The Massachusetts legislature is shocked — shocked! — that patronage is rife in the Probation Department! Shocked that it exists anywhere in state government! And it looks as if the both the House and the Senate will be damned if they are going to do anything about it.
Patronage is about more than feathering one's own nest by getting jobs for friends and supporters. It is really about control: about the legislature's ability to micromanage agencies' budgets, too often perverting the public good in exchange for petty political gain.
Legislative requests for consideration of patronage hires carry an implicit threat: cooperate or face line-item cuts.
This encourages agencies to become creative, to develop ways to comply with patronage requests without forcing legislators to explicitly spell out the threat.
Such agency cooperation may be contrary to sound management and the common good. It may be unethical or even illegal. And, as is the case with the current scandal in the Probation Department, it often appears to a combination of all of the above.
Ah, the stench of Beacon Hill.
The sharpies who run the Great and General Court thus insulate themselves from responsibility, and shift liability onto agency managers. This is how they can feign surprise with a straight face when their patronage requests get special consideration.
At least that's what they are doing now.
If one were to take a representative sampling of some of the nation's best-known, world-class liars, say, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and compare their capacity for disingenuous deceit with your average, run-of-the-mill Beacon Hill kingpin's capacity to fib while smiling, the contest would be an easy win for the Bay State solons.
By comparison, Dianne Wilkerson and Chuck Turner look almost admirable in their willingness to roll up their sleeves and get their own hands dirty.
It will be interesting to see how House Speaker Robert DeLeo and his erstwhile Speaker pro-temp, Thomas Petrolati escape the dung that's flying in this affair.
The Probation Department became exceedingly skillful at filling patronage requests — which is exactly why the legislature fought so hard to keep the department out of the executive's domain (as Governor Deval Patrick told the Phoenix earlier this year), an otherwise completely indefensible position.
But it's not just the Probation Department. For similar reasons, the legislature has stubbornly resisted Patrick's attempts (and others' before him) to change the budgeting process for other parts of the government — most notably the courts.
Patrick wants the budget to assign a set sum to the manager of the court system; that manager can then divvy up the money in rational, efficient ways. The legislature is more interested in controlling the purse strings of each department at each court, so that their requests for, say, a patronage hire by the Norfolk civil clerk's office, will carry the direct implied threat of punishment via that office's budget.
Of course, the same implicit threat also stifles state agencies from doing anything that goes against the legislative leaders' wishes — and that includes the offices that are supposed to be overseeing this kind of problem, like the auditor and inspector general.