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November 9, 2005
The Politics of Pork
by Steve Bailey, Globe columnist

The Boston Red Sox are in line to get theirs. And so is wealthy developer Arthur Winn.

There is no money for the income-tax cut voters overwhelming approved five years ago. There is no money to fix the Legislature’s mistake that will force 40,000 people to pay an unfair retroactive capital gains tax. To understand why, look no further than the current pigout, otherwise known as the “economic stimulus bill.” State revenues are surging, and our elected leaders know what to do with the windfall. We don’t have a “Bridge to Nowhere,” but Beacon Hill is ready to spend $500 million on dozens of pet projects. Among them: $20 million on a ramp to a Fall River industrial park that would be better spent improving downtown Fall River. The House proposed $12.5 million for transit improvements around Fenway Park, only to have the Senate trump it with $55 million. When the mayor of Boston, a man who has never seen a state dollar he couldn’t use, starts complaining about loose spending, something is amiss.

Then there is the mini-city, Columbus Center, Winn wants to build over the Mass. Pike. The price just keeps going up on this monster, which is to include 450 condos, a hotel, 900 parking spaces, retail, and more. (Latest estimate: more than $500 million and rising.)

Winn spent nearly three years telling the community he had to build big to justify the enormous cost of a deck over the turnpike. Consultant McKinney & Associates ran economic models touting just that; all included no public subsidies for this private project.

But buried deep in the Senate version of the economic stimulus bill are these three lines: “Not less than $4.3 million shall be expended for the purpose of an economic grant to the City of Boston for the Columbus Center project.” Can you imagine three scarier words than “not less than” in a pork bill like this?

Incredibly or maybe not incredibly at all is that this “not less than $4.3 million” gift was inserted in the bill by that poster girl for good government, Senator Dianne Wilkerson the Boston Democrat who was sentenced to six months of house arrest for failing to file federal income taxes for four years and is now being sued by the attorney general over alleged campaign finance violations.

In an interview, Wilkerson called Columbus Center “my favorite project,” and said the funding was for “a very small gap” in the financing of the deck over the turnpike. But she didn’t know how much the deck would cost and couldn’t explain how she got to $4.3 million. “I think it may be a little more than that,” she said. Tip O’Neill once said something like that about his own favorite project, the Big Dig.

What she didn’t mention is that she is one of Winn’s favorite politicians. Winn, a prominent Republican moneybags, and his family gave Wilkerson, a liberal Democrat, $3,750 from 2002 to 2004, according to campaign finance records. Others on the Winn payroll gave, too, making her one of the more unlikely beneficiaries of Winn largesse. Think about it as one of the
greatest returns on investment of all time.

A Columbus Center spokesman, Will Woodruff (a $500 Wilkerson donor), said the developers will not comment on the financing until the package is compete, and he didn’t return my calls about the campaign donations. “We have always said we would be pushing for public financing,” he said. They have been knocking on the door at the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, which is expected to provide a low-interest loan of $15 million.

Reasonable people can differ on Columbus Center. Many like it as a way of knitting Back Bay and the South End together again. I think it is just too huge, part of the ongoing Manhattanization of Boston. The rationale for that size was always the same: The cost of building over the turnpike was the driving force. Now Winn will get his 35-story tower, and the public will help foot the bill for the deck. Call it Win-Winn.

On Beacon Hill, things like this happen at times like these. In a pigout this big, what’s another $4.3 million certainly “not less” among friends?

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]
Copyright (c) 2005 Globe Newspaper Company
Section: Business
Page: F1
Copyright (c) 2005 Globe Newspaper Company


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