Three proposed ballot initiatives
advanced toward the November 2002 ballot yesterday after Secretary of
State William F. Galvin certified the required signatures, paving the
way for the Legislature to consider them in January.
The three initiatives, which needed
more than 57,100 each to be certified, would amend the state
Constitution to limit marriage to the union of a man and woman, create
a law abolishing the state income tax, and replace bilingual education
in public schools with an English immersion program. The three
proposals were the only survivors among 24 originally offered.
"This is the required step
before the initiatives reach the ballot, and gives the Legislature the
opportunity to hold hearings and possibly take action on an
issue," said Ron Unz, a California businessman and leader of the
English immersion initiative.
The Legislature has until April 30
to act on the measures. If no action is taken, the petitioners will
have to compile close to 10,000 new signatures.
But the so-called protection of
marriage amendment must follow a slightly different path before it can
reach the ballot. As a constitutional change, it must first be
approved by at least a quarter of the members of the House and the
Senate in two successive sessions.
The Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian
Political Caucus plans to question the validity of some signatures
obtained in support of the amendment and hopes to mount a challenge
before the first week in January, the deadline.
"This is the worst time of the
year to ask people to volunteer but we'll do our best," said
Arlene Isaacson, a lead organizer for the caucus. "There are
thousands of fraudulent signatures and it's a sin to let them get away
Return to top
Thursday, December 20, 2001
Questioning Finneran's autocracy
The most pathetic aspect of the
revolt brewing in the state House of Representatives against Speaker
Thomas Finneran is how afraid members are to speak.
On the plus side, at least a few
reps are willing to say publicly what most ordinary citizens probably
think: That despite a history of despotic behavior and disdain for the
voters on the part of the Legislature, Finneran and Co. reached new
heights this session.
The majority of Democrats must know
in their hearts that snubbing the voters' wishes on clean elections,
failing to finish a budget on time while passing almost no significant
legislation all year, and then ignoring protests as though the masses
are ignorant serfs, are behaviors not suited to a democracy.
Apparently spinelessness is
contagious under the golden dome.
Finneran runs the House like the
Communist Party ran the Duma. He speaks - behind closed doors - and
others listen. The rank and file put up with this system because, like
party members in the old Soviet Union, if they defy the boss, they're
sent to legislative siberia.
Rep. Frank Hynes of Marshfield had a
typical response when asked about dissatisfaction in the ranks over
Finneran's leadership. "I prefer not to comment. I do not feel
this is something that should be played out in the press." Spoken
like a true comrade.
Keeping the public in the dark,
then, is the preferred policy in Finneran's House.
This week the speaker portrayed
himself as the weary victim of a situation he could not control. It
was 9-11 that caused the economic problems and the budget situation,
and an unhappy public needs someone to blame.
That's hogwash, and Finneran knows
it. It's insulting to Massachusetts voters to portray them as such
dullards that they don't even remember the impasse over the budget and
clean elections predated the Sept. 11 catastrophe by months.
Finneran dismisses talk of a revolt
as involving just 10 to 20 members. But every opposition movement
begins with a determined few.
Return to top
Friday, December 21, 2001
If they were angry over budget cuts
or any other issue this fall, the 40,000 citizens of Northampton,
Hatfield, Southampton, and Westhampton could not call their state
representative to complain.
That's because the man responsible
for scheduling a special election to fill the seat - House Speaker
Thomas M. Finneran - has refused to do so. That has left the liberal
district without a member of the House of Representatives for seven
months. With no plan to fill the seat, that delay appears to be a
Finneran has repeatedly refused to
say why he is preventing the election of a representative from the
First Hampshire district - one of the last remaining enclaves of '60s
culture and political idealism in Massachusetts. He has even fought
the local citizens in court, appealing a judge's recent order that the
election be scheduled.
The speaker's actions have made him
Public Enemy No. 1 in the so-called "Happy Valley" area, and
last night residents gathered to strategize about how to raise a
ruckus over their lack of a voice in the House. Among the plans:
chartering a bus to bring the Western Massachusetts residents to
Finneran's Mattapan legislative district, where they would distribute
literature criticizing the speaker and protest.
"Everyone feels this is a slap,
a slap that is not understandable," said Leslie Fraidstern of
The Daily Hampshire Gazette has
created a "Soundoff about the speaker" site on the Internet,
and one woman even suggested the more western parts of Massachusetts
should secede and take back the Quabbin Reservoir - Boston's primary
As leader of the House, the speaker
has the authority to set a date for a special election, and typically
does so as a matter of routine shortly after a member of the House
resigns and a seat becomes vacant.
But former House majority leader
William P. Nagle Jr. of Northampton - once considerd the odds-on
favorite to succeed the speaker - resigned June 4, and the seat has
been vacant since. Nagle was thought to have been eased out by
Finneran in what many House members saw as a power play devised by the
speaker to eliminate a well-liked, liberal competitor.
disenfranchised," said Lisa Unger Baskin of Northampton.
Baskin suspects Finneran is stalling
the election because Nagle's close friend and former aide, Peter Kocot,
plans to run for the seat, and Finneran does not want to see Kocot -
likely to become another anti-Finneran voice - in the House.
Finneran did not respond to a Globe
request for a comment.
Northampton area voters are serious
about their politics and take to heart the fact they have had no say
in the House of Representatives as the Legislature made massive budget
cuts and debated several policy issues. The voter turnout in the
mostly rural district was 78 percent last year, far ahead of the state
and national average.
In October, after three Northampton
residents sued to force Finneran to schedule the election, Suffolk
Superior Court Judge John C. Cratsley agreed with them, and ordered
the speaker to set a date by Dec. 31.
The speaker appealed the decision,
contending that the court lacked the authority to order him to take
such action because of the doctrine of separation of powers.
The residents know that Finneran
could keep the appeals going past the spring, when the issue would
become almost moot. Statewide, legislative elections will be held next
November, with primaries taking place in September. The winning
candidate will be sworn in to the House in January 2003.
This week, fearing another 12 months
without a representative, the three residents decided to withdraw
their suit - hoping the move would be seen as a good-will gesture by
the speaker, and spur him to set a date.
The plaintiffs' decision, said their
attorney, Peter Vickery, was based in part on the insurgency that
Finneran is now facing from some angry House members. Like the
Northampton voters, the lawmakers feel disenfranchised. Their
frustration boiled over during last month's budget process, but the
issue has smoldered for some time.
"This case is a chance for him
to show that he listens and learns and that he can adapt and
survive," Vickery said. "So that's why we chose the
Return to top
Friday, December 21, 2001
Budget chief eyes open talks
By Globe Staff
With nerves still raw over cuts
enacted behind closed doors by a cadre of lawmakers, the House's chief
budget writer says he is willing to consider making budget
negotiations with the Senate public in the future.
Such a move would abandon Beacon
Hill custom, which has shielded the high-stakes horsetrading from
citizens and interest groups and given substantial power to those few
lawmakers who shape the final budget.
House Ways and Means Chairman John
H. Rogers said yesterday that if House members feel strongly about
abandoning closed-door talks, he would seriously consider it.
"Any way we can improve the
process, I'm all for that," said Rogers, a Norwood Democrat.
Senate President Thomas F.
Birmingham raised eyebrows last week by announcing that he now
believes that the closed-door talks between House and Senate leaders
do more harm than good. This year's budget was five months late and
included $650 million in cuts that caught some legislators off guard.
House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran
declined to comment on Birmingham's remark.
But Rogers, one of Finneran's top
lieutenants, maintained that House leaders were careful to keep
members informed as cuts were being considered.
Return to top
Friday, December 21, 2001
Bottled-up bills add to rebels'
By Rick Klein
The Senate passed the measure
unanimously, and 92 of 160 House members signed a letter supporting
it. So forgive state Representative Carol A. Donovan for figuring the
bill was a shoo-in to become law this year.
But the measure to require insurance
companies to cover birth control pills has been stalled for two months
in the House Ways and Means Committee, where House Speaker Thomas M.
Finneran controls the votes. With the committee mum about why the bill
is locked up, Donovan and other supporters say they can come to only
one conclusion: Finneran doesn't want it to happen.
"It's stuck," said
Donovan, a Woburn Democrat. "There's no reason whatsoever for
this, with broad support in the House and passage by the Senate. But
we can't even get a vote on it. They make you sweat blood."
While Finneran makes headlines with
his bold power plays and punishments for political enemies, this more
subtle exertion of legislative power often goes unnoticed by the
public. Yet some House members say they have learned to expect this
type of behavior under Finneran's rule.
"It's common knowledge among
the members that if the speaker doesn't like a bill, you're not going
to see it," said Representative Douglas W. Petersen, a Marblehead
Democrat who is vice-chairman of the House Committee on Taxation.
"It speaks to a truncated system where members' desire to debate
bills is thwarted. There isn't an open system."
This practice, in use since long
before Finneran's speakership, is one factor feeding the recent
discontent among House members. Disgruntled representatives are
working on a list of demands that will include opening the legislative
process and conducting more debate on policy issues.
Finneran did not return calls for
comment. His majority whip, Representative Lida E. Harkins of Needham,
acknowledged that bills tend to bottleneck in some committees, but she
said that committees must carefully examine bills before pushing them
Harkins said opposition from House
leaders does not stop most pieces of legislation from reaching the
floor. She also noted that the Senate often fails to act on
"I'm not suggesting that there
may not have been times that things have been held up for the wrong
reasons," Harkins said. But "I don't think there's a
deliberate effort to keep a lot of controversial bills locked up. They
should come out, and we should vote on them."
Harkins said that this year's
all-consuming budget negotiations may have tied up some bills longer
than is optimal. And she said the burden falls to rank-and-file
members to free bills from committee if they feel strongly about them.
(House members can force a bill out of committee with a majority vote,
though such motions rarely succeed because so many members are wary of
crossing leadership on procedural issues.)
Finneran's critics contend that the
speaker manipulates the committee process to push through measures he
favors and hold back those he opposes, even if a bill has
demonstrable, widespread support. When items the speaker doesn't favor
come out of committee, Finneran can set up roadblocks by sending them
to other committees where his loyalists will do his bidding, Petersen
This year, for example, House
members of the Joint Committee on Commerce and Labor referred a
proposal to tie minimum wage increases to inflation off for study, but
did not specify by whom, or when it would be completed. That's the
easiest way to kill a measure in the Legislature.
While Finneran has not stated his
position on the minimum wage bill, he has a reputation as a fiscal
The Senate, frustrated by that
action, passed the proposal on its own a few weeks later. The bill was
then referred to House Ways and Means, the budget-writing committee
that Finneran keeps under tight control by appointing a majority of
loyalists on the 31-member panel. The measure can stay there for as
long as House leaders want it to, and many members feel powerless to
do anything about it.
A similar fate has befallen bids to
extend benefits to the gay partners of public employees.
Domestic-partnership bills pass the Senate perennially but almost
never come up in the House. The latest measure has been in the House
Ways and Means Committee since September; Finneran and his Ways and
Means Chairman, John H. Rogers of Norwood, publicly oppose the
Harkins said that with the budget
now completed, committees and the House as a whole will have a chance
to take up more items.
"Do I feel that we should
bottle up legislation that maybe one or two people disagree with?
No," she said. "I think we'll have time to do some of these
Return to top
Saturday, December 22, 2001
BOSTON - Several years ago, Sen.
Richard Moore filed a bill to establish a center to find ways to
reduce fatal medical mistakes after Boston Globe columnist Betsy
Lehman died from an accidental overdose while in the hospital
Lawmakers in New York and Florida
heard about the Uxbridge Democrat's idea and passed laws establishing
patient safety centers in their own states. Meanwhile, the bill
languished in Massachusetts until this year when Moore was finally
able to establish the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety. Although
he's co-chairman of the Health Care Committee, he had to go through
back channels - by attaching the bill to this year's budget.
"It's really pathetic in terms
of what they don't do," said Richard Hogarty, senior fellow at
the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of
Massachusetts in Boston. "The current system as we see it has
made a mockery of the committee system."
It's no coincidence that committees
have become ineffective during a legislative year that has proven to
be one of the least productive in more than a century. Nearly half, or
18, of the Legislature's 42 committees didn't report out a single bill
that became law this year. Members of the two Ways and Means
committees responsible for all the significant legislation merely
rubber stamped the work of their chairman.
One quarter of the 204 bills that
did pass were minor local issues like liquor licenses and land takings
that went through the Joint Committee on Local Affairs and the House
A bill to make sure the state is
prepared for a bioterrorism attack went nowhere during a year when
3,000 suspected anthrax samples were sent to the state laboratory
within a few weeks.
The only law that made it through
the Education Committee was an adjustment to a vocational school's
A bill to require insurance
companies to pay for contraceptives has been stalled in the House Ways
and Means Committee for two months, though it passed the Senate and 92
of 160 House members have gone on record saying they support it.
There's a simple remedy, said
Charles Rasmussen, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas Finneran: the 92
members can vote to discharge the bill from committee.
"Ninety-two people signed off
on it - so make the motion," Rasmussen said. "That's what
Lawmakers "work very hard on
bills and they don't come out," said Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North
Adams Democrat who co-chairs the Government Regulations Committee.
"Sometimes you work on bills for years before they come up."
Bosley said changing the rules won't
help. The Legislature's culture needs to change, he said.
"We need to get people more
engaged up and down the line," he said.
One reason bills get bottled up in
committee seems to be biennial sessions, the result of a rules change
in 1996 that allows legislation to be carried into the next year. The
Legislature meets all year for the first year and half a year in the
"The big problem with the
two-year sessions is instead of procrastinating all year and dealing
with it (legislation) in December, we procrastinate for a year and a
half and deal with it in July," Moore said.
A pattern is developing in which the
first year of a biennial session produces a budget months after it's
due and a light amount of legislation.
Two years ago, the budget impasse
between Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham lasted until
mid-October. That year, 181 laws were enacted - the fewest since 1858.
This year, the budget impasse lasted
until Thanksgiving and only 204 mostly insignificant laws were
Moore said the committees do a good
job reading and analyzing the bills, but many have to be sent to Ways
and Means. The Ways and Means chairmen, though, are so consumed with
the budget they can't focus on anything else, Moore said.
"The committee process needs to
be honored in a greater degree," he said. "If the committee
has taken the time, that ought to be an indication the bill has some
merit and the folks in leadership should have priorities put on the
Return to top
Telegram & Gazette
Thursday, December 20, 2001
Reports of House Speaker Thomas M.
Finneran's demise, it seems, were more than a little premature.
A week ago, it appeared that a
palace coup led by Rep. Daniel E. Bosley might be gaining recruits.
The speaker's iron-fisted rule long has rankled the rank and file, and
House liberals, stung by enforced spending restraint, appeared ready
to join a rebellion.
When push came to shove this week,
though, it was the putsch that got shoved. Mr. Bosley meekly decamped,
declaring he would like to be speaker but would not challenge Mr.
The collapse of the revolt was, sad
to say, in character for an institution in which "go along to get
along" is the rule. The House and Senate leadership's failure to
finalize a budget five months into the fiscal year -- a fiasco even
Mr. Finneran admitted to be embarrassed by -- produced hardly a peep
of protest from the hapless House. And when Mr. Finneran took it upon
himself to nullify the Clean Elections Law passed, 2-1, in 1998, the
compliant House backed him 96-59.
And this is the same House that
voted just 11 months ago to erase the term limits for the speaker's
job. House members claim to be frustrated by Mr. Finneran, but it
should not come as a surprise when the man they anointed Speaker for
Life acts as if he were, well, Speaker for Life.
The short-lived speakership revolt,
coupled with the budget fiasco, may at least have whetted the House's
appetite for reforms aimed at opening up the lawmaking process.
The budget mess and the Bosley
challenge even may have made an impact on the speaker himself. Meeting
with the Telegram & Gazette editorial board last week, Mr.
Finneran acknowledged his embarrassment over the way the budget was
handled and said he would be open to suggestions for opening up the
Yet beginning with his initial moves
to consolidate his power when he became speaker in 1996, Mr. Finneran
has displayed little inclination toward power-sharing, keeping a tight
rein even on the members of his inner leadership circle.
Earlier this year, proposals by the
Coalition for Legislative Reform for making the lawmaking more open
and less concentrated in the leadership fell on deaf ears. The
recommendations were hardly radical: rigorous enforcement of the
House's own rules, more rational scheduling of budget deliberations,
outside monitoring of the process and so on.
Mr. Finneran responded with his own
rules "reforms" that actually concentrated even more power
in a few leadership positions. Loath to make waves, rank-and-file
members went along with the changes -- and went one step farther,
eliminating term limits for the speaker in the bargain.
Still, a fledgling reform movement
may be forming.
While disavowing immediate
speakership ambitions, Mr. Bosley promises to lead a campaign next
month to reform the House rules and procedures. Among the Central
Massachusetts lawmakers ready to sign on is Rep. Reed V. Hillman of
Sturbridge, who would begin by opening up the budget conference
committee, where this year's budget languished for months. (Sen.
Richard T. Moore of Uxbridge is seeking a similar change in the
In addition, Rep. Robert Hargraves
of Groton has sponsored the "Government Accountability and
Disclosure Act" that would make information on all spending items
readily available, in comprehensible form, to lawmakers and residents
A small band of lawmakers who dare
to risk retribution from the leadership is powerless to bring about
meaningful change. The rank and file must shift out of
go-along-to-get-along mode and press for changes in a status quo that
has tarnished the credibility of the institution in which they serve.
Failing that, even the most sensible reform proposals are destined to
languish and die.
Return to top
MetroWest Daily News
Friday, December 28, 2001
The year of King Finneran
House Speaker Tom Finneran began
2001 by engineering the elimination of term limits that would have
required him to step down at the end of next year.
He ended the year by setting a
special election to fill a House seat that has been vacant since June.
By the time the election is held, the 40,000 residents of the 1st
Hampshire District will have been without representation for 10
The handling of the vacant seat was
typical of Finneran's style. For seven months after Rep. William P.
Nagle resigned to become a district court clerk-magistrate, Finneran
refused to say why he hadn't scheduled a special election. He wouldn't
meet with people from the district or return their phone calls.
Finneran is a man whose faith in his own convictions is so strong he
rarely sees the need to explain them to anyone.
Finneran's aides said this week
Finneran delayed the election because redistricting might have
required the district be split up - a consideration that didn't stop
Finneran from scheduling an election after John Stefanini,
D-Framingham, resigned a few weeks before Nagle to take a position on
Finneran's staff. Others attribute the delay to personal pique over
the defection of Nagle, a member of the House leadership, or to an
effort to keep Northampton-area liberals from electing someone likely
to resist Finneran's more conservative agenda.
As Finneran's delay grew from weeks
to months, residents of the district sued the speaker, winning a
district court ruling ordering him to schedule a special election.
Finneran still resisted, appealing the ruling. One aide this week said
Finneran refused to comply because he considered the ruling a breach
of the constitutional separation of powers. No one tells Finneran what
to do, including judges who dare to take literally the state
constitution's guarantee that all citizens be represented in the Great
and General Court.
There is a special irony in
Finneran's defense of the separation of powers, since the speaker's
budget includes the latest in a series of assaults on the independence
of the judiciary. Finneran took away the power to hire court probation
officers away from judges, giving it instead to a political ally. That
battle will be rejoined in the weeks to come if the Supreme Judicial
Court finds the backbone to order the Legislature to either fund or
repeal the Clean Elections law.
Will the new year bring any changes
in Finneran's autocratic rule? That appears unlikely: A
"rebellion" raised by a handful of Democrats a couple of
weeks ago fizzled after a few days. Perhaps the most we can hope for
is some procedural vote that will force House members to take a stand
on their leader.
Finneran, unfortunately, is likely
to find a way to avoid such an up-or-down vote. That's his another
part of his leadership style: Proposals don't come to the floor for a
vote unless there's no doubt about the outcome. That ability to
protect his members from having to make uncomfortable votes is also,
we fear, what the reps like most about Finneran. Until that changes,
Finneran will continue to rule the House.
Return to top
The Lowell Sun
Thursday, December 27, 2001
Despite criticism of Finneran,
Bosley thinks his legislative post secure
By Erik Arvidson
Sun Statehouse Bureau
BOSTON -- Rep. Daniel Bosley said
yesterday that he was not concerned about grumbling within House
Speaker Thomas Finneran's leadership team that Bosley should resign or
be stripped of his chairmanship over his criticism of the speaker.
Although discussion of a Finneran
coup has died down over the holidays, the chairman of the Energy
Committee said that Bosley's comments about Finneran had gone too far
and that Bosley should be removed as chairman of Government
"I don't think the speaker will
remove me as chairman," said Bosley, a North Adams Democrat.
"Part of the problem is if we say anything that's contrary to the
party line, we're viewed as disloyal. I don't see myself as disloyal.
To say, 'Because I don't toe the line I should be removed,' that's
taking it to the extreme."
Bosley insisted that he was
"here for the long haul" and that he and a broad-based group
of lawmakers would push ahead with reforms when the House reconvenes
"It's kind of hard to remove me
without everything people saying about (Finneran) seeming to be
true," Bosley said. He added that there is a meeting between
Finneran and committee chairmen today, but whether Bosley's comments
of Finneran will be discussed remains to be seen.
As chairman of Government
Regulations, Bosley makes $7,500 above a legislator's base salary of
about $50,000. Although other committee chairmen earn $15,000 above
the base pay, Government Regulations is considered one of the most
coveted committee assignments, perhaps second to only the powerful
Ways and Means Committee.
State Rep. John J. Binienda Sr., a
Worcester Democrat who chairs the Energy Committee, said Bosley was
"caught up in something he wishes he didn't get caught up
in," and added that Finneran should reassign Bosley to a
"It's a situation where if you
are chairman of a committee, you and the speaker have to be one and
the same," Binienda said. "You have to trust totally the
judgment of the speaker, and because of this situation, I'm not sure
that feeling exists between Dan and Tom."
Binienda has been loyal to Finneran
and credits the speaker with "turning the Commonwealth
around" and having the foresight to set aside money in a
rainy-day fund while the state's economy was booming. The state is now
drawing heavily from that rainy-day fund to avoid massive budget cuts.
Binienda said Finneran has
"never ever tried to stifle committee chairmen from voicing their
opinion," but it was necessary for Finneran and his leadership
team to be on the same page.
Binienda added that he and Bosley
entered the House at the same time, in January of 1987. "Dan and
I are very close friends. He is an intelligent, articulate,
outstanding legislator. I just know Dan wishes that it didn't happen
the way it happened," Binienda said.
Other committee chairmen did not go
as far as suggesting that Bosley lose his chairmanship, but many have
rallied around the speaker.
Earlier this month, Bosley strongly
criticized Finneran's leadership in the House and said he would like
to be the next House speaker, but added he would not gather votes to
oust Finneran in January.
Bosley said Finneran's methods are
too autocratic, that there is too little debate in the committees, and
that ordinary House members feel disgruntled that they can't make a
difference. While Bosley said some of the blames rests with the
legislative body as a whole, he added that Finneran needed to run a
more open and democratic House.
Louis DiNatale, a pollster at the
University of Massachusetts at Boston, said ordinary House members
have no reason to stage a revolt against Finneran and that it would be
difficult to remove him.
"The natural role of the
speaker is to take the heat for the institution. He takes the
unpopular positions that other legislators don't want to endorse, and
all the hostility is directed at the speaker," DiNatale said.
The Massachusetts Legislature has
more power and is more far-reaching than other state legislatures,
DiNatale said. Any legislator who is not in leadership will find it
difficult to get the perks and pet projects funded if they are not
loyal to the speaker or Senate president, DiNatale said.
He added that since only a fraction
of state legislators are opposed during elections, and since
legislators are paid reasonably well and have status in their
communities, most feel secure and do not want to rock the boat at the
"There are significant
political benefits. Once people get them, they fight hard to hold onto
them," DiNatale said.
DiNatale predicted that this unrest
with Finneran will come to a head in January 2003, which is the next
time Finneran will run for speaker. Whether a new speaker will take
over depends on how deep and longlasting the discontent is. "I
think Finneran should know that while this may not be the end, it may
be the beginning of the end," DiNatale said.
Return to top
Friday, December 21, 2001
Hold onto your pocketbooks, folks,
the Legislature is on another money-saving binge.
Problem is, some lawmakers' idea of
belt-tightening is to try to borrow and spend their way to fiscal
Faced with downsized revenue
expectations this budget year, the Legislature recently passed a
spending plan that avoids the most serious belt-tightening decisions
by dipping deeply into the state's "rainy-day" funds. Under
a House-Senate agreement, the drain won't end when the current
economic slump ends but, inexplicably, will continue until the $1.2
billion reserve fund runs dry.
Massachusetts' response to the
revenue crunch has alarmed Wall Street. On Wednesday, Moody's
downgraded the outlook for Bay State general obligation bonds from
"stable" to "negative." (The chaos on the
Massachusetts Turnpike board triggered a similar downgrade of the
authority's fiscal outlook earlier this month.)
Wall Street may be even more alarmed
by the latest fiscal shuffle on Beacon Hill. An early-retirement
package for state workers, billed as a money-saving measure by the
legislative Public Service Committee, would allow 7,700 state workers
to retire early with full benefits by adding, for pension purposes,
five years to the worker's age or years of service.
The claim of $175 million in savings
this year and next is disingenuous. The cost of replacing retiring
employees would shrink the savings to as little as $95 million. Cash
payments for unused vacation and sick time would reduce savings by
another $15 million for each of the next three years.
Meanwhile, the influx of early
retirees will put further strain on a pension system the state has
been struggling to fully fund for years. One way or another, that
money eventually will come out of taxpayers' pockets.
Nonetheless, the committee reported
favorably on the early-out package and is pushing for enactment this
year -- with only vague estimates of how much money it might save in
the short term or how much it would cost long term.
Such recklessness recalls the fiscal
policies of the late 1980s, when the state responded to a deepening
recession by going on a spending spree. Massachusetts' bond rating
sank almost to junk bond status and the state had to float more than
$1 billion in bonds to cover day-to-day operating costs. The
"temporary" income tax hike to repay the debt has yet to be
The early-out plan now careering
down the legislative fast track is the kind of
"money-saving" measure Massachusetts can't afford.
Return to top
The Boston Globe
Friday, December 28, 2001
Cash flow forces state to borrow
By Rick Klein
Citing cash flow problems, state Treasurer Shannon P. O'Brien announced yesterday that the state will have to borrow about $600 million so that it can continue to keep government running over the next few months.
While such borrowing is common in many states, it's the first time Massachusetts has been forced to take out a short-term loan since 1996.
The move is another indication that the economic picture has deteriorated, but officials say they're not overly concerned. The state still appears to be on track to bring in enough money to pay for its $22.6 billion budget by the time the fiscal year ends in June, said Jeff Stearns, O'Brien's deputy treasurer for debt management.
"It's not a good sign," he said of the borrowing. "But the other standpoint is, even if your budget is balanced, you still may have to borrow during the course of the year."
Much of the borrowing is necessary so that the state will be able to make its $1 billion quarterly aid payment to cities and towns Monday, the last day of 2001. Such payments weren't an issue in recent years, when the state was running a surplus, said Stephen P. Crosby, Acting Governor Jane Swift's secretary for administration and finance. "Our income is very, very close to our expenses, and we don't have a lot of slack," he said. "This is not deficit spending. It's just cash flow. We've fallen back to earth, and we have to learn to cope in a cash-tight environment."
State leaders expect to more than make back the borrowed money in the revenue-heavy months of January, April, May, and June. Last week, a major bond rating agency downgraded its outlook for the state to negative, but Stearns said bond raters are unlikely to care about a short-term cash shortfall unless it's ignored.
Crosby said that if the state appears likely to finish the fiscal year in the red, Swift may be forced to unilaterally enact budget cuts.
Return to top