Buying back gov’t hack vacation time: $50M

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By state law in Massachusetts, employers must buy back some portion of employees’ unused vacation time when they leave their jobs, unless the employer stipulates a “use-it-or-los-it” policy up front. In my own job, I can bank up to 1.5 times my annual vacation time and carry it year-to-year and even sell it back when I leave my job. But that’s only at the end of employment and a very limited amount. And it doesn’t include sick time. That’s probably even more generous than most private-sector employers

Not so for employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. State employees can sell back up to 15 weeks of unused time and in some cases, such as Massport—which runs the seaports, airports, and some other transportation conduits— they can sell it back annually.

At the University of Massachusetts, they paid out $8.7 million in unused-time buybacks just last year. All told, the state paid $50 million last year, including $90,500 to departing employees of the Governor’s Office, which is notable because Patrick has been a critic of the practice.

Meanwhile, we have record unemployment and the state is crying poor-mouth as it cuts programs and aid to local cities and towns, while calling for increases in taxes and fees. Yet, a departing employee at Salem State College retired with a $151,000 buyback last year. The State Police force as a group paid $5.6 million in buybacks, while the Trial Courts paid $3.7 million.

I’ll believe their cries of empty pockets and threats to cut programs unless they raise taxes, when I see them start to cut these and other massive perks from the budget. They may claim that we’re in a Great Recession, but they certainly don’t act like it.

Photo by Kjetil Ree Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

It’s not the money, it’s the conflict-of-interest

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The Boston Herald reports today that clerk-magistrates in Massachusetts and their assistants get a little know perk of their job worth about $2.5 million last year. When a suspect is arrested outside of regular court hours, state law requires that bail be set within six hours (or denied) so one of the magistrates is on call at all times. The clerk-magistrate or assistant sets bail when a regular court hearing can’t be scheduled in time. If a defendant makes bail then the magistrate gets $40 directly from the suspect as a bail fee.

But critics are saying that direct payment to the magistrate creates a conflict-of-interest and diverts funds from the taxpayer-funded judicial system. The conflict arises because the magistrate only gets the fee if the defendants makes bail and thus there’s a financial incentive to set low bail.

Most of the clerk magistrates are appointed for life and their salaries start at $110,000. Most assistant clerks start at $84,000. On top of that base pay, 77 of the 210 magistrates and assistants collected $15,000 in bail fees, and 24 of them made $25,00 or more. The top earner made $54,000 extra in 2009. in 2007, it was $76,000. To earn this largesse, they must be on call one weekend and 11 weeknights a month.

Defenders of the system say that the direct payments are necessary in order to attract people to the jobs and compensate them properly. To that I respond, 10 percent unemployment. There are plenty of people who would do the jobs. But the defense is still particularly weak.

It’s “unrealistic to assume you should ask people to work beyond their normal hours of employment without any sort of compensation,” said Keith E. McDonough, clerk magistrate in Lawrence District Court and vice president of the Association of Magistrates and Assistant Clerks. McDonough earned $28,927 in fees last year.

No one is suggesting they work beyond normal hours of employment without compensation, but perhaps the compensation should come in a form that doesn’t set up a conflict of interest.

Experts point out that the system mirrors that in the private sector. Many private-sector employees, particularly those covered under union contracts, receive extra pay for working overtime, said Fred Foulkes, director of Boston University’s Human Resources Policy Institute.

That’s for hourly employees. In the Dreaded Private Sector, salaried employees, which the magistrates and assistants surely are, do not get overtime for extra hours worked. It’s part of the job.

And although the state may be missing out on millions in fees, at least the suspect-funded system does not strain the Massachusetts coffers, he noted. “From a taxpayer perspective, I think it’s a very good deal,” he said. “It’s not coming from the state’s budget.”

Which addresses the financial aspect, but not the conflict-of-interest aspect, neatly sidestepping the important part of this criticism.

State Bail Administrator Michael J. McEneaney defends the system, saying the fees were instituted to attract and retain employees who wouldn’t do the after-hours work otherwise. “Don’t trash it unless you have a better system you want to propose,” he said.

The classic defense of those who have no better defense. Better systems have been proposed, including one mentioned in the article. Unless, of course, when McEneaney says “better” he means better for the clerk-magistrates’ and clerk-assistants.

Photo by Joe Gratz – http://flic.kr/p/bkUna

 

Overpaid public employees

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Last fall, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote about the “Myth of the underpaid public employee,” in which he detailed how those wokring in the private sector not only got plush benefits like padded pensions and other perks, they also just got plain more money.

Consider the lucrative lot of the men and women who work for Uncle Sam. In 2008, according to data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the 1.9 million civilian employees of the federal government earned an average salary of $79,197. The average private employee, by contrast, earned just $49,935. The difference between them came to more than $29,000 – a differential that has more than doubled since 2000.

When you compared total compensation — income plus benefits— the disparity was even greater. In 2008, the average federal civilian employee earned total compensation of $119,982 vs. $59,908 in wages and benefits for the private sector worker. Federal employees are compensated $2 for every $1 paid to non-government workers. Of course, Jacoby points out, this disparity isn’t limited to federal jobs. Especially in Massachusetts.

Fattening up at the state trough

In an article this week, the Globe reported that there are 1,295 Massachusetts state employees who earn more than Gov. Deval Patrick. His salary is $136,000, which isn’t high when compared to private-sector CEOs, but is comparable to other elected executives within the the states. Even so, how much are we paying in salaries to all these others?

The top salary goes to the executive director of the heretofore little known Massachusetts Biologic Laboratories at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who earned $649,324 in 2009. The lab makes vaccines for distribution in the state and does research. That seems like something that should be put out to bid for private-sector companies to compete to do. After that is the “executive deputy chancellor, provost, and dean” (yes, that’s a single job) of UMass Medical School: $623,594. And, surprise, third in line is the chancellor of the medical school and senior VP for health sciences (also one job) at $608,674. In fact, 33 of the 34 people in state jobs who make more than $300,000 work at the University of Massachusetts. Three-hundred fifty-two workers made more than $175,000. More than 90 percent of the top 100 work at University of Massachusetts. Nearly all of them work in a state college or university.

And as I said above, it’s not just their salaries that are out of control. More than 100 state workers or their survivors take home pensions of $100,000 or more, as of a Globe report last year.Again, the top earners are former university professors and administrators, but also State Police officers as well. The pensions are of the most expensive kind, which most private-sector employers have abandoned because of their cost. And because of the way they are calculated, they are indeed very costly. Some workers get a 100% pension after 23 years of service, regardless of age. Some have retired while in their 40s and then double-dipped while working another state job. Another costly perk allows workers to earn credit for a full year of service after serving just one day of a calendar year. So, the pension is calculated based on the last 3 years of salary, but that number can be calculated based on the guy working 2 years plus one day past his annual anniversary. If he got a raise in the last two years, that’s a major bump.

No reform on the horizon

Last year, Gov. Deval Patrick promised pension reform and some lawmakers made the usual bluster but nothing happened. Even what they proposed was fairly tame and nothing addresses the out-of-control patronage jobs and salaries in the first place. And don’t look for a change in occupancy of the corner office in the State House to bring radical change. Legislators have a long tradition of giving themselves sweetheart perks for pensions and at least one of Patrick’s two major opponents, independent Tim Cahill, the state Treasurer who most recently was a Democrat, has been known to garner sweetheart pension deals for his well-connected cronies.

It’s going to take some charismatic newcomer and outsider to sweep into office and bring with him the outrage and mandate of the people to bring about wholesale change to the corruption and cronyism on Beacon Hill. I just wonder if there’s even a hope of such a person on the horizon.

Update: The Boston Globe is reporting today that the number of state pensioners receiving more than $100,000 per year rose between 2003 and this year from 33 to 145. At that rate, how long before we realize how ridiculous this is?

Photo by Office of Governor Patrick – http://flic.kr/p/7cxv3G

 

Coakley wants judge to legislate on marriage

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To think, Martha Coakley almost become our US Senator. The erstwhile Senate candidate and current Massachusetts attorney general wants a federal judge to declare by fiat that the federal marriage protection law is unconstitutional. And she wants him to declare it without even the pretense of a trial.

Coakley argued that regulating marital status is traditionally left to the states. She said the federal law treats married heterosexual couples and same-sex couples differently in determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits and whether the spouse of a veteran can be buried in a veterans’ cemetery.

The law forces the state “to engage in invidious discrimination against its own citizens in order to receive and retain federal funds in connection with two joint federal-state programs,” Coakley argued. “Massachusetts cannot receive or retain federal funds if it gives same-sex and different-sex spouses equal treatment …”

Except, it’s only “invidious discrimination” if you’ve decided a priori that two people of the same sex can be married. But since the duly-elected representatives of the people of the United States have declared otherwise then by definition it’s not discrimination for the federal government to deny funds intended for married couples to people who aren’t really married. In addition, because of the “full faith and credit” clause of the US Constitution, the federal government can’t make an exception for Massachusetts or any other state that has decided to ignore human nature and the realities of thousands of years of human culture and civilization on the subject of marriage. And even more, since the people of Massachusetts have been denied their right to address this topic either through their representatives or through direct referendum—instead having it forced on them by, not coincidentally, judicial fiat—Coakley’s ploy here is more of the same liberal agenda to force social engineering over the objections of the governed, by deciding for the “proles” what’s best for them.

I can’t wait until this fall when we can finally put Martha out to pasture once and for all. Hopefully we can finally find someone who will actually uphold both the Massachusetts and US Constitutions against all these attempts to undermine them and attack the foundations of our republic.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Once born, tolls and taxes never die

masspiketolls.jpgLiberals like to use taxation and regulation to bring about social engineering. Unfortunately, they also use those tools as an opportunity to expand the reach of government through new programs funded by those new taxes. Thus they tax cigarettes, for example, rather than outlaw it, so they can fund health-care for poor kids, which is one of the ways they sell the tax to voters. But when the tax has its effect, as in reducing the number of smokers, the liberals cry that these “vital” programs created by these taxes are under-funded, and so another new tax is born.

The latest example of this round-robin is the gas tax in Massachusetts. Years of increasing gas taxes, plus increases in the cost of oil, have forced taxpayers to buy more fuel-efficient cars—whether those cars are otherwise the best car for them or not—or to ride public transportation. This led to decreased purchase of gasoline and lower revenues from the gas taxes, which in turn led to shortfalls in funding for road maintenance and whatever other less necessary pork projects the solons on Beacon Hill dreamed up.

And so, they’re dreaming up new ways to tax us like Gov. Deval Patrick’s idea to create open-road tolling or tracking the mileage you drive and charging you a mileage tax. Open-road tolling means cars drive at highway speed through places on the highway where receivers in the road pick up radio-frequency transponders rather than forcing cars to slow down to go through electronic booths or to stop to give money to a toll taker.

Dems would defy will of the voters

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The special election to replace the late US Sen. Ted Kennedy is one week from today and Democrats are saying that, if Republican Scott Brown were to beat the odds and win, they plan to defy the law and stall his swearing-in until after a vote on the Democrats’ healthcare “reform” boondoggle. That way, interim Sen. Paul Kirk can be the key 60th vote to ensure passage of the bill, where Brown would be a reliable vote against it.

The justification for the delay is that the Massachusetts Secretary of State has to certify the election, which they claim would take at least 10 days to give absentee ballots time to be counted. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In contrast, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Lowell) was sworn in at the U.S. House of Representatives on Oct. 18, 2007, just two days after winning a special election to replace Martin Meehan. In that case, Tsongas made it to Capitol Hill in time to override a presidential veto of the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

This isn’t the first time the Democrats have played politics with a US Senate in Massachusetts seat. In 2004, when John Kerry was the Democrat nominee for president and Republican Mitt Romney was governor, the Democrat legislature changed the law to take away the governor’s ability to appoint a replacement in case of vacancy, but in 2009 when Ted Kennedy was dying and Democrat Deval Patrick was governor, the Democrat legislature changed the law back so that the appointment power was the governor’s again.

That’s par for the course in Masscahusetts where the will of the people is regularly denied. When voters overwhelmingly voted to reduce a “temporary” tax increase that had been in effect for more than a decade, the Legislature simply ignored them. When voters demanded the right to vote on whether we want the bizarre construction of same-sex “marriage”, both the Legislature and the courts denied them the right. What’s so frustrating is that voters who are being denied their participation and representation in their own government fail to get outraged enough to vote out the politicians who are taking advantage.

Maybe it will become so blatant that even the blindest Democrat partisan will wake up and vote in his own best interest.

Photo credit: http://flic.kr/p/7kUonn

 

Shock! Tolls rise, Mass. Pike usage drops

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Once again, our liberal solons and their coatholders are surprised by human nature and economic reality. For the second year in a row, the Massachusetts Turnpike has seen a drop in the number of users, only the second time in its history that we’ve seen the double dip. That’s resulted in a decline in revenue and a scramble to prop up the bloated budget for another patronage-laden state agency.

Of course, the recession has to take some blame. When 10 percent of residents are unemployed, that’s going to affect the numbers of people on the road. Although many people I know who regularly drive state roads say that they’re just as crowded and busy as they’ve ever been. But that’s just anecdotal.

“The lower numbers are primarily a function of the economic climate. We are in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, and fewer drivers are using our roads,” said Adam Hurtubise, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “Fewer vehicles on the turnpike means that the department receives less toll revenue.”“

But unemployment doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, two years ago, we were told that because of falling revenues and increased costs at the same Mass. Turnpike Authority, they would have to raise toll rates yet again. In 2001, toll rates were doubled to $1 for cars on most roads and to $3 in the harbor tunnels. Two years later, right before the big drop in ridership, those tolls were raised again to $1.75 and the harbor tunnels have essentially more than doubled because they are now $3.50 and for the first time are assessed going in and out of Boston. A trip to the airport now costs $7.00 in 2009 compared to $1.50 in 2000. And some politicians are talking about raising them again!

The fact is that the rising tolls have led to people avoiding the Turnpike for their daily commute and driving about town. I know that when I was still commuting from Salem to Brighton and I heard the first rumblings of plans to raise tolls, I researched alternate routes that would avoid the Turnpike. And while I knew I would be getting more company on those roads, the slightly increased time would be worth the hundreds of dollars saved per year by avoiding the tolls. Thankfully my daily drive from Holbrook to Braintree is on city streets.

In 2006, the conservative, Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute released a report of their analysis of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (PDF), its effect on the economy of Massachusetts, and its future. Their unsurprising conclusion is that the collection of tolls is a net drain on the state economy and that the toll-collection system actually saps money from road maintenance, i.e. that there would be more money to maintain the roads—the putative reason for the agency—if there were no tolls.

The Turnpike tolls are another sap on the banks accounts of the average citizen, who is being drained from a thousand taxes, big and small. So now the taxpayer is fighting back in the only way he knows how: avoiding the taxable behavior.

As usual, this confounds the liberal politician. As I’ve noted before, liberals seem to think that you can raise taxes on people again and again and they’ll just keep paying. But basic economic knowledge tells us that people act in their own best interest. And thus it’s a never-ending cycle of raising taxes and watching revenues fall. You’d think they’d get it after a while.

Incidentally, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority no longer exists as a separate entity, but has been folded into the state transportation department, but it continues on in spirit. Not much has changed as far as the pork and patronage are concerned. As usual, it’s a reform in name only, intended to mollify critics and voters.

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p style=”font-style: italic;font-size: 8px;”>Photo by wallyg – http://flic.kr/p/eMuBL

Liberal Dem doesn’t get why gas tax is bad idea

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What is it with liberal Democrats? They seem to believe (a) that the taxpayer has a bottomless pocket from which they can continue to draw tax after tax after tax and (b) that basic economics don’t apply to taxpayers and that their behaviors aren’t changed by changing circumstances.

The latest evidence of this liberal blindness is a proposal by a local Democrat legislator who proposes raising the gasoline tax another 12 cents in order to provide more funding for the ailing MBTA public transit system.

Democrat Rep. Alice Wolf said raising the 23.5-cent gas tax would bring in enough cash to stabilize the financially troubled T.

“The purpose is to put the T on a firm financial footing,” Wolf said.

So the T is saddled with debt and deferred maintenance costs such that even with massive taxpayer subsidies and rising fares, they can’t keep pace with costs. But look at this proposal. Wolf would raise the state portion of the gas tax from 23.5-cents per gallon to 35 cents. Doesn’t sound like much? Say you drive 15,000-miles per year—which is low by most standards—and you get, say, 20 miles per gallon, another not unreasonable assumption. Some get better, some get worse. That means a conservative 750 gallons of gas per year. That’s an additional $90 per year, and probably twice that for the average two car family. That $200 per family is not a lot, you say? Well, add that on top of increased costs of tolls on all toll roads and increased sales tax (we went from 5% to 6.25%) and increased meals taxes and airport departure taxes and excise taxes on cars and towns raising property taxes to cover shortfalls there and new trash fees and so on and so forth. Not to mention the increased costs for goods by the corporations selling them to us. Don’t forget that gas tax doesn’t just affect the gaslone you put in your own car, but also increases the cost of goods shipped by trucks, i.e. everything.

And while gas prices have dropped to a comfortable $2.59 per gallon right now—not as low as it’s been recently, but still low thanks to the recession—let’s not forget the summer of 2008 when gasoline was hit $4.00 per gallon. Gas prices won’t stay low forever.

So that’s the “bottomless” pocket part of this particular brand of tax-and-spend idiocy. What about the behaviorial elasticity?

Here’s the fundamental problem with Wolf’s proposal: If you raise gas prices, you will convince more people to stop driving and start riding mass transit. Since ticket prices don’t cover the cost of transporting each passenger, then each new passenger drives the MBTA further into the red. So as fewer people drive, that’s less money from gas taxes and more costs from increased ridership, thus exacerbating the problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t think that will happen? Consider that in the summer of 2008, that era of $4 per gallon gas we just mentioned, MBTA ridership levels hit record levels. Raise the gas prices again through a new tax and it will happen again.

So what do we do about the MBTA’s budget woes? Well, just conside that of the 6,488 employees of the T in 2008, 440 of them made $100,000 or more. A major part of the budget woes at the T and other state agencies is the incredible level of waster and inefficiency as well as the massive political patronage, stacking the payroll full of cronies and relatives earning ridiculous amounts of money on the taxpayer dime, followed by a retirement pension that would make the the United Auto Workers blush. It takes 833,333 gallons of gas, at the 12-cents per gallon tax rate (since the other 23.5-cents already goes to other programs), to pay just one of those $100,000 salaries. And we have 440 of those salaries to pay.

Of that 750 gallons per year we figured that average car used, more than half of the new taxes on it would go just to pay the top 440 salaries at the MBTA. And they wonder why they’re in the red.

Photo by Stephan Geyer – http://flic.kr/p/67jvMn

A red flag on this story

This is the type of story that is the bread-and-butter for your typical tabloid newspaper, like the Boston Herald. It’s a typical stirring-up-of-emotions that the average reader will identify with. In this case, the story is a level-3 sex offender who was working as a flagger on a road construction site in the wealthy suburb of Boxford, putting the residents on edge.

But there’s more to this story, including an undercurrent typical of Massachusetts politics and a shading of journalistic ethics. First, the background:

A Level 3 sex offender who was working as a state-certified flagger on a busy Boxford street gave horrified residents a Halloween fright this weekend as police officers went door to door to tell them the perv was working nearby.

David Giacalone, 45, was convicted of aggravated rape in 1985 and received his state certification as a flagger at New England Laborers Trust Fund in Hopkinton in June, state officials confirmed.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about the story. It’s not illegal for an ex-con sex offender to work as a flagger, but because of the ruckus he won’t be returning to the job site. I don’t know if the ruckus is justified. The state’s sex offender registry doesn’t provide much information beyond what the article says: He was convicted of a 1985 aggravated rape and the offender registry board considers him a serious threat to offend again. In that case, notification of the community may be justified.

On the other hand, there’s a whole political subtext at work. Gov. Deval Patrick recently ordered that, in certain circumstances, companies employing road crews no longer need to hire off-duty detail cops at very steep rates, but may instead employ civilian flaggers like nearly every other state in the country does to no ill effect. Police unions were understandably upset by this loss of lucrative off-duty work for their members.

Which all leads me to this question: Is it standard practice for police officers to go door to door in a town whenever a level 3 sex offender is nearby? Or did they only do it this time because this sex offender is also a civilian flagger and it would be a useful weapon in their battle with the governor? And why didn’t the Boston Herald reporter and editor ask the same questions? Or if they did, why didn’t they publish the answer?

Once again, I point this out to remind everyone not to take everything you see reported at face value.

 

Senate wannabe AG pooh-poohs Menino computer flap

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Political quid pro quo in a potential case of corruption among Massachusetts Democrats. What would this state look like without it? Attorney General Martha Coakley, who hasn’t seen a camera she didn’t want to jump in front of to advance her career and is running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, is dismissing requests to investigate Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s administration over the destruction of emails by a top aide allegedly connected to a federal bribery probe of state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

The facts are pretty straightforward. The Boston Globe requested the email correspondence of Michael Kineavy, Menino’s top policy adviser, for a period of six months starting last October, but he was only able to turn over just 18 emails. Under state law, all work-related emails are public records and are thus required to be archived. The city says it has automated archive system that backs up everyone’s email at the end of each business day. But Kineavy says he misunderstood how the system worked and was deleting his inbox at the end of each workday.

Although public records laws state that municipal employees must keep all but the most inconsequential of e-mails, Menino’s corporation counsel William F. Sinnott insisted yesterday what Kineavy did was not illegal because “there was no willful conduct, no intentional destruction of evidence”

And Menino’s spokesman claims that Kineavy was just unusually thorough.

Dot Joyce, Menino’s spokeswoman, portrayed Kineavy as a man “with a touch of OCD” — obsessive compulsive disorder— who “cleans off his desk with Windex every day” and is obsessed with cleaning out his e-mail bin so “that when he comes in the next day he starts fresh and new. He’s very anal.”“

Ouch, looks like someone is subtly being thrown under the bus. But ignorance of the law—or lack of intent—is usually not an excuse. So while the Secretary of State—an elected position overseeing public records and elections and such—has ordered certain mayoral administration computers seized for forensic analysis, Martha Coakley, the chief law enforcement officer, sits on her hands. Why?

For that explanation, we need to understand that Menino is a key political ally of Coakley. And Coakley has just announced she is running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in the January special election. Coakley needs Menino to deliver Boston for her and to get the Democrat machine to benefit her and not her Democrat opponents. Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn says he believes Menino has already engineered an endorsement for Coakley from IBEW Local 103. That came down yesterday. Such convenient timing.

This is why the separation of powers is so important. It’s also why it’s good to have federal prosecutors who can take over when state officials roll over.

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p style=”font-style: italic;font-size: 8px;”>Photo credit: Flickr.com user 96dpi. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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