and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
September 2004 #5

Looking for a change in style?
Don't hold your breath
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, September 30, 2004

Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi were elected state representatives in 1978, just before I landed at the Statehouse as a taxpayer lobbyist attached to the citizen-built parachute of Proposition 2.

In the 1980 Legislative Almanac, they were asked to list their top priorities. For Finneran, they were property tax relief, mandatory minimum sentencing and legislative rules reform. For DiMasi, they were taxes, crime and human services. 

DiMasi said he intended to file a bill for reduction of property taxes in Boston. So far, so good.

After Prop 2 passed, they supported proposals to increase local aid, and both had their highest rating from Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT): Finneran, 53 percent; DiMasi, 42 percent (out of a possible 100%).

But it was all downhill from there for both of them. Soon they were committee chairmen, members of "the leadership team," and it became impossible to distinguish them by ideology (except on the occasional social issue) from the rest of the team, which automatically voted with whoever was speaker.

Through 2003, Tom Finneran's rating on taxpayer and legislative reform issues with CLT averaged 24 percent. Sal DiMasi's averaged 26 percent. The year that "fiscal conservative" Finneran beat self-described liberal Richard Voke for speaker, Finneran had a 9 percent rating; Voke (and DiMasi), 8 percent.

But when the House Republicans, in the dumbest move ever made by that party on Beacon Hill, supported Finneran over Voke, they helped create an image of a fiscal conservative that matched Finneran's rhetoric. The two-party system died, the state budget doubled, and the state spent itself into another fiscal crisis. This led to the biggest tax increase in state history, which is still partly with us because Finneran has blocked the voter-passed income tax rollback.

I once worked with Tom Finneran on an occasional issue including opposition to a state bank and the Boston Megaplex and found him delightful, fun to talk with and very accessible. 

During the Dukakis fiscal crisis, I also worked with the House Ways & Means Committee. I could call Chairman Voke's staffers for information and was always welcome in his office. 

When Tom Finneran took over Ways & Means, he announced that he would be "more open." The first time I called a staffer I knew for information about a budget item, he said he would get back to me. When he did, he was whispering. "I'm sorry, but I can't talk to you about anything." The open door snapped shut, and not only, I soon learned, on me.

And this was before our first big battle, when the legislator who had once placed property tax relief as his top priority, made it his first priority as Ways & Means chairman to attack Prop 2 with an amendment to exclude a certain account from its limits. We fought him on the floor and won by a few votes.

When Voke and I disagreed, I was accustomed to shaking hands and vowing to fight another day. When I approached Finneran with my hand out, he turned on his heel and strode away with his thin skin stretched tight over his giant ego.

A few years later, during the speakership battle, I was naturally rooting for the more mature Voke to defeat Finneran, since their ratings were almost the same though unlike the Republicans, I had sense enough to keep my preference to myself. Alas, it was not to be, and Finneran's became the biggest, most powerful ego on Beacon Hill.

He was still charming, but power corrupted not in the usual sense of the word, since Finneran is honest, but in the sense of what it does to one's soul to be surrounded by sycophants all day. Never mind that the speaker rewarded the sycophants and demoted those who stood up to him, thereby creating his own unhealthy atmosphere. 

Gregarious, essentially decent, people like Finneran shouldn't be isolated by their fear-inspiring power. I was once talking with a young state rep when the speaker walked up and we had an argument. The rep quickly left the scene, not wanting to be present when his boss was being challenged. Pathetic, really.

Inevitably, an authoritarian loses respect for "representatives" and then, of course, for the people who elect them to "represent." Finally, it all begins to fall apart and it's time to leave.

I'm glad to see Tommy go, for his sake as well as ours. May he will find his soul again in the private sector.

This year there is no speakership fight: King Finneran chose his own successor and the legislative vote was pro-forma. Republicans this time voted, as is the tradition, for their own leader, and let the Democrats be solely responsible for the status quo.

As for Sal DiMasi, I have no stories to tell; I can't recall ever meeting him. He was so far inside "the leadership team" that we outsiders never saw him. But I would note that, unlike with Finneran, legislative rules reform was never a priority with DiMasi, even in his newbie legislator youth. 

Thus the need for an opposition party on Beacon Hill, which was desperate last week, is even greater today.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.