On Beacon Hill or at Abbot Hall, best to hold onto your wallet
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm doing my political spring cleaning before next week's solstice, when I plan to melt and mellow into summer, as much as one can with the debt-ceiling debate pending and the future of the country at stake.

May have to apologize for the optimistic column I wrote earlier about the Massachusetts Legislature passing a budget that, despite Democrats' traditional pandering to unions, gave cities and towns management control over local health care costs. Now we learn the Senate quietly added a last-minute provision to require communities that join the state's less costly Group Insurance Commission plan to pay higher premiums for retirees, which would wipe out much of the savings.

It's clear that this deal was set up for the unions from the beginning of the Senate debate in order to discourage the reforms from happening at all. However, the final decision will be made as the two branches work out their differences: If the House prevails, we can again swallow our cynicism and hope that the commonwealth's fiscal problems can be responsibly addressed.

Important to note that the Pioneer Institute, which has been tracking state and municipal employee benefit liabilities, says that health care has risen from roughly 7 percent to 14 percent of Massachusetts municipal budgets over the past 10 years.

As the national debt crisis is coming to a head, the state and local unfunded liabilities are coming to light, thanks to a 1996 federal requirement that states and municipalities calculate the cost of providing lifetime health insurance for their employees for their Audited Financial Reports. A recent report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation says that state's 50 largest cities have a $20-billion retiree health care liability. And now the Massachusetts Senate wants to make this situation worse.

According to the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recession has existed primarily in the private sector.

Between January 2008 and June 2010, while the private sector was losing roughly 8 million jobs, the public sector workforce grew by 590,000. The federal stimulus plan used more borrowed money to pay government salaries, adding to the long-term problem.

Recently in Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick has authorized raises for executive branch managers up to a 3-percent raise in fiscal 2012, consistent with what most state unionized employees will receive under the terms of a long-term deal negotiated four years ago.

Meanwhile, there are springtime overrides on local ballots asking private sector citizens who may not be getting pay raises to pay higher taxes.

A newly-elected school committee member in Marblehead had a question this week for concerned taxpayers in a letter to the local weekly about the latest school override.

"Do you wish to huddle," John Connolly asked, "with the grasping and the covetous who clutch their wallets?"

Have to share this with taxpayers in other communities who also face scorn when they resist overrides.

Must say that I don't think it's a proper use of the word "covet." One can't covet what one already has, just what somebody else has. We taxpayers may cling to, but can't actually covet, our own money.

Another override proponent suggests that voters shouldn't say no to tax increases unless they attend all the meetings and hearings around the proposed expenditure, coming up with alternatives every step of the way.

If we want to resist new state taxes too, must we attend all the meetings and hearings at the Statehouse? Whoa, wanting a balanced federal budget is going to require a lot of flights to Washington, D.C.!

I'd propose instead that override proponents tell us where we should cut our own spending in order to pay for them.

Not that it's always about the money, which some of us can afford; we just don't trust those local officials who consider questions about priorities a distraction, to spend it wisely.

Here's another interesting study that drifted into my in-box. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Massachusetts ranks 46th on the Freedom Index, with New York at 50, New Hampshire first.

"The biggest fiscal problem for Massachusetts is debt, which equals more than a quarter of personal income," the study notes.

Meanwhile, on personal freedoms the state has highly restrictive gun laws, a total fireworks ban, extremely strict private and home school requirements, terrible asset-forfeiture rules, etc.

Speaking of New Hampshire, I watched the so-called debate held there Monday evening.

I suppose there's some benefit in seeing how candidates deal with the chaotic formats used by Fox and CNN, but eventually do you think some grown-ups will hold a real debate in which everyone gets asked the same questions on, say, the debt ceiling and Afghanistan, so we can compare?

What I remember most about the Monday event is the big-ego host, John King, telling the candidates that there will be no buzzers, they're on an "honor system" to keep their answers brief; then for two hours as they spoke we heard him in the background trying to interrupt. Annoying. I don't blame viewers who switched to the hockey game.

Time to celebrate Father's Day, remembering the man who taught me to avoid non-essential borrowing and not to covet what other people have earned.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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