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.

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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, in a decision of 46 pages, the point that 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.

More from Mass. Fiscal’s Transparently Glass House

Once again, this is the kind of thing that can happen when you proclaim yourself the guardian of transparency in state government.

Our right-of-center friends at the Mass. Fiscal Alliance (“we call Massachusetts home and want to see our state improve, become more competitive, transparent” yada, yada yada) have been combing the records at the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance lately. They’re looking for candidates for public office who have slipped up in their reporting of campaign donations, and when they find what they believe to be a failure of candor, they ship the news out on Twitter.

Whether this is appropriate activity for an organization claiming tax-exempt status as a political educational organization is a question for others to decide. But since Mass. Fiscal has a history of preaching transparency while failing to practice it, it would perhaps not be surprising if their own records were to receive some scrutiny.

For example, if one were to look up the 2014 lobbying activities of Mass. Fiscal’s President, Paul D. Craney, one would find that he has disclosed no campaign contributions so far this year. Craney2014

Yet if one were to look at the campaign receipts of certain candidates (whose positions Mass. Fiscal appears to favor), one would find that Mr. Craney has been opening his checkbook. As in: a $100 donation to State Representative Candidate (and until recently, Mass. Fiscal Alliance officer) Brad Wyatt on May 27; a $200 donation to State Representative Leah Cole on February 28; a $100 donation to State Representative James Lyons on March 21; a $200 donation to State Representative and candidate for State Senate Ryan Fattman on June 20. That sort of thing.

There’s probably a simple and benign explanation for this inconsistency. Mass. Fiscal will be tweeting it out any day now.

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.” This idea 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.

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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 dealing with 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.