The Salem News
Thursday, July 17, 2003
"Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I'm afraid." Rogers and Hammerstein, The King and I.
Singing this brave little ditty, Anna prepares to meet the King of Siam. With his dark eyes flashing beneath the smooth head, an arrogant stance and attitude, the quasi-benevolent dictator holds totalitarian rule over the Massachusetts House.
Wait, am I confusing Yul Brynner with Tom Finneran? A common mistake.
Like the King, Speaker Finneran is charming, fast talking, and standing on the line between the traditional past and a viable future. Each despot finds it "a puzzlement" that he can't rule a modern and competitive kingdom while at the same time demanding that his subjects bow with their heads touching the ground whenever he enters the room. In the end, the King of Siam was a tragic figure, often beloved yet unable to get his giant ego out of his way. Fortunately, it looks right now as if Speaker Finneran could be spared this sad fate. If enough legislators whistle a happy tune and stand up to him, he may yet return to reality in time to leave a positive legacy.
A few weeks ago, his pay raise bill was on a fast track to deliver him even more power than he has already. Passed by both the House and Senate, it was sent to Gov. Mitt Romney as a "housekeeping measure" that would simply allow the speaker and the Senate president to organize their respective branches as they choose. The Senate passed the law just to accommodate the speaker; the ego problem is Speaker Finneran's alone. If the bill passed, he would have our representatives beholden to him for an unlimited number of leadership bonuses
Rep. Mark Howland, D-Freetown, argued that this would merely give the legislative branch the power to "set its staff." No, legislators can already set their staff, i.e., secretaries and aides. This new bill would give the speaker the chance to make legislators themselves his "staff," leaving us with alleged representatives whose foreheads spend a lot of time resting on the floor. Romney, respecting the concept of representative democracy and balance of power among the branches, vetoed the Finneran power-grab.
Some legislative rebels joined with pro-democracy groups Common Cause, Citizens for Limited Taxation and Citizens for Participation in Political Action to urge House members to sustain the veto. If the speaker thinks he cannot win, he won't bring the issue to the House floor, and two things will happen: 1. Pay raises will still require a vote of both branches and the governor's signature, and 2. The speaker will have learned that he is not the King of Siam.
I remember when the charm outweighed the power-hunger. As a state legislator, Tom Finneran was fairly supportive of the voter-passed Proposition 2½; but then he became Ways and Means chairman and one of his first acts was to attempt an exemption to that law that would have raised property taxes. When that was defeated, he did a good job at first working with Gov. Weld on welfare reform and state government downsizing. I worked with him myself to defeat the proposed taxpayer-funded Megaplex and appreciated his opposition to the graduated income tax. But then he became speaker of the House, a title that went directly to his head. He put a deceptive constitutional amendment on the 1998 ballot, telling voters that if they gave approved automatic pay raises, legislators would no longer vote for their own higher pay. Then, winning the amendment, he orchestrated hikes in legislative expense accounts and created new, higher-paid leadership positions for members who voted his way.
While preaching fiscal prudence and restraint, Speaker Finneran presided over billion-dollar annual budget increases and the creation of slush funds -- while fighting the income tax cut that would have prevented the "good-time spending" that got us into our current fiscal straits. He also launched an assault on the initiative petition process, leading the House to ignore or change laws that had recently been passed by the voters.
Legislators who occasionally stood up to him lost their chairmanships and extra pay.
His latest project is a bill that gives taxpayer dollars to certain businesses, handing Finneran some power in the private sector as well. Wonder how low those business leaders can bow to get their share of the loot?
But like most tyrants, the speaker went too far in his attempt to unilaterally control all House pay and, with it, most House members. For the first time, he didn't get his own way, and the illusion of the omnipotent wizard, to switch to another musical analogy, is gone. Now that legislators have a glimpse at the ordinary man behind the curtain, maybe, somewhere over the rainbow, they will hold their heads erect and use their brains, their hearts and their courage to represent us.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited
Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun;
bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.