Thursday, March 31, 2011

On the road again

Between the two of us, we spent almost a decade up on Beacon Hill watching everything that went on very closely.

We think we know a lot about Beacon Hill politics. But sometimes, even we scratch our heads when we see what's happening there now.

Today is one of those times.

There is an Associated Press story in today's Boston Herald that reports state lawmakers are heading to western Massachusetts this afternoon for a two-day retreat. They reportedly plan to discuss economic policy and talk strategy for the upcoming session.

Are you kidding? Really, guys?

That's right. It might not be Deval Patrick this time, but Massachusetts politicians are once again on the move. Somebody cue Willie Nelson for a little traveling music, please...

"...On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way..."

We pause for a moment to give legislators credit for at least having the foresight not to pay for this pajama party using state funds. Thank goodness for that. Let the pillow fights begin.

We even admit that a retreat like this might conceivably be a good idea, particularly if it were for new legislators (as is customary). But it's not.

Here's what's wrong with it:

It strikes us as incredibly odd that lawmakers are just now deciding to meet to figure out who's on first when it comes to state economic policy and how to run committees responsible for the fate of thousands of bills. We're approaching the fourth month of a two-year legislative session. It's time for action.

It also amazes us that lawmakers claim they are retreating to western Massachusetts to hear from economic analysts about how bad our state economy is – less than 24 hours after spending more than $300 million on supplemental spending. Call us crazy, but maybe they should have talked to economists before spending money? Frankly, we don't want to hear it if they come back from the retreat and tell us the economy is so bad that we need new taxes or fees, or that there's no more money for local aid.

Also, Saturday is just two days away. We don't want to conflict with anybody's plans, but might this fantastic getaway have been planned for the weekend? And, not for nothing, but couldn't they just do this at the Statehouse?

Seriously, guys. Seriously. Time to get to work.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Good News and Bad News: House is in Session

Recently, we wrote a blog post about the inaction on Beacon Hill and the lack of meaningful progress on important issues.

Well, we have good news and bad news.

Good news first: The House of Representatives will be in formal session today.

The bad news: They are coming in for the express purpose of spending money.

Some of this spending is necessary. For example, members will be voting on additional funding for snow and ice costs, a priority we've spoken about before. And, given Friday's unfortunate weather forecast, it's something that must be tended to immediately.

But, this funding is contained within a larger $325 million spending bill that includes things like mid-year pay raises and scores of new policy initiatives. The Boston Herald is running a good Associated Press story about more of what's in the bill.

If nothing else, it looks like members of the House still know how to spend lots of money.

What's not mentioned is that there was apparently an order passed by the House yesterday which sets forth how the bill would be considered today. Orders can typically narrow the scope of what is allowed to be debated or amended in bills. There is no text of the order posted online, so one has only to speculate what's in this order. But, in our experience, it's unusual for a supplemental budget to be considered with this sort of order in place.

Why did legislators choose to pass an order for this bill today? Perhaps we will find out later this afternoon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Taxing Problem for Massachusetts Businesses

This is a blog post about taxes. But, unlike most of our other posts on the topic, it has nothing to do with how much people have to pay in taxes. It has to do with how our state collects tax revenue. And, for the sake of full disclosure, it's an issue near and dear to our entrepreneurial hearts.

We'll begin at the beginning.

A couple of years ago, the Patrick Administration imposed new tax rules on Massachusetts businesses in an effort to recapture revenue being sheltered out of state by large, multi-state businesses. As part of the effort, state tax forms got more complicated. To make a long story short, if you want to collect that extra money, you need to ask people more questions.

We disagree with the basic premise of that legislation, but that's for another post. Back to the subject at hand.

Along with more complicated tax forms came a requirement that basically any business that earns any money in Massachusetts must file their tax return electronically.

To the extent that this was a proposal aimed at reducing paperwork and improving efficiency, we think that electronic filing is a great idea. However, there's a problem.

Certain entities, most notably partnerships, are required to file their taxes with the state electronically -- but there's no vehicle available to them to do it on their own. You might expect there to be some online form, or an address to e-mail, or some other way to file taxes. But (at least for this type of return, which is typical for many businesses), there's not. You have to either buy expensive software to do it, or pay a certified public accountant to do it for you. And, what's most frustrating is that you have to do this even though much of the tax information requested by the state is the same as what is filed with the federal government. Filing the state return is mostly a fill-in-the-blanks game once you've done the federal return.

Now, we're sure that many businesses have an accountant do their taxes anyway; that's probably a good thing. And, paying fifty or a hundred bucks for a computer program won't break the bank for most big businesses. But, there's just something wrong about the notion that you should be required by the state to pay a large sum of money just to file your tax return. Taxes are a burden on their own; complying with that burden shouldn't have to cost you money.

This is an issue that came to our attention when, after filling out our business tax returns, we were forced to pay an accountant to file our returns electronically this year, whereas we had expected to just have to put a stamp on them and mail them in. We hope the state will revisit its practices in this area and, at the very least, provide taxpayers next year with some vehicle to file taxes online if an electronic filing is required.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Action in Libya is Justified but Raises Questions

Barack Obama inherited wars on two fronts when he became president: ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, he has initiated a third conflict involving United States troops in Libya.

We support the President, our troops, and their mission in Libya.

However, as with all matters of foreign policy, we think it's appropriate to ask questions along the way - and particularly at these early stages of our involvement - to determine the scope of American interests and to ensure we are on the right course.

The first question concerns the person at the center of this latest conflict, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Is American action aimed directly at removing Gadhafi from power, or is it simply aimed at blocking him from attacking his own people? We believe there is justifiable American interest in either action. However, we also think it is important to choose between the two, and right now we're not sure if that decision has really been made.

The second question also concerns Gadhafi, but it's a different one. What happens if, after an initial round of airstrikes, Gadhafi remains in power? What then? Is America prepared to escalate measures to remove him? Would the no-fly zone cease if Gadhafi remains but stops attacking his people? Military missions require clearly-defined objectives and terms of engagement to protect troops and determine success, and these questions are all important factors in determining our ultimate objectives and success in Libya.

Third, we wonder if the United States has adequately considered the consequences of this conflict. It's one thing to watch missiles flying on television and to see bombed-out buildings. It's quite another thing if American troops are captured or killed as part of the action. And then, there is the open question of whether Gadhafi will retaliate with terrorism as he did by bombing Pan Am Flight 103; or, more to the point, the question is how and when will he retaliate, and are Americans ready for those consequences? And, how will action in Libya affect our other foreign policy commitments, including ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We reiterate our support for this action and particularly for the brave men and women now involved in enforcing American policy militarily. However, we think all these questions need to be answered satisfactorily before the United States gets deeper into conflict to prevent a protracted and more dangerous situation from developing.

The two places we are willing to be critical of the President are:

1. President Obama faces a number of foreign policy challenges around the globe. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, and Libya name just a few areas that require urgent attention, and that doesn't even begin to address broader issues in the Middle East, China and Russia. However, taking all of these flash points together, it remains unclear what President Obama's foreign policy is. How does the American response to these foreign crises fit together into one theme? We fail to see a principled approach by the Obama Administration to these situations, other than a profound desire to keep each off of Page One of the newspaper. And that is something that we find deeply concerning.

2. We also find it concerning that, yesterday, mid-way through this crisis and with a mounting disaster in Japan, President Obama was attending a state dinner in Chile and meanwhile Vice President Biden was here in Boston at a cocktail party to raise money and rally party faithful. Who is in charge?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Around the World in 80 Days

According to our planners, today marks the 80th day of 2011; the 12th week of the year.

And, according to the political page on, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has been out-of-state for 23 of those days. That's more than one-quarter of the time. And, roughly half of that time was spent internationally.

But, while we think our traveling Governor is vulnerable to criticism for having been away from Massachusetts quite a bit lately, we do give him credit for at least attempting to address certain issues facing our state. Contrast that with the complete and utter silence of our full-time Legislature so far this year.

Oh, pardon us. The Legislature is still in the process of "organizing" itself after last year's elections. It takes time to assign new office space to everyone, dole out plum committee assignments, and process the many thousands of ground-breaking bills filed by legislators.


But, think about it. So far, the state has paid our 200 senators and representatives about $2.8 million in base pay so far in 2011 to do... um... pretty much nothing.

What have they really accomplished? Well, they froze unemployment insurance rates this year, which is good news for employers but also an action that was under deadline. They passed a reorganization plan proposed by the Governor, but that's a pretty small accomplishment after 4 years of the Patrick administration.

And, other than that.... Well, not a lot that we can see. A couple of sick leave banks and a local bill for Medford. Some hearings. A protest march or two outside the windows. But, nothing that would really affect the daily lives of people struggling to make it through a cold winter with lower salaries and higher gas prices.

Meanwhile, it was recently reported by our friends at Beacon Hill Roll Call that legislators raked in a whopping $462,546 worth of per diem payments last year.

Must be nice.

People on Beacon Hill sometimes wonder why legislators have a bad name with the electorate. We say, wonder no more. Tick, tock. People can't afford to wait for political action on important economic and public safety issues.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Think local if you want to make a real difference.

A lot of water cooler talk these days is centered around political and economic issues. Things like taxes and spending, the high cost of living, and schools all get a lot of attention.

Usually, this kind of talk has to do with national politics or maybe what's going on at the state level. We have to admit, we talk a lot about these things every day, too.

But we thought we'd pause for a moment to talk about the importance of local politics to what happens in daily life.

You might not hear about it on the nightly news, but what happens at the local level has a profound effect on you. Right now, people right down the street from your house are making decisions about things like how much property taxes you'll have to pay next year, how adequately your home will be protected by police and fire service, how your kids will be educated, and whether potholes in your street will be repaired. In many cases, they're responsible for the water you drink, the books you take out from the library, and the cleanliness of the local restaurant where you're eating dinner tonight.

The way in which these decisions are made depends on the crop of local leaders selected each year in municipal elections. And, if you live in a community with a town form of government, those elections are probably happening sometime in the next few weeks. (Cities are on a different schedule.)

So, take a few minutes and get informed about what’s happening locally. Get to know who's running for office, know what they stand for, and know what it is they want to do when they get there. Even more importantly, find our when your local election is happening and get out to vote in it.

And, if you're really interested in making a difference, think about getting involved yourself. It's still not too late to take out papers for office in some communities, whether it's for selectman or school committee. If running for office isn't your style, there are also many opportunities to serve on appointed boards in your community. Most likely, town officials would love to have you get involved.

Want to get involved but don't know where to start? Click here for a list of contact information for city and town halls across the state, including Web addresses and e-mails for town clerks.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Presidential governing by bracket

If only all of life's conflicts could fit neatly into a nice little bracketed chart...

We're thinking that's probably what President Barack Obama was thinking recently as he proudly filled out his pick sheet for this year's NCAA basketball tournament.

Now, don't get us wrong. It's exceedingly cool that our rock star president has the wherewithal to pick college hoops champs live on television.

But, might he have had something better to do with his time?

Like, maybe, fix the economy, or solve foreign crises?

Then again, we're wondering if maybe there's something more at play.

Could it be that the president has found a new way to solve problems in the White House?

Just think about it.

How do you decide which world problem to address today? Well, just put them all into neat little brackets and... voila!

Need to choose how to spend money on new programs? Put 'em in a bracket.

Need to figure out whether existing tyrants or opposition forces should prevail in foreign conflicts? Put 'em head-to-head into brackets and see who wins.

Hey, this is easy. And totally fun.

So much fun, in fact, that we could see other politicians using it.

Governor Patrick, do you need to decide which new upstart company Massachusetts should invest in this week? Put 'em in a bracket. (Note: Evergreen Solar was his number one seed, but it got knocked out in the first round. Maybe next year.)

Massachusetts Legislature, do you need a plan for how people should get jobs in the probation department? We could just put 'em all into brackets...

Well, maybe not.

Sadly, most of life's problems don't get solved this way. They take leadership, not brackets, to address them successfully.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Massachusetts By The Numbers

Just in case you're wondering how our state government is doing these days, we thought we would provide you with the following crib sheet:

290,000Approximate number of unemployed people in Massachusetts as of March 3, 2011 (Source: WBZ)
8.3%Massachusetts unemployment rate as of March 3, 2011 (Source: WBZ)
1100Number of jobs Fidelity has announced that it will trim from its Marlborough campus by next year (Source: The Boston Globe)
21Number of full or partial days Governor Patrick has been out of state since January 1 of this year (Source: The Boston Globe)
0New jobs announced by the Patrick Administration while the Governor has been on his trade mission to Israel and Great Britain (Source: The Boston Globe)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

For Attribution Nominated for 'Best Political Blog'

We're proud to be nominated by The Boston Phoenix for their 2011 BEST issue in the category for Best Political Blog.

Please show your support for our site by voting. You can click on the image on the left to vote, or visit the Phoenix directly here.

Thank you for your continued support and for reading. Special thanks to the Phoenix for recognizing us.

Tito Jackson for Boston City Council

Today's Election Day. Well, at least it is if you live in City Council District 7 in Boston.

That's the City Council district formerly represented by Chuck Turner.

We think today's Boston Herald editorial endorsing Tito Jackson for the seat is right on. We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

We've been singing Tito Jackson's campaign song ever since we first heard it (try listening to it and tell us it's not catchy), and we just happen to like the guy. He's spirited, he's got lots of energy, and he's dedicated to his district. That's something we all need more of these days.

If you happen to live in this district, please get out and vote today.

Friday, March 11, 2011


There's no question that the major news story dominating today's headlines is the devastating earthquake in Japan and tsunami warnings across the Pacific basin.

We're obviously following the news in Japan like everyone else is. In addition to social media, here are some of the links we're following for the latest information:

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Show Us The Money

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is in the middle of a ten-day trade mission to Israel and Great Britain this week.

Governor Patrick isn't the first Massachusetts governor who's traveled overseas in search of enhanced trade for the Bay State, nor will he likely be the last. We think it's appropriate to withhold judgment on Governor Patrick's travels for now, and to give Governor Patrick provisional credit for his efforts to improve the economy and increase jobs for Massachusetts residents.

However, we think it's also fair for Massachusetts taxpayers to hold Governor Patrick accountable for these travels upon his return. After all, according to the Boston Herald, taxpayers are paying about $150,000 for an overseas mission that (by our tally) will encompass nearly one percent of the Governor's term of office.

First, we think it's fair to ask what Massachusetts will receive following this investment of time and effort by the Patrick Administration. In other words, was the trip worth it? How many jobs will be created? How much additional tax revenue will we realize?

Second, we think taxpayers deserve to know how the fort is being held down while Governor Patrick is away. What is Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray doing this week? Who is covering for the dozen or so cabinet members and support staff accompanying the Governor on his trip, and what are they doing this week? If this is a trade mission and not a vacation, then all official duties should be attended to in these officials' absence.

Third, what, if anything, is Massachusetts committing to business leaders or foreign officials as part of this trip? In other words, what are we giving up in exchange for added business here? Perhaps this trip is merely to market our state abroad. Fair enough. But, if commitments are made for tax incentives, investments, infrastructure improvements, etc., we'd like to know what that those commitments are, and what they will cost. And (back to our first question), in either case, what we can expect to receive in return?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Success Story in Local Government, As Seen on Fox 25

[EDITORS' UPDATE: Apparently we stand corrected on this story. At the time of writing, Ms. Mont-Ferguson appeared to us to be highly-capable. However, she has since been reassigned from her position over concerns about food quality. The hunt for model public servants continues....]

With all of the back-and-forth about public employees and unions lately, every once in awhile you still can find a success story in government service. Helen Mont-Ferguson appears to be just such a story.

Mont-Ferguson, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Boston Public Schools, was interviewed on the WFXT Fox-25 morning news program this morning about Boston's school lunch program. Her interview was simple, but inspiring.

What we saw was a public servant who's working hard to make a difference for young people in the City of Boston. She and her staff are trying to make school meals healthier and more functional for kids to eat. She's even making lunch cooler for kids by making it look like what they'd get from a fast food store. And, she is also working around new government mandates for food quality while seeking federal money to help out. It's a nationally-recognized program because of its success and innovation, all in a district where 76% of kids get free or reduced lunch - according to Mont-Ferguson, that works out to 45,000 public school children who live in poverty.

Here's the video from WFXT:

New school menus: More fruits & veggies:

Serving healthy meals to students in Boston's schools might be a narrow function of local government, but it's an important one. And, if done successfully - as appears to be the case here - it's a job that can have a profoundly positive influence on the lives of young people.

Isn't this what government is supposed to be all about?

There's a lot of money and benefits being spent on government workers, and not all of it is appropriate. There are also lots of media stories of public officials who abuse the system and don't do their jobs. But, from what we see here, people like Helen Mont-Ferguson appear to be worth every penny. The thousands of kids who benefit from these programs are lucky that it's someone like Mont-Ferguson - and not one of those people who give public servants a bad name - who is responsible for making the decisions that fuel their bodies for success every day.