

The Inspector General, who has legal responsibilities to detect and prevent "fraud, waste and abuse in the expenditure of public funds" (and a $2.8 million budget to fulfill that mission), is now on the record as endorsing the jaded view that a "subculture of corruption" exists on Beacon Hill.

Big headlines in the newspapers and dramatic pronouncements from TV anchors can't be far behind, I figured. This is the Inspector General speaking, not some barking dog in the blogosphere.

Reading on, I was startled again when, in response to a question on the legal problems encountered by three consecutive former Speakers of the Massachusetts House, Sullivan said, in part, "...They (Speakers) have a strong desire for money and they have opportunity. In the case of Speaker DiMasi, you have an example of an abuse of power that was tolerated by the membership for years. I was in the House for seventeen years, and one thing I observed was that there was an inordinate deference given by the membership to the speaker to a phenomenal degree..."

I thought: That's the kind of stuff that will shake the foundation at the State House. Sullivan must know what he is saying, he must have stuff to back this up, he must be getting ready to issue a report with some new, blockbuster findings.

CommonWealth posted the Sullivan interview online Tuesday, Oct. 4. Since then, the piece has not generated any big headlines, or caused any fall-out whatsoever, that I am aware of.

Checking for new developments today, Oct. 12, I returned to the magazine's web site and was surprised again -- this time by a comment on the interview that the Inspector General had posted on Friday, Oct. 7. It was the first comment that a reader had bothered to post. This is what the Inspector General wrote:

"I want to elaborate on my answer to the fourth question above. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has found that there was no financial gain or motive underlying (former-Speaker Thomas Finneran's) conduct. This differentiates Speaker Finneran's offense in a significant way from that of former-Speaker DiMasi with respect to motive. My response to this question was intended to address former-Speaker DiMasi's offenses, which my office helped to uncover and prosecute. Secondly, I did not mean to imply that Beacon Hill has an overarching 'culture of corruption,' because I am convinced that the opposite is true. An overwhelming majority of government leaders act with honesty and try to prevent corrupt activities from taking place. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in Coleman Herman's Q&A article, I believe that a small subculture of corruption has existed and continues to exist, as evidenced by continuing examples of criminal convictions."

All of us, I imagine, have had our Roseanne Roseannadanna moments, when, caught on a rickety verbal scaffolding of our own making, we have to climb down while muttering the word, "Nevermind." The Inspector General has just had his, to the great relief of the Massachusetts Legislature.

To read the interview with Sullivan, go to and click on article headlined, "IG sees subculture of corruption. Sullivan calls special education a 'money pit' "

Senator's Position Prompts Tough Question: Are You a Snob If You Oppose Casinos?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In announcing his opposition last week to the hottest piece of legislation on Beacon Hill, the bill that would license three casinos and one parlor for slot machines, Dan Wolf presented an interesting scenario to all the parents and grandparents of Massachusetts.

"One day the phone will ring, and it will be one of our children, or grandchildren, calling with the great news -- they've found a job and will be starting work in a few days," the rookie state senator from Cape Cod and the Islands wrote in an op-ed piece published in one of his local newspapers. "We'll share their excitement and wonder what, of all possible things, they'll be doing. Providing health care? Building a school? Planting quahogs? Teaching kindergarten? Driving a bus? Writing computer software? Installing solar panels?

"Of course we'll be encouraging no matter what, but if the answer comes back that they'll be working in a casino, who among us would be quite as proud? And who will celebrate that legacy, which now belongs to us?"

In that same piece, Wolf noted, "Our economy has always been about education, innovation, health care, financial services and creative entrepreneurs. Our tourism industry has always attracted visitors from around the world because of our environment, culture and history."

With those who argue that casinos and slots are the "best way, only way, or right way for Massachusetts to create work -- or that those who oppose casinos somehow don't understand that we need jobs and need them now," Wolf said he "respectfully disagrees."

" doubt some jobs will be created -- solid, short-term construction jobs at the outset, then generally low-wage, longer-term jobs staffing casinos and related resorts," allowed Wolf, who co-founded Cape Air, perhaps the most successful regional airline in the U.S., and has been a leading voice of the business community on Cape Cod for more than two decades.

I'm inclined to agree with Wolf, but there are many folks following the casino debate today who say the case he espouses -- that we can and should be stimulating our economy in better ways, that we should be creating a higher-class of jobs -- borders on snobbery.

When I tried the Wolf argument on a co-worker, Walter, the other day, while shamelessly presenting it as my own, he responded as if I had suddenly addressed him in a voice like Prince Charles's.

"You're being a snob!" he said. "Who are you to tell someone the job he's doing is beneath him? Who are you to dismiss a job, any job, as low-class when you have a nice job for yourself?"

He's right in a way. If today you don't have a job, if you and your family are suffering the consequences of joblessness, and tomorrow someone offers you a job in a casino, tomorrow is going to be one of the best days of your life. If your family is cooking pancakes for supper and a constable is going to boot you from your foreclosed home tomorrow, a discussion on the finer points of job creation in the "innovation economy" could not be more beside the point.

Even though I wear a monocle, I don't think Walter really believes I'm a snob. He just wanted to put me on the defensive and put himself on a high-ground position. (He can't help it, he's a lawyer.) It's all about positioning these days, positioning and timing...and timing is certainly working in favor of the gambling conglomerates eager to enter the virgin Massachusetts market.

Back in the 1990s, when the economy was booming here and across the nation, it's hard to imagine casinos and slots getting the attention on Beacon Hill they've been getting the past two or three years. As Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders have observed, casino legislation tends "to suck all the oxygen out of the room," making other issues seem less important and consuming huge blocks of the legislative calendar.

There's a lot at stake in the upcoming competition for casino licenses. Reportedly, the gambling industry has sized up Massachusetts as another Pennsylvania, where casinos became a $2 billion per year industry within a few years of legalization. Estimates of the number of permanent jobs that would be created by three casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts range as high as 20,000 and as low as 7,000.

Someday we may look back and wonder why we didn't spend as much time in 2010-11 considering novel ways to promote our economy in the areas where it has been traditionally strong, like the ones identified by Senator Wolf, as we did on enabling a new form of legalized gambling.

Or maybe the sound of all those slot machines and of those Las Vegas-style shows at our resort casinos will forever drown out those who are saying we can stimulate our economy in other ways -- voices like that of University of Massachusetts President Robert L. Caret.

Commenting on a recent UMass analysis of increasing income and wealth disparities in the Bay State, Caret said, "Increasing education attainment and spreading the opportunity to benefit from the Bay State's global leadership in the innovation economy to our working families and communities outside Greater Boston will be critical to reversing these trends (toward greater disparities). The future economic and social health of the Commonwealth is dependent on that outcome."

If that's a snobbish message, I'll eat my monocle.

Surprises Imaginary and Real Point to Continuing Hard Times for Many in Massachusetts

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Last Friday, rounding the corner from Washington Street onto Milk Street in downtown Boston, I was surprised by a sign for a new business above a storefront at 25 Milk.


Times are tough, I thought, but you know they're really tough when someone starts a pawn shop in the Financial District. Flashing across my mind was the image of a down-on-his-luck stockbroker darting through the door to hock his gold cuff links.

To my relief, I soon learned that MILK STREET PAWNBROKERS was part of the temporary, on-street set for the new Jeff Bridges-Ryan Reynolds movie they're shooting in Boston, "RIPD." The title stands for "Rest In Peace Department" and the film concerns the exploits of a police force composed of ghosts who battle evil spirits who have refused to leave this world, an absurd but fun concept. (Never underestimate a movie starring Jeff Bridges, who in the remake of "True Grit" just made us forget John Wayne.)

Making movies in Massachusetts is generally good for our economy, but I don't know how much it will help a situation highlighted in a recent report from the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, named for the late Maurice A. Donahue of Holyoke, who served as Massachusetts Senate President from 1964 to 1971.
A little over a month ago, two UMASS professors, Michael Goodman and Robert Nakosteen, published a report in the Institute's MassBenchmarks journal indicating that "economic inequality across the state has worsened notably in recent years."

Rising income inequality across Massachusetts "reflects a divergence of the destinies of many Bay State families, communities and regions," they wrote. "While this pattern is by no means new, it is clear that recent events have served to exacerbate the inequality that has become a disturbing fact of life in the contemporary Massachusetts economy."

Professors Goodman and Nakosteen found that income inequality has been increasing the most in Greater Boston, where "the medium family income in the top fifth of families was ten times that of their counterparts in the bottom fifth" by 2008. From 1999 to 2008, families in the top 20%, income-wise, saw their median annual income go from $150,295 to $232,879, an increase of 55%. The full Goodman-Nakosteen report may be found at

If you're looking for other statistics on the plight of middle- and lower-income earners, they're not hard to find these days. The September issue of Health Affairs magazine, for example, reported that rising health care costs are exacting "a heavy financial toll" on many families, leaving them with less and less disposable income. From 1999 to 2009, the income of an average American family of four jumped from $76,000 to $99,000, according to authors David Auerbach and Arthur Kellerman; however, those families had to spend almost all of those added take-home dollars on health care and related expenses because inflation in health care consistently exceeded the general inflation rate by significant percentages.

Then there was the New York Times report yesterday, (Companies to Pass On More Of Health Costs to Workers, 10/3/11), which said, "Companies next year will push more health care costs onto their workers, who may see an increase of nearly 11 percent in what they have deducted from their paychecks for health insurance, according to an annual study by Aon Hewitt, a large Chicago benefits consulting firm."

The article went on to say, "As companies struggle to control costs in a tough economy, the 2012 annual employee premiums are expected to jump an average 10.6 percent, to more than $2,300. That figure has nearly doubled since 2005, when workers at larger companies paid on average $1,192 annually per employee and paid about 17 percent of the company's costs, according to Aon Hewitt data...The employee share projected for next year is a contribution of 22 percent of the $10,475 employer cost of the health plan."

Continuing my perambulations last Friday, I had another surprise, this one prompted by an all-too-real event on the Rose Kennedy Greenway near South Station: the beginning of an "Occupy Boston" action that is part of a movement by people in large cities across the nation protesting economic imbalances and the lack of opportunities for younger members of the workforce.
The local protest started with nearly 1,000 people but had dwindled to about 100 hearty souls on Monday, folks who had been camping out in tents all weekend.

"We're bringing our message to the 99 percent of Americans that feel that their ability to provide for themselves has been eroded and that their representation in government has been undermined," said Nadeem Mazen of Cambridge, a spokesman for the group, as quoted in the Boston Globe.

Who would have predicted there would be a tent city in Boston this fall populated by victims of the Great Recession? It likely hints at surprises-to-come in the elections of 2012.