Department of Children and Families

James P. Freeman: Charlie Baker restores good government to Mass.


“The Baker-Polito Administration Year in Review – 2016,” released nearly a year after Massachusetts Gov. Charles (but almost always called Charlie) Baker assumed the corner office is, in many respects, a blistering indictment of Deval Patrick’s eight years as governor.

It begins a section entitled “Fixes and Reforms,” which lists as goals and objectives: “fixing a broken transportation system,” “reforming a broken Department of Children and Families,” “fixing the RMV,” “fixing a broken Health Connector,” and “fixing a broken Medical Marijuana dispensary system.” In short, the document lays out the charges of years of progressive malfeasance in Massachusetts.

In a wide ranging telephone interview, Baker sounded calm and confident about the noble work his team is diligently implementing to restore and repair a dysfunctional state government.

Asked if he would characterize one of the themes of his administration as “restoration,” Baker pondered for a moment, and responded, simply: “That is a perfectly fine word” to describe it.

Baker said the biggest disappointment of his first year was not addressing the problems at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority “earlier.” The contrasts between Patrick and Baker, in style and substance, are evident. Patrick embodied the incurable progressive urge: if you can’t fix it, expand it. Instead of simply fixing the “T” he sought its expansion, with a billion-dollar transportation “network.” Patrick was a dreamer. Baker is a reformer.

Baker’s approach is not sleight of hand or sledgehammer, rather, it is realistic assessment. When asked the biggest hurdle the Commonwealth faces, his answer is surprising: “energy.”

Despite the comfort of low natural-gas prices and the false sense of security it brings, the Commonwealth is due to lose 10,000 megawatts of power off the grid in the next four to five years. Residents already pay the second highest energy rates in the country. Unless it is addressed soon, Baker fears brownouts and blackouts are possible. He believes Canadian hydropower is the best alternative and “I hope there is a big debate in 2016” with the legislature about obtaining the approvals to move forward. Securing energy, like good government, is overly complicated today.

With regard to building a better economy, Baker eschews the grandiosity of the previous administration’s billion-dollar grab bags (see Life Sciences Initiative). His programs resemble economic, in which smaller, more manageable initiatives come into sharper focus from a distance, where a comprehensive image emerges. He seeks to “simplify” and “modernize” local and state government and reduce its complexity. He is also intent on seeing that western Massachusetts take part in Boston’s booming economy by developing what he calls “skill building.”

A few weeks ago, the governor held a private screening of the shattering HBO documentary Heroin: Cape Cod, USA. It is an antiseptic look at a group of young people who have succumb to the grip of opiate addiction and shreds the idyllic image of Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod.” He told invited guests that while the film takes place in Massachusetts it “could be anyplace in America.” Every day four people die in the Commonwealth of opioid overdose. It would not be surprising if he looks to reforming how prescriptions for opioid pain medications are written, with such medications being drivers of unintended addictions.

Baker may in fact be the rightful heir to another quiet, serene and unassuming leader of the Commonwealth from nearly a century ago, Gov. Calvin Coolidge. They share the same sentiments and sensibilities about what government does and how it should do it, its vices and virtues.

Coolidge wrote long ago, but with particular relevance today, “There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living in your means.”

Given the level of massive liabilities — unfunded pensions, perennial out-of-balance budgets, public debt obligations – that approach $130 billion (or $19,493 per capita), Massachusetts has been living beyond its means for decades. These matters will surely need attention too.

The process of restoration is untidy and, in many respects, the major political battles have yet begun but are looming. One wonders if Baker will proactively flush out unpopular and even painful measures early in a first term or slowly unravel the carnival of carnage as it continues coming his way. Either way is fraught with political risks for a man enjoying 70 percent approval ratings today.

After a long lineage of progressive posturing and grisly governance, however, an exhausted and bloodied Commonwealth should continue to enthusiastically accept Baker’s brand of competence, caution and sensible government.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist. This piece originated at The New Boston Post.


James P. Freeman: Patrick's contradictory progressivism

  “The man who is swimming

against the stream knows the strength of it”

                        --from “The New Freedom,” Woodrow Wilson, 1913


“…if I walked on water,

the headline splash would be: ‘Patrick Can’t Swim’”

--from an address at  Harvard's Kennedy School, Deval Patrick, 2009


To a degree, every election is a referendum on activity since the preceding election. It is astonishing, therefore, given two terms, how little  Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s record--and the diminished potency of progressivism--played in the gubernatorial race.


No sober Democrat candidate channeled his style, but instead checkmated his substance (note the absence too of President Obama—Patrick’s political kindred spirit—on the national stage this past election). Association with Patrick was problematic; he is no longer a sensible reference point.


Thoughtful progressives must now consider Patrick a promiscuous progressive, a kind of flirtatious political poseur. Eight years of folly augur a sour legacy. And this may portend that faux popularity coupled with meager achievement will not translate into electoral victory for any future office.


The carnival of carnage under his administration would have dismantled the career of any other public servant in a state not controlled by a single party; in Massachusetts it’s a prerequisite for reelection, not recall.


Patrick acted with contempt for managing the more mundane, if not untidy, aspects of governance. He was a disengaged observer--not leader or manager--of a large, blameless bureaucracy and a corrupt system of institutional patronage.


He was all too willing, in the presence of this monolithic government, to act as its emotional proxy, not trailblazing reformer. He therefore substituted feeling for function. A favorite phrase, honed for maximum impact but of no consequential effect: “We must turn to one another not on one another.”


Justina Pelletier’s family turned to the courts after a lengthy battle with  the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), an agency of such severe managerial incompetence it should be shuttered. The Boston Globe reported last Feb. 2 that the death rate among children under DCF supervision averages 9-10 per year. Just two weeks later the governor praised the then-commissioner, as having “done a terrific job.” Since 2007, funding has been cut to DCF by over $100 million. Dysfunctional and overwhelmed, DCF would have been tasked to assist 1,000 unaccompanied refugee children under his plan this past summer.


The New England Compounding Center, the state-regulated specialty pharmacy, was responsible for 64 deaths and 750 infections nationwide. The Hinton State Laboratory Institute malfeasance may have tainted tens of thousands of criminal convictions. The non-functioning health Connector Web site affected hundreds of thousands of residents and untold cost in dollars and anxiety.


His eloquent, elegant speech, affirming soaring ideals, was a form of distraction from poor executive oversight. Much of it was mixed with rhetorical nonsense. A recent trip to Israel was an “innovation mission.” His attendance at the swearing in of Panama’s president last June was “a great honor for the commonwealth.” And “if we get clean energy right, the whole world will be our customer.”


A self-described “pro-growth progressive,” Patrick embodied the new incurable progressive urge: if you can’t fix it, expand it. Instead of simply addressing chronic structural and financial problems at the  Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority he sought extension of regional transportation networks.


Evidence of pro-growth progressivism: One in seven residents receives assistance from Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA); the number of households receiving Food Stamps increased 57 percent from 2009-2012. State expenditures have increased by 24 percent (over $1 billion a year) during the same period, far outpacing the rate of inflation. Unfunded pension liabilities increased from $11.7 billion in fiscal 2007 to over $21 billion in fiscal 2012. Since 2009 property taxes have increased by 25 percent. From 2009 to 2013 child poverty rates rose. (Rates are dropping nationally). The state unemployment rate, now 6percent, is still higher today than in January 2007, his first inaugural, when it was 4.6 percent.


If his form of progressivism is confusing it is also contradictory. Patrick called for a “progressive income tax” in 2010, supported a reduction in sales tax (the tax deemed too “regressive”) but signed into law a gasoline tax in 2013, which actually is regressive.


With spectacularly scant mention--by a largely fawning  media--during 2012’s senatorial and presidential elections, Patrick swiftly settled a lawsuit (brought by an advocacy group led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s daughter, represented by the law firm where Patrick's wife is a senior partner) against DTA, which claimed federal voter-registration violations. Nothing, suggests, however, he settled the massive waste, fraud and abuse that besieged the DTA (1,160 dead recipients of aid; 30,000 missing EBT cards).


President Wilson would now sue for trademark infringement on a brand he helped create over a century ago as progressivism’s godfather. He was a serious student of the philosophy, wrote extensively about it and embraced its tenants. Another forefather, former Gov. Michael Dukakis, at least talked about competence.


Patrick was never consubstantial with the commonwealth or the creed.

James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer.

Chris Powell: Past time to reopen mental hospitals


Catastrophes of mental illness are everywhere these days, likely increased by the economy's collapse and social disintegration. While the federal government is too paralyzed by partisanship to do anything, Connecticut state government has decided to study mental illness in children, as required by a state law passed last year in response to the school massacre in Newtown.

The study, to be supervised by the state Department of Children and Families, is to develop a plan for improving children's access to treatment. But while it may be better than nothing, the DCF study is a dodge for delay.

For what is lacking in the treatment of the mentally ill is no mystery: the mental hospitals that were closed decades ago on the pretense that smaller community treatment facilities would handle sufferers more humanely. Of course, few such treatment facilities were established, nor can they be, since few people are willing to live near one.

The same laments are heard everywhere, as they were the other night on the CBS News program 60 Minutes. A state senator in Virginia told how he could not get his disturbed son admitted to a mental hospital within the six-hour limit given to police to hold someone believed to be mentally ill. So the young man was sent back home with his father and the next morning attacked him with a knife and then shot himself to death.

Also on the program a woman from Connecticut complained that her 8-year-old daughter spent 12 days in a hospital before being sent home only to be wracked three days later by more violent urges. Meanwhile the Associated Press reported that a young man charged with murdering his mother in Deep River in December spent years going through hospitalizations, doctor visits, medications, and treatment programs.

The young man's brother said, "He was in and out of that system for four years, and all we ended up with was a disaster." Of course much of the work of DCF itself involves coddling manifestly unstable and incompetent single parents whose children are always at risk, a policy of less than halfway institutionalization that often results in serious injury or death to innocent kids. The refrain across the country and in Connecticut is that "the system" failed mentally ill people who killed someone or themselves. The complaint is valid insofar as serious treatment was not available. But as with the perpetrator in Newtown, with the Connecticut case cited by 60 Minutes, and with the Deep River case, treatment was available on a sustained basis; it just didn't work, because treatment of mental illness is not simple arithmetic.

Rather treatment confronts an often complicated combination of chemical imbalance and emotional distress.. Sometimes it can be treated well enough with drugs and therapy and sometimes it can't.

Sometimes the best that can be done over the long term is to keep people secure, medicated, and away from dangerous objects, as was done when government maintained more mental hospitals. Connecticut probably could fill two or three such hospitals immediately just with the weekly overflow of mentally ill people in general-hospital emergency rooms.

So why aren't the mental hospitals being built? And why Connecticut's concentration on mental-illness treatment for children alone? The trouble is no less profound for disturbed adults and their families. It won't do to blame big, bad insurance companies for resisting coverage for institutionalization. Of course, insurance companies are no more eager to cover mental illness than government itself is; it is often fantastically expensive and perpetual without improvement.

But only government is big enough to handle the problem. Fortunately, if Connecticut is ready to rearrange its priorities it will have the resources, since treating the mentally ill is infinitely more compelling than state government projects already underway like busways, mouse factories, burrito restaurants, and raises and pensions for government employees.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.