Friday, October 08, 2010

Would-Be Treasurers' Visions

Change is in the eye, and phrasing, of the presenter, it would seem from yesterday's Treasurer's forum at Suffolk Law's Rappaport Center. The Dem Steve Grossman is plain. He has announced a major overhaul for the office, which he details in person and on his campaign site.
Disclaimer: I feel compelled to note that whenever I write that center's name, I cringe a bit. Jerome Lyle Rappaport has been washing is name, infamous for bad urban renewal in the pursuit of greed. Some good comes out of his belated donations. For atonement though...that's another matter.
His "GOPponent" Karyn Polito clearly loves to dress in the change-agent clothes as well. I remain to be convinced.

She promised a "whole new approach." In that, she vows to slow or stop overspending, high taxes and the high cost of doing business in the commonwealth.

What's Possible?

Broken into components, little of that is in the Treasurer's power or even related to the person. For example, the Treasurer can advise the legislature and the rest of the administration on taxes and appropriations but has no power to change them. Likewise, the Treasurer, Attorney General and Auditor each has a role in uncovering waste and fraud, but cannot dictate what's appropriate appropriations.

Without constitutional changes and legislative enabling, the Treasurer really can't do what she promises. It's moderately surprising that Grossman and the media have not called her strongly on this.

Oddly enough, she tried to score big points with Grossman's approach to attacking the unfunded pension liability that has grown to over $20 billion. She had no remedy but belittled his initial proposals designed to reduce that quickly by $2 billion. For her part, she said she would withhold new expenditures until the office had a long-term strategic plan in place. Whether she could legally do that is one matter and another is how quickly and to what effect are others. Moreover, like Grossman, she would limit benefits to new officials and employees — another long-term nibble at the problem.

It does make one wonder whether she has in mind some obstructionist tricks like she used on the bills she blocked repeatedly in the last week. In the forum, she repeated several times that she was not an obstructionist in her obstruction, rather she was intent on both saving the taxpayers many millions and fighting a barely legal informal appropriations session with her parliamentary gimmick.

Unfortunately, it appears from the outside that she was engaged in a power play to show something or other in addition to her ability to obstruct the House. Also unfortunately, Grossman's rebuttal noted that the millions in question were a stimulus "gift" from the feds specifically to help cover shortfalls in essential services like anti-gang police crews, and that the bill in question would put about $200 million in our rainy-day fund as well.

In my decades in Boston, no MA Treasurer has halted government operations to make a point. Would Polito be enough of a loose cannon to do so?

What her change argument seems to use as a fulcrum is political-party affiliation though. As a Republican, she gets to play the outsider (maybe impartial) gambit. She can't stop herself here.

Party Ploy

As former head of the state and then national Democratic party, Grossman could as easily have a huge D on his chest. She loves pinning the tail on this donkey. She would have him "steeped and mired in Democratic Party politics."

To return to the cats image, Polito was often catty about party. Nothing that as DNC chair, Grossman was "earning even a night in the Lincoln bedroom."

"Unlike my opponent, who is completely tied into the majority party who is running Beacon Hill," she started one answer. She revisited that several times, enough to finally get to the normally impassable Grossman. After she had accused him enough of being incapable of objectivity, he got what must pass for angry for him.

He pointed out specifically that the DNC brought him in to clean house, which he did with vigor. He stated proudly that he is a fine turn-around manager and did what was necessary to get rid of badly acting Dems. In his best Eagle Scout terms, he made it plain he would not tolerate having his integrity challenged, even in campaign hyperbole.

Polito's underlying theme of a gang of irresponsible Democrats crushing the wise Republicans is a common one here and one she returns to repeatedly also. Mitt Romney was another in her party who used that successfully, in his case in the gubernatorial run.

The central conceit is that when any party holds the majority of legislative seats and the chief executive as well, the state suffers. Those in power will act as one, pass bad laws, waste taxpayer money and be unaccountable to voters. Of course, in this state with so many DINOs, social conservatives and self-interested pork snatchers, there is no consensus leading to the terrors GOP candidates like to present.

Yet, Polito is smart as well. She clearly knows enough election history to see the value in the slogan that only dividing the branches among parties will give the voters any control. That is an illusion and pretense, but it still appeals to the most literal-minded voters.

For Grossman's extensive proposals of change in the functions of the office, Polito gets all he's-too-radical. Her way of saying that has been, and was yesterday, that he is a social activist. Those accepted conservative code words are for someone who will sacrifice what's best for the mainstream public to advance a narrow agenda.

Getting to Grossman

Grossman felt compelled twice to correct her, as he has solo and in previous appearances. She apparently has no intention of stopping this attack. He has often said (including on his podcast with Left Ahead!) that he would be an activist Treasurer. That is, he would use our $40 billion plus in pension funds to make wise investment in fostering MA small businesses and pressure big banks who were lending to local companies to do so. Polito is likely to continue to bend that. She likes the social-activist ploy.

Back to the verifiable, both candidates claim to be prudent and swear they would safeguard the moneys under their control. In addition, Polito leaned right in promising that if an investment, even with good political aims behind it, did not pay the best possible interest rate, she'd shift it.

That leads to the obvious question of what would change other than inserting a Republican into an allegedly politically impartial constitutional office?

I think the answer is nothing really. Yet hers may be a good argument to make tor voters who feel buffeted by changes big and small outside of their control.

Grossman pledges to make many changes to speed up our economic recovery, particularly goosing small businesses and creating jobs. Polito has vague statements about things out of her control, but comes heavy on safeguarding any money she oversees. Hers is a much more soothing message for the fiscally bruised.

Bless the many in the media and academia who have brought these two together and spoken with them separately. This is an key race at a crux. The distinctions are clear enough.

Those who are afraid of yet more change, particularly they also buy into the one-party tactic, would surely be more comfortable with Polito. Those who admire what Grossman has done with his company and beyond, and who think this is a time for action, would likely go with him.

Related posts: The role of ancestors is here. Silly observations of the pair is here.

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