Thoughts on First Hearing of a Possible Deval Patrick Presidential Candidacy

Two policy ideas that many of us would regard as inhumane:

The first: a restrictive policy on access to emergency shelter for homeless families with kids, under which many families must first prove that they have slept in a place not meant for human habitation, like a hospital emergency room, a train station or a car in order to be granted shelter.

The second: a proposal to count federal disability payments as income in deciding eligibility for cash welfare grants. This proposal would, for example, take away a $400 monthly welfare grant to a grandmother and her 13-year-old granddaughter who cannot walk or talk because of cerebral palsy because the granddaughter receives $750 per month in federal disability payments.

The first of these is currently our state’s policy. The second is not. It has been stopped — twice — by the Legislature, which may stop it again this year. You might not be surprised to learn that Governor Baker supports both ideas, but you might be surprised to learn that Governor Patrick did too — in fact, his administration originated them.

Craven Capitulation: Massachusetts Edition

[Update: July 13, 2017: In light of the news that House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey is stepping down, I note the following:

  1. ML Strategies is a lobbying powerhouse on Beacon Hill. Its biggest client in 2016, to the tune of $276,579.23, was Wynn Resorts.
  2. The budget provision that could give casinos (including Wynn’s Everett casino) a big competitive advantage was included as part of the House Ways and Means budget.  The Senate did not include such a provision.
  3. Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey resigned from the House to become the chief operating officer at ML Strategies.]

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[Original post: July 7, 2017]

While we’re understandably fixated today on the craven capitulation of our president over in Hamburg, let us pause to recognize a nadir of submission reached right here in Massachusetts — in the annual budget released this morning.

Casino magnate Steve Wynn, the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a friend and supporter of his fellow tycoon Donald Trump, has been busy lately twisting the arm of Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, one of the few Republican opponents of the Senate health care plan, to retract his opposition and get with the program. That health care plan, of course, would cost Massachusetts a billion dollars a year starting in 2020 (the year after Wynn’s Everett casino is scheduled to open). By 2025, the plan would have ruined our health care system and possibly our economy: a quarter-million of our poorest residents would have lost their health care coverage and annual costs would have nearly doubled.

Our state’s response? To amend our gambling law so that casinos could continue selling alcohol after the 2 a.m. closing time for bars and restaurants.  A spokesperson for the House of Representatives, where the amendment originated, explained that we need to “ensure competitiveness,” a rationale that will come as a surprise to the hospitality industry establishments that will be trying to compete without the advantage of the late hours (or a slots barn).

Anyway, a nice kiss for Steve Wynn that leaves the rest of us wondering — whatever happened to this piece of advice from the current POTUS? “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”

 

Help to Save the ACA by Being Selfish

You can help save the ACA (aka Obamacare) in the Senate by helping to foil the Republican efforts to smuggle the bill through the Senate unseen.

The Indivisible folks have a website that lets you file an amendment to exempt yourself from the strictures of the Senate’s version of Trumpcare.  Whatever the GOP bill ends up proposing, you can help stall its progress by asking your Senator to file and debate an amendment exempting you, as an individual, from its (very mean) provisions.  You can also add other comments, which will be entered into the Congressional Record to say why you think Trumpcare is an abomination.

So, in the interests of all of us, help run out whatever clock the GOP has in mind. Go forth and ask for an exemption — just for you.

Link here.

Tomorrow: The Legislature’s Second Vote on the Fair Share Tax

The Legislature will vote again tomorrow on an amendment to the state constitution to impose an additional four percent tax on the income of persons that exceeds a million dollars annually.

This will be the second of two legislative votes the constitution requires for amendments that originate as initiative petitions.  The proposed amendment received 135 “yes” votes from the 200 members of the Legislature last year, far more than the 50 necessary to advance. Another 50 or more “yes” votes tomorrow will put keep the amendment on track to appear on the 2018 statewide ballot.

But the closer the amendment gets to a popular vote the more opposition it attracts.  For example, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which sat things out last year, is joining forces with other business groups in a legal challenge aimed at knocking it off the ballot.

And last year’s opponents are ratcheting up their efforts this year.  Associated Industries of Massachusetts is running a multi-episode series entitled “The Constitutional Amendment Tax Trap” to puncture what it regards as myths (sample myths: the state has a revenue problem, the state needs to invest more in transportation, high income earners are not paying their fair share).

Likewise, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association is rushing to the aid of the 19,600 residents of the state who would be subject to the additional tax, warning the rest of us against penalizing talent (their word) in this way. They offer an ominous scenario in which some — or all — of the top 900 of these residents (that is, those whose annual earnings exceed $10 million, aka, the top one-one hundredth of one percent) just take their ball and go elsewhere, leaving the state with less revenue than before.  In other words, income inequality in Massachusetts has reached the point where it’s being suggested that our tax policy ought to beseech our biggest plutocrats not to leave.

Anyway, stay tuned – this battle isn’t over.

 

Convention of the States? One “Yes” Vote in Massachusetts

The Koch brothers and their allies think it would be a swell idea if the states got together to have a convention for the purpose of adopting amendments to the Constitution.

And they’re working at getting the state legislatures in 34 states (a two-thirds majority) to ask for one, as Article V of the Constitution provides. Right now, they’re at 28, and several more states are targets in this year’s legislative sessions. The amendments at the top of the wish-list would require a balanced budget and would limit federal power in other unspecified ways. And as misguided as those ideas are, it’s even worse — there’s nothing to stop a convention from entertaining other amendments once it gets underway, so we could also be looking at proposals doing away with same-sex marriage and even the most modest form of gun control, not to mention due process and equal protection. (Before you get too jittery, any amendments would have to be ratified by 38 states, a three-quarters majority.)

You’re probably thinking it can’t happen here in Massachusetts. And you’re probably right that our Legislature will not join the 28 on board so far. But there is a bill pending before the Election Laws Committee to have Massachusetts join the ranks of states asking for a convention. It was filed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and it proposes a convention “limited to proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government [and] limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.”

(Senator Tarr on other occasions is not so unhinged and sometimes his proposals are laudable: for example he has filed legislation to prohibit broadband providers in Massachusetts from using or selling their customers’ internet histories without permission, reinstating an Obama-era rule that President Trump did away with.)

The Election Laws Committee has not scheduled a hearing date yet. It will be interesting to hear testimony in support of the bill, especially explanations about how amendments proposed by a convention of the states could be limited in the way the Senator fondly hopes. Stay tuned, and meanwhile, if you have friends in Maine, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington or Idaho, tell them to be on the lookout. Those Legislatures are the ones the Kochs are pursuing.

The Governor’s Power to Cut State Funding: You Haven’t Heard the Half of It

With the recent unwelcome news that state tax revenues are continuing to fall short of projections, Governor Baker is “reviewing all options” to balance the budget.

One of the most familiar of those options is for the Governor to cut funds that the Legislature appropriated at the beginning of the fiscal year last July (these reductions are known as “9C cuts,” named after the provision of the General Laws that gives the Governor this unilateral power).  Back in December, the Governor cut the budget by $98 million via 9C cuts, an unpopular move that lawmakers protested as unnecessary at the time, but which has since been proven to be insufficient.

A lesser known budget-cutting tactic, which the Governor also used in December, is known as a “trust sweep.”  Some state monies are deposited into trust funds to be used only for specific purposes.  One example is the Housing Preservation and Stabilization Trust Fund, which the Legislature established a couple years ago exclusively for grants to provide “affordable housing for low-income families and individuals in the commonwealth, particularly those most at risk of becoming homeless.”

But facing the pressure of the budget shortfall in December, the Governor not only cut $98 million in appropriated funds, he also used trust sweeps to close the gap, informing the Legislature that various trust fund balances were “unneeded” and were therefore available for budget-balancing purposes.  Surely the Governor did not mean that additional money for affordable housing was “not needed” — he simply regarded other needs as more pressing.

Included in the trust sweeps, apparently, was some or all of the $4 million in the housing trust fund.  I say “apparently” because the administration was not inclined to disclose many details. State House News learned that 12 trust funds were under consideration for sweeping, the largest being the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund, which is intended to be used to increase health care coverage and which had a balance of $53 million at the time it attracted the Governor’s attention. Another target was the $7 million in a fund dedicated to assisting persons with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  The trust funds eyed for sweeping in December had balances totaling $145 million, more than the $98 million in 9C budget cuts that received press coverage.

Of course, the Legislature could have stopped the trust fund sweeps by passing legislation prohibiting them, but that would not have solved the budget shortfall.

This is not a huge amount of money in the context of a $40 billion budget. But I’m sure that advocates for homeless people, people with mental illness and people with developmental disabilities would have suggestions that more closely follow the purposes for which the funds were established. And a reminder, when you’re contemplating our current budget hole, that various piggy banks the Legislature established for various important uses have already been raided.

Gambling vs. Marijuana: A Tale of Two “Vices”

It’s been nearly six months since the voters approved Question 4 to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. But we’re still at the starting line, because in December the Legislature pushed back by six months all the timelines that the ballot question had established. The regulatory commission that was supposed to be appointed by March won’t be appointed until September, the review of license applications that was supposed to begin in October won’t start until next April, and so on.

And now it’s possible that the finish line may be moved. There’s a brand new legislative committee that will review the 44 bills that were filed at the start of the new 2017-2018 session responding to the passage of the new law.  With only a few exceptions, the bills are far more wary than enthusiastic. They propose stricter local control over retail marijuana establishments, a reduction in the amount of marijuana that can be grown at home, restrictions on potency (the law, as approved by the voters, provided that such restrictions would be imposed by the regulatory commission), restrictions on advertising, etc., etc.

Which is at least a little odd considering that the Department of Revenue has estimated that marijuana sales could bring in $64 million in new revenue in the first year of the law’s operation, and once again this year the state is digging through the sofa cushions for loose change to fix the perennial hole in the budget.

But before we conclude that our lawmakers are skittish about any new enterprise that may strike some members of the citizenry as morally problematic even as it brings in new revenue, let’s review the launch of the casino law.

At a comparable time (six months after the law was passed), the members of the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission had been appointed and staked to a $15 million line of credit.  The buzz was all about the new jobs that were shortly to arrive and the new revenues that were shortly to replenish our recession-depleted treasury.  (The marijuana law has gotten only a measly $300,000 to cover costs to date.)

The Gaming Commission got the licensing process underway with an award to Penn National Gaming to operate a slots parlor in Plainville. They did so with the rosy understanding that it would bring in as much as $300 million in revenue annually. But whoops. After the first year of operation, the revenue number was $160 million, barely half of the original estimate. What happened?

According to the Commission’s account, which the Globe reported credulously, the initial revenue projections were “extravagant” guesses offered by casino industry consultants. Well, okay, but what about the Commission’s due diligence in investigating that guesstimate? “We thought there was a flaw in their methodology but we couldn’t find it,” Crosby said.

Indeed. The Commission could not find the flaw, even when aided by the research of their own consultants, who also predicted that Plainville’s annual revenues would yield far more than $160 million — and who were rewarded by the state for such prognostications to the tune of a million bucks.

Water under the bridge, apparently. Anyway, now all is well.  The Commission “could not be more pleased” with the Plainridge revenues, which are half of the original estimates and which is totally okay, because we now know the estimates were unrealistic to begin with. Construction has begun on two other casinos, with who knows how many more to follow, as Massachusetts duels Connecticut for supremacy in the gambling wars. Gambling is clearly the Legislature’s favored child, (as compared to marijuana), and even more cossetting may be on the way — the House of Representatives is proposing to let casinos continue to serve alcohol for hours after bars and restaurants must close. Meanwhile, marijuana legalization is in danger of being strangled in its crib.

Did the Legislature ever take note of the discrepancy between revenue expectations and revenue reality in Plainville? No evidence that they did, and if it’s brought to their attention, many seem prepared to laugh it off like Commissioner Crosby did: “we all seemed to be smoking something.”