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[Editorial]

Leftovers

Sound familiar? The state faces ongoing budget woes, a bloated Big Dig, continuing troubles with Massport, and an ineffectual legislative body in 2002.

EVERYONE WANTS TO LEAVE 2001 behind. But what are we racing toward? Here in the Commonwealth, we have a number of problems left over from last year that should be addressed in 2002. Yet the prospects for resolution donít look at all good.

For starters, our state legislature is being held hostage by ineffectual state representatives who donít have the courage to challenge House Speaker Tom Finneran. Reform legislation that has been passed by the Senate, yet goes against Finneranís socially conservative grain, inevitably stalls in one House committee or another. A recent example: the contraceptives-coverage bill. This measure, which unanimously passed the Senate, would require private insurers to cover the costs of contraception if they cover the costs of other preventive drugs and devices. Every state in New England but Massachusetts has such legislation on the books. And late in 2000, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that insurers who cover preventative drugs but donít cover contraceptives are engaging in sex discrimination.

Last month, 92 of 160 House members signed a letter stating that they wanted the bill to become law ó enough to pass it if a vote were taken. Last week, it was finally released from the House Ways and Means Committee ó only to be diverted by Finneran several days later to yet another committee for study.

Earlier this month, the Coalition for Legislative Reform issued its midterm report on the legislature and found that both branches of the state legislature are doing less and less. The House met formally, meaning that members were required to be present because roll-call votes might be taken, just 22 times. The Senate held a mere 16 such sessions. Of the 139 laws passed by the legislature this year, 123 were mere technical clarifications of existing law and/or of such narrow scope that they affected only one or two municipalities or individuals.

Compare that with legislation such as the contraceptives bill, which would fix a serious problem of gender equity. Or, for that matter, the domestic-partner bill, which passed the Senate but is languishing in a House committee. If passed, it would reform the stateís insurance regulations to allow cities and towns to provide health insurance for the same-sex domestic partners of their municipal workers.

With this shameful track record, itís fair to ask just what our state legislators are doing for their money ó an annual base salary of $50,123. Itís a nice sum, considering how few days theyíre technically required to show up for work.

Reform legislation isnít the only thing suffering under such ineffectual leadership. The state budget was five months late this year. Negotiations took place behind closed doors among a handful of state representatives and senators. As it became more and more clear that the state was in a recession and that the costs of the voter-passed income-tax cut, combined with declining state revenues, would force broad swaths of financing to be slashed from the budget, those dependent upon state revenues were prevented from making plans for the 2002 fiscal year. Human-services funding was hacked to such an extent that it was left up to our Republican governor to restore some of the services gutted by our Democratic leaders.

Thereís little reason, as of this writing, to believe that the stateís fiscal situation will improve in the coming year. The budget is supposed to be completed in July. It seems a long way off, but Finneran and Senate president Tom Birmingham should be preparing for the next round now. With Birmingham focused on a run for governor (see "Let the Games Begin," page 20), itís hard to imagine that heíll pay much attention to the process. Given that Finneran dominated this yearís proceedings, thereís little reason to expect that things will go any more smoothly unless we see some substantive or stylistic changes in House leadership.

In the meantime, as the Phoenix has noted before (see "Wanted: Political Leadership," Editorial, December 6), the state budget is sure to be a horror for years to come without tax reform. But that takes political courage, something in short supply on Beacon Hill.

The challenges facing the state donít reside only with the legislature, however. The governorís office also has quite a bit to deal with in 2002. First up is the Big Dig. Right now, Governor Jane Swift is caught up in a foolish battle to fire Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board members Jordan Levy and Christy Mihos. Swift ostensibly wants to remove them for their refusal to raise tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike ó tolls expected to be raised as part of a four-year-old bond bill. Their refusal was based largely on a belief that raising tolls is a short-term band-aid solution to the longer-term problem of paying for the Big Dig, which Mihos and Levy warn could cost an additional $1 billion.

Levy, in particular, has advocated for the installation of an independent "watchdog" engineer to oversee the actions of Big Dig contractor Bechtel/Parsons. Last week, as the Boston Herald reported, Senator John Kerry and US Representatives Jim McGovern, Marty Meehan, and Bill Delahunt urged Swift to follow through on Levyís suggestion. Will Swift heed their message and take real action to deal with the Big Dig boondoggle? Or will she just keep playing politics?

Just as troubling as the Big Dig is the ongoing problem of how to improve the administration of Logan Airport, which has been in the spotlight since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Former Massport chief Virginia Buckingham was forced out of her position in the face of public outrage over the many patronage hires at the bloated agency ó outrage stoked by increased press coverage of the issue. Ironically, however, Buckingham may have been the best executive director the troubled agency has seen in years.

Nevertheless, if we know anything today, we know that we need airport professionals who will put safety first. Swiftís inaction in the immediate wake of the attacks can be explained away ó she was waiting for advice from the hastily appointed Carter Commission, charged by Swift with examining how the airport is run. Well, the results are in and the Carter Commission report provided a partial answer to Loganís woes: stop the patronage. Which leaves us with a question: why is Joseph Lawless, a former state trooper and chauffeur to Governor William Weld, still employed by Massport? Lawless, after all, is the guy who, as Loganís chief of security, tried to keep US marshals off the premises after two airplanes were hijacked from Logan and used as airborne bombs to take down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Sure, heís been transferred to another job, but thatís not nearly enough redress.

In the meantime, with Buckingham gone, Thomas Kinton, Loganís aviation director at the time of the terrorist attacks, has been elevated to the position of acting director of Massport. Kinton may be one of the few real aviation experts employed by Massport, but as many seem to have forgotten (if they ever even knew), Kinton was the guy who should have been securing Loganís safety in the first place. Buckingham may be gone, but Kinton ó who is something of a junket junky, as the Herald recently reported ó is the one who truly failed to keep Loganís passengers safe. And heís still got a job with Massport ó a good one, at that. In the meantime, weíve heard little, if anything, from Rafi Ron, the former El Al security chief hired as a consultant to make Logan safe.

To be sure, Swift has insisted that patronage hires be halted at Massport. But itís clear that sheís fighting an uphill battle. Just last week, the state legislature passed an early-retirement bill aimed at encouraging some 7700 state employees to retire by the end of June in order to avoid layoffs. The bill beefs up the pensions of employees who take advantage of early retirement. Neatly tucked into the bill was a provision that would allow a number of the Massport employees who were laid off after the September 11 attacks to take advantage of the more generous retirement package retroactively.

Swiftís options for killing the provision are limited: she doesnít have the power to veto that line item alone. As the Boston Globe reported, every week that passes without an early-retirement program costs the state about $2 million. So instead she asked the Massport Board of Directors to make sure that Massport employees who are already laid off do not get the retirement extras provided by the bill. Of course, itís better than doing nothing. But Swift shouldnít have been faced with this problem in the first place ó we can thank the legislature for that.

Itís clear that the leadership on Beacon Hill has a big job ahead of it in 2002. Itís not clear, however, that everyone there is up for the job.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: January 3 - 10, 2002

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