A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL:
ANOTHER BROKEN PROMISE, SURPRISE!
The Boston Sunday Globe
October 17, 1999
Lawmakers' Pay Raises Going Strong
The infamous 1994 deal between the Democratic legislative leadership and
then-Governor William F. Weld that guaranteed the lawmakers a better than 50 percent pay
raise is broken. But no one is demanding a legislative paycut. Senate President Thomas F.
Birmingham and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran agreed last week on a $20.8 billion budget
plan that includes a freeze on the capital gains tax phaseout. Back in late 1994, during a
lameduck legislative session, Weld cut a secret deal with House and Senate leaders in
which he would sign the payhike package if they sent him a capital gains tax cut bill to
sign. By the time the deal became clear, Weld, then-Senate President William Bulger, and
then-Speaker Charles Flaherty had flown on a junket to Ireland. They denied there was a
direct quid pro quo -- but sources have confirmed that there was indeed a wink and nod.
The Boston Globe
Monday, October 18, 1999
Our year-round, do-nothing Legislature
By Jeff Jacoby
It was worth the wait, worth double the wait, worth triple the
- House Speaker Thomas Finneran,
on his budget deal with Senate President Thomas Birmingham
By the time the Massachusetts Legislature passes a budget for fiscal year 2000,
fiscal year 2000 -- which began on July 1 -- will be one-third over. The governor
submitted a budget proposal in January; that gave the House and Senate more than six
months to finalize a spending bill before the old year ran out. In the real world, people
get fired for blowing off important deadlines and letting crucial assignments go undone.
In the State House, they don't even get embarrassed.
And they certainly don't get worried. The Legislature's 200 senators and
representatives know that they have absolutely nothing to fear. Their paychecks aren't
going to be docked. They aren't going to lose their expenses and per diems. Their
"leadership" bonuses aren't going to be withheld. Most of them aren't even going
to be challenged when they run for reelection.
Pay your taxes four months late, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will smack
you with penalties, interest, and some pretty dire threats. Ignore the deadlines set by
your mortgage company, and your credit rating will go down the drain. But if you sit in
the Massachusetts General Court and the budget is 110 days overdue, nothing in the least
will befall you.
In 49 states of the union, fiscal 2000 budgets have been signed and sealed. Only
in Massachusetts is the Legislature incapable of doing its most significant job. For
months Thomas Finneran and Thomas Birmingham -- the House speaker and Senate president --
put on a show of meeting daily on a State House balcony to reconcile the differences
between the bloated budget passed by the Senate and the bloated budget passed by the
House. And in the end they reconciled nothing. They simply agreed to include everything.
Tommy One wanted another pile of money for education "reform;" he got
it. Tommy Two wanted a new way of financing the MBTA; he got it. A new trust fund to hoard
the state's share of the tobacco settlement? That's in there. A slush fund to reward
schools whose students flunk the MCAS? That's in there, too. About the only thing that's
not in there is meaningful tax relief. he two Tommys agreed to slo-o-owly lower the state
income tax rate by a whopping two-tenths of 1 percent. Such munificence! When fully phased
in, this tax cut will save a typical family of four less than $5 a month.
This, Finneran has the effrontery to declare, "was worth the
wait." And the farce isn't over yet. A final budget still hasn't been reduced to
writing or voted on by the House and Senate. But Finneran and Birmingham have accomplished
one thing. They have made it clear beyond cavil that no one in the Legislature, save the
two of them, has the slightest influence or authority over anything state government does.
While the House speaker and the Senate president were performing their balcony act, the
other 39 senators and 159 representatives sat around doing nothing. The dirty little
secret of the Massachusetts Legislature is that two men make every decision. Everyone else
is for show, extras to impress the tourists.
And it's a show that never closes. In the great majority of states, legislatures
convene for only a few months out of the year -- in some states, for only a few months
every other year. In only a very few states, Massachusetts prominent among them,
does the legislature stay in session year-round. And what do we get from our full-time
solons? One of the highest tax burdens in the United States, budgets that grow more obese
by the year, a contemptuous disrespect for grassroots reformers, and a
reelection-at-all-costs mindset that has made it all but impossible to defeat an incumbent
at the polls.
In more than 25 states, lawmakers sit for no more than 90 days a year. In those
states, most of them better governed than this one, budget negotiations don't drag on for
months without end. Legislators don't succumb to the delusion that their presence is
required year-round. They convene, debate, vote, and go home. It might astonish Beacon
Hill to know that in those states, the sun continues to rise in the East and set in the
West even after the legislature has adjourned.
It has taken longer to agree on a spending document for the coming fiscal year
than it took the delegates to the Philadelphia convention in 1787 to draft the US
Constitution. The message sent by Finneran and Birmingham is not that the budget is so
important to them that they are taking pains to get it exactly right, but that it is so unimportant
that they couldn't be bothered to get it done on time.
In the private sphere, failure to perform comes with a price. If it came with a
price in the legislative sphere -- if, for example, each member of the General Court were
fined $50 for every day a budget was delayed -- budgets would never be delayed. But the
House and Senate -- which is to say, the House speaker and Senate president -- will never
consent to live by the same standards we mortals must adhere to. They will continue in
their arrogance. And we will go on thinking them incompetent.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org