Monday, January 31, 2011

Bankruptcy protection for states? Tell us what you think.

Today's Boston Herald contains a very interesting op-ed penned by Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich.

Bush and Gingrich claim to strongly favor federal legislation to allow states to declare bankruptcy.

Check out the full article here:

We're intrigued by the idea, which would appear to allow states to do an end run around crushing union contracts and pension systems that have busted state budgets nationwide. But, on the other hand, there seems to be an equity argument here, and we could see bankruptcy being used as a crutch providing cover to irresponsible state financial management and poor leadership (which is a bad thing). At the same time, what else can states do if unions aren't willing to work with states to find fiscal solutions?

So, we're asking our readers: what do you think? Good idea or bad idea? Please take a peek at the Herald and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's time for more effective caps on our foreign debt

One of the top challenges before Congress these days is how to deal with our staggering national debt.

The size of the debt alone is an enormous problem for our country. At $14 trillion, the national debt now constitutes a $45,000 burden for every man, woman and child across America. And, at about 96 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, it is at its highest relative level since the Roosevelt administration and World War II.

The magnitude of our nation's debt is an important subject for domestic political debate. We need to have a serious conversation about our spending levels and the appropriate size of government. But there is an even bigger problem with the national debt that needs to be addressed soon, and it relates to the way our debt is held.

About $4.5 trillion of our national debt is held by foreign countries, which works out to roughly one-third of the total debt. Of these foreign countries, China and Japan account for roughly 40 percent of the foreign-held share. The People's Republic of China alone is owed about $900 billion by the United States.

As the old saying goes, "money talks." And, with so much national debt being held by foreign nations, our national debt is quickly becoming a foreign policy quagmire for the United States.

Any publicly-traded company would start to take notice if any individual investor started to accumulate a large holding in the company - and they would start to take precautions if the investor was not necessarily in agreement with the company's basic philosophy. Should the situation be any different when one of America's leading foreign investors - China - has a history spotted with human rights violations against its own people?

Congress is in the middle of discussions right now about whether our national debt ceiling should be raised so our mounting debt does not cause us to default on our obligations. We think the discussion should also include the imposition of new safeguards to make sure that no single foreign country is allowed to accumulate more than a certain small percentage of our overall national debt, and that no single foreign country is allowed to hold a total amount of debt worth more than a certain small percentage of our gross domestic product.

We understand that allowing foreign countries to accumulate a share of our national debt is a necessary financial move, and trusting them with such investment is also wise politically. But allowing any single nation to own too large a stake in our nation permits them to hold our debt over our head and to use it as a potent weapon of international diplomacy. Our diplomatic power and independence rely on us making sure that does not happen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Oscar-worthy political video

"Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" are great movies. But, we think the Oscar nominating committee should really take a look at Tim Pawlenty's new video which debuted in New Hampshire last night.

Alternate Link:

No, we're not endorsing Pawlenty for anything or picking favorites in the 2012 presidential race. (Pawlenty isn't even an announced candidate.) But it's tough not to get goosebumps when you watch this video.

It's a minute and a half of carefully chosen, universally-accepted images of poignant and patriotic American themes. It's like a trailer from an inspiring movie that you'd really like to go and see, and what better way to kick off a political campaign? It also uses extremely high cinematic quality production values, not to mention inspiring music and effects. And there isn't any of the anger or vitriol that the political right has been criticized for.

In fact, it reminds us a lot of another video that inspired the nation many years ago:

Alternate Link:

No matter what Pawlenty's intentions are, this video is a clear message to President Obama that the Republicans also have what it takes to tap into the emotions of American voters, and that Democrats don't necessarily have a corner on the market when it comes to emotional campaigns.

We hope it's a sign of things to come from the GOP field at all levels in 2012.

Monday, January 24, 2011

OMG, @masslegislature needs 2 focus more on u

Man, it must not be fun to work on Beacon Hill these days.

First, there was last week's adoption of a strict dress code ruling out jeans, spaghetti straps and hockey jerseys as a wardrobe choice. (Togas were banned several years ago.) Now, there's a ban on using Twitter at work (though, mercifully, FaceBook appears to have been spared for the moment).

What's next? Will legislators have to go to work every day and sit for hours on end trying to find ways to solve problems?

It's starting to seem like this august institution is really just high school for grownups, where it's necessary to have strict rules of decorum to keep the kids focused on the tasks at hand.

We think most Massachusetts residents would agree with us in saying that we wish Beacon Hill would be a little more like 'The West Wing' and a lot less like 'Glee' without the singing.

We once read that it's poor etiquette to take out your phone and send an instant message to someone or check your e-mail if you're in a setting where taking out a crossword puzzle would also be rude. Would you consider pulling out a crossword puzzle at your job? Would you even think of doing it in the Legislature? (Note – sadly, we have personally observed this practice with our own eyes.)

The state Senate recently rejected a ban on texting while on the House floor, but a special Senate committee is being formed to study decorum in that chamber instead. Who knows what they will think of next?

We thought it was sad when legislators spent so much time agonizing over their committee assignments to see how popular they were with leadership. This is much worse.

You know what they call people who spend all their time worrying about what they are going to wear to work, whether or not they're in the "in" crowd, and how they will send out instant messages to their friends? Well, when it comes to political leaders, we'd call them big disappointments.

Our main point is that all of these things should go without saying. We should be able to expect that our "full-time" state legislators already know they need to show respect for the job by dressing appropriately and refraining from goofing off during work.

Maybe then, legislators could stop wasting time worrying about how to conduct themselves and focus more on the real problems that are facing people in Massachusetts, problems like an 8.2% unemployment rate and a $1.5 billion budget deficit.

Friday, January 21, 2011

New Hampshire straw poll adds political sizzle to a frigid New England weekend

Most of New England lies encased in a frigid blanket of snow and ice this weekend.

But politics will be positively hot in New Hampshire tomorrow as almost 500 Republican activists meet to elect a new party chair and conduct a presidential straw poll.

This will warm the hearts of avid political watchers longing for the next big race. But tomorrow's straw poll also will provide useful information for those hoping for a barometer of how conservative the GOP base considers itself to be and what qualities are being sought in our next president.

State set to see Patrick’s plans for next year’s budget... will it be more of the same?


All eyes will be on the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Association today as Governor Patrick addresses members regarding his upcoming budget plans.

Traditionally, this address is one of the first and most telling insights into the governor's budget plan before it is filed at the end of January. It is also a glimpse for city and town leaders into the governor's intentions regarding local aid.

There is no doubt that balancing this year's budget is a difficult endeavor. Current projections are for available revenues to track about $1.5 billion behind desired spending, leaving a sizable gap for state leaders to close before the new fiscal year begins in July. (Exact revenue estimates are $20.525 billion, up from an estimate of $19.784 billion in FY2011, which was itself adjusted upward by $706 million from original benchmarks. You can read an AP article with full details here.)

But we insist that budgeting always needs to be seen as a process of setting priorities, not fulfilling wishes or policy goals. Too often, the state budget process is simply a function of looking at the prior year's appropriations and adjusting them program-by-program to meet available revenue in the coming year. This process lacks vision. It also tends to perpetuate waste and duplication and fails to weigh the merits of programs against each other appropriately.

We advocate instead what is often referred to as "zero-based budgeting," where it is assumed that each program or line item in the budget will not be funded (in other words, the appropriation begins at zero dollars). Then, leaders examine the merits of spending money on each cause, and in the process of funding them, they hopefully find ways to streamline government by eliminating wasteful spending and consolidating less-important programs. This naturally frees up more money for more important priorities and also takes the pressure off tax increases and tapping stabilization funds. It's still a very difficult process, but the outcome should be a more considered and thoughtful approach to budgeting.

We look forward to hearing the Governor's proposals later today. Until then, we ask our readers: how would you propose that Governor Patrick should balance this year's budget? Please post us a comment below with your thoughts.

UPDATED POST - Check out this Boston Globe article for an explanation of what Governor Patrick said at the MMA meeting today: Patrick proposes cuts in non-school aid, changes in municipal worker health care

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A step forward, back, in pension reform

We applaud Governor Patrick's recently-announced plan to reform state public employee pensions by raising the retirement age to 60 and by eliminating "double-dipping" and "spiking."

There is a lot to like in the Governor's plan, which would appear to save the state money and also bring public benefits more into line with those in the private sector.

But one thing we don't agree with is the Governor's proposal to extend the timetable for paying down our state's $20 billion unfunded pension liability by 15 years, stretching it from 2025 to 2040.

No doubt this move is part of the Governor's plan to address a gaping budget shortfall in next year's budget, since extending the repayment window will reduce annual budget transfers to cover the pension fund gap. But it's also a costly long-term move for Massachusetts taxpayers. We also question what affect it might have on our state's bond rating.

We understand the need for short-term fixes in our budget, but we also think it's necessary to keep long-term effects in mind. Our state's unfunded pension liability is an albatross around our neck that needs to be addressed. We can't keep postponing the inevitable by extending the timetable for repayment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A week well worth watching

Most Bay State residents are beginning their day today thinking about what they did over the past three-day weekend and looking forward to an abbreviated workweek.

But as we begin this week, we think it's worth spotlighting some profound events that will transpire over the next few days.

The first event will take place today, as Congress begins debating the repeal of last year's health care reform bill. We honestly don't know where this will all end up. But, we do know it will be the first test of how Democrats and Republicans work together in the new Congress, and it will show us how strong the Republican majority is in the House.

This will probably also serve as a starting off point for what will happen one week later, on January 25, as President Obama delivers his State of the Union message to Congress.

For the President, the main challenge will be to explain to the American people how he will reduce the size of the $14 trillion national debt, what his plan is to finish our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what his vision is to get America back to work.

Interestingly, this is the same challenge Obama faced a year ago. Here are some of his opening remarks from his 2010 State of the Union address:

"One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression. So we acted -– immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.

But the devastation remains. One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who'd already known poverty, life has become that much harder."

- President Barack Obama, 2010 State of the Union Address
January 27, 2010

Not much appears to have changed since then – except that now, one year later, President Obama has lost the benefit of having a friendly Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

The second event will happen the following day, January 26, as Governor Patrick files his first budget recommendation of his second term. (Expect details to be leaked by then Governor's Office between now and then.)

The biggest challenge for the Governor will be to come up with a plan to successfully bridge a multi-billion dollar budget gap – preferably in a way that does not increase taxes or place vulnerable populations at risk. With the disappearance of many one-time funding sources this year, this task will require large-scale cuts and innovative ways to reform government so that essential services are delivered more efficiently. We look forward to seeing his plan, which will frame most political debate here in Massachusetts through the spring.

Like most Americans, Bay State residents don't have another year to wait to see these problems addressed successfully by political leaders. Now is the time for decisive action.

Will this next week be the start of it? Only time will tell...

Friday, January 14, 2011

When it comes to public figures, is 2011 the 'Year of No Excuses?'

Two weeks into the new year, it appears 2011 is shaping up to be the "Year of No Excuses," where titles like "state senator," "congressman's wife" and "gubernatorial appointee" no longer buy anyone a "get out of jail free card."

Last week, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson was sentenced to 3 and 1/2 years in a federal prison for taking bribes. The U.S. District judge who handed down the sentence said he believed the law had been too lenient toward Massachusetts politicians who engage in political corruption. And then Gov. Deval Patrick yesterday cleaned house at the state parole board, accepting the resignations of much of the Parole Board, firing certain parole employees and reprimanding and suspending others after a report showed major lapses in procedure and judgment in the release of a convicted con who killed a Woburn police officer the day after Christmas.

And now a federal judge has sentenced Patrice Tierney, wife of Congressman John Tierney, to 30 days in prison for aiding and abetting the filing of false tax returns for her brother. Even prosecutors — who are supposed to be working on behalf of the government — argued that Tierney should be let off with house arrest saying the embarrassment she faced for her crime was punishment enough. But the judge vehemently disagreed, saying he could not "excuse a violation of the law of this severity" and that "there must be an actual sanction." Read the full story here.

It seems those who make our laws and enforce them have come to the place where the average citizen has been for quite a while now — fed up with politicians and public figures who act as though they are above the law, who make excuses and pleas for special treatment when it comes time for justice to be meted out. This is a good thing, and it's the only way to restore public confidence in the justice system and in public figures themselves.

It looks like the old "do you know who I am?" trick doesn't necessarily work anymore. In fact, it might land you in hotter water. Laws should be enforced equally, according to what you did and not who you are. As Judge Young said about Patrice Tierney in court yesterday, when it comes to public figures who break the law, they "should get the same sentence anyone else would get."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Patrick takes action to end criminal justice failures

This afternoon, Governor Deval Patrick told bold action to combat recent failures in the criminal justice system, largely in response to the December murder of a Woburn police officer.

Some of Patrick's moves include accepting the resignation of certain members of the Parole Board, terminating certain parole employees, instituting new evidence-based standards for parole hearings, and filing legislation for greater truth in sentencing for repeat offenders.

We applaud Governor Patrick for taking bold, decisive and meaningful action to address shortcomings in the system. We spoke about the need for some of these moves in a recent post: Chaos in the criminal justice system threatens everyone.

We find Governor Patrick's tough talk and strong action refreshing, and we look forward to assessing the full content and impact of his moves today.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Not so 'evergreen'

We are shocked by the breaking news today that Evergreen Solar is closing its facility in Devens, Mass.

Company Press Release             Boston Globe Story

This closure of a business, one which has received $58 million in state aid, is significant for the loss of 800 workers it represents. But it also casts a bright light on how giving this company a bailout was a bad investment for the state.

Interestingly, the company is reportedly retaining its operations in other parts of the USA and overseas. Thus, it shows that even targeted incentives are not enough to retain companies here given the poor overall business climate.

We repeat something we've said before. State government should not be in the venture capital business; leave that to the private sector. Government's job is to create healthy economic policy so that private business can grow and thrive.

"It's beginning to look a lot like... a deficit."

Have you noticed that the Boston area has been receiving a lot of snow this winter?

We're not meteorologists, but it's only January and so far we seem to be getting dumped on with plenty of snow. In fact, there's a major nor'easter being forecast for the region again tomorrow, the second major snowstorm in just a few weeks. Yuck.

We hearty New Englanders know all too well the headaches associated with snowfall. We're used to it. But, there's a major headache that is often overlooked until later in spring.

It costs a lot of money for the state and for cities and towns to remove all the snow we get from the public roadways. Budgeting for snow and ice removal in public accounting is tricky business. Sometimes, government officials try to trim back snow and ice reserves in lean fiscal years, betting on temperate conditions as a way to divert cash to other programs when money is tight. Sometimes the bet pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

The trick is that, one way or another, the snow has to be plowed and plow drivers need to get paid. When and if snow and ice reserves are depleted, it's usually up to the state to make up the difference by way of a springtime supplemental appropriation.

We find it curious that the Legislature passed a $330 million supplemental budget in its last informal session of 2010. And, we find it curious that, while there was apparently plenty of money sitting around to cover additional legislative expenses in the supplemental budget, there was nothing we can see which was dedicated to snow and ice costs. How much money will be left at the end of the fiscal year if we need it?

This is serious business, because most cities and towns find themselves in a condition of depleted cash reserves, tight budgets and diminished local aid. Plow drivers also could use business generated by the snow, and they shouldn't have to wait to get paid. Altogether, this is a recipe for problems if Mother Nature delivers a big unanticipated bill for snow and ice costs this winter.

One thing is for certain – with a $1.5 billion budget deficit looming at the state level for Fiscal Year 2012, don't expect much in the way of relief from Beacon Hill.

This is definitely an area to watch over the next few months.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Quick hits

Some of the things we're following this morning:

  • NASSOUR - Jennifer Nassour was reelected last night to serve as Chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party. We congratulate her on her reelection and we have confidence she will continue her admirable job of building the stature and success of the GOP here in the Bay State. She's the right pick for the job.
  • WILKERSON - On the other end of the spectrum, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison for taking $23,500 in political bribes. She got what she deserved. But we also think hers is a tragic case, a disappointing end to what was otherwise a promising political career, even if we didn't necessarily agree with her politics. And, we think the story is not over yet - Judge Woodlock's sentencing hearing serves as a wake-up call to voters in Massachusetts that Beacon Hill still needs to be swept clean of corruption, greed and self-interest. You can read about what he said in this Boston Globe story.
  • PAROLE MORATORIUM - According to the Boston Globe, state senators from both parties are calling for a suspension of parole hearings pending an investigation into the case of the man who recently murdered a Woburn police officer during an armed robbery. We second the call for a moratorium.
  • GOOD WORDS - Be sure to check out the great editorial in today's Boston Herald about how politicians in Washington and Boston are exhibiting "political tone-deafness" in getting up and running this year.

Have something to add to the list? Please post a comment and let us know.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"This inauguration brought to you by..."

Earlier today, Governor Deval Patrick was sworn in to his second term of office after having raised over $700,000 in private donations to fund inaugural festivities.

Governor Patrick deserves credit for releasing the list of private sponsors to the public, something he did voluntarily. But, it shouldn't be up to him. While the giving and receipt of these donations was not inappropriate under existing campaign finance and ethics laws, we believe the contributions should be subject to public reporting requirements, contribution limits, and corporate prohibitions that are the same or similar to those that pertain to political contributions.

Take a look at the list in this GateHouse Media / State House News Service article. It includes labor unions, insurance companies, banks, sports teams and manufacturers.

Many of the sponsors have a stake in what happens on Beacon Hill after the inauguration, from health care to gaming to insurance and financial regulation. (And, curiously, the last time several of these highly generous sponsors made big news was to report Massachusetts job layoffs, but we'll leave that to their PR departments to sort out.)

Our point is that, in almost every other circumstance in which these sponsors would make a politically-oriented donation, their donation would be highly regulated. For example, corporate sponsors are prohibited from giving political donations under campaign finance law. Individuals are prohibited from donating more than $500 a year. In this case, some individuals or couples apparently contributed $25,000. Why is an inauguration really any different?

We've written before about how Massachusetts law requires public school teachers to publicly report gifts they receive in amounts of less than $50, and it forbids personal gifts over $50 and class gifts over $150. The purpose is to eliminate the appearance of improper influence. Why can corporations contribute $50,000 to sponsor a statewide inauguration?

It's well and good for us to celebrate the orderly transition of government as part of our democracy, regardless of who is in charge and which party they represent. And, it's fair to ask willing private donors to pick up some of the tab. But we think it's also reasonable to have reporting and contribution guidelines in place, just like during the campaign that made the inauguration possible.

Chaos in the criminal justice system threatens everyone

We are happy to hear that Governor Deval Patrick plans to do something to address youth violence during his second term of office.

But, we hope that action is meaningful and also more encompassing. The plain truth is that the Massachusetts criminal justice system is in a state of chaos. It is threatening our safety and security, and needs immediate attention.

The grisly headlines speak for themselves: On the day after Christmas in 2009, a convenience store clerk is gunned down behind his counter, allegedly by a convicted murderer. In 2010, a pizza deliveryman is murdered for sport by teens. A toddler is gunned down in the streets, caught in the crossfire of an apparent robbery. And the day after Christmas in 2010, a Woburn police officer is murdered by a paroled armed robber who had been sentenced to serve three concurrent life sentences.

Sadly, the tragic list of cases goes on. Each is a solemn example of a system that is failing. If such failures occurred elsewhere, for example in our schools or hospitals, remedial measures would be taken instantly. But, for some reason, the criminal justice system seems immune to meaningful change as people continue to die in our streets.

We're not here to cast blame, and we'd like to specifically point out that police and prosecutors are not to blame. In fact, their tireless dedication and heroic efforts are betrayed the most by these heinous crimes because our criminal justice system works against them.

We're here to demand action. Our state's criminal justice system is too soft on crime, too short on resources, and too laden with politics and patronage to achieve effective results. The Ware Report on the probation department and the New Year's Eve resignation of Commissioner O'Brien leave little doubt that this is true.

Massachusetts needs to put politics aside and put an end to the violence.

State leaders should immediately appoint an independent, comprehensive commission to evaluate our current probation, parole, and sex offender registry systems. And, by a commission, we mean a real working commission that actually meets and achieves results. We must make sure dangerous felons are locked up, not liberated to the streets to reoffend. We need to competently evaluate the risk and monitor the whereabouts of those who are released early.

In addition, the Legislature should partner with judicial officials to undertake a comprehensive reevaluation of our criminal code to identify areas where our laws are failing us. The Legislature should revisit the idea of sentencing guidelines for crimes in this state. The Legislature also should reconsider recent changes to CORI so it is easier for the public to know criminals' violent tendencies.

Finally, we think the FY2012 state budget process should include a thorough, multi-disciplinary evaluation of the capital and operating needs of the criminal justice system. The state should develop a long-term criminal justice spending plan that would help to incorporate additional technology and other resources to assist law enforcement efforts statewide.

There are many components contributing to our crime crisis, including underlying social and economic factors. These will take time to solve. But immediate action is needed to stop the wave of violence sweeping across our state. An entire generation is at risk. Our state is under siege.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

US national debt tops $14 trillion for the first time

According to the United States Treasury (Web site), the national public debt eclipsed $14 trillion on December 31, 2010.

This is the first time in history the debt has topped $14 trillion, and it brings to light several important issues which will demand immediate attention by the next Congress.

The first one is the sheer enormity of the debt itself. As we have said before, the per capita debt load (what it will cost each individual American) is now well over $45,000, and it exceeds 90 percent of our nation's gross national product. The debt has also risen sharply over time. When President Obama took office on January 20, 2009, the debt was $10.626 trillion, meaning that over the past two years, the national debt has increased by about 31 percent. Accumulating the first $13 trillion debt took our nation decades, but adding on the last trillion dollars took only about six months.

The second is the fact that a large share of the public debt is held by foreign nations, which complicates United States foreign policy. We cannot expect to exert independent influence in the foreign policy arena when about one-third of our debt is held by international power brokers.

The third issue is the statutory debt limit (how much money the government can borrow without receiving additional authorization from Congress), which was increased from $12.394 trillion to $14.294 trillion effective February 12, 2010. There is increasing pressure to increase the debt ceiling so the United States can borrow more money, but this is receiving opposition from House Republicans who say it's irresponsible to keep running up the meter on our debt.

The crushing burden of our national debt is an extremely important issue for everyone in the country, both now and for future generations. Congress must make it a top priority to start bringing down the size of the debt. And, there should be no increases in the debt ceiling unless necessary to avoid default, and then only if there are strict benchmarks put in place to reduce the size of the debt over time.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sometimes less is really more

According to the Boston Globe, Governor Patrick has recommended a 0.5 percent pay cut for state lawmakers in 2011, worth about $300 off of legislators' base salary of $61,440. (Full Globe story)

We support the move. But, we think this could actually end up as a raise for some lawmakers. Here's why:

For several years now, a handful of state legislators have been refusing to accept salary increases as a matter of principle. The most recent example was in 2009, when certain members from both parties refused to accept a $3,203 raise (or pledged to donate it to charity) while the rest of the state was in financial difficulty.

Today's action by the Governor - appropriate and admirable on his part - raises an interesting possibility for legislators. We wonder: will legislators who refused the pay raise back in 2009 maintain their 2011 salary at $58,237? Or, will they 'accept' the Governor's pay cut and use it as cover to set their 2011 salary at $61,140 – for them, a pay increase of almost $3,000 from 2009 which also has implications for their pensions in the future.

If legislators do choose to increase their salaries this way, they could actually end up costing the state money: every $3,000 increase is worth about 10 cuts of $300 each. Not to mention the fact that it would be hypocritical.

Stay tuned.

Another business 'dogged' by bad state policies

Most residents of the North Shore are familiar with Lawton's Famous Frankfurters in Lawrence. Situated prominently on the corner of Broadway and Canal Streets, it has been a local landmark since first opening its doors in 1929.

We've eaten there. Heck, our grandparents even ate there many moons ago.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. In this case, Lawton's officially closed its doors on December 31, 2010 after 81 years of serving up lunchtime Hot Dog Specials.

The owners are talking of finding a new location sometime in the future, but for now at least, the business is gone.

Before you think this is just another blog posting about some defunct food stand or nostalgic times gone by, think again. There’s a story behind the story, and that's why it's the topic of our posting today.

If you ask the store owners why they closed, they will tell you it had to do with the ill effects of a state economic stimulus project, and regulatory opposition to opening a new location.

On a sign hanging in the store during its final days, store owners claimed they decided not to renew their lease at their current location because state bridge work on nearby Route 28 "hurt them badly."

Here is what the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune had to say about it:

The bridge project is part of the state's Accelerated Bridge Program. In 2009, the Patrick-Murray Administration heralded bridge reconstruction in the area as "part of its Massachusetts Recovery Plan to secure the state's economic future."

Ask anyone who used to eat or work at Lawton's what they think about that "economic recovery" plan today, and they'll likely give you 'the works.'

The story doesn't end there. Faced without viable business at their existing location, store owners then attempted to move to an abandoned car dealership property across town, which was going to be redeveloped. However, the local planning board blocked those plans due to neighborhood opposition. That property remains vacant to this day, the shell of another defunct business.

And so, like countless other Massachusetts businesses, Lawton's is now part of the economic history of our state, instead of a vital part of our economic future. And, it's the latest business in Lawrence to close its doors and to add to the unemployment woes of one of the most economically-depressed communities in the state. Basically, one of the first things you see when you drive into downtown Lawrence on Route 28 is an empty store that had been in business for generations.

Lawton's serves as an important case study for anyone who doubts the importance of state policies for business development and job growth here in the Bay State.

Will state officials get the message?

'Frankly,' we don't think so.