Tomorrow at the State House: First Vote on Millionaires’ Tax

[Update: May 18: The amendment to impose a four percent surcharge on taxable incomes over one million dollars was approved by a vote of 135-57 (50 yes were needed to advance the amendment to another vote in 2017 or 2018).

House members voted in favor, 102-50 (the roll call is here). Senate members voted in favor, 33-7. The no votes in the Senate were: DeMacedo, Fattman, Flanagan, Gobi, Humason, Ross, Tarr. Everyone else (including newly-sworn GOP Senator O’Connor and newly-sworm Democratic Senator Boncore) was a yes. A list of the 40 Senators is here.

One of the 17 House Democrats voting no was David Nangle of Lowell, who denounced the amendment as “the introduction of class warfare.” “It’s stealing from the rich to give to the poor,” he added. “We are legislators. We are not Robin Hood.”]

The proposed state constitutional amendment to impose an additional four percent tax on taxable incomes over one million dollars will receive its first vote in the Constitutional Convention that’s being held tomorrow.  This vote will be one step in deciding whether we in the Commonwealth think the cause of our perennial state budget shortfalls is a spending problem or a revenue problem.

Advocates of the proposed amendment collected 155,000 signatures last year (way more than twice the number required) to submit the proposal to the legislature. The Joint Committee on Revenue held a hearing in January and gave the proposal a favorable report in February.

At tomorrow’s Constitutional Convention, the amendment needs a yes vote from 1/4 of the 200 legislators in order to advance. If that happens, another yes vote of 1/4 of legislators in 2017 or 2018 will put the amendment on the ballot in November 2018. Under the constitution, these votes are roll call votes (or, in the quaint constitutional language, votes “taken by call of the yeas and nays”), so it will be possible to see which lawmakers vote which way.

Here’s some advocacy in favor of the amendment by Raise Up Massachusetts and in opposition by Associated Industries of Massachusetts.  In legislative offices, operators are standing by to hear what you think — it’s your civic duty.

Sen. Bruce Tarr’s Take on the Transgender Bill: Paperwork Can Resolve This Controversy

The State Senate is debating the transgender public accommodations bill tomorrow. And just in time, Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) has come up with a new approach. We don’t often think of the Senator as an advocate of increased governmental paperwork, but he can surprise.

The Senator’s idea is that if you have gone through a gender reassignment procedure you can have your birth certificate amended to reflect the change. And so simple — all it takes is an affidavit from you that you have (or once had) gender dissonance and an affidavit from your doctor that something was done about the problem. And voila, you can have a birth certificate that establishes a rebuttable presumption of your sincerely held gender identity. So the next time when you use the restroom in a public place, you’ll have your rebuttable presumption ready like everybody else and won’t have to worry about being hassled.

Field Notes from the House Budget Debate

The Massachusetts House of Representatives held its annual budget debate last week. It was a three-day event this time like it was last year (down from what once was the usual four).

To the extent there was any press coverage, the story once again was that House leadership made nearly all the budget debate decisions offstage, so to speak, by way of what it calls the “consolidated amendment” process. The first step in this process is for House Ways and Means Committee staff to sort the 1307 amendments that members filed into subject matter categories. The second step is for House leadership, after a brief opportunity for advocacy by amendment sponsors, to winnow each of those categories (there were nine this year) into a multi-page consolidated amendment that adopts some of the originally-filed amendments and rejects many others.

If you were thinking that amendments with very broad support, like this one to increase funding to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, would have an excellent chance of being adopted, you would not necessarily be right. Notwithstanding its supermajority of 92 sponsors (out of 160 members), it  went down. Conversely, an amendment to tinker with the distribution of revenues at greyhound racing simulcast sites made it past the finish line with only a single sponsor.

And what about the roll call votes this year?  Pretty few and far between again. A Democrat who calls for a roll call vote against the wishes of leadership will often not be pleased with his or her future committee assignments. Republicans, who have less power, are somewhat freer from constraint. Over the three days of budget debate, there were 24 roll call votes. Seven of the 24 concerned procedural matters, like determining whether a quorum was present. Another ten of the 24 were votes to approve each of the consolidated amendments and to pass the final bill. All ten of these votes were unanimous yesses.

That leaves seven roll call votes on substantive issues. All seven were requested by members of the Republican party, none by Democrats.  In each case, the GOP legislator requesting the vote was in the minority after the votes were tallied, but that fact was secondary to other political concerns.  Representative Jim Lyons (R-Andover), whom we know as the state chair of the Ted Cruz committee (and as a person able to dictate legislative policy in the area of criminal justice by merely threatening to debate), secured roll call votes on his amendment to defund Planned Parenthood if it was found to have violated the state law against the sale of fetal organs and his amendment to cut local aid to so-called sanctuary cities, an imprecise term for communities that place a relatively low priority on having their police forces devote resources to notifying U.S. immigration officials that someone in police custody might be of interest.

The votes on both amendments were along party lines, good news for entities like Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.  This non-partisan (ahem) non-profit, exempt from taxation as a 501(c)(4) organization, has been called out in the past for its electoral scare tactics on the subject of immigration. And as fodder for the November elections, it has already posted the sanctuary cities roll call on its 2015-16 legislative scorecard, where no House Republican scores lower than a 92 out of 100 and no House Democrat scores higher than a 36.

While GOP legislators seize opportunities to spot their Democratic rivals for electoral advantage, House leadership believes that blurring the distinctions between the parties is the best way to preserve its current 126-34 supermajority, a more important consideration, apparently, than what that supermajority does with its power. Under a policy of containment, the only good roll call votes are unanimous ones.

 

Your Film Tax Credit Dollars at Work–for Mark Wahlberg

It’s looking like the film tax credit is going to be with us for quite a while longer. Last year the Governor’s idea of scrapping it altogether in favor of a tax credit for working poor families met with very stiff resistance from film tax credit fans. This year his more modest plan to prune it back to its Romney-era size (in part by imposing a cap of $7 million per movie and by eliminating the option to sell the credit) hasn’t really been heard from since its January launch.

But if we can’t stop this perpetual train robbery, we can at least learn where the money is going (h/t to Jamie Eldridge and other members of the Senate who succeeded in getting us this window to peer into).  In 2014, the most recent year for which film tax credit information is available, one very big winner was Massachusetts native Mark Wahlberg, the star of Ted 2, which was filmed here that year. (If, like me, you haven’t caught Ted 2 or the original Ted yet, Wahlberg’s co-star is an animated bear and both stars’ vocabularies are largely scatological.)

We taxpayers ponied up $14 million toward Ted 2‘s production costs. For that money we could have paid for upgrades to 30 subway cars to extend their service for the better part of a decade or funded a year’s worth of rental vouchers for 2000 homeless families.  So far, Ted 2 has taken in over $240 million in box office and video sales, an amount that ought to reassure investors in Mark Wahlberg’s next Massachusetts venture that the film tax credit is not strictly necessary to its commercial success.

And as we were particularly reminded this past Monday, Mark Wahlberg’s next Massachusetts venture is already in production. Opinions vary on whether it’s too soon for a movie about the Marathon bombing and whether a Marathon bombing movie made by Mark Wahlberg will ever be appropriate, but come December, we’re going to have one called Patriots Day. Wahlberg and his production company at CBS have tiptoed around the movie’s possibly explotative nature and have offered a solemn but indefinite vow to “get it right.”

Apparently getting it right does not include respecting the wishes of any 2016 Marathon runners who don’t care to appear in the movie.

Wahlberg2016

Here’s an idea.  If the Patriots Day folks are really interested in getting it right, they could announce that they’re making this movie on their own dime and won’t ask us taxpayers to chip in a quarter of the production costs via the film tax credit.

The Conservative Wing of the Republican Party Is Not Going Away Without (Another) Fight

While Globe reporter Andrew Ryan was in church on Sunday, someone left this leaflet opposing the transgender public accommodations bill that is pending in the state Legislature on his car.

Authorship of the leaflet was claimed by a group called “Renew MA Coalition.” You can learn more about the coalition on its Facebook page, which features a photograph of Presidential candidate Ted Cruz and conservative State Rep. Jim Lyons flanking Chanel Prunier, the former Republican national committeewoman from Massachusetts. Prunier was turned out of office last week in a very close election by Gov. Baker’s choice, State Rep. Keiko Orrall. Orrall’s victory capped the Governor’s largely successful effort to replace socially conservative members of the state Republican committee with moderates more in line with Baker’s views. Those views include support for gay marriage, but so far at least, do not include support for the transgender public accommodations bill.

As the Governor continues to face considerable pressure to endorse the bill (his failure to do so caused the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to uninvite him to an event later this month at which he was originally to be honored), the conservative wing of his party continues to hold firm to its abiding opposition to rights for transgender persons. Continue reading

Are the Days of Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Crimes Nearly Over?

On Tuesday the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will hear an appeal by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office challenging a trial judge’s decision to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence set by statute for a drug crime and to impose a shorter sentence instead.

The District Attorney, citing the SJC’s decision in a 1995 case, argues that where a statute imposes a mandatory minimum sentence, judges have absolutely no discretion to lower that sentence, and therefore the trial judge in this case improperly reduced the sentence imposed on the defendant, Imran Laltaprasad, from 3 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years. (Laltaprasad was convicted of possessing less than 5 grams of heroin and cocaine. He was carrying the drugs in his prosthetic leg, the result of a violent assault for which his attackers received 2-year sentences.)  Unless and until the Legislature amends current laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences, the D.A. argues, judges must adhere to those laws, which were enacted in 1980, during the earliest days of the war on drugs.

Ah yes, the war on drugs — file under “seemed like a good idea at the time.” It was the cornerstone of Governor Ed King’s plan to make Massachusetts a safer place, regardless of how much money we might need to spend building prisons.

Thirty-six years later, things look different. And what  we know now that we didn’t know (but may have suspected) back then forms the basis of many of the arguments Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys are making to affirm the trial judge’s decision reducing the sentence in his case.

We know that mandatory minimum sentences are applied in a racially discriminatory manner (and Mr. Laltaprasad is a member of a racial minority, who comprise three-quarters of the persons on whom mandatory minimum sentences are imposed).

We also know that in cases involving mandatory minimum sentences, it is the prosecutor rather than the judge who decides on the sentence (in this case, the D.A.’s office elected to charge Mr. Laltaprasad with a “second or subsequent” offense, for which the mandatory minimum is 3  1/2 years).

We also know that drug addition is a chronic, relapsing brain disease for which incarceration is an inappropriate and ineffective remedy.

Together, these arguments raise important federal and state constitutional questions concerning equal protection, cruel and unusual punishment, and the separation of powers, as the briefs filed Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys as well as by friends of the court argue.

The Middlesex D.A.’s office responded to these arguments not by rebutting them, but by moving to strike those parts of the record supplying their evidentiary support. In opposing the D.A.’s motion to strike, Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys cited a rather well-known U.S. Supreme Court decision:  it “is regrettable that the Commonwealth’s only response to this data is to ask that it be ignored…Perhaps at some point in the history of American jurisprudence it was common for courts to overlook data showing the crippling effects of unconstitutional laws.  But that time has long passed.  See Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 493-95 & n.11 (1954).”

Oof.

The Laltaprasad case is the fourth on Tuesday’s docket, which means it will be heard around 10:30.  You can watch the argument here.

 

What Drives Us Crazy about Bank of America’s Chad Gifford

Globe business columnist Shirley Leung, on whom we can always rely to be highly attuned to the sensitivities of corporate executives, recently shared with us what drives retiring Bank of America board member Chad Gifford crazy — “big-bank bashing.”

Gifford, who’s stepping down as chairman of Bank of America’s board with an eight-figure retirement package, plans to devote his retirement years countering the impression that some of us (notably Senator Elizabeth Warren) have gotten that big banks bear an enormous amount of responsibility for the currently precarious financial condition of what we once referred to as America’s middle class.

While conceding that in 2008, the banking industry “made some mistakes,” Gifford insists that’s not the whole story. “Bigger isn’t always bad,” he explained.  “Banks need to be well-capitalized to handle the increasingly complex transactions of their clients.”

And, as Bank of America vice chairman Anne Finucane pointed out to Leung in further defense of bigness, Bank of America now gives away $12 million locally — more than its earlier incarnation, FleetBoston, donated. (Which is all very nice, but considering that FleetBoston had $200 billion in assets before merging with Bank of America, and Bank of America now has $2.1 trillion in assets, it’s rather less impressive than it first appears.)

And something the Bank of America folks did not pass on to Leung.  In addition to the $12 million annual local donation, Bank of America is also the source of $5.6 million in one-time funds to be distributed to legal assistance programs in Massachusetts. This extra funding is not a charitable donation, but instead, as Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (sub. req.) reports, it is part of the settlement between Bank of America and the U.S. Department of Justice under which the bank will pay $17 billion in penalties and partial restitution for the financial fraud it committed in the years leading up to the Great Recession of 2008 (and beyond). The settlement includes the bank’s admissions that it sold billions of dollars of residential mortgage-backed securities without disclosing important facts about the dubious quality of the securitized loans and that it originated risky mortgage loans and made misrepresentations about the quality of those loans to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration.  The additional funding for legal services is welcome, but of course it will not even begin to repair the damage inflicted on homeowners and their tenants, many of whom continue to struggle to put the consequences of the bank’s fraud behind them.

And that’s what drives us crazy about Chad Gifford and Bank of America.