By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A social compact on the verge of breakdown

Public employees are our friends, our neighbors and our family members. Police officers, firefighters and teachers are a necessary part of a well-ordered civil society. But in Massachusetts, the social compact is on the verge of breaking down because of paychecks and benefits for public employees that are grotesquely out of whack with what folks in the private sector earn.

Here are four quick examples — three from the Boston Globe:

  • Boston police officers are getting as much as $250,000 in salary and overtime — some of it legitimately, some of it for staying a few minutes past their shift to finish paperwork. “The salaries are excessive,” Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the Globe. “Clearly the average person on the street does not make this kind of money.”
  • In Framingham, town employees and retirees are at loggerheads with the taxpayers who fund their health benefits, which in most cases amount to 87 percent of premiums — a far better deal than anyone in the private sector can hope to get.
  • An arbitrator recently awarded Boston firefighters a 19 percent raise over four years in return for agreeing to drug and alcohol tests and some limits on sick time. The Globe has called on the city council to reject the $74 million cost of the agreement, but there are no signs that the members will find the requisite backbone to do so.
  • There’s a new reform administration in charge of the Essex Regional Retirement Board, and it seems that every day it finds something gross crawling out from under a rock. The latest, according to the ever-vigilant Salem News: the previous board spent more than $200,000 in legal fees to advance a sleazy scheme to put 39 workers on a housing authority payroll for one day so they would be eligible for higher benefits and Social Security.

How this will play out in the fall election is anyone’s guess. You’d think it would have a significant effect on the governor’s race. But Gov. Deval Patrick has pushed harder (though not hard enough) against such abuses than his predecessors, and neither Republican candidate Charlie Baker nor Treasurer Tim Cahill, the independent, has advanced a credible case for being the change agent voters are looking for.

At the very least, though, Republicans ought to be able to make their first significant gains in the legislature since 1990.

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  1. Aaron Read

    At the very least, though, Republicans ought to be able to make their first significant gains in the legislature since 1990.

    At the risk of being dense: WHY? What is there about any credible candidate…Democrat or Republican…that makes you think they won’t feed at the pig trough once elected?

  2. BP Myers

    I was struck by the following line in the late Frank Hatch’s obituary:

    Most of the grief Mr. Hatch experienced as minority leader, the Globe reported in 1978, “can be traced to the lopsided majority the Democratic Party enjoys in the House. During Hatch’s tenure as minority leader, he has never led more than 62 Republicans.’’

    There are currently 16 Republicans in the Massachusetts house.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: There were 240 House members when Hatch was a legislator. It was lowered to 160 in 1978, the year that he left to run for governor.

  3. BP Myers

    @Dan: Thanks. Gonna have to research why they did that (though I suspect the answer will be that it favored Democrats).

    But any way you look at it, the math still stinks, and it’s even worse now.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: As I recall, the smaller House was sold on the grounds that it would be cheaper and more efficient. I voted in favor; if I had to do it over again, I’d vote against.

  4. BP Myers

    @Dan: Thanks. I’m actually intrigued by the discussions that the U.S. House should expand to 800 or a thousand. Seems lots of good could come from that, not just closer and more personal representation, but perhaps a lever to break up the hegemony of the two current parties.

    And I think you’re right, that while may have been well intended, it was a bad idea for Massachusetts.

  5. Mike Stucka

    Well, if you’re going to point out odd uses of public funding for public safety positions, you could do worse than pointing out the female civilian flagger bullied from the job by a police lieutenant, police captain, two police supervisors and three police union officials all at once.

    Note in the photo where the uniformed officer does not appear to be immediately using his superior knowledge of Boston’s streets and traffic patterns to do a better job of alerting drivers.

  6. Mike LaBonte

    Most states are in the same predicament, with unfunded retirement obligations.

    Nationally it is estimated that taxes are paying wages and most health benefits for about 20 million government employees (at all levels), plus pensions and healthcare for a similar number of retirees. With almost half of all healthcare expenses incurred for retirement age people and healthcare costs growing faster than inflation, it should be no surprise that a crisis looms ahead.

  7. Al Fiantaca

    One thought. What makes anyone think that, increasing the Legislature, or the US House, for that matter, would result in a significantly different composition of the body? Absent the political turmoil in the air today, the result would probably be closer to the current party ratio, than not.

  8. BP Myers

    @Al Fiantaca says: What makes anyone think that, increasing the Legislature, or the US House, for that matter, would result in a significantly different composition of the body?

    Don’t think anyone here said it would, Al.

    But I do think smaller districts would provide fewer oportunities for gerrymandering, for example perhaps precluding the same Rep for both Newton and New Bedford, two cities with nothing in common, and maybe–just maybe–divergent interests. Maybe they’d both be Democrats. Maybe they wouldn’t.

    I also think smaller districts would allow for more retail campaigning, at least providing an opening for unaffilated or third-party candidates to have a shot.

    Recall too that historically, the size of the House grew with the population. At the time of the last expansion (1911) there was one Representative for every 210,00 people. After the 2000 census, it stood at one for every 650,000 people.

    But increasing the size of the House would at the very least make it more responsive to constituents, and that’s reason enough for me.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: You’re not going to get third-party candidates winning anything more than a very occasional seat without more systemic reforms, such as proportional representation and instant runoff. The winner-take-all system we have is guaranteed to produce two-party government.

  9. L.K. Collins

    Like this is news? A bolt of lightening from the sky?

    I think Mr.Read summed it best with “…What is there about any credible candidate…Democrat or Republican…that makes you think they won’t feed at the pig trough once elected?”

    Glad you have finally joined the voice for better governance as opposed to the rigid adherence to the liberal slate and platform that appears to be your usual fare.

    I hope you decide that competence, reason, and honesty are better determinants for candidacy and election than party label or ideology.

    I hope, too, that you will use your journalistic talents to illustrate those with competence, reason and honesty in the coming elections since obviously ideology and hackarama have left us with a Commonwealth in almost as bad a shape as California or (in a couple of years) Greece!

    But as Mr. Read implies, we’re in for a long hard search.

  10. The reason Republicans have a bit of a better chance of getting elected is two-fold: 1) They have few members now. There is only one way to go and that’s up; and 2) There are a ton of Democrats not running for re-election, meaning there will be a lot of open seats.

  11. Al Fiantaca

    @BP It didn’t have to be explicitly stated to be implied, or assumed. I agree, though, that a larger legislature, with representatives responsible for fewer constituents should lead to a more responsive body.

  12. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: You’re not going to get third-party candidates winning anything more than a very occasional seat without more systemic reforms, such as proportional representation and instant runoff.

    Perhaps, Dan, but alas, those are not in the Constitution.

    That the number of House seats should be reallocated and readjusted every ten years in conjunction with the census is.

    For what it’s worth, found an interesting article by a brilliant political observer on the subject:

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: The U.S. Constitution gives the states enormous leeway in how to elect members of Congress. For instance, there’s nothing to stop Massachusetts from electing all of its House members at-large under a party-list system, which would amount to proportional representation.

      Don’t know if the state constitution would be an obstacle in reforming legislative elections.

  13. BP Myers

    @Dan: Fascinating stuff, though I fear “at large” House members would make them even less responsive.

    All a pipe dream, though, with so many entrenched interests. Can’t imagine short of revolution anything changing.

    But that’s a Tea Party I could truly get behind.

  14. Steve Stein

    The first thing Republicans must do in this state is to contest more races with financially viable candidates.

    Massachusetts ranked 48th in competitiveness in state legislative races in 2007-2008, with only 27% of races, only 7% of which were monetarily competitive.

    The best result of Brown’s election may be that the state Republican party might become more viable, both in terms of money and candidates. If this happens, Brown will have succeeded where Weld, Celluci, Swift and Romney failed.

  15. ben starr

    I don’t think your Framingham example fits with the others. The fact that their retirement benefits are “far better than anyone in the private sector could hope to get” is not a fair comparison because, like all negotiations they likely conceded something (in the near term) to garner those benefits. You can’t just compare retirement benefits.

  16. Al Fiantaca

    I’ve always had the impression that for the past few decades, the Republican party in MA has considered itself the “executive party”, willing to fight for the corner office it deems is theirs, but not the “legislative party” which it sees as beneath them. They seemed unwilling to get in the ditches and do the dirty work of legislating, and their representation in the Legislature has been reflective of that. If they develop a change in attitude, and really work to earn those positions, that’s when real change will come to the Commonwealth. Not policy change that I’d agree with much, but one that could be fundamental. Just trotting out a “star candidate” for governor every 4 years may impress the party regulars, but it doesn’t produce any major change against an overwhelmingly opposed Legislature. Having as a goal to “hold the line” against the opposition, is no way to move the state ahead.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Al: I think the problem Massachusetts Republicans have had is that as it has shrunk, it has found itself unable to compete for any office except governor — it’s the one office big enough and important enough to which voters and the media will pay attention, putting the Republican in a position where he or she can actually compete. That may be true now of the Senate as well, given Brown’s victory.

  17. L.K. Collins

    I hope that Mr. Stein believes that it takes more than just money to get elected, although the apparentcy of its truth is on display all of the time.

    No, Republicans need to field candidates that a) are not hacks themselves, and b) can articulate a path for the future that makes sense. Democrats and Independents must move from their isolated towers and actually listen and debate

    The positions of the Democrats and Independents should be similar, and Repbulicans need move from their towers and actually listen and debate. too.

    The era of the Social Democratic contract is under serious strain, and if it collapses, who knows what the human consequences might be.

    As much as the feel-good social democratic legislation meant that people felt good, it was an experiment that could never survive as written. It’s failure doomed by its poor management, its woefully inadequate funding, and a population at put its faith in that social contract finding that that social contract isn’t worth a bucket of anything.

    They are screwed. The lived and planned their whole lives to survive old age under those contract terms which now, quite unlikely, may never be fulfilled.

    California faces 20, maybe 30 years of turmoil and hard times as it works its way out from under the social costs that it has either assumed or had forced upon it by the Federal Government.

    Massachusetts, not far behind, cannot continue to hand ut life-time social contract vouchers for much of he meaningless work “performed” by government. (As your self how much productivity is built into the normal, every day activities of our state agencies. Registry of Motor Vehicles any one? Small claims (Kangaroo) courts? (See Globe Spotlight article on cozy relationships of the Small Claims Magistrates and the Attorneys practicing before them.)

    What I am arguing for is a move beyond the party label, the paint brush of hate and derision that prevents us as a society creating a more crushing burden of social commitment and discourages the coming together to find solutions.

  18. L,K, Collins

    “…except governor — it’s the one office big enough and important enough to which voters and the media will pay attention….”

    As part of the “media” and as a self-styled “media critic”, it might be useful, Dan, for you to take your statement to heart and become the grain of sand in the hide(s) of your media institution/colleagues and in such a way that they actually begin to cover the stuff that really matters to the poor slob in Quincy, or Worcester, or Danvers, or Pittsfield.

  19. Sean Roche

    I appreciate your everyman sensibilities, but are $250,000 paychecks for the top earners in a field “grossly out-of-whack” with what folks in the private sector earn? Really? Even in the newspaper industry, there are some local columnists whose pay package is a multiple of the average beat reporter.

    What’s the problem in Framingham? Is the problem that taxpayers pay 87% of premiums? Or is it that we live in a health-care impoverished country where subsidized health insurance is viewed as a social-contract-destroying luxury? I’d gainsay it’s the latter.

    With the distribution of wealth in this country so radically tilted towards the already rich, are we really worse off with a display of union strength such as the firefighters’? Last week, we bemoan the weakness of the Globe’s union relative to the disgusting display of greed by the NYT upper-management. Isn’t there a relationship between what happens in municipal and other unions?

    On the other hand, the Essex retirement board situation is just out-and-out corruption.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Sean: The problem with public employee unions is that there is none of the normal discipline, none of the normal give-and-take. In negotiations with a private-sector union, management knows that more compensation means higher prices, and that, after a certain point, those higher prices will drive customers away and perhaps even bring down the company. Even the union knows it. And, occasionally, it happens, as we’ve seen in the steel and auto industries.

      In negotiations with public-employee unions, management simply passes on the cost to taxpayers in the certain knowledge that whatever anger they may experience will be fleeting, whereas angering the unions could well end their political careers.

      I’ve got great health care. My employer pays between 30 percent and 40 percent of the cost. And trust me, I don’t make $250,000.

  20. Sean Roche

    I’m not buying your theory that public-sector unions have unchecked power to get whatever compensation they want.

    But, I’m asking a larger question. We clearly live in a period where private management clearly has too much leverage, again look at the Globe case where the normal discipline and give-and-take results in draconian cuts to the rank-and-file and multi-million dollar compensation to the upper echolons. Detroit is a great example of wage imbalance. Your screed against the firefighters — sorry, there’s no better word — lacks the perspective of the overall labor climate in this country.

    As for the fact that your employer pays 30-40% of your healthcare cost, is that optimal? Sustainable? A good benchmark? I’d say, no. I’m happy that there’s some public employee health coverage putting some upward pressure on healthcare benefits.

    And, the fact that you don’t make $250,000 is not exactly a rebuttal to my point. Does anybody at Northeastern make more than $250K? Is the distribution of salaries on the police force grossly out-of-balance with other industries.

    I don’t want to suggest that the underlying fundamentals of the police compensation story are sound. Officers putting in 100-hour weeks raises a public safety issue, among other things. But, the mere fact of high-paid cops is not offensive.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Sean: Perhaps you’d like to consider the perspective of the hard-working taxpayers who fund the lavish public-employee compensation packages that you support.

  21. Sean Roche


    Perhaps you’d like to consider that I am a hard-working taxpayer who thinks that strong unions are good for the middle-class, notwithstanding the fact that we directly fund the benefits that flow to one set of union members.

    The go-go nineties brought next to no real wage growth to middle-class earners. And, the dreadful oughts hit the middle-class hard. Meanwhile, union strength diminishes because, among other things, media elites signal that the unions brought down the automakers and a few quarter-million dollar earners indicate that municipal pay packages are “lavish.”

    I encourage my fellow taxpayers to think of strong municipal union contracts as an investment in a bulwark against the downward pressure on middle-class pay and benefits.

    You may resume hawking the management line.

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