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.”

 

Internet Privacy: A Chance for Massachusetts to Confound the National GOP

Last year, President Obama’s Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband providers may not sell information about their customers’ internet browsing habits without permission.

But last Monday, the President scrapped that rule, signing into law a bill that had been approved in both chambers of Congress (on strict party-line votes) to allow telecommunications giants like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to collect and sell that information, notwithstanding any objections from us, its source.

Now this privacy battle has moved to the state level:  Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Montana have been pursuing ways to restore the privacy protections that were jettisoned by the Republicans in D.C.

And as of Friday, Massachusetts has joined them.  Republican Senator Bruce Tarr, joined by his five Senate GOP colleagues, has filed legislation to prohibit broadband providers from using or selling their customers’ internet histories without permission, and several Democratic lawmakers have already signed on as co-sponsors.  Let’s hear it for bipartisanship.

You can help to get this bill moving in the State House by calling your Senator and Representative and asking them to co-sponsor Senate Docket 2157: An Act to Secure Internet Security and Privacy.  Contact info here.

Who’s Geoff Diehl? A Listicle

The Herald’s saying that State Representative Geoff Diehl will challenge Elizabeth Warren next year. So what do we know?

  • He’s a small business owner from Whitman who was first elected to the House in 2010.
  • In 2013, he filed an amendment to a House bill to benefit veterans through a property tax exemption and a “Support Our Veterans” license plate program. His amendment would have required that all persons seeking state housing assistance provide their social security numbers. When his amendment was ruled out of order because it did not pertain to the primary subject of the bill, he and allies requested a roll call vote on that parliamentary ruling. The result, a 126-29 vote upholding the ruling, created the scandalous (if entirely specious) impression that 126 members of the House had voted to give priority for state housing assistance to undocumented immigrants over veterans. That roll call vote became the centerpiece of a flyer distributed in 20 legislative districts by the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and its sister PAC, Jobs First Massachusetts, targeting Democratic incumbents in 2014. The campaign had little success.
  • Also in 2014, after the Legislature increased the gas tax from 21 to 24 cents per gallon and tied future increases to the consumer price index, he played a prominent role in the successful ballot campaign to repeal that indexing. The repeal has resulted in a (greater) shortfall in the state’s transportation funding.
  • In 2015, he and other conservative legislators joined with other, more progressive groups to oppose taxpayer funding for the Olympics. Later that year, he lost the election for an open State Senate seat (the incumbent, Thomas Kennedy, had passed away in June) to State Representative Michael Brady.
  • He was the first state lawmaker to endorse Donald Trump for President, in February of last year. And he stood by his candidate through every controversy, even Trump’s disparagement of federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, when others grew faint of heart.
  • His legislative priorities for this session include a bill to give taxpayers the option to direct the state not to use any of their income tax payments to pay for abortion services. It requires the Revenue Department to calculate the amount of state money used to pay for abortion services as a percentage of the state’s General Fund, to apply that percentage to the liability of each taxpayer electing the option and to set those amounts aside in a special fund.

Fehrnstrom Redux

“The Boston Globe’s opinion pages,” the Boston Globe explains to us, “are completely separate from the news operation.”

Indeed, and that’s probably as it should be. But as we learned from last week’s column by frequent contributor and Republican strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, the Globe’s fidelity to this principle extends so far as to allow opinion writers the freedom to contradict facts that were previously established by members of the news staff.

In this column (his fourth effort in the nineteen months he’s been opining for the Globe to harpoon Elizabeth Warren, his personal Leviathan), Fehrnstrom again falsely accuses Warren of helping corporate giant Travelers Insurance to defeat claims brought by victims of asbestos poisoning. But as Globe news staffers reported on multiple occasions when Fehrnstrom was peddling this same story in his capacity as a member of Scott Brown’s campaign staff, it is so misleading as to be untrue. This same campaign lie was also called out on Blue Mass Group (here and here). Nevertheless, the falsehood is back again on today’s opinion page, and Fehrnstrom goes on to use it to attack Warren for hypocrisy:

If Warren engages in the same behaviors that she pretends to find in others, she should at least be reminded of her dishonesty.

On behalf of the Globe news staff, we are happy to do the same for him.

David Bernstein: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”

David Bernstein has really had it with the Massachusetts Legislature’s opaque back-room operations and its continuous failure to address many of the state’s long-term needs. And in this month’s Boston Magazine, he’s offering a solution: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”:

If all of this infuriates you; if you’re also enraged that Beacon Hill continuously fails to seriously address the state’s long-term needs for transportation, housing, education, and development; and if you’re sick and tired of the state legislature’s opaque back-room operations, I have a proposal for you: Eliminate the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Points for boldness! This is also a thoughtful argument that touches on the feudal origins of the two-chamber system (the nobles needed a safe space where they could protect themselves against the tyranny of the majority) and the present effect of that system, which is to allow “special interests to gum up the works without any public accounting for legislators.” Exhibit A in this regard is the conference committee process, which comes into play every time the House and Senate pass differing versions of a bill:

As Beacon Hill watchers know, bills in conference committee pile up until the final days of the formal session, when the supposed work of two years, 200 legislators, and committees in open hearings is actually done in a hectic rush, by a handful of people, horse-trading within and between bills, until finally spitting out new versions for the two chambers to hastily endorse.

Also not to be missed is a timeline detailing Speaker DeLeo’s consolidation of power and predicting the end date of the DeLeo era (January 2021, when he becomes a lobbyist).

A couple thoughts:

First, in deciding on its governing rules for this new (2017-2018) session, the Legislature acknowledged the problem of the end-of-session bottleneck. The new rules require the joint committees, which handle the initial consideration of bills, to complete their work in early February rather than in mid-March, and they also prohibit the appointment of new conference committees within 14 days of the end of a legislative session. But there’s no deadline for conference committees to finish their work, so stay tuned to July of next year to see if these rules changes have practical results.

Second, if the Legislature is continually failing to address the state’s pressing issues, the question arises — what are they doing with their time?

My theory: they’re doing a lot of enacting, but the bills that are passed fall under the decidedly “noncontroversial” category — designating bridges and overpasses in honor of beloved community members; establishing sick leave banks for one state employee at a time, exempting a single municipal position from the Civil Service laws, or granting one additional liquor license to one town.

In 1997, the noncontroversial bills like these made up about a tenth of the Legislature’s output. Now it’s more like one in three.

Uncontroversial

The graph presents a corollary of Bernstein’s thesis — our Legislature avoids many pressing issues (charter schools and marijuana being two recent examples) and increasingly contents itself with hyperlocal items that lack wide application or great import.

Anyway, read the article. I’m not convinced about the remedy he’s proposing, but the diagnosis, seems to me, is beyond dispute.

GOP Hoists Self, Uses Own Petard

Well this is fun.

These days, when Congress is not immediately occupied with demolishing the Affordable Care Act, it’s been gleefully taking a sledge hammer to various regulations that were put out during the last six months of the Obama administration. In February, for example, Congress freed coal companies from the regulatory burden of having to find some place other than streams to dump their toxic mining waste. And as soon as the President signs legislation that was passed two days ago, shooting grizzly bears from airplanes will again be permissible.

The law that allows Congress to invalidate regulations is called the Congressional Review Act. It was passed 20 years ago (when Newt Gingrich roamed the Capitol – surprise!) and was used only one time before the current session of Congress. Only simple majority votes in the House and Senate and the signature of the president are needed to invalidate any regulation put into place after June 13, 2016. The law also provides that the executive branch agency that put the regulations forward in the first place may not impose “substantially similar regulations” without express Congressional approval.

Which brings us to another recent instance in which Congress voted to rescind an Obama policy, reported on first by Politico. This case involves a labor department regulation concerning the drug testing of people claiming unemployment insurance benefits.

Back in 2012, when the national unemployment rate was just beginning to recover from a recession-era high of 10.2 percent, Democrats and Republicans in Congress agreed on compromise legislation that extended unemployment insurance benefits but also allowed states to drug test claimants for UI who were applying for jobs in certain industries. (Because anybody who needed UI benefits at a time when job seekers vastly outnumbered job openings must of course be on drugs, and who even cares if drug testing in public benefits programs is a total waste of taxpayer money?)  The legislation directed the Department of Labor to put out regulations to implement the drug testing provision. Last August, the Department issued final regulations that allowed drug testing of UI claimants for jobs in commercial trucking, air traffic control and other similar jobs involving public safety.  The GOP, very disappointed that more jobs were not covered by the regulation, used the Congressional Review Act to pass legislation rescinding it. That bill is now headed to the president’s desk.

But here’s the rub: if the president signs the legislation, then the Trump administration’s Department of Labor cannot put out any new regulation that is “substantially similar” to the one that was rescinded.  And any regulation governing drug testing of UI claimants would be “substantially similar” by definition.

What to do? If the president signs the legislation, the GOP can try to pass new legislation expressly permitting the Department of Labor to revisit the issue. However, the Senate vote to rescind the Obama-era regulation passed only narrowly (51-48), which likely means the GOP would need to deal with the threat of a filibuster.  In the meantime, assuming the legislation becomes law, states with drug testing programs will be entirely without guidance about how to proceed without risking legal challenges. Governor Scott Walker, whose state has pioneered these drug testing programs, is probably not happy.

Wonder if Speaker Ryan know of the conundrum when he tweeted this?

 

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Subtweets PEOTUS

Jack Jenkins, religion reporter at Think Progress, recently asked his Twitter followers: “what theology are you reading right now to cope?” (Cope with the disturbing presidential election results, that is.)

Many of us are reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who devoted his career, and eventually gave his life, to opposing the Nazi regime and the complacent strain of Christianity that chose to accommodate it. The resistance movement that Bonhoeffer and others led is probably most famous for this warning against fascism’s insidious creep:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Bonhoeffer’s writings always offer a bracing dose of courage. During these especially anxious days they also serve as quiet rebukes of the incoming Swaggerer-in-Chief. He was hanged by the Gestapo the year before the PEOTUS was born, yet Bonhoeffer offers antidotes to the odious bombast that surrounds us. In the vernacular of Twitter, in other words, he’s a divinely gifted subtweeter.

***

PEOTUS: Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.

Bonhoeffer:  Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected.

***

PEOTUS: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bonhoeffer: Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian’s life.

***

PEOTUS: The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10 percent and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars

Bonhoeffer:  It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.

***

PEOTUS: Hillary Clinton is the vessel of a corrupt global establishment that’s raiding our country and surrendering the sovereignty of our nation.

Bonhoeffer: Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves.

***

PEOTUS: Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream. I’ve spent my entire life and business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.

Bonhoeffer: If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.