For the Bay State, it’s mostly life in the unmoneyed weeds

By 
Jim O'Sullivan, State House News Service
Oct. 23, 2009

Unscientifically extrapolated from this month’s state economic data, forecasts and a national performance review of child protection laws that may want to circle back with Colorado:

We’re good at protecting abused and neglected kids, except for the occasional murder, but their parents are more likely to be unemployed or filing for bankruptcy – or, if they’re working for the state, on the brink of furloughs and layoffs.

But, if employed, they might be thinking of adding that toy room next spring.

While the state budget continues to cough up red ink, in the face of widely held projections that next year will be worse, there were positive signs even as Gov. Deval Patrick warned the Executive Branch would need to cut up to 2,000 jobs from a corps of roughly 50,000 unless unions yield contract concessions in the next two weeks.

For instance, Massachusetts was one of two states that earned the maximum grade for its insistence on legal rights for abused or neglected children. Home improvements and remodeling are projected to perk in early 2010. If you’re Steve Pagliuca, who buried his Senate primary opponents in the spending column last month, you may have already gotten started.

Broader gauges, though, showed the state in the unmoneyed weeds. Statewide unemployment, long encouragingly below the national level, closed some of the gap in jobs numbers out last Thursday showing the rate had climbed to 9.3 percent, its post-1976 high, after a September that saw local employers cut payroll by 9,200 positions. Thirty-five percent more people sought Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection during the first three quarters of 2009 than a year prior. Lawmakers at a Thursday hearing described foreclosures with a more sweeping geographic wake, involving more jobless residents with conventional loans and not just the victims of exploding subprime lending deals.

Most visibly to the governor and his aides, folks with developmental disabilities have been camped out in the Corner Office for more than a week to protest looming program cuts.

$600 million financial tumble

Patrick’s somber budget presser was necessitated by an estimated $600 million tumble in the projected fiscal 2010 tax receipts, even after/maybe in part because of the 25-percent hike in the state’s share of sales – known as “Charley’s Tax” after the House, led by Ways and Means chief Charles Murphy, championed the increase. Lawmakers were noncommittal about the governor’s request for the authority to cut spending outside the Executive Branch, which would likely mean heavy redactions to municipal assistance accounts, but many privately acknowledge they will likely have little choice but to grant it.

There’s also the outstanding estimated $300 million problem due to an apparent underfunding of Medicaid, which the administration said would not require cuts but “management.” And there are questions about whether the dire estimate is in fact pessimistic enough, that maybe the gap will ultimately materialize at closer to $1 billion.

Unions battlefronts

The overtures at the unions follows up earlier saber-rattling from the administration about collective bargaining, and comes as Patrick appears emboldened to lasso into tighter ranks the state’s economic development agencies. Labor resisted previous budget chief Leslie Kirwan last time around, and now will square off with Patrick’s new proxy, Secretary Jay Gonzalez. The budget cuts negotiations are another battlefront for unions, who are also jumping ugly with the state over their salaries and benefits when the MassDOT transportation superstructure kicks in next month.

The DiMasi case (cont.)

Outside the immediate walls of the criminal justice system feeder the Legislature has become, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi took another hit last week when federal prosecutors brought him up on an extortion charge as part of a 38-page superseding indictment that alleges he had a secret interest in a property management firm.

Once probably the state’s most powerful politician, DiMasi has denied all the charges and will be arraigned again on Nov. 12. His former House underlings are bewildered, don’t know what to think, have been asking lawyerly colleagues whether this new charge is really a significant ramp-up, a hedge in case the theft of honest services charge is wiped out by a separate Supreme Court case, and hearing the answer yes. Tougher to stand on legislative prerogative when extortion’s in the game, the thinking goes.

With the DiMasi scandal back in the headlines, a big double-sided ax headed toward the four-month old budget, the Hill must soldier on, though in which direction outside of avoiding misbehavior (with limited success) and gashing line items remains undefined. The Legislature has accomplished little since recessing for the summer, staying collectively agnostic so far on the governor’s education agenda, and demonstrating little policy imagination so far this fall.

Efforts to alter that storyline will likely unfold in the coming weeks, as lawmakers are hunting for budget-neutral, inoffensive bills they can pass in the remaining month or so of the 2009 legislative window, while remaining hopeful that public attention will grow more focused on the Kennedy succession race and lose interest in state government.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Watching its wallet shrink, the state is undertaking the fourth spending takedown of the past year.

COLD BREAKFAST: Would’ve been nice to have joined the Falcone family for its Friday morning meal last week. Lauren Beckham Falcone, the zeitgeist-attuned Herald columnist, had just taken a tabloid-sized switch to Attorney General Martha Coakley – “Mean Martha” – as the paper went after the Senate frontrunner with several throttles open for her treatment of the press. Across the table would have been Coakley Facebook pal David Falcone, communications director for Senate President Therese Murray, herself one of Coakley’s most enthusiastic supporters, who has recently taken her gavel to the press for its treatment of the A.G. The off-message couple would’ve had lots to talk about, but you can’t call them in the tank.

REAL TALK:
“You certainly are a veteran of enough things that have gone wrong in state government.” – Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Suzanne Bump to state Sen. Marc Pacheco, Democrat of Taunton, last Wednesday. Normally, such bracing candor from one of Gov. Deval Patrick’s top aides to a 20-year legislative veteran, with whom she used to serve during the heady days of worker’s compensation reform in the early-’90s, might be considered bad form. But, after hearing a “snicker” from the crowd gathered for an oversight hearing on use of the federal stimulus, Bump hustled to revise and amend her remarks. “Not suggesting you were the cause,” she added convincingly.