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May 01, 2005

Death and taxes

We've taken a liking to Deval Patrick's turn of phrase on taxes: tell me first what you want government to do and how to pay for it, and then we'll talk about tax cuts.  And we've challenged His Excellency the Governor on this: don't just yap about tax cuts without telling us first what you want and expect government to do.  And the Gov has come through on step one - he's told us something that he wants government to do.

He wants it to kill people.

OK, fair enough.  Here's Romney's bill to reinstate capital punishment.  Now let's talk about how to pay for it.  Reasonable minds can, in my view, disagree about whether the death penalty is a good idea in the abstract, but one thing is certain about Romney's "gold standard" death penalty plan: it will cost a fortune.  It seems appropriate to reiterate the comments from Romney's own death penalty commission, upon whose report Romney's bill is based (we discussed this issue a few months back, but now is the time to re-up it):

[E]ach capital trial will be expensive. Moreover, additional costs inevitably will be incurred due to the proposed creation of new governmental institutions to review scientific evidence and post-trial claims of innocence. The Council strongly believes that, if the death penalty is to be reinstated in Massachusetts, such increased costs simply must be borne. It is not possible to have a death penalty system that is both inexpensive, and at the same time capable of being relied upon to produce accurate and fair results.

After we've studied the bill in detail, we'll have more to say about it.  But for now, this is the big question: is Romney absolutely committed to the vast sums it will cost to provide highly qualified counsel, scientific testing, and all the rest of the bells and whistles this bill promises?  And how, exactly, does he plan to do that while cutting taxes?

To get just an initial sense of the magnitude of the costs here, listen to these comments buried at the very end of today's Globe article:

But state Representative David Linsky, a Democrat from Natick, said the problem with Romney's bill is not its reliance on the beleaguered [State Police crime] lab, but the immense strain it would put on district attorneys' offices, many of which have annual budgets that are only a fraction of what a single, typical capital case costs.

''You would need an expert on DNA, an expert on tools, and expert on any piece of corroborating evidence," Linsky said. ''It's the DA's office that pays the fees for the expert witnesses."

It is certainly possible that Romney isn't serious about this bill - it may just be another in his ongoing series of stunts to shore up his conservative Republican credentials in preparation for a presidential run.  He knows that the bill's chances of passage are remote, so the money issue may be entirely academic - he can say he's pro-death penalty and pro-tax cut, without ever having to actually make it work.  Dems shouldn't let him get away with that.  This is a good opportunity to shift the debate on taxes.  Let's make Romney talk about how much this would cost, and where that money would come from, before we let him talk about a tax cut.

Posted by David at 12:07 AM in Massachusetts | Permalink


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If one believes that the death penalty is appropriate, this is a damned good bill. Allowing double juries (once for conviction, another for sentancing), high standards, independant reviews, and other safeguards all do a fine job of undermining all of the common complaints against the death penalty.

Well, all but two. It doesn't take into account

1. The higher cost of execution. Simply put, it costs more to execute a prisoner than to let him rot in jail. Sure, the prison system saves a few bucks, but it is more than spent by district attorneys, court appointed defense attorneys, judges, and associated infrastructure. By making the standards for evidence even higher, Romney is only serving to make it even more expensive to execute a prisoner instead of leaving him in prison for life.

2. Execution is just wrong. An eye for an eye is outdated by thousands of years. Our so-called Christian nation should know better. Healey says "[t]he death penalty should be available for a narrow set of crimes that we all can agree deserve the ultimate punishment." I simply can not agree with the death penalty in any circumstance.

On a side note, the other quotes from Healey in the statement suck. For example: "“Massachusetts should no longer be in the minority of states when it comes to deterring first-degree murder." Um... what? If the majority of states were jumping off of a bridge, should Massachusetts join them?

Posted by: stomv | May 1, 2005 11:08:17 AM

Good point. You may be right that this issue is a way to crack into Romney's tax cut drive rhetorically.

Beware of double-edge swords, though. Attacking the costs of the death-penalty program can sound like complaining that we shouldn't spend money to ensure the best legal process we can. Especially after the debate over underfunding of public prosecutors' work last year, Romney could throw this back in Democrats' faces and claim hypocrisy.

And, as stomv touches on in his comment, to carp about costs might cede the ground about the death penalty to begin with.

Posted by: Chris | May 1, 2005 5:40:02 PM

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