Putting out the Fires on Beacon Hill

There's something about the American psyche in the late 20th and early 21st century that seems to require a crisis to get our attention.

We recognize problems. We identify needs. We evaluate the situation.

Then, we do something about a crisis. Or, perhaps more accurately, we react to something that others tell us is a "crisis."

Keep in mind that my professional life prior to the Legislature was in "the media." I am not criticizing the Fourth Estate (our system of a free and independent press, though flawed, is still the best in the world). But, we seem pay attention only to big headlines or the first two stories on the evening news.

For example, the Big Dig. We've all been aware that it was costing more than projected in recent years. Far more than the $2-million Governor Dukakis said it would cost when he announced the plan in the late '80s.

But not until officials were caught telling half-truths, did heads roll, firms get fired and the legislature come up with a plan to put the project on track to completion.

Two asides about the bailout. First, the project has to be finished; you can't have a big hole in the middle of Boston for the rest of the century. And, second, if the re-imposition of registry fees seems like a tax to you, it seems like a tax to me, so I voted against the plan to cover the Big Dig shortfall. (Remember the "temporary" increase for the State Income Tax? Remember the announcement that we were no longer going to have registry fees in Massachusetts?)

Another recent "crisis" involving your State Legislature was the procedural folly of all night sessions to complete the budget. That's not the first time late-night sessions have been held. But is the first time that the Boston Ad Club had a reception (independent of the Legislative Session) in the Great Hall.

Wine tasting in one room. Budget debate in another room. Legislators who couldn't stay awake for nearly 24 consecutive hours. Imagine! A crisis? No. This wasn't anything new. A problem? Yes.

So the media got all over the Legislature for conducting the people's business while the people were sleeping. Because of the headlines and TV cameras, the Legislature has now made it difficult, if not impossible for sessions to run into the late evening. And we'll need a unanimous vote of the 160 members to continue to work after midnight.

So that part of the crisis is dealt with.

But, I think the more egregious revelation from the budget session was the matter of absentee voting. Legislators should cast their own votes. But there have been many "ghost votes" from the floor with court officers or others registering the vote on the electronic ballot for someone who wasn't there.

Can't we enforce this rule? Do we need another crisis? Do we need the media to hound us to fix this "crisis?" I've suggested electronic voting cards, like ATM cards, that have to be swiped through a special machine before members vote. We can plan ahead, we can do this now, we can avoid a crisis.

Education. AIDs. Crumbling bridges. HMOs. MCAS tests.

Crises? Or just problems to be ignored until they become crises and we are forced to come up with fast answers.

Why can't government, state and federal, do a better of identifying needs and anticipating and planning solutions? I don't have an answer. Government, it seems to me, is much like the people it serves. We wait for a crisis. Then do something about it. We react. We aren't pro-active.

The business world generally does a better job of anticipating problems. And as a public servant, I'd like to see more things done in a business-like manner on Beacon Hill.

But, and this is a big but, government is supposed to be the servant of the people. It isn't my government. It is ours, yours and mine. And I am there to represent you. That makes it a little more complicated than running a business where a few people can call all the shots.

What can you do to help us deal with problems before they become a crisis? Speak up. Call. Get involved. Some people do, you know. Advocates for better education, better care for the mentally ill, and many, many other issues.

Your calls and letters and concern do make a difference. And they often alert me to situations before the media declares them crises.

It's your government. We're doing the business of the people. Which do you prefer? Dealing with the needs and problems we know exist? Or crisis management?

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