The politics of free rides
By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Columnist | May 17, 2009
You have to wonder how our lawmakers can look at themselves in the mirror sometimes.
Lately, some of them have been positively apoplectic about a state program to give welfare recipients donated cars so they can get to paying jobs. The program includes insurance and AAA membership for one year, and has cost the state $6,000 for each of the 180 people with transportation problems who have qualified. Outrageous, legislators shrieked. Imagine giving welfare recipients a free ride - literally - especially in these difficult times.
So on Friday, senators filed two budget amendments to nix the $400,000 free car program. The House is considering following suit.
Here's where we get to the mirror part. You see, legislators have their own free ride program. It's called a per diem, and it's a scam. And that particular welfare giveaway isn't going anywhere.
How it works: In addition to their salaries, our lawmakers get paid for traveling to work. The farther they drive to get to the State House, the more we give them. Boston legislators get 10 bucks a day. The ones who live in Western Mass. get $90 a day. Not every legislator takes them, but last year, those who did racked up a whopping $534,400 in per diems, according to documents from the Treasurer's office. This year they have claimed $151,000.
Naturally, the men most outraged about the car giveaways have been lining up for their own windfalls.
Let's take Scott Brown, for example. First among huffers and puffers, the Republican senator authored one of the amendments to abolish the program. Yet Brown collected $3,926 in per diems in 2008 - in addition to his $76,400 salary. And he's on track to take almost as much this year: As of May 1, he had claimed $1,378 for making the journey to Beacon Hill from Wrentham.
House Republican leader Brad Jones was similarly exercised over the car program, even though it was the brainchild of former GOP governor Mitt Romney. Jones got $3,186 in per diem payments last year. Neither legislator was available for interviews.
Senator Steven Baddour sponsored another amendment to kill the cars program. The Democrat collected $3,458 in per diems last year for his drives from Methuen. His cosponsor Stephen Brewer cleaned up: he claimed $6,660 for trips from Barre last year. So far this year he has gotten $720 in addition to his $76,400 salary.
Baddour and Brewer conceded the car program has its merits, but they have big problems with the free AAA memberships, and that 20 percent of recipients lose their jobs but get to keep the cars. Fair enough. So is it too much to ask that they fix a program rather than kill it?
I asked Brewer how he reconciles nixing the car program with his own enthusiastic embrace of per diems.
"I'm out there earning my living," he said. "This is a job that never ends, trust me."
John Rezende is out there earning his living. Rezende's family spent nine months in a shelter last year after he lost his job and their house burned down. Each month, they got $520 in cash from the Department of Transitional Assistance and $400 in food stamps.
Without the 1996 Chevy Tahoe the DTA and the Wellesley charity Good News Garage gave him, Rezende says he wouldn't have been a reliable employee at a New Bedford nursing home where he works, because it's a 45-minute walk from his house. And he definitely wouldn't have been able to work the night duties and double shifts that turn his $10 an hour into a decent wage. He would still be living off taxpayers' money.
"My life is 110 percent better with this vehicle," he said.
This year, Rezende will make enough money to pay his own taxes. Too much of which will go to the shortsighted, hypocritical dolts on Beacon Hill.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com