CLT UPDATE
Friday, April 27, 2007

Override proponents get slick and dirty --
while public employees get fat


High school students will travel to the polls on Election Day this Tuesday in style. The Shrewsbury League of Women Voters has arranged for any students old enough to vote to take a limousine to the polls....

In Tuesday's election, every vote counts. Residents will weigh in on a hotly-debated $5 million tax override that will add $1 million to the school department's budget in 2008.

The Boston Globe
Override Central
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Nice ride for newest Shrewsbury voters


Kelley is on the "No" side in the May 1 override debate. While proponents argue the town needs to override the Proposition 2 tax levy limit by $2.5 million dollars and implement a multi-year plan to get Amherst out of persistent financial straits, Kelley's side argues that taxpayers are already overburdened.

On Friday, April 20, Kelley and colleagues, including longtime former Shelburne Selectman Stanley Gawle, took their campaign to the lawns, posting 150 "NO MORE OVERRIDE" signs around town.

By Sunday, more than half of the signs were gone, according to Kelley and Gawle....

Then -- a break in the case. A cell phone and pack of cigarettes were found near a stretch of Route 116 where some signs had gone missing.

"Turns out the owner of the cell phone has connections to Amherst College (do they allow students to smoke?)," Kelley wrote on his blog. "Some of the stored numbers match up with a once prominent left-leaning writer (Education and the Nuclear Freeze) who was on staff in the 1970's, and a current AC high-ranking administrator. Of course, the owner also had the White House and the main number to Congress in there, so I guess that makes him 'politically active.'"

The Amherst Bulletin
Friday, April 27, 2007
Lawn sign theft-most-vile in Amherst


Voters on the North and South shores issued a mixed verdict yesterday on Proposition 2 overrides. Tax hikes were soundly rejected in Saugus and Gloucester, while Westwood voters approved a $2.78 million request to increase school spending....

A $5.2 million override in Saugus, the largest of some 50 tax increases proposed by Bay State communities this spring, was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. The final tally was 4,572 opposed and 2,180 in favor. Saugus officials said the increase, which would have raised the average tax bill by $400, on a house valued at $389,700, is needed to cope with a ballooning healthcare deficit now approaching $3 million.

The Boston Globe
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Voters return mixed results on tax overrides


Gloucester voters, reeling from crumbling infrastructure, taxes and water and sewer rates with no ceiling in sight, yesterday said no to a voluntary library tax.

They produced a solid no vote to the higher taxes beyond the statutory 2.5 percent annual levy increase limit that would have helped finance a $15 million modernization and expansion of Sawyer Free Library.

A small turnout, about 20 percent of the city's 19,000 registered voters, said no by just less than a 2-1 margin.

The Gloucester Times
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Voters close book on library's expansion plans


By the end of its second day of considering budget amendments, the House had added about $50 million to the $26.7 billion spending plan it released earlier this month. The House budget originally depended upon about $500 million in reserves and other one-time revenues; the additional spending means additional one-time funds could be required to balance the budget, unless tax revenues are higher than anticipated.

The Boston Globe
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
House votes for spending on extended school days


By yesterday evening, the House added nearly $100 million to its $26.7 billion bottom line, including about $25.8 million for education; about $22.4 million for health and human services, public health, and veterans' services; $5 million for water and sewer rate relief; $2.3 million for welfare and social services; $3 million for disabilities, mental health, and mental retardation services; and $2.2 million for housing and transportation .

An aide to Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said House leaders believe that higher-than-anticipated revenue will cover some of the new spending and that the rest will come from reserves.

The Boston Globe
Thursday, April 26, 2007
House restores funding for antigang initiative
hailed by safety advocates


While the winds of change may be blowing through other State House corridors this year, with Governor Deval Patrick vowing to bring a new openness to state government, the making of the state budget remains largely a backroom affair.

"It is all closed doors, from soup to nuts," said Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. "I don't think there's another state -- at least I haven't come across another state -- that has a similar process that is closed to the extent this one is." ...

Representative Harriet L. Stanley, a Democrat from West Newbury who refers to it as "the incredible shrinking budget process," says she misses the days when the budget was debated openly....

[Brad] Jones, the minority leader, said the public loses when the budget process goes behind closed doors and when each piece of the budget passes unanimously.

"I think you lose accountability," he said. "I think you lose the ability to know where your own rep stood on any particular issue. And I think a piece of what is lost is legislators who fully appreciate the complexity of the budget.

The Boston Globe
Friday, April 27, 2007
Budgeting in the back room
With less open debate, critics say public loses


House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi's executive assistant, Donna Sweeney, was fired last month after 20 years of service in the House of Representatives, 20 years and 11 days, to be exact.

The dismissal of the 42-year-old staff member, less than two weeks after she qualified for early pension benefits, could increase her annual payout to $20,000, more than four times the annual amount she would have received if she had quit. The increase could mean potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars more in pension payments over her lifetime....

According to State Retirement Board records, it is highly unusual for an employee to be dismissed just after becoming eligible for the enhanced pension. Most often, the higher pension kicks in as the result of a new administration coming into office and filling agencies with its own hires. Elected officials with enough service can also qualify if they lose a reelection race....

But observers said the state's pension system should be reviewed because there is too much opportunity for abuse.

David Tuerck -- executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank -- said it does not make sense for the state to give a bonus to people who are dismissed, even if the reason has nothing to do with their performance.

"So, the penalty for being fired is you get another $15,000 a year?" Tuerck said.

If the state moved from a traditional pension plan, in which benefits are figured according to a formula, to a defined contribution plan, in which benefits depend on the amounts contributed and how the money is invested, pension abuse would be virtually impossible, he said.

"The reason we have the existing plan is so that politicians can reward their cronies," he said. "This system is not to the advantage of the average employee, who would do better if their money were put in the market. The worst part is that the state has an enormous unfunded pension liability, and this just exacerbates the problem."

The Boston Globe
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Firing could boost a state pension
Ex-aide to DiMasi may gain fourfold


Olympia, WA -- A unanimous state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that two radio talk show hosts who used airtime to support a gas-tax rollback initiative they launched were not required to report their commentary as an in-kind political contribution.

The court also reinstated a countersuit filed by the No New Gas Tax campaign against the local governments that initially sued: San Juan County and the cities of Auburn, Kent and Seattle.

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Radio talk show hosts exempt
from campaign finance laws


Chip Ford's CLT Commentary

God bless those dedicated, "nonpartisan" Plague of Women Vultures -- ensuring that the young, impressionable minds of high-school age voters get to the polls in style -- chauffeured limousines -- to vote on the upcoming Shrewsbury Proposition 2 override next Tuesday.  This is certainly a new stretch of the term "Limousine Liberal"!

But when they can't buy the votes, as the lovely ladies of unfettered democracy are doing, in Amherst the tax-and-spenders resorted to the too common gutter tactic of stealing opponents' property during an exercise in direct democracy, making half of the opposition's yard signs disappear overnight.  As an indicator of tactical operations, one of the gutter pirates managed to leave behind at the scene of the crime a little evidence, if you can image:  a pack of cigarettes -- and a cell phone!  With the detectives of CSI-Amherst handed that kind of forensics, how long can it take before the perp is in cuffs?

Meanwhile, Prop 2 overrides are seeing mixed results around the state.  Saugus -- the municipality with the largest percentage of voters to support Proposition 2 in 1980 -- again resoundingly rejected another override, keeping its perfect record.  Gloucester did as well, by an almost equally impressive vote as Saugus's two-to-one.

Taxpayers are finally resisting the "sky is falling" cry, becoming inured to the threats of doom and gloom.  "Bring it on if you must -- we can't pay any more!" is the growing refrain.  The "fixed costs" of public employees' "negotiated" pay raises, health insurance for life, pensions and early retirements benefits, have begun to reach critical mass.  More and more taxpayers footing the bill are seeing through the mantra of "fixed costs," recognizing the "fix" is surely in for that select few.


Any doubt that possibly lingered that we taxpayers are a different class from public employees was surely quashed the other day.  When House Speaker DiMasi's 42-year old executive assistant, a state employee for 20 years, 11 days, was fired, it should have become indisputable.  Coincidentally eligible for early retirement at four times her anticipated rate only 11 days before her dismissal, Donna Sweeney expects this little political sleight of hand to increase her annual taxpayer-funded kiss in the mail from $4,600 to $20,000 a year.  Not bad for a lady with another twenty-five years in the work force before becoming eligible for Social Security -- if she had only that to fall back on.


All this week, the House has been rather quietly deliberating its version of next fiscal year's budget.  I use the term "quietly" as, for the most part rank-and-file legislators are doing little but voting for the leadership's bulk packages.  But what's new?  The most important thing our "full-time" representatives in "The Best Legislature Money Can Buy" is supposed to do over the course of a year is producing its upcoming state budget -- but if none of them honestly know what they're voting on but what their leadership decrees as usual, again I ask:  Why do we need to pay for 160 reps in the House, another 40 senators in the Senate?

As usual, we and they probably won't know about all the "earmarks" and adopted local aid amendments (e.g., last year's state funding of Victorian street lights for Melrose, etc.) -- gifts to the leadership's favorites -- until a week or two after the House budget is finalized and sent on to the Senate.


One good news note:  At least one state supreme judicial court has issued a unanimous ruling that defends the free speech of radio talk show hosts -- removing them from the intricate restrictions of campaign finance laws.

In the Washington state high court's decision, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote:  "Under the [state Public Disclosure Commission's] regulation, the media exemption applies to coverage of a candidate or ballot measure that occurs during the 'content' period of a broadcast, as opposed to the commercial advertising period, when payment is normally required.  However, the mere fact that a broadcast has value to a campaign, or includes solicitation of funds, votes, or other support, does not convert 'commentary' into 'advertising' when it occurs during the content portion of a broadcast for which payment is not normally required."

I'd hope our state Supreme Judicial Court would make the same finding -- but here, who knows?

Chip Ford

 


The Boston Globe
Override Central
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nice ride for newest Shrewsbury voters
By Megan Woolhouse


High school students will travel to the polls on Election Day this Tuesday in style. The Shrewsbury League of Women Voters has arranged for any students old enough to vote to take a limousine to the polls.

The ride is free, courtesy of APerfect Limousine Service. Nobel laureate Craig Mello as well as State Senator Ed Augustus (D-Worcester) and State Representative Karyn Polito (R-Shrewsbury) will ride along as escorts.

League president Kelly Marcimo said in a press release that the event was arranged to "start students off with a memorable voting experience that will encourage them to be life long voters."

League members said they have registered nearly 300 high school students to vote in the last two years.

In Tuesday's election, every vote counts. Residents will weigh in on a hotly-debated $5 million tax override that will add $1 million to the school department's budget in 2008.


The Amherst Bulletin
Friday, April 27, 2007

Lawn sign theft-most-vile in Amherst
By Mary Carey


As sure as all politics is local, in the late Tip O'Neill's famous words -- in all political campaigns, there will be shenanigans with the lawn signs.

But it doesn't always happen that lawn sign politics veers into fodder for a true crime novel.

"Only in Amherst," as Town Meeting member and local pundit Larry Kelley might say. Or, as he puts it in the title of his blog -- only in the Republic of Amherst.

Kelley is on the "No" side in the May 1 override debate. While proponents argue the town needs to override the Proposition 2 tax levy limit by $2.5 million dollars and implement a multi-year plan to get Amherst out of persistent financial straits, Kelley's side argues that taxpayers are already overburdened.

On Friday, April 20, Kelley and colleagues, including longtime former Shelburne Selectman Stanley Gawle, took their campaign to the lawns, posting 150 "NO MORE OVERRIDE" signs around town.

By Sunday, more than half of the signs were gone, according to Kelley and Gawle.

"You expect to a lose signs during any political campaign," Gawle said. "But when there's that many, there has to have been a concerted effort. Whether it's hooligans or whatever, it's not a random thing."

Gawle is just worn out from putting in 16-hour days over the past three weeks, organizing, raising money and getting the word out about the override, he said. And then this.

Kelley took to his blog, OnlyintheRepublicofAmherst.blogspot.com.

"Under cover of darkness cowards trampled the First Amendment rights (not to mention trespassing and petty larceny laws) of many fellow citizens in this town that purportedly relishes free and open debate, by stealing signs shouting "No More Overrides" in bright yellow-and-black, mimicking angry bees protecting their nest," Kelley wrote.

Signs were missing all over -- not just the main streets, "so it was not simply college students snatching spur of the moment souvenirs," Kelley noted. "How would you feel if you, your spouse and four kids were sound asleep at 2:00 am and somebody was rummaging around on your front lawn? Violated!"

Override supporters including Select Board member Alisa Brewer and parent organizer Richard Hood, among others, quickly rallied, denouncing the sign thief (or thieves) on Kelley's blog. They offered to help pay for a $500 reward to anyone with information "leading to discovery of the cowards who orchestrated this despicably act," as Kelley put it.

Then -- a break in the case. A cell phone and pack of cigarettes were found near a stretch of Route 116 where some signs had gone missing (See related story on Page 6).

"Turns out the owner of the cell phone has connections to Amherst College (do they allow students to smoke?)," Kelley wrote on his blog. "Some of the stored numbers match up with a once prominent left-leaning writer (Education and the Nuclear Freeze) who was on staff in the 1970's, and a current AC high-ranking administrator. Of course, the owner also had the White House and the main number to Congress in there, so I guess that makes him 'politically active.'"

That's about all blogger Kelley and Gawle have revealed so far of what they know about the perpetrator of "the great lawn sign caper," as Kelley puts it.

As a reader named Jonathan commented on Only in the Republic Amherst, "We're waiting with bated breath. Do you have a name, or what?"

TUESDAY:  Townwide vote on proposed $2.5 million Proposition 2 tax levy limit override. Polls open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.


The Boston Globe
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Voters return mixed results on tax overrides
By Kathy McCabe


Voters on the North and South shores issued a mixed verdict yesterday on Proposition 2 overrides. Tax hikes were soundly rejected in Saugus and Gloucester, while Westwood voters approved a $2.78 million request to increase school spending.

Meanwhile, Milton Selectman James G. Mullen, a 15-year veteran, was defeated in the town's annual election, after a contentious campaign marked by allegations that he pressured town workers to sign a letter supporting his candidacy that was published in a local newspaper. Kathryn Fagan, a former library trustee, defeated Mullen, who is also the town clerk.

In a close race, Fagan defeated Mullen, 3,826 to 3,657.

A $5.2 million override in Saugus, the largest of some 50 tax increases proposed by Bay State communities this spring, was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. The final tally was 4,572 opposed and 2,180 in favor. Saugus officials said the increase, which would have raised the average tax bill by $400, on a house valued at $389,700, is needed to cope with a ballooning healthcare deficit now approaching $3 million.

The result will force the town north of Boston to lay off dozens of town workers, close the senior center and youth programs, and shutter Town Hall on Fridays, officials said. Also on the chopping block are 18 teaching jobs, as well as four firefighting and two police officers' positions.

"I am more disappointed than surprised," Town Manager Andrew R. Bisignani said. "The voters have spoken. They have given us a mandate. We will do what we have to do to comply."

Bisignani said he is concerned the results will prompt state revenue officials to take a closer look at the town's beleaguered finances. The state Department of Revenue has said the town must increase revenues or face intervention, such as an appointed control board. "The state will be looking more closely at us now, to make sure we avoid further financial collapse," he said.

In Gloucester, voters rejected a debt exclusion needed for a planned $15 million expansion and renovation of the Sawyer Free Library. Approval of the ballot question was needed for the city to meet its share of the project cost and for the library to provide the required match for a state grant.

The ballot measure, rejected by a vote of 2,735 to 1,607, would have allowed the city to collect $7 million beyond the limits of Proposition 2 to repay debt for the building project.

The debt exclusion would have added $52 in the first year to the tax bill of a median house, valued at just under $400,000. That cost would gradually decrease to $27 over 20 years. The remaining project costs were to be covered by a $4 million state grant, and $4 million in private donations.

"I'm disappointed for the library," said Mary Jane McGlennon, president of the library's board of directors. "I am also disappointed for the city of Gloucester. I really believed that this project could be a turnaround moment for Gloucester."

In Westwood, where school officials had worked months for the override, voters approved a $2.78 million ballot question that will add $393 to the tax bill of a median-priced house of $566,000. The ballot question was approved 3,002 in favor to 2,207 opposed.

Globe correspondents Christine Wallgren and John Laidler contributed to this report.


The Gloucester Times
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Voters close book on library's expansion plans
By Richard Gaines


Gloucester voters, reeling from crumbling infrastructure, taxes and water and sewer rates with no ceiling in sight, yesterday said no to a voluntary library tax.

They produced a solid no vote to the higher taxes beyond the statutory 2.5 percent annual levy increase limit that would have helped finance a $15 million modernization and expansion of Sawyer Free Library.

A small turnout, about 20 percent of the city's 19,000 registered voters, said no by just less than a 2-1 margin.

The citywide vote went against the library tax, 2,735 to 1,607.

The single question the special election asked was whether the city should borrow $7 million to leverage $8 million - $4 million each from private donations to be raised by the friends of Sawyer Free Library and a state grant.

Library officials girded for the bad news based on sketchy exit polling and the results from Magnolia (Ward 5, Precinct 1) where voters rejected the offer of extra taxes by nearly 2 to 1.

"I'm disappointed for the library," said president Mary Jane McGlennon. "I'm even more disappointed for Gloucester. I hoped it would be a turning point."

She said she'd held out hope voters would seize the opportunity to make an optimistic statement in the face of a pounding by bad fiscal news. "Clearly, she said, "voters were not ready."

Across the city, except for the Lanesville, Bay View and Annisquam sections and East Gloucester, voters rejected the debt exclusion proposition to take on an extra tax burden. The increase in taxes would have been about $52 a year for the owner of a median priced home for the 20 years of the loan, characterized as like a mortgage by override proponents.

Library and political officials attributed the defeat to the city's perilous financial condition, which only worsened in the days before the referendum with news of enormous new required spending on the sewer and water systems.

"This has been like a tsunami," said historian Joseph Garland, who had led the last library expansion campaign more than 30 years ago.

From its beginning nine weeks ago, the override campaign had an eerie feel. Backed by nearly all elected officials, from Mayor John Bell to Council President James Destino, it was organized with impressive precision on behalf of an institution with no enemies. And it faced no organized opposition except for the nearly palpable weight of the city's declining fiscal health.

At a special meeting of the City Council held just before polls closed, Destino contemplated new state mandates for infrastructure improvements and declared, "They're going to bankrupt the city with water and sewer rates."

Councilor Bruce Tobey made a rough estimate, that within five years, the rates, now already among the highest in the nation, would double to meet the demands of regulators.

Pat Earle, the library campaign consultant, looked at the tote board on the wall of the override campaign's Main Street headquarters and sighed, "We (identified) 1,500 (yes votes), we called 1,500 and we got 1,500."

Dog Town warden Joe Orange, a veteran of many campaigns, said the outcome was "a matter of priorities. If the building was dysfunctional ... but it's not. It can function, put it (the modernization and expansion) on hold," was his analysis.

High school government leader Fitz Lufkin, who has become a fixture at municipal government events, said the expansion and modernization "was a great idea. It would have benefitted the city. But people felt more pressing issues that needed the money."

Former Councilor Joseph Ciolino, whose wife Joan was a lead advocate in the low-profile campaign, mourned the loss of the state grant. "Four point five million (dollars) of desperately needed funding is going to another community. Some other city's going to benefit," he said.

The Sawyer officers pressed for the referendum now in expectation that the state would announce the grant this summer. Recipient communities must demonstrate the financing for expansions is in place within six months or lose their place in the competitive process.

Former City Councilor Jeff Worthley, who lent the campaign the mailing list he used in his losing mayoral campaign last year, scoffed at those who chastised the library for its timing.

"Bad timing?" he said. "There's no such thing as good timing in Gloucester."


The Boston Globe
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

House votes for spending on extended school days
By Lisa Wangsness


The House voted yesterday to match Governor Deval Patrick's proposal to add $6.5 million to extended learning-time programs in public schools, which would double its original commitment and expand the program from 10 schools to 18.

The change was a victory for the freshman governor, who saw many of his highest-profile budget recommendations ignored or scaled back in the budget the House released earlier this month.

By the end of its second day of considering budget amendments, the House had added about $50 million to the $26.7 billion spending plan it released earlier this month. The House budget originally depended upon about $500 million in reserves and other one-time revenues; the additional spending means additional one-time funds could be required to balance the budget, unless tax revenues are higher than anticipated.

Nearly $26 million of the extra money the House approved yesterday went to education, including $5.5 million for accounts that provide supplementary state education aid to communities, $6.25 million for early education, and $500,000 for after-school programs. The House did not match the governor's proposal to increase spending on all-day kindergarten. David Guarino, a spokesman for House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, said the Department of Education told the House the program did not need more than the $4.1 million in new spending the House budget had provided.

Earlier yesterday, the House added about $20 million to its bottom line for health and human services, veterans' services, and public health; and $2.3 million for welfare and social services. On Monday, House members increased by $3 million funding for disabilities, mental health, and mental retardation services.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.


The Boston Globe
Thursday, April 26, 2007

House restores funding for antigang initiative
hailed by safety advocates
By Lisa Wangsness


The House restored funding for a popular antigang program yesterday in its third day of budget deliberations, delighting public safety officials and social service advocates who say the money is desperately needed to combat gang violence in urban areas.

The Shannon Community Safety Initiative provided $11 million in the last year to police departments and community organizations in 34 cities across the Commonwealth. The idea behind the grants is to combine advanced law enforcement strategies with programs to prevent children from getting involved with gangs.

Neither Governor Deval Patrick's plan nor the initial House budget included money to extend the program into a second year, so yesterday proponents claimed a huge victory, particularly since there is little extra money to go around this year. "This is a monumental success for us," said Representative Stephen R. Canessa, a Democrat from New Bedford who sponsored the amendment.

The House also added some funding for Patrick's plan to put more police on the streets. In its initial budget proposal earlier this month, the House had provided no money for the governor's proposal, but members set aside $2.5 million for the purpose yesterday.

The House budget already included $20 million for a community policing program that Patrick would have eliminated to pay for his new police officers.

By yesterday evening, the House added nearly $100 million to its $26.7 billion bottom line, including about $25.8 million for education; about $22.4 million for health and human services, public health, and veterans' services; $5 million for water and sewer rate relief; $2.3 million for welfare and social services; $3 million for disabilities, mental health, and mental retardation services; and $2.2 million for housing and transportation .

An aide to Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said House leaders believe that higher-than-anticipated revenue will cover some of the new spending and that the rest will come from reserves.


The Boston Globe
Friday, April 27, 2007

Budgeting in the back room
With less open debate, critics say public loses
By Lisa Wangsness


Democracy can be a messy business, as the old saw goes. But whoever said that hasn't been to the Massachusetts State House during budget season lately. As House members gathered on Beacon Hill this week to determine how nearly $27 billion in taxpayer money should be distributed, there were no ugly debates or suspenseful votes on spending priorities.

Instead, top lawmakers retreated down a corridor cordoned off from the public to determine which budget proposals would make it and which would not. Periodically, batches of amendments emerged and were sent to the floor for a swift and orderly approval.

Yesterday, as deliberations continued, the House chamber stood quiet for hours, as discussions of changes to the highly complex Medicaid budget went on in private from late morning to midafternoon. During that time, the only public action occurred when a substitute for House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi appeared with a gavel to extend the recess for another few hours.

Ultimately, the budget leaders emerged and won quick passage of $38.7 million in additional spending on Medicaid and elder affairs, with minimal debate. As of early this morning, the House added at least $135 million in amendments to its original $26.7 billion spending plan during four days of deliberations, with a final vote expected today.

While the winds of change may be blowing through other State House corridors this year, with Governor Deval Patrick vowing to bring a new openness to state government, the making of the state budget remains largely a backroom affair.

"It is all closed doors, from soup to nuts," said Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. "I don't think there's another state -- at least I haven't come across another state -- that has a similar process that is closed to the extent this one is."

David Guarino, a spokesman for DiMasi, defended the House budget process, saying it involves plenty of open discussion.

"There has been public debate on the budget all week, and each member has met with the [Ways and Means] chairman throughout the process to talk about what is important," he said. He added that there are fewer fireworks on the House floor these days because amendments on unrelated policy issues, such as the death penalty, are no longer allowed. In the 11th hour yesterday, however, the most spirited debate of the week erupted on just such an unrelated proposal -- to give homeowners more protection from foreclosure.

A generation ago, lawmakers haggled for weeks before passing a budget. Fiery floor fights over line items would drag on till the wee hours, sometimes all night. But over the years, and particularly under Thomas M. Finneran, House leaders made changes to make the ordeal quicker and more orderly, which consolidated power in the hands of a few.

This winter, the genial House Ways and Means chairman, Robert A. DeLeo of Winthrop, invited every member of the House to a one-on-one meeting with him, so he could personally listen to their priorities. But DeLeo and his staff wrote the budget, in consultation with DiMasi. Most members of the House Ways and Means Committee saw the document just before everyone else did.

Members are allowed to submit amendments, but DeLeo is the main arbiter of which ones get endorsed by the leadership.

On the House floor, lawmakers can appeal to the full body if they disagree with one of DeLeo's decisions. But in practice, the GOP's tiny 19-member caucus offers nearly all the challenges and are generally ignored.

Before last night's foreclosure debate, most of the discussion time was taken up by lawmakers offering encomiums to DeLeo or another committee leader, thanking them for including one of their wish-list items in an amendment. They often struggled to be heard over the din of their colleagues' chatter, which grew so loud that the representative in the chair often asks members to "subdue their conversations."

Jackson C. Hall, a lobbyist for healthcare and education interests, said that having public debates does not necessarily make the process more democratic.

But "when they go off into an antechamber to hash out the details of an amendment, is that accountability?" he asked. "I think that is a fair question."

Guarino, however, said most members are "pleased with the amount of discussion they have relative to the budget."

Representative Stephen R. Canessa, a Democrat from New Bedford, successfully secured an additional $11 million for antigang programs through the amendment process this week.

If each representative made his case to the full House on every topic, Canessa said, it would take all year to pass a budget.

What really matters, he said, is whether the rank and file have influence. DeLeo, he said, makes that possible by listening carefully to each member's priorities; in fact, the chairman met with him twice.

"I don't think it's necessarily just him making the decision, because each one of us has input on that decision through that process," Canessa said.

But other members are not so sure.

Representative Harriet L. Stanley, a Democrat from West Newbury who refers to it as "the incredible shrinking budget process," says she misses the days when the budget was debated openly.

"In our attempts to professionalize the process, we've actually ended up marginalizing members' input," she said. "Maybe the rock 'em, sock 'em, anything-goes debates of the past would help make state government transparent again."

Jones, the minority leader, said the public loses when the budget process goes behind closed doors and when each piece of the budget passes unanimously.

"I think you lose accountability," he said. "I think you lose the ability to know where your own rep stood on any particular issue. And I think a piece of what is lost is legislators who fully appreciate the complexity of the budget.

"And when you lose that, you lose the ability to . . . educate the public."


The Boston Globe
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Firing could boost a state pension
Ex-aide to DiMasi may gain fourfold
By Andrea Estes


House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi's executive assistant, Donna Sweeney, was fired last month after 20 years of service in the House of Representatives, 20 years and 11 days, to be exact.

The dismissal of the 42-year-old staff member, less than two weeks after she qualified for early pension benefits, could increase her annual payout to $20,000, more than four times the annual amount she would have received if she had quit. The increase could mean potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars more in pension payments over her lifetime.

Under a law designed to protect employees from being harmed by politically motivated dismissals when newly elected officials take over, state workers who have 20 years of service are eligible for significantly higher pension benefits if they are terminated and can prove they were not fired because of questionable behavior. But they are disqualified from the enhanced benefit if there is any evidence of collusion with a superior to make what is in fact a resignation appear to be a termination.

Soon after Sweeney was dismissed in March, the State Retirement Board delayed a vote on her application for an enhanced pension after board members raised questions about the timing of her termination. The board will reconsider Sweeney's request today. If denied, Sweeney would qualify for an annual pension of $4,600.

In response to a query from the board, House personnel director E. Keith Johnson said Sweeney's executive assistant position was eliminated as part of a comprehensive House reorganization that began in fall 2005. The speaker wanted a special assistant, someone who would assume Sweeney's main duties as scheduler and also take on "additional managerial and supervisory tasks." Three days after Sweeney was told her job would no longer exist, the House hired Katie Quinn, Johnson wrote.

According to State Retirement Board records, it is highly unusual for an employee to be dismissed just after becoming eligible for the enhanced pension. Most often, the higher pension kicks in as the result of a new administration coming into office and filling agencies with its own hires. Elected officials with enough service can also qualify if they lose a reelection race.

In 2002, the Retirement Board rejected a similar claim by Peter Forman, chief of staff to Acting Governor Jane Swift, after some board members questioned whether he had really been dismissed. The board restored the benefits the following year after Swift signed an affidavit stating that she had fired Forman.

Between January and March, 16 former state employees applied for the so-called Section X pensions. Three applications were denied, including that of a worker who said she was terminated exactly on the 20th anniversary of her hiring, according to Retirement Board records. The board determined that she had not actually been fired.

In one of the other cases, the board determined that the worker had been offered another job and had not been fired.

Most of the applicants had substantially more than 20 years of service when they were fired. Some were longtime officials replaced in the early weeks of the Patrick administration, including David Peters, former commissioner of the Department of Fish & Game, who had 20 years and three months of service, and Janice Tartarka, former director of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, who had nearly 25 years of state service.

Allison Mitchell, spokeswoman for state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who oversees the Retirement Board, would not say how the board is likely to act on Sweeney's application. "The Retirement Board reviews these cases very carefully to make sure the applicant has met the requirements of the law," she said.

Sweeney, a Medford resident, could not be reached for comment. According to public records, she earned $46,000 in 2005.

The timing of Sweeney's departure was coincidental, DiMasi spokesman David Guarino said. DiMasi decided to replace her in November, he said, but the reorganization and hiring process dragged on for several months.

"In March, as we eliminated a number of other titles throughout the House and changed job descriptions, a final decision was made," he said. "Because the speaker couldn't be without a scheduler, Donna stayed on until a replacement was found."

Sweeney's successor, who previously worked as an aide to two state lawmakers, is serving not only as DiMasi's scheduler but as his office manager and liaison to other legislators, Guarino said.

But observers said the state's pension system should be reviewed because there is too much opportunity for abuse.

David Tuerck -- executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank -- said it does not make sense for the state to give a bonus to people who are dismissed, even if the reason has nothing to do with their performance.

"So, the penalty for being fired is you get another $15,000 a year?" Tuerck said.

If the state moved from a traditional pension plan, in which benefits are figured according to a formula, to a defined contribution plan, in which benefits depend on the amounts contributed and how the money is invested, pension abuse would be virtually impossible, he said.

"The reason we have the existing plan is so that politicians can reward their cronies," he said. "This system is not to the advantage of the average employee, who would do better if their money were put in the market. The worst part is that the state has an enormous unfunded pension liability, and this just exacerbates the problem."

Senate Minority Leader Richard R. Tisei, Republican of Wakefield, has proposed legislation that would cap payouts, in an effort to eliminate excessive pensions.

"There is a compelling need to reexamine our entire pension system to eliminate the quirks and loopholes that exist," he said. "Every time they are exercised and come to light, the public loses confidence in the system. And state employees, who expect the system to have integrity, lose confidence, as well."

When state employees apply for the pension Sweeney has requested, their employer must certify under penalty of perjury that the employee either was not reappointed, that his or her office or job was abolished, or that he or she was removed or discharged "without moral turpitude."

The application must be approved by both the Retirement Board and the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, which oversees public pension systems.

If Sweeney's application is approved, she will begin collecting benefits retroactive to March.


The Associated Press
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Radio talk show hosts exempt
from campaign finance laws
By Rachel La Corte


Olympia, WA -- A unanimous state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that two radio talk show hosts who used airtime to support a gas-tax rollback initiative they launched were not required to report their commentary as an in-kind political contribution.

The court also reinstated a countersuit filed by the No New Gas Tax campaign against the local governments that initially sued: San Juan County and the cities of Auburn, Kent and Seattle.

"This is a victory for free speech and a free press in Washington state," said William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington chapter, who argued the case before the high court. "Washingtonians can rest assured that the news and voice and commentary they hear has not been censored or restricted by the government in any way."

The ruling overturns a 2005 ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham that talk show hosts John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur at Seattle radio station KVI were key organizers and promoters of Initiative 912. The ballot measure was aimed at heading off a four-step, 9.5-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax.

The judge said the pair used their shows to launch the campaign, soliciting contributions and volunteers. He said the air time amounted to an in-kind contribution to the campaign and required that the value be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

State law says editorials, commentaries and other types of news reports are not considered contributions.

"Under the PDC's regulation, the media exemption applies to coverage of a candidate or ballot measure that occurs during the 'content' period of a broadcast, as opposed to the commercial advertising period, when payment is normally required," Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the court. "However, the mere fact that a broadcast has value to a campaign, or includes solicitation of funds, votes, or other support, does not convert 'commentary' into 'advertising' when it occurs during the content portion of a broadcast for which payment is not normally required."

Mike Vaska, the lead attorney representing the local governments, argued the case was never an issue of free speech. He said that Carlson and Wilbur crossed the line of free speech by running a campaign from behind a microphone.

"They were the campaign," he said. "Had they not been running the campaign and had no connection, you don't have any disclosure requirement. They were doing more than talking about the issue, they were asking for money."

Wilbur, Carlson and the station argued their role with the initiative was within the normal bounds of radio fare.

The high court agreed.

"The uncontroverted facts establish that the radio station involved here is a regular media entity that is not controlled by a candidate or political committee," Madsen wrote. "The radio station was exercising one of its core media functions in broadcasting Wilbur's and Carlson's talk shows."

After the Thurston County ruling, the No New Gas Tax campaign had reported the show's value as a $20,000 in-kind contribution from the Seattle station's owner, Fisher Broadcasting. The campaign also reported its calculation of what various newspaper accounts were worth, acknowledging that the numbers had to be made up out of thin air.

PDC Assistant Director Doug Ellis said his agency was still reviewing the decision, and that the commission would be briefed by its attorney at a meeting next Wednesday.

Carlson called the decision "a swift rebuke to those who want to use campaign finance laws to silence political opinions they disagree with."

In his concurring opinion, Justice Jim Johnson agreed, writing that "Prosecutors must not use the threat of a punitive lawsuit, amounting to an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, to block political opponents from exercising their constitutional rights."
___

The case is San Juan County v. No New Gas Tax, docket number 77966-0.
___

On the Net:
Supreme Court of Washington: http://www.courts.wa.gov


NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml


Return to CLT Updates page