Electioneering (I mean, public education) as practiced by Mass. Fiscal Alliance

I see that our friends at the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance have been crowing about getting under the skin of some state legislators, so I figured that they must be gearing up their “public education” activities for the election in November.

Sure enough, last week they sent out flyers in 20 state legislative districts to “target” (their word) the incumbent lawmakers in those districts. As a 501(c)(4) organization (that being the provision of the tax code under which they claim tax exempt status), Mass. Fiscal is permitted to advocate a particular point of view on an issue of public concern through lobbying and through what is called “public education.” The law requires that public education be non-partisan, but does not require that it actually be educational.

Mass. Fiscal’s flyer lists a number of votes the targeted lawmaker has taken in a way designed to cast him or her in the worst possible light. For example, the flyer states that the lawmaker “took the side of illegal immigrants over military veterans.” If this assertion strikes you as implausible, you can find out more on the Mass. Fiscal website, where it is claimed that Representative Geoff Diehl (R-Whitman) once proposed that, “veterans be given priority over illegal immigrants for public housing.” His proposal was, scandalously, defeated by a vote of 126 to 29. If you are inclined to think that Mass. Fiscal is a GOP front group, note that the vote was on pure party lines. The 20 targeted legislators, of course, all voted the wrong way.

Mass. Fiscal and its right-wing legislative and media allies (in this case, the Boston Herald) do a big business in creating alarm that public benefits might be going to the wrong people.

HeraldWelfareCover

The vote described as favoring illegal immigrants over veterans is only one of several of that same theme on the Mass. Fiscal scorecard. Not surprising, given the organization’s nativist roots. Mass. Fiscal got its start in 2012 by purchasing the corporate charter of a group called Empower Massachusetts, whose signature issue was voter fraud and Voter ID as the remedy for fraud. This Torch and Pitchfork Caucus has succeeded in spending no small amount of the Legislature’s time each year on the xenophobic causes the caucus favors.

Let’s look more closely at that vote on veterans. Here’s the text of what was voted on:

“Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the executive office of housing and economic development shall require all recipients or any person seeking housing or assistance in any form, including vouchers, to provide a valid social security number and the housing agency is required to verify the number.”

Where’s the part about veterans, you’re asking? And a good question it is. The answer is that the bill being debated was entitled “An Act Relative to Veterans’ Allowances, Labor, Outreach, and Recognition.” In addition to being very pro-veteran, the bill was also very popular — it passed the House 155 to 0. And the vote that supposedly favored illegal immigrants over veterans? It was a vote ruling the amendment out of order because, as we just saw, it had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the bill, which was veterans. I guess we should feel fortunate that the Legislature did not take up any bills on the subject of other very sympathetic groups, like widows. Or puppies.

Mass. Fiscal’s response to the charge that its flyer is dishonest? They’re just presenting the actual voting records. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” they say.

Don’t shoot him, but do feel free to ignore him.

Gaming Commission Has to Try Some Fancy Footwork to Get Around ATM Ban

Last week’s meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission included some lip service about responsible gambling, specifically, a discussion of the “Responsible Gaming Framework,” which the Commission says “is based on the commitment by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and their licensees to the guiding value of ethical and responsible behavior.” (You may add your comment about oxymorons here.)

Among the topics addressed by the responsible gaming folks was how to prevent casino customers from emptying their bank accounts — I mean rather, how to encourage casino customers to empty their bank accounts responsibly. To this end, it was recommended that ATM’s be placed at least fifteen feet away from gaming areas, the idea being that a fifteen-foot stroll would suffice to deter a problem gambler.

Which is pretty funny, especially when you consider that there is a law on the books right now that says that no ATM’s “shall be located upon premises where there occurs legalized gambling, other than a state lottery.” Just how the Commission was planning to get around this law in order to allow ATM’s in the first place is not quite clear, but it would seem to involve a very restrictive definition of “the premises where there occurs legalized gambling” — so restrictive, in fact, that seven or eight steps will take you off the premises entirely and put you in front of an ATM.

Or maybe there’s another way around the law. How about getting rid of it altogether? Last month, our House of Representatives voted to do just that, as one small part of a big bill entitled “An act modernizing the banking laws and enhancing the competitiveness of state-chartered banks.” (Wonks: see section 31 of the bill.)

The repeal of the ATM casino ban was quietly added to the banking bill in January by the Joint Committee on Financial Services, whose House Chairman, retiring Representative Michael Costello of Newburyport, has been known to engage in clandestine efforts at lawmaking that only House leadership seems to be aware of.

Thankfully, the State Senate did not act on the bill before the Legislature’s formal sessions ended on July 31. So the Gaming Commission will likely have to rely on its fancy (fifteen) footwork to try to circumvent the law that now prohibits ATM’s at casinos.

(Imagine where we’d be if the gambling industry’s guiding value was not ethical and responsible behavior.)

Name that Candidate

One of the candidates for statewide office (Governor, Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Auditor) in 2014 is most closely associated with the policy position described in the next paragraph. Guesses are welcome in the comments. You could win the opportunity of knowing just how smart you are. Answer tomorrow.

The federal welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law prohibited the states from using federal funds to pay for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and disability benefits to most immigrants who were legally residing in the U.S. Some in Massachusetts, believing strongly that legally-present immigrants should receive the same treatment as U.S. citizens, proposed a partial restoration of these public benefits by paying for them entirely with state funds. Their plan to provide cash and food assistance as well as basic medical coverage to the 30,000 Massachusetts immigrants who would lose coverage under federal law would cost the state about $40 million annually.

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(August 5, 2014) ANSWER: The answer is Charlie Baker, who was Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance in 1997 when his boss, Governor Bill Weld, proposed a program of benefits for the immigrants made ineligible by federal welfare reform. The program was put into place in 1997. It lasted until 2002, when it became a casualty of the post 9/11 recessionary economy, and has not been restored.

Congrats to Tweeps @dtfan579 and @judymeredith for answering correctly.

It’s Hard to Have a Two-Party System When One Party Won’t Play

Republican candidate for Governor Charlie Baker was surely hoping for guilty verdicts in the probation patronage trial, and as soon as those verdicts came down, he was ready to opine. The diagnosis: one-party rule has bred corruption, waste and crime. The prescription: more “balance” in government, in the form of more Republicans in office, starting with him.

So let’s consider his thesis (although, yes, it would seem that the briefest glance at the United States Congress these days would suffice to rebut the notion that the more Republicans you have the less waste you have).

The probation patronage mess was hatched in late 2001 and lasted until 2010, when John O’Brien and his deputies were removed from office. During that period, a Democratic governor presided for four years and Republican governors for six. So one-party rule as Baker defines it — control of the Executive branch as well as both chambers in the Legislative branch — was slightly more the exception than the rule.

And how was the machinery that allowed this scandal put into place back in 2001? Off we go to the Wayback Machine.

Negotiations between the House and the Senate on the annual budget that year, which usually conclude by early July, were dragging on and on. House Speaker Tom Finneran, whose budget proposal included the transfer of probation hiring power from the courts to his pal John O’Brien, and Senate President Tom Birmingham were engaged in what must be called a pissing match, and the probation issue was one of many on which they disagreed. July gave way to August, which gave way to September. Then came September 11 and suddenly the bottom was dropping out of the economy, complicating budget negotiations further. By the time the fighting stopped in late November, embarrassingly half-way through the fiscal year, many of the 139 Democratic House members had become thoroughly fed up with Speaker Finneran’s actions and autocratic style, including but not limited to his probation machinations. He had been causing problems for them for some time, like refusing to fund the Clean Elections law that the voters had approved and arranging for the elimination of the House rule limiting a Speaker’s tenure to eight years (he was in his sixth year at the time). Their public disaffection became the subject of press reports.

But the House Republicans, who had voted in 1996 to make Finneran the Speaker, remained quiet during what they described as a Democratic party squabble. House minority Leader Fran Marini told the Globe, “this isn’t a Republican fight; it is up to them (the Democrats) and we are going to keep our powder dry.” Likewise, the acting Governor, Republican Jane Swift, refused to become involved: “there is a lot of palace intrigue in this building and I am not going to wade into that,” she said. And so, despite the fact that Democratic unhappiness was providing this Republican governor with her best opportunity to have her vetoes sustained, she elected not to veto the change in probation hiring power but instead signed it into law. You can bet that the Baker campaign now wishes otherwise.

Of course, none of this is to say that the two parties share equal responsibility for the probation mess — the machinery that permitted it was the creation of the Democratic Speaker of the House. But it is hard to have a two-party system when one of the parties decides not to play.

Sheltering All Our Homeless Children

The state is greeting Governor Patrick’s proposal to provide shelter for some of the Central American children now crossing the border into the U.S. with both praise and derision.

Some are applauding the Governor for rekindling the Massachusetts tradition of leading by example: like Governor John Winthrop, he is calling on us to recognize that we are as a city upon on a hill with the eyes of the world upon us. Others are scornful of the notion of opening our doors to these speakers of other languages and their rumored crime and drug-resistant diseases.

Gone is the consensus that prevailed in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed into law the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, under which the nation resolved not to send children from countries other than Mexico and Canada entering the U.S. alone back to their country of origin before hearing their claims to stay. Now resolutions disapproving of the Governor’s policy are being introduced in the Legislature and a “send them home” rally at the State House is being planned.

One popular rationale for rejecting the Governor’s proposal is the state’s own homelessness problem: “While I appreciate the desire to be sympathetic and helpful,” House minority leader Brad Jones told the Globe, “the state already faces enough of a challenge trying to care for its own homeless children.”

Representative Jones has a point, although it must be said that meeting that challenge has not been a high priority for him or for most other state lawmakers. In fact, the Legislature has been largely content to allow the Governor to continue his policy of denying emergency shelter to families with homeless children unless, as his regulations require, “the children of the household are in a housing situation not meant for human habitation, and where there is a substantial health and safety risk to the family that is likely to result in significant harm should the family remain in such housing situation.” This policy, the Patrick administration believes, serves as an important deterrent to those who would otherwise flood the system.

In the past nine months alone, nearly 2400 families with children — a far greater number than the 1000 children the Governor is proposing to help — obtained shelter in the state only after braving these risks by, for example, sleeping in cars and abandoned buildings. The Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose column yesterday described the acutely perilous journey of one nine-year old girl from Central America to the U.S., also wrote nearly two years ago about the dangers facing the state’s homeless families when the Governor’s policy was put into effect. In yesterday’s story, Dayanna from El Salvador was not raped. But in the October, 2102, as Abraham reported, Ginna from Boston, the mother of a 17-month old daughter, was not so fortunate.

Both these stories illustrate the point the Governor made last week: we are “great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.” Is there a good reason to be selective about who the needy children are?

To Jeff Jacoby: Re your 7/6 Column on State Budget, Respectfully Suggest Reading 7/2 Column on Immigration by Jeff Jacoby:

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby thinks that we all owe a round of applause to the eight state legislators — all Republicans — who voted against the new fiscal year budget that was enacted last week.

These votes against the budget, Jacoby writes, benefit us all because they represent a blow against the centralized power wielded by the Democratic party in the state. He is particularly admiring of the memo that two of them –Representatives Marc Lombardo of Billerica and James Lyons of Andover — wrote to explain the reasons for their votes.

It might have been better if Jacoby had looked a little deeper into that explanation before praising it as “principled” and calling for a standing ovation for its authors, because it relies in large part on an unfounded fear of and hostility toward immigrants, a stance Jacoby himself justly criticized as “restrictionist” in a column that he wrote less than a week before.

In that earlier column, “The Stolen Job Myth,” Jacoby absolutely flattens a recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies (which, as he notes, favors sharp reductions in immigration) “purporting to show that all net jobs created in the United States over the past 14 years have gone to immigrants, both legal and illegal.” After demonstrating that report’s many flaws, Jacoby concludes that “immigrants aren’t taking jobs that ‘belong’ to Americans. They are fueling the economic engine that creates more opportunity for everyone, and we would be poorer by far without them.”

Now, the problem is that the eight dissenters whom Jacoby praised on July 6th are notable restrictionists of the kind he criticized on July 2nd. Here, for example is candidate Marc Lombardo in 2010: “I 100% support Arizona’s illegal immigration law…I would support a similar type law in Massachusetts. Illegal immigration is one of the most pressing matters facing the country because it cuts across all areas of life. Illegal aliens take jobs from Americans.” And, if you want more evidence, here are the bills that Representative Lombardo and Representative Ryan Fattman, another budget dissenter, filed to increase the penalties for employing undocumented immigrants.

The primary rationale for the votes of these eight legislators against the budget was their contention that taxpayer dollars are being spent on unqualified (which is to say, immigrant) recipients. This rationale relies on a study produced by an another anti-immigrant organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which asserts that 1.8 billion dollars have been spent in Massachusetts alone for public benefits to unqualified immigrant recipients. You can read about the very dubious premises behind this study here. Not surprisingly, they mirror Jacoby’s takedown of the jobs study.

And once the argument that the state is wasting $1.8 billion dollars on benefits to unqualified immigrants has been punctured, the other arguments of the budget dissenters — that taxes are too high and spending on local aid is too low — collapse. Their principled dissent is revealed as a mere tantrum.

Jacoby was exactly right in criticizing the restrictionists’ inconsistent position this way: “immigrants can be depicted on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays as indolent leeches who flock to the United States to go on welfare — and condemned on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for taking away jobs that would otherwise go to Americans.”

For proof, consider that vote on the budget happened on a Monday. That was one of the “indolent leech” days.

26 Ways of Fouling Off a Baseball

As we head toward the All-Star break with our sputtering Sox eight games under .500, let us pause to savor one of the game’s less transient joys – its reciprocally enriching relationship with the English language.

Later this month, Roger Angell, “the greatest of all baseball writers,” will be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This anticipatory tribute, in the form of 26 verbs, owes a great deal to another of the game’s bards, Ned Martin, the Red Sox play-by-play announcer for the Impossible Dream team of 1967 and the great tragedians that followed in the 1970’s and 80’s. Thanks to him, I can summon the flight (or otherwise) of each of these foul balls:

  • beat
  • blistered
  • carved
  • crushed
  • cued
  • dribbled
  • dumped
  • fisted
  • hammered
  • hooked
  • jacked
  • lashed
  • launched
  • lifted
  • looped
  • nicked
  • nudged
  • poled
  • pumped
  • roped
  • skyed
  • slammed
  • spanked
  • tomahawked
  • twisted

(PS – thanks, Wallace Stevens, for the title.)

 

Nice Casino Referendum You Got There: Too Bad if Anything Was to Happen to It

House Speaker Bob DeLeo, the Legislature’s biggest casino fan, had some ominous-sounding words to say to WGBH News yesterday about the possible budget consequences if the casino repeal succeeds at the polls:

Massachusetts speaker of the House Bob Deleo says lawmakers would have to patch a multi-million dollar hole in the state budget if voters choose to repeal the casino law in November.

“We would have to make some difficult decisions in terms of cuts. That’s one of the issues I thought about this morning actually,” DeLeo told reporters Wednesday.

The state is banking on $54 million in casino licensing fees and $20 million in slot parlor money in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“We’ve already started to use it and depend upon it.”

OK, OK. Message received. We are to understand that there’s a threat of a big budget hole — something that would require either big budget cuts or big tax increases to fix.

Well, those of us who think casinos are a terrible idea also like to think of ourselves as problem solvers. And if budget cuts might be needed because the casino law is repealed, we offer up one suggestion to the House for the very first cut to make: give up the “sales tax holiday” that you have proposed for the second weekend in August.

The sales tax holiday weekend is a gimmick that’s been going on in the state for a decade. Its original purpose was to encourage people who to go buy things that they would not ordinarily buy during one of retail’s slowest months. But, even assuming that the holiday met its intended goal a decade ago, the fact that the Legislature has reprised the holiday in seven of the eight subsequent years has substantially reduced whatever stimulative power it once had. Now that buyers anticipate the holiday, it doesn’t encourage more sales, but simply shifts the timing of sales to coincide with the holiday. Little wonder that the Senate Ways and Means Chair, while defending the program, said in a moment of understated candor that it “may not be the finest public policy on the planet” (State House News, 7/28/11). On top of everything else, the accounting complexities the holiday requires of retailers favor bigger rather than smaller companies. The result? One weekend each August we shovel millions to our Walmarts.

According to the Department of Revenue, last year’s sales tax holiday cost the state over $24 million. We could make up one-third of the $74 million gap that Speaker DeLeo is forecasting just by bagging the sales tax holiday this year. Now that didn’t hurt too much — maybe this won’t be such a big problem after all. And eliminating the sales tax holiday is just one idea.

The budget hole that concerns the Speaker, when compared to the $22 billion in revenue that the state will collect amounts to…let’s see, about three-tenths of one percent. And by eliminating the sales tax holiday we’ve already made a big dent in that three-tenths of one percent.

The Speaker really shouldn’t worry so much.

Here Come the Ballot Questions

Update: The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the casino repeal question should be on the ballot, so six questions appear headed there.
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So it’s looking like there will be either five or six questions on the November statewide ballot.

Proponents of questions were required to submit an additional 11,000 or so voter signatures by last Wednesday to city and town elections officials. And to judge from their subsequent press releases, the campaigns for these six questions succeeded in collecting far in excess of the required number and therefore are on their way to the ballot:

  • Patient Safety Act
  • Limit Hospital CEO Compensation
  • Earned Sick Time for Employees
  • Prohibiting Casino Gambling
  • Updating the Bottle Bill
  • Repeal of Gas Tax Indexing

(More details on the substance of these questions here.)

The folks at Raise Up Massachusetts, who were collecting signatures for both the Earned Sick Time proposal and a Minimum Wage Increase proposal, announced today that they would not move forward with the minimum wage question and instead would accept the terms of the minimum wage bill that is now on the Governor’s desk. They plan to focus their efforts now on Earned Sick Time.

Whether the final number of ballot questions is five or six is up to the Supreme Judicial Court, which is now considering whether or not the casino prohibition question meets the requirements the State Constitution has set for ballot questions (the Attorney General ruled that it did not).

But whether it’s five questions or six, the 2014 ballot will be the busiest since 2000, when the questions numbered eight. For you hard-core ballot question fans, here’s a list by year of the number of ballot questions and, of those, the number that were approved: 1994 – 9/5; 1996 – 1/1; 1998 – 4/4; 2000 – 8/4; 2002 – 3/1; 2004 – 0; 2006 – 3/0; 2008 – 3/2; 2010 – 3/1; 2012 – 3/2.

In a couple weeks, the Secretary of State will hold a lottery to assign the numbers (1 through 5, or 1 through 6) to the ballot questions. It looks like the folks working on the gas tax indexing repeal have jumped the gun. They’ve already got a logo for that question (which proposes to repeal a provision passed last year to indexing the tax the state imposes on gasoline to the Consumer Price Index in order to keep tax collections reasonably comparable to the costs of constructing and repairing roads and bridges). Their logo urges voters to Vote “Yes 2 Repeal” indexing, which rather strongly implies that their petition will be Question 2 on the ballot.

The gas tax folks have a one in five (or one in six) change of winning the #2 spot in the lottery. Otherwise, they’ll have to modify their pitch to something like — “Vote ‘Yes 2 Repeal’ indexing by voting yes on Question #5.”

It could be a confusing election year.

Question for Warren Tolman: Is Gambling Really Different from Tobacco?

Warren Tolman, who’s running against Maura Healey for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, is promoting his candidacy by touting his defeat of Big Tobacco. Here he is promising to do to the National Rifle Association what he did in the 1990’s to the tobacco industry.

One of Tolman’s allies in the fight against Big Tobacco was law professor Richard Daynard, who at the time was the head of the Tobacco Liability Institute at Harvard. And one of their joint successes was the enactment of the state’s tobacco disclosure law in 1996, the first law of its kind in the nation. The law requires tobacco companies to measure the level of nicotine that is absorbed into the body after smoking a cigarette and also to disclose to the federal government the ingredients (including ammonia, cyanide and DDT) in its cigarette brands.

Tolman is understandably proud of his anti-smoking accomplishments. But here’s a little wrinkle. His one-time ally Richard Daynard believes that the addictive dangers that tobacco companies encourage by selling cigarettes are the same as those the gambling industry encourages by promoting casinos and slot machines. And because of these dangers, Daynard, who is now the head of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Judicial Court supporting the position the casino law should be presented to the voters for possible repeal. An excerpt from his indictment of the gambling industry (the entire brief is available here):

The harm caused by the tobacco industry’s products has been the archetype of a commercial threat to public health, and in considering the introduction of gambling industry casinos into Massachusetts, much can be learned from the object lesson of considering the tobacco industry as a disease vector. The predatory gambling industry shares much in common with the tobacco industry, and the People deserve the opportunity to exclude it from the Commonwealth. For example, casinos employ electronic gambling machines that are designed to addict their customers in a way that is similar to how the tobacco industry formulates its cigarettes to be addictive by manipulating their nicotine levels and other ingredients. Mirroring the tobacco industry’s strategy of creating scientific doubt where none truly exists, the casino industry has co-opted and corrupted scholarship on the effects of gambling through the use of front groups that funnel money to beholden scientists who are able to sanitize its origin. Borrowing another tobacco industry technique of shaping the debate around its products, by creating a misleading lexicon and using euphemisms, the casino industry has tried to influence debate, deflect criticism and mislead the public about its role as a disease vector. And finally, by employing personal and corporate responsibility rhetoric honed by the tobacco industry, the casino industry hopes to gain and maintain social acceptability and stave off litigation, regulation and citizen-driven activism.

Tolman does not support the repeal of the casino law. He believes he can regulate the industry to mitigate its harms. But his former ally Daynard’s position that the two industries present identical perils raises a couple questions: does Tolman disagree with him? If not, why is he willing to let another predator get a foot in the door?