The Dog Ate My Homework: Water Conservation Edition

Update, September 30: This afternoon, the House adopted the amendment I wrote about in this post. On to the Senate.

Anybody who shares any remotely credible explanation of why I’m wrong and how it is that this bill would make only minor and benign tweaks will be thanked with a copy of The Scarlet Letter.


An amendment to the supplemental budget that’s up for debate in the House tomorrow would broaden a 10-year old law that allows landlords to bill tenants for their water usage under some circumstances.

The current law lets landlords who have installed water-conserving fixtures in their rental units and have also installed water submeters that accurately measure water usage to the tenants’ apartments to charge tenants for water once they have certified to the local board of health (under the penalties of perjury) that they have complied with these requirements.

The amendment, filed by Representative Angelo Puppolo (D-Wilbraham), would appear to apply to situations in which the rental property has been sold to new owners since the time that the former owners certified that they were in compliance with the law’s requirements but the certification cannot be located.

One might think that an appropriate solution in these cases (which should be few in number since the local boards of health have records of the certifications) would be for the new owners to provide proof that their properties are equipped with water-conserving fixtures and water submeters.

But instead, the new owners need only file a new “form” to the effect that their rental units are in compliance with the law. The form, which need not even be submitted under the penalties of perjury, concerns almost by definition a topic about which the new owners are confessing their lack of direct knowledge — they weren’t involved.

The House tried to get the Senate to agree to this change during the conference committee negotiations on the main budget in June, but the Senate said no. If the change goes through this time, expect that suddenly lots of tenants will be obligated for water charges on top of their rent.

Driver’s License Revocations – What Were We Thinking?

On Thursday the State Senate will debate whether to repeal a 1989 law that revokes for a period of one to five years the driver’s license of anyone who is convicted of a drug offense. Any drug offense — even offenses that have nothing to do with cars or driving. The law also imposes a $500 fee to have a license reinstated after the time has been served.

The arguments in favor of repeal seem overwhelming: the law has failed as a deterrent (people with revoked licenses drive anyway because they need to get to their jobs and need to get their kids to school). It busies law enforcement with issuing additional citations to drivers whose licenses have been revoked instead of tending to more important matters. Licensed drivers are saddled with additional insurance costs because more unlicensed (and therefore uninsured) drivers are on the roads. And the law adds to the difficulties that those who have been convicted of drug offenses have in reintegrating — staying out of prison and off drugs. As one of the state’s public defenders described the law to the Globe, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”

If anybody could defend the policy wisdom of this law, it would be the state’s District Attorneys. And even they favor repeal.

All of which leads one to wonder, what in the world were we thinking when Massachusetts and other states passed these license revocation statutes and the U.S. Congress chimed in with a law purporting to withhold highway funds from states that did not follow suit? It was after all, only 25 years ago. Some of us were of voting age then. Madonna was around.

To judge from the debate in Congress, the answer seems to be that we were worried about our teenaged kids getting involved with drugs, and we believed that the threat of losing a driver’s license would be sufficient to deter them and to win one battle in the larger war on drugs.

Some excerpts from that debate:

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the law’s chief sponsor: “As millions of parents know, driving is very important for the younger set and…57 percent of teenagers in a recent poll said that suspending driver’s licenses would be a ‘very effective’ deterrent.”

Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn): “Local police testified that they have begun to target the steady stream of suburban kids coming into the city to buy drugs. Some of their more successful efforts included seizing the arrested drug buyers’ cars, or their fathers’ cars as is often the case.”

Representative Gerald Solomon (R-NY): “I am a father of five children…yearning for that great rite of passage into adulthood, as I said, to get that first driver’s license….[This law] would send a meaningful message to the youth of our country and at the same time when they are most impressionable and most susceptible to peer pressure to try drugs.”

(It seems not to have occurred to these members of Congress that the teenage children of important personages might be the just kind of people on whom police departments might think it advisable to go easy.)

In any case, our state’s experience with drug laws of all kinds over the past quarter century demonstrates that suburban teenagers have not been the demographic most likely to be the object of enforcement. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants reported in his State of the Judiciary speech last year, that distinction belongs to members of racial and ethnic minorities.

In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year…racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses. I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact.

If someone asks you what is meant by the term “institutional racism,” you could point them to the driver’s license suspension law. Go Senate.

In Other Sunu-news…A Question of Journalistic Ethics

Hey, you journos out there — a question:

A columnist pens a denunciation of new federal policy. The new policy also happens to be contrary to the interests of a former client. Is disclosure required?

I’m asking, of course, for John E. Sununu, the former New Hampshire Senator whose opinions appear bi-weekly in the Globe. Sununu is a man of many interests, including those of the lobbying firm Akin Gump, where he serves as Adjunct Senior Policy Advisor. His op-eds have attracted the attention of media watchdogs who have pointed out numerous instances in which he has failed to disclose that his opinions coincide with the opinions of those who are paying him.

For instance, a Sununu column in support of the Keystone Pipeline failed to disclose that a company interested in building the pipeline is a client of Akin Gump. And more recently, as Media Matters reported, a Sununu column excoriating President Obama on the issue of net neutrality (“Obama’s bureaucrats reach ever deeper into the economy, pursuing expensive and unnecessary regulation of the internet”) neglected to mention that its author is the “highly-paid honorary co-chair of Broadband for America, an organization whose members have included major broadband providers and has been heavily funded by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.”

The Globe has seemed deeply uninterested in investigating the alleged infractions, but after this most recent failure to disclose and after some prodding by Dan Kennedy and BlueMassGroup, the Globe announced that Sununu will not write about the internet and, in any column about the presidential election, he will disclose that he supports Republican candidate John Kasich.

These two modest constraints still leave a lot of room for possible conflicts, which brings us to the September 14th column, “Obama Promotes Shell Game in Student Loan System,” in which Sununu vigorously decries new federal policies on student loans. The money quote: “With borrowers awash in a sea of debt, and the system taking on record defaults, the president and his allies blithely concoct different ways for those borrowers to walk away from their obligations.”

The new regulations come in response to widespread abuses by for-profit educational institutions over the past decade: “exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”:

  • Pell Grants to for-profit schools increased from $1.1 billion in the 2000-2001 school year to $7.5 billion in the 2009-2010 school year.
  • These schools receive most of their revenue from the federal government in the form of federal student grants and loans, including $32 billion in 2009-2010.
  • Students at for-profit institutions typically have poor outcomes. Many are unable to obtain employment.
  • Overall, the 12 percent of students at for-profit schools nationally account for about 48 percent of all student loan defaults.

The new policies that Sununu disapproves of require these schools to provide information to prospective students about the costs of their programs and the graduation rates, earnings and educational debt load of those who enroll. In addition, students at one of the largest of the for-profit schools, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which sold or closed (without notice) all of its locations between February and April of this year following numerous enforcement actions, would be eligible to apply for some form of forgiveness or forbearance of the debts they had incurred — or as Sununu put it, to “walk away from their obligations.” The multiple lawsuits — by the federal government and by many states, including Massachusetts — led to the school’s bankruptcy filing in May.

So you can guess where this is going. Last year, as part of an effort to derail the Obama administration’s plans to regulate these for-profit schools, Corinthian Colleges hired the lobbying firm Sununu is associated with, Akin Gump, paying the lobbying firm $120,000. This year, with Corinthian having shuttered its schools and declared bankruptcy, it is apparently an Akin Gump client no longer.

One hopes to the contrary, but fears that for both Mr. Sununu and the Globe, this is the end of the story.

The Making of the Sales Tax Holiday, 2015

As I count down the days and hours until the August sales tax holiday, when I can save $20 on the four new (tax free!) tires my car needs because of the deplorable condition of our roads, some thoughts on how this year’s holiday came about.

As is typical, the Legislature waited until late July to enact the holiday bill, perhaps deterred by the words of the former Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, who once described the holiday as perhaps not the finest public policy on the planet. But as is also typical, by late July, retailers have already advertised not only the existence of the holiday but also have hinted broadly about when in August it will occur. And the Legislature does not excel at taking candy from babies.

This year, more legislators in both House and Senate joined the ranks of sales tax holiday skeptics, and this time they also had the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation in their corner (the holiday “is getting increasingly more difficult to justify”). But even as they scored more points than ever in the policy debate, they knew they were outnumbered, despite the fact that many of those supporting the holiday were pretty listless about it  (Senator Marc Pacheco, one of their number, distilled this lethargy into a single sentence: “I will be voting for it reluctantly so that the Senate is not blamed for stopping it”).

The success of the sales tax holiday owes much to the inherent popularity of any law that lowers consumer prices, but not everything. The holiday’s primary lobbyist, according to the Globe, is an “aw shucks, good old boy” who’s very popular on Beacon Hill. The holiday also has think tank support from the (Koch-funded) Beacon Hill Institute. The Institute weighed in with the requisite charts and tables demonstrating the enormous boost the state economy would receive from the holiday, including the rather astounding news that this year’s holiday would generate as many as 860 jobs (note to the Institute: those sound more like “shifts” than jobs”).

And yet another factor: the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and their kinfolk at the Independent Expenditure PAC, Jobs First.

You may have heard of Mass. Fiscal during last year’s election season when their “voter education” efforts, which targeted 20 Democratic incumbents in the House of Representatives, came in for some harsh reviews, such as this one by PoliSci Professor Peter Ubertaccio and this one by David Bernstein at Boston Magazine (as well as this one by your author).

Mass. Fiscal’s voter education mailings charged the 20 targeted Democratic incumbents had taken the horrifying position that “illegal immigrants” (their term) should come before veterans on the wait list for state public housing vacancies. The professor and the journalist both concluded that this sort of “ridiculous, incendiary nonsense” purporting to be voter education amounted to an abuse of Mass. Fiscal’s tax-exempt status. As David Bernstein concluded:

If your purpose is to get average voters whipped up against an incumbent, the dozens of real, actual votes they take about various real, actual spending measures won’t be as effective as a vote supposedly about benefits possibly going to illegal immigrants, and linking that vote in a basically dishonest way to claim that those benefits are being willfully taken from veterans.

But with the help of the $410,000 chipped in by the Jobs First Independent Expenditure PAC, Mass. Fiscal delivered an average of 95,000 pieces of mail to each of the districts of the 20 targeted Democratic incumbents. That’s more than two pieces of mail for every constituent, and it amounts to an expenditure of $20,000 in each district. To put that number in context, a state representative is not doing too badly if his or her Committee-to-Elect averages $20,000 over the course of an election cycle. Of the twenty candidates selected for targetting by Mass Fiscal, eighteen were re-elected, but the mailings had succeeded in delivering their threat.

So you can imagine that the Democratic members of the House were not happy to find two recent missives to their inboxes delivered by Mass. Fiscal: one on the urgent need to provide MBTA management with “relief” from the onerous (which is to say, union-friendly) Pacheco Law, and the other on the urgent need for another sales tax holiday this year. Their letters to House members are at the end of this post (click to enlarge).

Mass. Fiscal’s June 24 letter on the Pacheco Law begins with a flex of its 2014 monetary and electoral pecs (95,837 pieces of mail per district) and then goes on to express its considerable disappointment that the Legislature’s Transportation Committee failed to provide the MBTA with relief from the Pacheco Law. What the letter fails to acknowledge is that the full House had already included that relief in the annual budget it passed two months earlier. (Note that the Herald editorial quoted approvingly in the letter does acknowledge the House budget action on the Pacheco Law.)

Therefore, with Mass. Fiscal having proven its commitment to misinformation, it would not be surprising if House members chose not to buck them on the sales tax holiday. If you’re a state rep with reason to think a “no” vote will later be used against you in an unscrupulous fashion — recast, perhaps, as a vote to tax veterans so that immigrants can go on a holiday, why bother?

Happy shopping.



“Breaking Faith” with the Voters: A Tale of Two Ballot Questions

The Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court have ruled that the income tax proposal the Senate included in its budget is not unconstitutional, ending the legal controversy, but not the political controversy.

The Senate’s income tax plan would freeze the personal income tax rate at its current rate (5.15 percent) rather than allowing a formula to remain in place that year by year automatically lowers it to 5 percent. The plan would also increase the personal income tax exemption and the state earned income tax credit, thus providing a modestly progressive adjustment to state income tax collections.

Opponents of the plan have taken to saying that the proposed freeze amounts to “breaking faith” with the electorate that voted back in 2000 to reduce the rate to 5 percent. The Herald used the phrase in a recent editorial. And Governor Baker repeated the charge in an interview on Boston Public Radio last week.

“Breaking faith” — that sounds grave. It’s a phrase that might lead you to think, for example, that the Legislature has never before tampered with a ballot question that the voters had passed. Well, that’s an assumption easily disproved. We can start with a pair of ballot questions, one from 1998 and the other from 2000.

In 1998, voters approved with 58 percent of the vote a ballot question providing for public financing for political candidates who agreed to fund-raising limits. The Legislature, whose leadership abhorred the new law, refused to provide the revenue necessary for its operation. The law remained on the books for a while, but the lack of funding kept it from taking effect.

In 2000, two years after the voters approved the public campaign financing initiative, a question to reduce the state income tax from 5.85 percent to 5 percent over the course of three years was on the ballot. Republican Governor Paul Cellucci strongly supported this proposal, and his administration worked hard to convince skeptical voters that the state could afford this enormous tax cut without cutting state services. The Governor’s Secretary of Administration and Finance was dispatched to proclaim that, far from resulting in service cuts, the tax rate reduction would stimulate economic activity and produce more revenue. In what was likely one of the last straight-faced invocations of the Laffer curve, the Secretary promised: “when you cut taxes you have a stimulating effect” (Globe, 10/31/2000). As it happens, the Secretary was Stephen Crosby, the current chair of the state Gaming Commission, who today promised that casino gambling will bring as much as $400 million annually to the state.

Voters approved the tax rate cut that November, although by a lesser margin than the public campaign financing initiative had received two years earlier. But even before the year was out, state tax collections had begun to drop precipitously: the tech stock bubble was bursting. Only weeks after promising no cuts in services, Secretary Crosby was rethinking the entire situation. “That’s a colossal drop” in tax collections, he said. “That’s like falling off a cliff. That gives the message that we need to be ready” for spending reductions (Globe, 12/24/2000).

And the next few years would bring even more problems — the tragedy of 9/11 and the additional economic bad news that followed. The Legislature turned to paring programs and services and they also used the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to repeal the public campaign financing law. Said Governor Mitt Romney in okaying the repeal — “I do not want to put in our budget, particularly in a year with the financial challenges we have, money going into a Clean Elections fund.” In addition to cutting services, the Legislature also halted the voter-approved income tax reduction at its then-current level of 5.3 percent and put in place a formula tying future rate reductions to growth during the prior year, which is how we arrived at the 2015 tax rate of 5.15 percent.

In order to pave the way for the repeal of public campaign financing, the Legislature placed a non-binding question on the ballot in 2002 asking voters whether they approved of using taxpayer funds to pay for political campaigns. Money raised from large corporations funded an ad campaign that persuaded voters to reverse their prior vote in support of public campaign financing. No comparable effort was launched with respect to the income tax cut, so we don’t know whether voters would have favored significant reductions in funding for their schools, libraries, police and fire departments.

In the 15 years since the voters approved the income tax cut on the basis of a promise that it would increase revenue, that cut has been responsible for much of the reduction in funding for important state services: higher education is down 20 percent; early education down 23 percent, public health down 25 percent; local aid down 44 percent. (Hat tip for the stats to MassBudget.)

So what does it mean to “break faith” with the voters? To freeze the income tax rate and provide a small governmental counterweight to the growing problem of income inequality? Or to continue to peddle a promise made the better part of a generation ago that never could have been kept?

Boston 2024’s Guide to Poetry: Start with “Ode to Sport”

As the Globe reports today, Harvard was surprised to learn that Boston 2024’s original plans called for the university to play host to the tennis, water polo, field hockey, fencing and aquatics competitions.

Harvard might also be surprised to learn of Boston 2024’s claim that, like the other colleges and universities here, Harvard is “dedicated to Coubertin’s vision of education through sport” and that it is “already developing a K-12 and college-level curricula to promote the values of Olympism.”

Say what? Starting with — who’s Coubertin?

Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games (or as Charlie Pierce has put it, he is “the glorious nut” who decided to relaunch the Olympic games in Athens). His intellectual career was devoted to demonstrating that organised sport, especially as practiced in ancient Greece, confers mental, moral and social strength. Modern scholars have criticized his work as overly romantic and historically inaccurate, but his reputation within the International Olympic Committee remains secure.

And he’s not only the father of the modern Olympic games, he was also a gold medal winner in 1912 — in the literature category (which I gather is no longer included among Olympic events) for his poem Ode to Sport.

You really should read Ode to Sport. If it were a wine, you might describe it as very fruity and light-bodied, with a bouquet of sentimentality and notes of fascism. Here’s a sample:

O Sport, you are Fecundity! You strive
directly and nobly towards perfection
of the race, destroying unhealthy
seed and correcting the flaws which
threaten its essential purity. And you
fill the athlete with a desire to see his
sons grow up agile and strong
around him to take his place in the
arena and, in their turn, carry off the
most glorious trophies.

The entire Ode is here.