Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Another approach?

Here's a proposal for a different approach to a political issue currently facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one that would enhance the stature of the Governor and would also achieve the result most people think is correct.

The issue is this, as outlined in a Boston Globe editorial today.

The absurd state law that allows legislators turned out of their jobs by the voters to collect enhanced pensions is bad enough. Now Globe reporter Sean Murphy has found that 10 former state lawmakers were able to snare early pensions without having lost election, thanks to favorable arrangements with the state Retirement Board. The 1950 law allows enhanced pensions for legislators if they lose an election or fail to qualify for the ballot. But the 10 legislators in the Globe report who got retirement benefits - most when they were in their 40s - left their seats voluntarily.

Imagine the following. Each of those 10 former legislators receives the following call from the Governor's office: "I'm calling to let you know that at 3pm this afternoon, Governor Patrick is going to call on you and the other nine former legislators to voluntarily relinquish this pension benefit. He would be honored to have you stand by him during this press conference to announce that you have agreed to do so -- to give you a chance to receive credit for a selfless act that sends a signal to the people of the state that former public officials realize that this kind of benefit undermines public confidence and current efforts to balance the state budget and retain important services."

The second part of the conversation, to be held in reserve pending the reaction to this request, would be the following:

"I'm sorry to hear that you feel this way. The Governor want me to let you know that, in that case, we will display a picture of you with the amount of payments you will receive in your lifetime both at this press conference and in every public appearance the Governor makes and on his websites, where hundreds of thousands of people will see this until the situation is legally reversed. He would prefer not to do that because he appreciates your years of public service, but there is something more important at stake here."

Now, perhaps those ten people wouldn't care about this, but I am guessing that their reputation in their community matters to them. Maybe that would help them to do the right thing.

Whether they did or did not, it would give the Governor additional moral authority to pursue appropriate legal action to undo this benefit and achieve other reforms. It would set him apart in the public eye and help in pending budgetary and pension fund matters.

(By the way, imagine if President Obama had done a similar thing with the AIG bonus holders. I bet 90% of them would have voluntarily given up their bonus for a chance to stand by the President and receive the approbation of the entire country. And it would have likewise enhanced his moral authority.)

10 comments:

David Lax said...

This would be an effective approach for the 10 legislators.

Is there any legitimate justification for the 1950 law (except that pigs feed really well at the trough if they can decide how much feed they get)? I notice nobody is jumping to change the law. I'd guess that there are many more such practices taking place as well.

Periodically, the Globe reporters find and expose one. When the Globe folds, who will pick up the slack of finding the fraction that they uncover, let alone the broader problem that is likely there?

L said...

Paul, this is demagoguing. How is this different from what SEIU does in its ads? I personally think these legislators should be strung up, but I'm not going to go get together a lynch mob. Nor should you (I think) advocate the Governor do the same.

What the hell? This is really unlike most of your other posts. Did you get a bad batch of coffee this morning?

Laurie said...

That was my first reaction, too--who will be left to expose such practices if the Globe folds?

Sigh.

And, of course, will there ever be real accountability for the various figures exposed by reporters?

Paul Levy said...

Not so, L. It's trying to appeal to people's better instincts.

PJ Geraghty said...

The first (private) half of the your proposed gubernatorial statement is entirely appropriate. The second public threat is much less so. Like it or not, these people are receiving a benefit to which they are entitled by law, and should nt be publicly shamed for doing so.

This is even more true of the AIG bonus recipients, who (presumably) never were public figures the way the legislators are/were, and should not be publicly shamed for receiving a benefit they were promised once upon a time.

The people of MA should consider why they've allowed this law to stand for the past 59 years. This is hardly the first economic downturn the state has experience during that time. Change the law, but don't insist on its ex post facto enforcement.

Paul Levy said...

I totally agree on the AIG people, for whom the first half would have been a great thing (for them and the President), but for whom the second half would have been inappropriate.

I don't agree with regard to the former legislators, in that it is a true violation of public trust. In their case, too, it is already public information. Yes, they are legally entitled to it, but that is not really the point here. The point is to use the opportunity to boost the moral authority of the Governor on this kind of issue.

Anonymous said...

Paul,

It’s one thing to capitalize on public opinion to bring about meaningful reform, but it’s another thing entirely to use a public office to strong-arm citizens under an ambiguous “moral authority.”

Should these pension payments cease? Absolutely. Is there a more practical and ethical way of handling this? Certainly. Imagine the precedent an action like this would set. What limits would this moral authority have? What recourse would the next group of targeted individuals have?

Paul Levy said...

These are not "citizens" in the general sense. They are former legislators and are earning this money solely as a result of that legislative service. I think the Governor has the right to ask them to display a higher standard.

Kelly said...

To those who believe they were "legally entitled" to the enhanced pension - that is not true. The law in question was entitled to provide protection to state employees who may have been let go during changes of administration, through no fault of their own. The legislature decided to expand the rule to include themselves (big surprise) when they were voted out of office. It was never supposed to apply to people who voluntarily left their positions, appointed or elected. The retirement board gave away this bonus money without the legal authority to do so, but surely benefitted from the gratitude of the recipients. That's why the former Treasurer is experiencing memory loss on the issue. And why it will be very easy to revoke.

Ian McCarty said...

1. The Governor has no "moral authority."
2. We are all citizens in the "general sense."
3. This would just be more grandstanding by the Governor, still the only hold out in terms of filing actual legislation to resolve this issue. As Tim Cahill said on Tuesday "I think the Governor is grandstanding on this issue. He's the only one who hasn't filed legislation to change this. The Senate has, the House has, and we've been filing some form of pension legislation for the past couple of years. Change going backward is just grandstanding. It's not going to save a lot of money in the long run, and it's not going to restore confidence if we're not changing things going forward."