The Download: Bill, TED, and state budgets

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is deep into state finances these days, worried that government officials are using so many accounting tricks to balance their budgets that precious public education dollars will be squandered.

“The guys at Enron would never have done this, this is so blatant, so extreme,” CNN quotes the billionaire philanthropist as saying at the TED Conference on Thursday in Long Beach, California. “Is anyone paying attention to what these guys do?”

The TED website hasn’t posted Gates’s remarks yet, but many of the issues he raises are also being featured on his own foundation website, along with interviews with education experts and interactive graphics showing how each state is doing.

Gates, the co-chair with his wife and father of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spends most of his time focusing on global health, overseas development, and US education. But over the last year Gates has been studying state finances, puzzling at the gimmicks many states use to understate their financial obligations and worrying about the rising cost of pensions and health care. He predicts pressure on state finances will mean flat education spending for years to come, even as the economy recovers.

“This will reverse the trend of the past 30 years, when education spending went up consistently, although student achievement for the most part did not,” Gates says. “Now, the challenge is much tougher: to raise student achievement when the money available is not going up much and in some states even going down.”

Using Gates’s interactive analysis, Massachusetts doesn’t fare very well. It ranks 47th nationally in the percentage of the state budget devoted to elementary education, 31st on higher ed, 49th on transportation, and fourth on public assistance. On pension funding, Massachusetts does relatively well, with a pension fund valued at $37 billion and pension liabilities of $59 billion.

To help people understand the budgetary choices states face, Gates offers a California budget challenge, where users make spending and tax choices in a bid to balance the budget. He also offers interviews with education experts like Marguerite Roza and Sal Khan.

Gates told people at the TED conference that people need to start paying attention to their state’s budget problems and understand the tradeoffs in funding choices. “It really is the young versus the old to some degree. If you don’t solve what you’re doing in health care, you’re going to be deinvesting the young,” he warned.

                                                                                                                                                                                    –BRUCE MOHL

HEALTH CARE

The furor over Cleve Killingsworth’s $11 million package from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts rages on.

NECN’s Broadside looks at capping executive pay at nonprofits, while Jim Braude begs to differ with Blue Cross’s justification for Killingsworth’s package – that 2005, when the package was approved, “was a very different time.” The Eagle-Tribune, in an editorial, says the hue and cry over public sector union benefits is nothing when compared to Killingsworth’s pay package. And The MetroWest Daily News argues that, if health insurers are going to pay their executives like for-profit CEOs, maybe they should lose their nonprofit status.

The Herald also wonders why Gov. Deval Patrick, who lit into Charlie Baker during the campaign for his fat earnings as a health insurance honcho, has had nothing to say about the killing made by Killingswoth, who, the paper helpfully points out, was a big Patrick donor.

Globe  columnist Brian McGrory lays out what is sick with the state’s big health insurers paying local bigwigs to serve on their boards of directors. The Herald‘s Margery Eagan has something to say about it all, too. Meanwhile, in a made-for-the-front-page-of-the-Herald story, a Peabody pensioner got a letter from Blue Cross – yes, the very same Blue Cross – threatening to cancel his prescription drug coverage because he was short a dime on his last payment.

MIT has a new $211 million cancer research center thanks to the generosity of billionaire alum David Koch, better known for his funding of conservative political causes.

A former Needham doctor and a nurse practitioner have been indicted on federal charges of illegally prescribing narcotics to six addicts who died from overdoses.

A state study of a pair of common cardiac procedures finds the mortality rate for patients dropped slightly at the 14 hospitals that perform the procedures, even though the age of patients undergoing the procedures rose, mostly because the smaller community hospitals are getting more experienced at them.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Lowell Sun reports that Evergreen Solar’s decision to shift manufacturing to low-cost China is probably the right move, given that most European countries are scaling back their renewable energy subsidies to trim spending.

Cape Wind officials unveil their plans for fires, oil spills, and other emergencies.

PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS

Ohio passes stronger curbs on collective bargaining and other union prerogatives without provoking the outcry that has paralyzed Wisconsin.

Wisconsin protesters comply with a judge’s order and clear out of the capitol building as Gov. Scott Walker says he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state workers. WBUR has the story.

EDUCATION

Springfield mistakenly overpays its teachers to the tune of $1.2 million and now the city wants the money back.

State education officials hand out $28 million in grants to 18 struggling schools, including the Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School in Lowell. The Lowell Sun has the story.

President Obama will drop in next Tuesday on TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, a 6-12 grade Boston public school, to highlight his education reform agenda, the Globe reports.

Next year’s $32 million school budget in Danvers calls for laying off about 10 people, the Salem News reports.

The Weekly Standard leads the cheers over Harvard’s decision to resume its ROTC program when it signs an agreement with the Secretary of the Navy today.

R. Emmett Tyler, founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator, sees underpinnings of sexual and liberal deviance in the emerging trend of girls competing in boys wrestling programs in high schools around the country.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Lawrence police union blames Mayor William Lantigua for “crushing the morale of a once proud police department,” the Eagle-Tribune reports.

With little room to spare when revenues lag, Scituate Town Meeting will consider a “no slack” policy that would deny permits and licenses to residents and businesses who are  delinquent for even one day in paying taxes or fees.

TRANSPORTATION

Another nightmare commute: A 90-minute trip from Boston to Fitchburg takes four hours. NECN says the MBTA blames aging equipment.

The Herald has an unequivocal no for Lt. Gov. Tim Murray’s suggestion that a state takeover of the commuter rail system would improve operations.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A man charged with escaping court pleaded guilty and offered a tearful apology, but the Salem News reports that after the judge gave him a seven to eight year prison sentence he took it all back and asked for a trial.

DEFENSE BUDGET

It may be pork barrel waste in the eyes of budget cutters, but Lynn residents and officials say the jobs created by GE’s manufacturing the back-up engine to the military’s new age techno marvel F-35 Lightning are as important as national defense.

FREE SPEECH

National Review editor Jonah Goldberg says Westboro Baptist Church’s actions at military funerals are indefensible but the Supreme Court’s narrow validation of the members’ First Amendment rights is the correct, albeit malodorous, one.

LIBYA

Talk about soft power. The Globe reports that a bevy of Boston-area academic big shots, including Harvard’s Michael Porter and the Kennedy School’s Joseph Nye, were part of a team at the Cambridge-based consulting firm Monitor Group paid by the Libyan government to help buff up the image of the Moammar Khadafy‘s repressive regime.

DEVELOPMENT

Mayor Tom Menino says Boston’s school department headquarters are moving to a redeveloped Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square. This time for real. Seriously.

HOUSING

CommonWealth‘s Paul McMorrow says in his weekly Globe column that the 30-year mortgage could be a thing of a past – and that urban areas in particular will suffer as a result. The New York Times reports on the development as well.

MEDIA

The Globe tees up media news we’re a tad pleased with here: CommonWealth magazine has received an $1 million donation from a donor wishing to remain anonymous as part of a fundraising drive coinciding with the 15th anniversary of MassINC, the public policy think tank we are published by.

GAMBLING

Former Agawam state Rep. Michael Walsh says Massachusetts has missed the boat on casinos. A former chairman of the legislative committee that monitored the lottery and state-authorized gambling, Walsh now lobbies for the Wampanoags on gaming.

ELECTION 2012

The Economist provides a witty rundown of the Republicans who would be president.

After her weekly sit-down with Mayor Setti WarrenNewton Tab editor Gale Spector shares her mixed feelings about his possible bid for the US Senate.

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