Shaunna O’Connell, Welfare Queen, Goes for her Third Term

It’s been a while since we checked in on the race for State Representative in the Third Bristol District (Taunton and Easton), where Republican Shaunna O’Connell is seeking re-election to her third term.

As you may know, Representative O’Connell has made a big name for herself by raising at every opportunity the spectre that public benefits, like welfare, are going to people who don’t deserve them, like immigrants. She’s a regular on the pages of the Boston Herald, and lately, as her website informs us, she’s taking her signature issue national on Fox News. Her Fox hosts are as uninterested as she is in mentioning the fact that the entire welfare program in Massachusetts accounts for less than one percent of the state budget, or in exploring whether other issues affecting her constituents may also be deserving of attention.

This year her electoral opponent is Taunton native and Gold Star brother Keavin Duffy, Jr., who won the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate and who believes that the growing income inequality in Massachusetts is an issue that the residents of Taunton and Easton may also be interested in.

Candidate Duffy has challenged Candidate O’Connell to debates and has gotten under her skin recently by pointing out that she has sponsored legislation that would replace the state government employee retirement system with a voluntary 401K style plan. This observation provoked an angry response from her campaign manager, who stated unequivocally that during her time as a State Representative “she has not filed any legislation or amendments regarding changing pensions.”

Hmm. Except that she has. Here it is in black and white (and you can find link to this amendment on the State Legislature’s website here):

Representatives Webster of Pembroke, Adams of Andover, Levy of Marlborough, Lyons of Andover and O’Connell of Taunton move to amend the bill by adding the following section…

The provisions of [the state employee retirement law] relating to defined benefit plans shall not apply to any employee hired after July 1, 2011. They shall be covered by 401 (K) coverage with the state, county, city or town providing a 7 per cent match….

Obvious and categorical misstatements like this one are the kind of thing that prompt additional scrutiny of a candidate’s positions. Further on his letter, for example, the campaign manager says this: “O’Connell has been a fighter for the workers of the district. She crossed party lines to vote for the minimum wage increase.”

Well, that’s true enough, so far as it goes. But it does omit the fact that Representative O’Connell also voted in favor of an amendment that would have increased the minimum wage by a much smaller amount. A fully accurate statement of Representative O’Connell’s view on the minimum wage issue would disclose that she favored an increase from $8 per hour over three years to only $9.50 per hour, rather than the $11 per hour that was enacted into law. In other words, Representative O’Connell thinks that when the minimum wage is fully phased in 2017, workers making that amount — including those who are her constituents — really ought to be earning $3000 less per year.

Not surprising that one side is eager to debate the issues of importance to the citizens of the Third Bristol district and the other side is eager to go national on Fox News.

Charlie Baker’s Housing Agenda: Tough Love and Evictions

Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker has a plan to help people living in public housing. He would evict them after seven years.

Baker says this seven-year time limit is a good idea because “no one should be made to feel that permanent dependency is the best they can expect for themselves and their family. Public housing should be transitional and help individuals and families transition to independent living.”

As it happens, the Worcester Housing Authority has already instituted a voluntary program along these lines, called “A Better Life.”  Families choosing to participate in the program get a Family Life Coach, who helps them create a plan for self-sufficiency that involves budgeting and saving.  At least one of the adults in the family works or enrolls in school.  If the family’s income goes up, they are allowed to keep the money that would otherwise be paid as a rent increase.  There are life skills courses and financial literacy workshops. At the end of the program, the Housing Authority says, participants have reached “economic independence and self-sufficiency through hard work and consistent support.”

Very few people have volunteered for the program, however. So Baker, who says he never met anybody who’s been in public housing who wanted to be there, would like to make the program mandatory in order to demonstrate its many advantages. People who enter the program, even if under duress, he believes, will end up appreciating it. “Tough love,” his running mate Karyn Polito calls it.

Because rental costs are lower in Worcester than in some areas, notably Boston, Baker thinks that city would be a good testing ground for his plan. So let’s run some numbers for Worcester.

We’ll start with a parent who has two school age children and a minimum wage job working 40 hours a week. (There are about 600,000 minimum wage earners in the state — one in five of us.) We’ll use the $9 per hour minimum wage that takes effect in January. In 2015, that family will earn $18,000. With the additional minimum wage increases that go into effect in 2016 and 2017, the family will earn $20,000 and $22,000 in those years.

Now let’s look at what it takes for the family to achieve economic independence. According to the calculator that the Crittenton Women’s Union has developed, $55,068 would be necessary for this family to live in Worcester. With three of the seven years available to the family prior to eviction having been used up (and with a raise in each of those three years, which can’t be counted on in the future) the family still has not attained even half of the resources required.

Worcester

All the life skills courses in the world are not going to scale that $55,000 mountain soon. And only four years remain before this family faces eviction.

Charlie Baker’s public housing agenda reflects his party’s world view in pretty stark relief. Here it is: what’s missing from the lives of the poor is hard work. Hard work can magically create economic independence, and tough love and evictions are necessary to prove the point. Tick-tock.

Charlie Baker’s Urban Agenda: Saying “No” (Partly, Anyway) to Bill Weld

Republican candidate for Governor Charlie Baker was in Boston this morning to announce an urban agenda. Much of it reiterates already familiar positions, like tax cuts, lifting the cap on charter schools, liberating businesses from burdensome governmental regulations, etc., etc. But it does include one topic that has not been much discussed in his campaign so far — incarceration.

The Baker platform on incarceration, essentially, is to do less of it. He’s proposing:

  • to focus more on rehabilitation and less on building new prisons,
  • to provide alternatives to incarceration (including drug treatment), and
  • to reduce recidivism and increase family reunification.

The most interesting aspect of his agenda, to this Baker-watcher, is how dramatically it differs from — and improves on — that of his former boss, Governor Bill Weld.

Let’s go to the Wayback Machine for a trip back a couple decades.

It’s 1995, the first year of Governor Weld’s second term. Charlie Baker has earned a promotion — he’s the Governor’s chief budget advisor. The Governor’s highest spending priority is a $700 million prison bond bill (Herald 10/10/95) that will build more than 4000 new cells to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails (Globe 2/14/95). On the subject of prisons, Weld is cool to ideas about alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment.  When the Legislature balks at the price tag for the new prison space and proposes instead a smaller prison expansion to be paired with the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and for alternatives to incarceration including drug treatment, the Governor says no way:  “People selling drugs into our communities are wreaking a lot of social havoc, so I am not in favor of chipping away at the mandatory minimums” (Globe 11/3/95).  He increases the political pressure on the Legislature to approve his prison construction plan (and hypes the overcrowding issue) by sending 300 medium security inmates from jails in Massachusetts to jails in Texas, despite studies showing that “the more someone is part of a cohesive family unit, the better the prospects for post-prison adjustment.” (Globe 11/6/95, citing Franklin Zimring, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Earl Warren Legal Institute.) The Governor and former prosecutor scoffs at this evidence from the social sciences:  police work and prisons are “about all” that helped to cut back on crime, despite what “‘criminologists sharpening their pencils in the ivory tower'” might think (Globe 11/11/95).  So much for rehabilitation, family reunification and alternatives to incarceration.

The Legislature eventually agreed to build more prison cells (although not as many as Governor Weld wanted) and established a program of community corrections, perhaps a first recognition in our state that we cannot build our way out of a crime problem.

Such a transformation Baker has shown on this issue.  Is it possible that when he runs for Governor in 2018 (and let’s face it, the Mass GOP has no farm team), he will have seen the light on tax cuts and charter schools as well?

Election 2014: Got Compassion Deficit Fatigue?

Joan Venocchi asks in today’s Globe whether Charlie Baker has a compassion deficit.

Charlie himself thinks the answer is no (as an aside, who among us would admit to a compassion deficit?), and his campaign is eager to recount vignettes of the candidate’s personal generosity. But, as Venocchi says, the appropriate question for voters is Baker’s view of the proper role of government in helping the needy.

Baker flunked a compassion pop quiz of sorts in his campaign four years ago when he said that anyone seeking help from a homeless shelter in the state should first have to prove residency. His opponent pounced quickly; Governor Patrick issued a statement deploring his opponent’s heartlessness: “Baker’s proposal to require homeless shelters to turn away people, including veterans and even families with children, if they can’t produce proof of residency is inhumane and wrong….[A] government that would turn a homeless child out into a cold night or deny a poor person a meal because they could not find a utility bill is not the kind of government that reflects the values of Massachusetts.” Baker quickly retreated, saying that his views had been misrepresented and that in emergency situations, no one would ever be turned away.

Stung by that misstep, Baker was careful not to make it again. His campaign platform this year does not call for proof of residency for shelter services. But the Democrats do not intend to let him forget and they regularly seek to remind voters of his “infamous” statement of 2010 (along with a surcharge for the transgression of flip-flopping on an issue).

With that history in mind, what to make of this? The year after he defeated Baker to win re-election, Governor Patrick proposed that families with children seeking emergency shelter first prove that they are residents of the state. His budget plan advertised that because of this and other “housing reforms,” less money would be needed for shelter programs. The Legislature, eager to rein in the sharp climb in shelter costs that our homelessness crisis is causing, quickly approved this new restriction, which has now been in place for the past two years. Families seeking shelter are now informed that they need to present some form of Massachusetts ID before their applications are even considered.

So the 2014 campaign for governor features a candidate extremely wary (on this one score at least) of being charged with a compassion deficit, and an opposing party delighted to accuse him of once advocating the very policy that their incumbent governor put in place. It all suggests that neither party puts a premium on knowing about the lives of those toward whom they are very keen on showcasing compassion. Voters, very understandably, could get very tired.

A Peek Inside a PAC

Update: Yes, the folks at the Commonwealth Future PAC, the subject of this post, are also behind the controversial ad accusing Martha Coakley of condoning child abuse, which debuted on October 1.

As reported last week in the Globe, the folks at the Commonwealth Future PAC have spent $3.6 million so far in the race for governor, rooting for Team Baker to beat Team Coakley.

Thanks to campaign finance disclosure legislation passed in August, which requires PAC’s to disclose their top five donors, we know that the top contributor to the Commonwealth Future PAC is the Republican Governors Association. (And if your speculations run up the food chain and you’re wondering who’s the top donor to the Republican Governors Association, that would be the Brothers Koch.) The Republican Governors Association donated $1.35 million of the first $1.37 million that the Commonwealth Future PAC collected — 98.5 percent. Here’s a funny story: the PAC tried to spin the Republican Governors’ hugely outsized donation by pointing out that “all the top five donors to the PAC, with the exception of the governors group, are Massachusetts residents.” As David Bernstein observed, this was like “bringing in a ringer for the corporate basketball tournament and saying ‘all the players on our roster, except Paul Pierce, are company employees.'”

Commonwealth Future Pac is spending much of its considerable cash on TV ads portraying Martha Coakley as a career politician without a plan. Among the plans she lacks is that perennial GOP crowd-pleaser, a plan to fix welfare. Coakley has done nothing about this problem, the ad intones, despite widespread evidence of abuse.

Those of us who live outside the closed information loop that is the Republican party these days understand that this “widespread evidence” is the story reverberating over and over again from the GOP echo chamber. And it’s a story impervious to facts.

First up, the $25 million annually in waste and fraud

CommFuturePAC
(If you’re thinking about looking up the Globe stories cited here, let me save you the trouble — nothing there.)

This $25 million myth goes back to a report that the Inspector General issued last year, which makes no such finding. The Inspector General looked only to see that all the documents necessary to demonstrate eligibility were in the case file. In just under nine percent of the case files he examined, one or more documents was missing. (In about three-quarters of these cases, the missing verifications pertained to school attendance or immunization records.) Extrapolating from this finding, the Inspector General identified “potential eligibility concerns” worth about $25 million. The report did not say that in these cases the families were in fact ineligible for benefits. On the contrary, it said expressly that the required verifications, once obtained, might prove that all these families were eligible.

Despite this careful explanation, the report was widely understood as having concluded that “$25 million in taxpayer money is going to welfare recipients who aren’t eligible” (see, for example, the Boston Herald, 2/15/13). Because, so often, self-righteous indignation at the victims of hardship is just a lot more fun than the truth.

Something that the Commonwealth Future ad doesn’t mention, for obvious reasons: in 2005, the Auditor’s office took a look at the records of Governor Romney’s welfare department and found that not all required verifications were included in recipient files — in fact, Romney’s agency got a lower grade than Patrick’s did. But beyond a tut-tut from the Globe editorial board about the importance of accurate paperwork, the 2005 report attracted no attention at all.

*****

While we’re on the subject of the Attorney General’s alleged indolence, let us note that in the past seven years her office has recovered more than $385 million in fraud committed by providers rather than recipients of services. That’s 15 times the value of the potential fraud identified in the Inspector General’s report.

A representative case from last year: Big Pharma giant Johnson & Johnson agreed to settle charges brought by the federal Department of Justice and 45 states that it had encouraged physicians and pharmacies — through direct payments and kickbacks – to prescribe and promote drugs for uses that had not been approved as safe or effective. Drugs like Risperdal, which J&J promoted to nursing homes to control disruptive behaviors like agitation and impulsiveness in elderly patients with dementia, while declining to disclose that the drug could also cause serious health problems — including an increased risk of strokes — in those patients.

Under this settlement, Massachusetts alone received $62.5 million in fines and penalties — and that is only a fraction of the money the state’s Medicaid program paid in false claims for Risperdal.

If a person in poverty is accused of taking taxpayer money, that’s a crime. If a corporation admits to taking taxpayer money and to putting elders at risk by drugging them, that’s just business.

Charlie’s EITC Increase Has Gone Missing!

Update: the Baker campaign points out that the candidate still favors an EITC increase and a mention of that fact can still be found on his website. That’s true. But this assistance for low-income working parents has been dropped from the economic plan, “Great Again Massachusetts,” his campaign wants to talk about now.

__________________________________

Charlie Baker was out yesterday with an economic plan to support small business and increase opportunity. It’s been a full three months since he last announced an economic plan to support small business and increase opportunity. Let’s see what’s changed.

Back in June, you’ll recall, the Baker/Polito ticket toured the state touting an economic plan that was a three-legged stool: (1) an increase in the minimum wage, (2) a package of tax cuts for businesses, and (3) a 100 percent increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which Baker said, “would help the people the state should be helping most –- low-income, working parents.”

The new plan, packaged in a glossy brochure with the title “Great Again Massachusetts,” does not mention increasing the minimum wage, for the obvious reason that bipartisan legislation accomplishing that goal was enacted over the summer.

The package of tax cuts for business is still there, including tax credits to offset the cost the minimum wage increase will have on business.

But the doubling of the state Earned Income Tax Credit? It’s gone from the new plan. Although the new Baker plan talks about “opportunity and growth everywhere,” you won’t find a mention of an EITC increase anywhere.

Maybe it was eliminated because the Baker campaign wants to lowball costs. At yesterday’s event, Baker said the tax cuts he was proposing would cost the state only $250 million to $300 million, an amount so small, in his view, that he hadn’t even bothered to develop a plan to pay for them: “we can figure it out.” Doubling the state EITC would add about $130 million to those costs, making a plan to pay for them a rather more urgent matter.

And maybe another reason it was eliminated was that, as November approaches, the Baker campaign is returning to its roots and reconsidering whether the “people the state should be helping most” are low-income working parents.

Our Corporate Citizens: Electric Utilities Edition

Earlier this month, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court pulled the plug on a legal challenge electric utility companies had brought to fines that the state had imposed on them.

The fines were levied because the utilities failed to respond adequately to power outages resulting from a pair of whopper storms late in 2011. The biggest companies bringing the suit were NStar and National Grid. The Court upheld fines against those companies totalling just under $20 million.

Here’s more of the story, which may lead you to conclude that the utilities wasted their own money — and ours — by pursuing this case.

A few years back, in December 2008, New England suffered a fierce ice storm. The Fitchburg, Massachusetts area was particularly hard hit and some customers there were without electricity for up to two weeks. The state documented the utility company’s extremely poor response, noting that there was no state law allowing for fines to be imposed on utility companies acting unacceptably slowly in restoring power.

And almost as fast as you could say “upskirting,” the Legislature went to work. They compared the experience of the Fitchburg customers to a nightmare, compared the utility company to the Three Stooges, and passed a law directing the state to establish standards of acceptable performance for restoring electric service and to impose fines on companies violating those standards.

Fast forward to 2011. In August of that year, Hurricane Irene hit. NStar customers were without electricity for six days and National Grid customers for seven. Then in October, a snowstorm dropped at least a foot of snow across most of the state, and once again, NStar customers lost power for six days and National Grid customers for nine. The state reviewed the utilities’ performance in restoring service after the two storms, concluded that it was inadequate, and levied fines against them.

The utilities challenged the fines in court with the extremely implausible argument that, in directing the state to impose fines when standards of acceptable performance were not met, the Legislature intended that the state should look to the utility companies themselves for those standards. The appropriate question, according to the utility companies, should be — what is “fair and prevailing utility practice.” That’s right. The utilities asserted that the legislative intent of the law was that the Three Stooges be left in charge.

The Court’s seven justices patiently explained what is obvious to the rest of us: the Legislature intended the state to enforce its own standards of acceptable performance, not the standards of the utilities: “a practice that every utility follows,” the Court wrote, “may still be unreasonable where it fails adequately to restore service following a storm in a safe and reasonably prompt manner.” It might be said that the Court showed restraint in not concluding its opinion with “Manifestus!!” (Latin for “duh!!”).

It may seem to you that this entire exercise was a waste of the Court’s time and the utilities’ time as well. The utilities would likely respond that they owed it to their shareholders to put up a fight (plus, their legal costs can be deducted as a business expense from their taxes). In case you are wondering about the amount of money those shareholders are paying their CEO’s, the combined annual salaries of the NStar and National Grid CEO’s last year were $15.5 million, just about three-quarters of the amount of the fines the companies contested. Something to think about the next time your electricity bill goes up.