• Strings attached

    CommonWealth magazine

    It had been a rough year for Speaker Sal DiMasi, but you never would have known it when members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives gathered on the first Wednesday in January to elect a leader for the new two-year legislative session.

  • Spending Spiral

    CommonWealth magazine

    nearly a decade ago, state lawmakers tried to put the brakes on special education spending. They tightened the rules that determine which students qualify for special education and narrowed the standard for services that must be provided. Their goal was not only to save money but also to prevent the spiraling cost of special education entitlements from derailing the state’s education reform effort.

    But no one ever checked to see if the brakes actually worked. Indeed, special education — the issue that galvanized debate on Beacon Hill in 2000 — is now largely forgotten. Government watchdogs pay little attention to it, and Gov. Deval Patrick’s Readiness Project, after 18 months of work, barely took notice of it.

  • High-tech breakdown

    CommonWealth magazine
    the websites of federal, state, and municipal agencies and officials can serve as pipelines to the public, allowing citizens and government officials to interact in a convenient, cost-effective manner. But here in Massachusetts, these pipelines often flow in one direction, with citizen email inquiries either ignored or answered in haphazard fashion by government officials.

  • Walsh Fiasco Shows Value of Public Records Law Metro West Daily News

    The emails that derailed the state Sen. Marian Walsh’s bid for a high-paying state authority job saw the light of day only because of the Massachusetts Public Records Law. It was one of those rare instances where transparency trumped politics as usual, where a law designed to reveal the inner working s of government actually worked.

    The state’s Public Records Law is generally weak and ineffective. Vast swaths of state government are exempt from the law and many documents are shielded from its reach by a growing list of legislatively approved exceptions. Many government officials ignore the law and other subvert it by improperly withholding documents or charging excessive fees to produce information. Which is why the Walsh case is so refreshing.

  • Incumbents’ Paradise

    Winning public office for the first time may be a slog in Massachusetts, but once elected, most officials who don’t break the law can stay as long as they like. Thomas Menino hasn’t announced for a fifth term as Boston’s mayor but is the favorite anyway. As for the Legislature, CommonWealth magazine recently found that Massachusetts had the lowest proportion of contested races of any state – just 17 percent.

    The lack of competition is unhealthy, especially in comparison with Minnesota. In that chilly, deep-blue state, the magazine noted, all legislative races are contested. That’s every one. There are important cultural differences: “Minnesota nice” – the states’s storied combination of optimism, politeness, and reluctance to give offense – has no clear analog in local politics here.

  • Would-be Governors No Reason to Wobble

    Go for it, Gov. Give it a try, Tim. C’mon Charlie, the Grand Old Party needs you. Come back, Christy and inject some fun into the race.

    That’s the four-way fight for governor I dream about for 2010: Deval Patrick the incumbent; Charlie Baker, the Republicans’ best hope – plus restless Treasurer Tim Cahill and convenience store magnate Christy Mihos running as independents.

  • Life on the brink

    Life on the brink

    Tough times, locals will tell you, are always tougher here. 

    Since the beginning of the year, more than 13,000 people have walked through the doors of the state’s career center in Fall River, a 42 percent increase from this time in 2008.  It’s one of the busiest places in town.  Phones ring constantly, case workers hustle between cubicles, and job seekers tap at keyboards, sending out resumes and beefing up their skills.  The center’s staff of 22 has been expanded by three to handle the crush of requests for help, but it’s hard to keep up with the waves of layoffs and closings. 

  • Older cities require both credit, respect

    Older cities require both credit, respect

    Once-vibrant industrial cities like Springfield, Holyoke and Chelsea haven’t aged gracefully, but economic development experts argue it’s too soon to write their obituaries.  Planner say it’s possible – indeed, it’s imperative – to help these older urban centers develop a new lease on life as economic engines for the commonwealth.

    We agree.  The state’s economy can’t be concentrated in Greater Boston.  There’s plenty of room to grow beyond Interstate 495.  But, to make older cities industrious and desirable places to live once again, it will take a public-private partnership that recognizes the role these outlying cities play in the economic development of the state as a whole. 

  • Region Would Gain From GOP Revival

    Charlie Baker of Swampscott is considered by many the most qualified candidate in either party for governor. He served in the 1990s as secretary of Administration and Finance in the Weld administration and secretary of Health and Human Services in the Cellucci administration. Since then he’s played a leading role in bringing Harvard Pilgrim Health Care back from the brink of financial collapse.

  • Future Charted for Springfield

    SPRINGFIELD- Will there ever be another Springfield Armory?

    A research team commissioned by the city is asking that question and collecting date that could lead to an answer.

    The city has maintained its presence as both a population center and regional economic hub in recent decades, but it struggles with challenges facing many mid-size cities, according the the research team.

  • Bay State Needs a Viable GOP

    The debate currently taking place throughout the state over the merits of an increase in the gasoline tax, is further evidence of why Massachusetts needs a viable Republican party.

    The Bay State very much needs a vital opposition party, yet Republican fortunes have been going steadily downhill. Last November, their minuscule numbers in the House of Representatives were reduced by three.

  • Less Than Public Records

    The Massachusetts Public Records Law gives government officials too many ways to withhold information. When a citizen requests an official record, the agency in question is required to answer the request within 10 days. But agencies sometimes respond slowly, demand exorbitant fees, improperly claim one of the numerous exemptions in the law, or just blow off the request.

    Recently at a State House forum hosted by CommonWealth magazine, Representative Antonio Cabral of New Bedford recalled asking a district attorney for figures on money raised from drug forfeitures. The request was turned down, he said, on grounds that the Public Records Law exempts information related to criminal investigations. The argument was bogus; releasing general budget information doesn’t compromise any investigation.

  • Reawakening the two party system

    Reawakening the two-party system in Mass.

    After Massachusetts waved goodbye to its third consecutively ethically challenged speaker of the House last week, the spotlight is now on his successor.  Will Robert DeLeo be next in line?  Is there something in the water at the State House – say, a parasite that infects speakers with a bad mix of myopia and arrogance?

    But even as we shake our heads at the repetitive nature of political scandals, we tend to see the Legislature the way we see the winter weather:  It’s awful, isn’t it, but what can you do?

    A look beyond our own borders suggests there’s a great deal we could do differently.

  • Reawakening the Two-Party System in Mass

    After Massachusetts waved goodbye to its third consecutive ethically challenged speaker of the House last week, the spotlight is now on his successor. Will Robert DeLeo be next in line? Is there something in the water at the State House- say, a parasite that infects speakers with a bad mix of myopia and arrogance?

    But even as we shake our heads at the repetitive nature of political scandals, we tend to see the Legislature the way we see winter weather: It’s awful, isn’t it, but what can you do?

  • The Maverick

    CommonWealth magazine

    Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is headed for a high-noon showdown with Gov. Deval Patrick. The Patrick administration is trying to rein in Hodgson and the state’s other elected sheriffs in an effort to consolidate control over an overcrowded state and county corrections system that oversees more than 25,000 inmates and has a combined budget of $1 billion. Patrick wants more coordination between the officials who run state prisons and the sheriffs, who run county jails and houses of correction. And his aides want the sheriffs to stop dabbling in law enforcement and start taking a more prominent role in preparing inmates for life outside prison.

    Hodgson, a tough-talking Republican with an entrepreneurial flair, wants no part of Patrick’s consolidation effort. He says it makes no sense to turn sheriffs into an appendage of the stifling state bureaucracy.

  • Ending the one-party state – CommonWealth Magazine

    CommonWealth magazine

    As a pistol-packing, SUV-driving conservative in liberal St. Paul, Minnesota, David Carlson knew he was fighting an uphill battle. Still, on the day before the 2008 election, the 27-year-old candidate for the state House of Representatives drove through his district of tidy, split-level homes for a final campaign push. He checked the placement of his star-spangled yard signs. He studied voter lists one last time. Cruising through leaf-strewn streets on an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, he described the residents of each house and predicted his chances: “They’re union; forget it. She’s a single mom with three kids; she might go for my message on public safety.” Carlson, in other words, did all the usual stuff of a local campaign — usual, that is, in places other than Massachusetts.

  • The Old College Try

    At the Gateway Cities Project’s first community-information session in Springfield last October, UMass Dartmouth and MassINC unveiled the initial stages of their plan.  Called simply the “Economic Growth Initiative,” the endeavor has a number of stated goals, which were outlined for those in attendance. 

    That night, Ed Lambert, director of the Urban Initiative, and John Schneider, executive vice president of MassINC, painted with broad brushstrokes the forthcoming strategy – the kind of generalized information to be expected from the first stages of a program with an expansive scope.

  • Utah’s Financial Literacy Requirement – CommonWealth Magazine

    States want to be trendsetters, but not all trends are worth bragging about. That was Utah’s predicament from 2002 through 2004, when the Beehive State ranked No. 1 in the country in personal bankruptcy filings (adjusted for population). However, the story behind the numbers was even more disturbing.

  • Broken Homes – CommonWealth Magazine

    Helen Williams certainly doesn’t know anything about credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, or mortgage-backed securities. It turns out there is a lot she didn’t even understand about the $395,000 mortgage she got to refinance the three-family house she owns and lives in on Corona Street in Dorchester.

  • The state’s binge-purge diet

    The state’s binge-purge diet

    The downward spiral in the economy has aggravated the state’s revenue shortfall precisely when the services the state renders – from public safety to heating and rental assistance – are most needed by the public.  Making this vicious cycle even worse is the extent to which Massachusetts relies on income taxes, and especially the capital-gains tax, the most volatile and market-sensitive revenue source.  The non-partisan think tank MassINC has proposed sensible solutions to even out the jagged revenue from this source.  But some fixes are more practical than others.

  • Dwindling capital gains taxes add to state woes

    Capital gains taxes may be the ultimate fiscal narcotic, producing soaring revenue highs in flush times, followed by crashing budget lows when the economy tanks.

    A new report finds that states that boosted their spending in part by relying of spikes in capital gains taxes – taxes on the profits from sales of assets like stocks and bonds – are now dealing with budget hangovers after years of pulling in big revenues.

  • Capital Solutions

    A timely new report has exposed one of Beacon Hill’s poorly-kept secrets – each year our state budget is balanced in too great a measure on revenue from capital gains, a term that, in a year of catastrophic real estate and investment losses, can seem a bit of an oxymoron.  According to a report released by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, Massachusetts now ranks third in the nation in reliance on capital gains revenues – leaving the Bay State balance sheet more vulnerable than almost any other to economic highs and lows.  This year, wrote study author Cameron Huff, roughly $1.5 billion of state budget is supported by capital gains receipts – receipts that are frankly going up in smoke.

  • Plush park

    CommonWealth magazine

    Like the Big Dig that gave birth to it, there’s nothing low-budget about the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The park, which snakes for more than a mile through the center of downtown Boston, cost more than $50 million to build and will probably take tens of millions more to fully complete. The annual tab for upkeep is expected to be $3.2 million, which, on a cost-per-square-foot-basis, would make the Greenway one of the most expensive parks to maintain in the nation.

    The hefty price tag reflects the high ambitions for the park. The expectation is that the Greenway will be a signature feature of the city and state, a common ground for Boston residents and a destination point for tourists from all over the world.

  • Paper tiger

    CommonWealth magazine

    A law designed to shine a bright light on the inner workings of state and local government in Massachusetts is instead leaving much of the bureaucracy in shadows, if not total darkness.

    A seven-month investigation by CommonWealth revealed that public officials at all levels of government frequently game the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the state’s counterpart to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The law is one of those “small-d” democratic initiatives meant to level the playing field between everyday citizens and the government that serves them. While some agencies routinely comply with the Public Records Law and turn over records, the deck is often stacked against citizens trying to use the law to gain access to government documents.

  • Meeting market

    CommonWealth magazine
    the boston convention & exhibition center edges toward Summer Street, hovering like a giant spaceship looking for a place to park. Nearly five years after its opening, the sprawling facility on the South Boston Waterfront is still seeking the right fit, both physical and economic. Convention center officials say it may be time to expand the facility, even as the national convention industry faces challenges ranging from a glut of meeting space to sharply increasing costs for air travel. But talk of “supersizing” assumes the convention center has met its original goals. And on that, the record isn’t so clear.

  • We need to join forces on Gateway Cities

    We need to join forces on Gateway Cities

    Earlier this month, a historic gathering of state and local officials in Fall River showcased an issue that could affect the state’s economy for generations to come.  Urban economic renewal in “Gateway” communities like Springfield was the topic of the first-ever “Gateways Cities Conference” – an impressive assembly of people and perspectives from throughout the state who came together to understand how to prime the economies of urban areas outside of Greater Boston.

  • Preserving power

    CommonWealth magazine

    Secretary of State William Galvin is running a $50 million-a-year state tax credit program like a personal fiefdom. He decides which developers receive historic rehabilitation tax credits from the state and how much they get, using a selection process that creates uncertainty for developers and maximizes his political clout.

    What’s most startling is that Galvin, whose office oversees the state public records law and is supposed to promote transparency in government, has resisted attempts by lawmakers and developers to find out who is getting the tax credits. In other states with similar programs, the information is readily available. But here in Massachusetts, Galvin acts as if millions of dollars in state tax credits are no one’s business but his own.

  • Moving the goal posts

    CommonWealth magazine
    The Community Preservation Act arose from the noble desire to give municipalities more tools to fight urban sprawl and to make housing affordable so residents could continue to live where they grew up. But over the last several years the focus in many communities has begun to shift to more parochial concerns. Cities and towns, many of them among the wealthiest in the state, are building sidewalks, sprucing up parks, and installing synthetic turf athletic fields—and using the Community Preservation Act to stick the state with half the tab.

  • Pump it up – CommonWealth Magazine

    CommonWealth magazine

    For a picture-perfect view of the Boston skyline on a bright, cloudless day, looking from the Longfellow Bridge to the other side of the Charles River is as good as it gets. For scenery of a different sort, amble down the stairway near Storrow Drive and walk underneath the span that links Beacon Hill to Kendall Square. Take a look at the severely corroded steel supports and the black netting affixed to catch pieces of crumbling sidewalk. Not exactly Kodak moments.

  • Meeting the bullish expectations of youth

    Maybe it is the pure exuberance of youth or maybe those ages 25 to 39 are wiser than everyone else, but that group of young adults is still bullish on the American Dream.

    Despite a souring economy, worsening inflation and the high cost of living in Massachusetts, many of them believe they have a bright future. 

    Those were the findings of a statewide survey done for the non-profit MassINC by Princeton Survey Research Associates.  It was based on interviews with more than 800 people ages 25 to 39 from across Massachusetts.

Our sponsors