and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
July #4

Lawmakers, former governor are prone to exaggeration
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, July 27, 2006

So here we are, waiting for the Legislature to do something useful before it leaves for its three-month vacation.

Of course some legislators will use their paid leave to campaign, while challengers must continue making a living at real jobs.

Incumbents will be at the local senior center, telling everyone there how well they look.

"You've lost weight!" your state senator or representative will declare. You may have gained 150 pounds since they last saw you; but hey, it's nice to hear.

I'm not making this up. When I was hanging around Beacon Hill, I heard this all the time. And, honestly, the flattering observation was rarely accurate.

As I write this, the Legislature is still in session, mostly overriding Gov. Romney's vetoes. But new legislation is still cooking.

An experienced lobbyist describes end-of-session activity this way: "It's like water buffalo who have to cross the crocodile-infested river. They charge through all at once, knowing some of them will die when the crocs focus on a few, but most of them will make it."

Bad bills are all clumped together in a two-week period, with the knowledge that some will be noticed by activists and the media, but most will get through the crowded process.

There's a bill to increase property taxes by exempting seniors from having to pay for future overrides.

"Mary, dear, you are looking well. And no reason to exert yourself to vote against the new taxes - you won't have to pay them, dear. And haven't you lost weight?"

There's the "welfare reform" bill that must be approved. The federal government has threatened to penalize Massachusetts if it doesn't comply with its stricter work requirements.

But who needs the federal money? We have this giant surplus to spend. And having the next three months off, most legislators probably don't meet those federal work requirements themselves.

Gov. Romney's proposed pension and insurance reforms haven't passed. And while other states are moving to prevent eminent domain abuse, Romney had to veto an amendment to the economic stimulus bill that would allow developers to create their own little mini-towns-within-towns by floating bonds to pay for the infrastructure. As one legislative opponent wrote in support of the veto, this whole concept "would benefit from undergoing full legislative process, including public hearing, rather than enactment as a veto override of a Senate amendment to a spending bill".

No kidding. But how can you sneak through bad ideas if you have an open process?

Massachusetts wants to create more quasi-public authorities? Shouldn't we clean up the mess that the quasi-public Massachusetts Turnpike Authority created, first?

Fortunately, Romney is now in charge of the Big Dig, and is clearly in his element when addressing a crisis. By way of contrast, we have former Gov. Michael Dukakis, returned to rewrite history.

He is everywhere - on television, talk radio and in newspaper articles - insisting that the Big Dig disaster wouldn't have happened if the Republican governors had listened to him. They should have kept his transportation secretary, Fred Salvucci, Dukakis claims, who would have built it right and for the originally estimated $2.4 billion cost.

Michael: You can't rewrite history until everyone who actually lived it and remembers it is dead. And I'm not.

Here is the standard public works project methodology, described in Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York":

"If ends justified means, and if the important thing in building a project was to get it started, then any means that got it started were justified. Furnishing misleading information about it was justified; so was underestimating its costs.... what if you didn't tell the officials how much the projects would cost? What if you let the legislators know about only a fraction of what you knew would be the projects' ultimate expense?"

Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. ... If they refused ... what they had given you would be wasted, and that would make them look bad in the eyes of the public. And if they said you had mislead them, well, they were not supposed to be misled ... that would mean they hadn't investigated the projects thoroughly, and had therefore been derelict in their own duty.

As for the mismanagement, Salvucci blames Proposition 2 for cuts in the state Department of Public Works Department.

Prop 2 limits only local taxes, but in fact, state spending for itself was indeed cut in 1981 to give more local aid to the cities and towns. I heard from DPW engineers that year, complaining they were being laid off while legislative-supported hacks were protected. But the state economy was creating surpluses when Salvucci put the DPW in charge of Bechtel in the mid-1980s, apparently without checking to see if engineers were available for oversight.

Though those of us who disputed the $2.4 billion estimate were called "naysayers" at the time. It didn't even last through the Dukakis administration, increasing to $4.4 billion by 1990. The latest cost estimate is $14.6 billion.

When the Legislature leaves next week, Dukakis should go away too.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News, Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.