Yankee Doodle Town

Big day in Billerica yesterday. Governor Baker dropped in for a ceremony designating it “Yankee Doodle Town.” (The backstory: in 1775 a young Billerica patriot seeking to join the Minutemen was captured by the British while he was trying to buy a rifle. After tarring and feathering him, the Redcoats mockingly called him “Yankee Doodle.” And then, as so often happens, cultural appropriation transformed a term of derision into one of honor.)

The Yankee Doodle Town law (Chapter 240 of the Acts of 2016) was only one of many designations among this year’s enactments. Other laws bestowed honorifics in memory of various beloved community members upon: a bridge, a courtroom, a basketball court and a traffic island. The third Monday in April is now to be celebrated as First Responder Day.  (In some years First Responder Day will fall during the second-to-the-last full week in that month, aka Licensed Practical Nurse Week.)

And designations like these are just one of the categories of laws the Legislature passes that apply to only one town, or to only one public space, or to only one job title or one person. We have lots of laws exempting a single position (like the deputy police chief in the town of Haverhill) from the Civil Service laws, or establishing a sick leave bank for one state employee, or granting an additional liquor license to one municipality.

It occurred to me recently to wonder whether one-shot laws like these are making up a greater share of the Legislature’s statutory output than used to be the case. It seems I was right: in the 1997-1998 session, about one law in ten fell into this category, but in the two most recent completed sessions, that ratio has increased to closer to one in three. During that time, the Legislature gave special designations to 67 public spaces, or days (or weeks, or months), established 200 sick leave banks for state employees, exempted 34 positions from Civil Service laws, and granted additional liquor licenses to municipalities on 104 occasions.

This development, while nowhere close to the most worrisome legislative trend on Beacon Hill (disclosure: I confess to tuning in to the as-yet uncompleted contest between “Roadrunner” and “Dream On” for the title of Official State Rock Song), may be a symptom of another, more ominous tendency among legislators to adopt leadership’s position on issues of real significance and then to content themselves instead with hyperlocal items lacking in wide application or great import.  If I were among the 50 or so legislators whose positions on gambling underwent 180’s after pro-casino Bob DeLeo succeeded anti-casino Sal DiMasi as Speaker of the House, for example, I might think it wiser to keep my head down on the big stuff and and deliver some constituent services instead, even if they are services of the merely symbolic kind.

After the 2015-2016 session ends, I’ll check the numbers again to see if this trend is continuing. In the meantime, don’t forget to commemorate Eddie Eagle Gun Safety week, which starts on Saturday.

 

AIM’s Legislative Scorecard for 2015-2016: Grading on a (Laffer) Curve

The state’s biggest employer trade group, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, released its 2015-2016 Legislative Scorecard today, ranking all 200 legislators by how dependably their votes advanced AIM’s legislative priorities.

This edition of the scorecard also trumpets a very clear story line — when it comes to supporting the state’s business community, it’s a tale of two chambers: House good, Senate bad. In AIM’s own words:

While the House of Representatives and Speaker Robert DeLeo successfully forged consensus on important measures such as wage equity and energy, the Senate hewed to a more progressive, ideological approach that produced a steady stream of bills with the potential to harm the Massachusetts economy.

Wow – who knew that all our Senators were Keynesians, Socialists or worse and that all our Representatives were devotees of Hayek?

The scorecard offers no information about roll call vote numbers or the dates of votes (although such information is available on the tallies made by other interest groups). AIM asserts that the Senate scores were “based upon many of the same issues” as the House scores, but even a quick review shows significant disparities between the votes AIM used to determine the scores in the respective chambers.

For example, AIM takes the Senate to task for twice voting against its preferred position on the amount of compensation employers should be liable to pay to employees in wage violation cases. You would not know from the scorecard that the House also took two votes on this issue, with results (largely along party lines) very similar to the votes the Senate took.  (The House votes are here and here.) While the Senate votes on this issue were included in the scorecard, the House votes weren’t.

Two years ago, AIM decided against issuing any Legislative Scorecard for the 2013-2014 session, explaining that “the complexity of the lawmaking process and the sometimes arcane rules of each chamber make it nearly impossible to render a fair judgment on the votes taken by individual legislators.” Those constraints are no longer in operation, it seems. The scorecard issued today raps the Senate for voting for an amendment prohibiting public utilities from adding fees to their customers’ electric rates to subsidize new natural gas pipelines, but it ignores the fact that four members of the House (including one of the most liberal and one of the most conservative) offered the same amendment in that body’s energy bill deliberations, but the amendment was ruled “out of order” through an arcane rule —  a parliamentary decision by House leadership that precluded a vote on the substance. (It also ignores the fact that more than 90 of the 160 Representatives sent a letter to House Speaker DeLeo in support of the Senate’s position.)

It was fairly clear, well before today’s scorecard came out, that the House was more friendly to AIM’s interests during the past legislative session than the Senate was. What’s less clear is why AIM chose to rig the results this time.  Is House leadership that susceptible to flattery?

 

Mass Fiscal’s New Legislative Scorecard Includes a Vote about Mass Fiscal

Our right-leaning friends at the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance are out with a new 2015-2016 scorecard tracking the votes of our state legislators for the session that just concluded.

Mass Fiscal, for those who aren’t familiar, is an advocacy group that has tax exempt status because it is “operated to promote social welfare.” What promotes social welfare, in Mass Fiscal’s view, is steadfast resistance to taxes, government spending and labor unions (often with an overtone of hostility toward immigrants that’s consistent with Mass Fiscal’s origins as a promoter of Voter ID laws).

Given these priorities, it’s not surprising that its scorecard ranks every Republican in the state legislature higher than any Democrat.  And given the uses to which Mass Fiscal puts its scorecard, it’s not surprising that questions have arisen about the tax-exempt status it enjoys and whether it should be allowed to withhold all information about its sources of income.

This self-described electoral bigfoot specializes in communicating by direct mail. Here’s a brag about their clout in the 2014 statewide elections:

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance delivered more than 2,000,000 — that’s two million — pieces of direct mail and advocacy pieces to residents of the Commonwealth, highlighting our positions and those of lawmakers….Our campaign ran in 21 different legislative districts, with each district on average receiving 95,837 mailers.  As part of our efforts, we used a strategy known as every-door direct mail, or EDDM.  Through this method, we were able to contact as many residents and businesses as exist in the towns where we focused.

The Democratic lawmakers targeted by these direct mail efforts objected strenuously that their positions, as Mass Fiscal characterized them, were preposterously distorted. That objection was backed up by journalists including David Bernstein, who dismissed the scorecard’s claim “that certain targeted state legislators voted to prioritize illegal immigrants over veterans for public housing.” “That’s a crock,” he continued. “They did no such thing.”

Which brings us back to Mass Fiscal’s new scorecard, which includes House and Senate votes on a bill the legislature passed and Governor Baker signed this week that directly affects Mass Fiscal. The new law requires organizations that use direct mail for their electioneering to disclose their five biggest donors of more than $5000, just as organizations that use paid television, internet and print advertising must do.

Not surprising that Mass Fiscal opposed the bill or that its scorecard describes the votes approving it as “deterring freedom of speech.” Whether the vote will be included in Mass Fiscal’s 2016 electioneering efforts (the new law is effective immediately) is rather doubtful, though  — only 16 of the Legislature’s Republicans (fewer than half) took their side.

 

Field Notes from the State Budget: Gov Targets the Disabled

[Update: July 23: Both the House and the Senate overrode the Governor’s veto, so the benefits cuts for disabled persons he was proposing will not happen, at least for this year.] 

Pop quiz. Which are there more of in the United States:

(1) stamp collectors, or (2) families receiving cash welfare?

If you answered stamp collectors, you win – congratulations!

This datum — that stamp collectors now outnumber families receiving cash welfare — comes via Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who devoted a recent column to entering a guilty plea on the charge of once being excessively optimistic about welfare reform. As he explains in the succinctly-titled “Why I Was Wrong About Welfare Reform,” for a time back in the late 90’s welfare reform seemed to be working, in large part because of an employment boom that helped many welfare recipients get jobs. But twenty years and two recessions later, in Kristof’s words, “the embarrassing truth is that welfare reform has resulted in a layer of destitution that echoes poverty in countries like Bangladesh.”

Kristof’s column introduced us to Bobbie Ingraham, a 47-year old grandmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is caring for a toddler granddaughter born with drugs in her system. Ingraham has had a hard life herself, battling addiction, domestic violence and health problems that make it very difficult to find a job. She has no cash income from work, and so her electricity, gas and water have been cut off. Before welfare reform, 41 out of 100 Oklahoma families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today only 7 families out of 100 do, and Bobbie Ingraham’s family is not one of them. Welfare reform promised that fewer families on the welfare rolls would mean more families with jobs and economic stability. Instead, it’s simply meant more widespread and deeper poverty among families with children.

As you might expect, the picture in Massachusetts is not quite as dire as it is in Oklahoma. But it’s nothing to brag about either. Before welfare reform, 81 out of 100 Massachusetts families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today only 39 out of 100 families do.

Which brings us to Governor Baker’s welfare policy. He’s proposing to reduce the number of families receiving cash assistance even further, from the current 33,000 down to 26,000 or so.

Putting this change into effect involves rescinding a welfare eligibility rule that’s been in place since 1972. Under this rule, the benefits that severely disabled people receive from the federal government under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program are not counted as income in determining a family’s eligibility for welfare cash assistance. The Governor wants to start including those disability benefits as income, which he concedes will result in 6,900 families losing their cash assistance grant altogether.

To see how the Governor’s plan would affect one family in the state, consider Teresa Hubbard, a 52-year-old grandmother living in Brighton. She is caring full-time for her 13-year-old granddaughter who cannot walk or talk because of the cerebral palsy that she has had since birth and which is the basis for her receiving about $750 per month in federal disability payments. Because these disability payments don’t currently count as income, Teresa and her granddaughter also receive a cash welfare grant of about $400 per month, for a total monthly income of $1150. If the Governor’s plan goes into effect and disability payments are counted as income, Teresa and her granddaughter would lose their entire cash welfare grant and would be very much at risk of becoming homeless.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate included language in their annual budgets barring the Governor from putting his plan into effect, but he vetoed that language and intends to eliminate the cash assistance grants of 6,900 families, including Teresa’s, in October.

Unless, of course, the Legislature overrides his veto. The veto override process starts in the House, and  you can find information about contacting your Representative here. While you’re at it, you can also call the Governor at 617-725-4005 and suggest that maybe he could find better uses for his time than finding ways to harm disabled residents of the state who are already living in poverty. Stamp collecting, for example, might be a good choice.        

 

What Makes the Globe Editorial Board Happy? The Senate is Curious to Know.

Outrage on the editorial page of the Globe this morning:

Legislators’ failure to approve tougher penalties for nursing home violations is inexcusable.

It seems that the House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the state budget for this fiscal year did not include a Senate provision to increase the fines that state regulators can impose on nursing homes for health and safety violations. An excellent series of Globe reports detailed the scandalously poor care that some nursing homes are providing to patients and disclosed that the maximum fine that can currently be imposed for health and safety violations is a laughable $50.

In response to these reports, the Senate adopted a budget amendment by Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford to increase the maximum fine to $10,000. But, as the editorial board laments today, the provision was not included in the final budget agreed to by the House and Senate. This was a particularly egregious omission in the editorial board’s view, even though, as it noted, “every year, plenty of worthy proposals don’t make it to the final version of the budget.”

Really? Plenty of worthy budget proposals — every year?  For a decidedly contrary view on this point, you can check out the Boston Globe’s editorial page of only four days ago. “Budget weeds sprout at the State House,” the board fumed on July 7, calling out the Senate in particular for including too many outside sections in its budget. Outside sections, as the board described them, are “basically, separate pieces of legislation that are crammed into the budget as a way of bypassing the usual legislative process.”  Without any consideration of the substance of any of these sections, the editorial board concluded that the number of outside sections in the Senate budget exceeded the number in the House budget, and therefore the Senate failed to show the necessary “self-discipline.” One of the outside sections in the Senate budget was, of course, the increase in maximum fines for health and safety violations at nursing homes, the omission of which from the final budget was deemed “inexcusable” in today’s editorial.

If I were in the Senate I might well feel whipsawed by these contradictory mandates. Maybe the editorial board can help out by providing some additional guidance about another Senate budget outside section that was not included in this year’s final budget. This section would have made dental care available to more low-income people by allowing dental hygienists who complete an additional period of education to provide basic dental services in community settings like schools and nursing homes.

A few months ago, the editorial board enthusiastically endorsed this idea.  But now, who knows? Maybe the editorial board is of the view that the Senate ought to have shown the self-discipline to just say no to what was probably another fishy attempt at evading legislative review.

But in this case, that’s not what it was. The dental hygienist bill was filed months ago by Senator Harriette Chandler. The Joint Committee on Public Health (where House members outnumber Senate members by 11 to 6) held a hearing on it in September, reported it favorably in December, and sent it to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing (where House members outnumber Senate members by 13 to 7). The bill remained there until the Committee quietly euthanized it last month. Although as part of its criticism of the Senate the editorial board contends that “the House has moved to accommodate the Senate on releasing more bills from joint committees in a timely way,” apparently that’s a rule with some exceptions.

Just a couple weeks ago, the editorial board included the dental hygienist proposal on its short list of bills that the Legislature must pass before the end of its session. So, we’re eager to hear what the board thinks of the Legislature for omitting it from this year’s budget.  An inexcusable failure to act, or a self-disciplined rejection of a shady effort to short-circuit the legislative process?

Either way, it seems likely that outrage is involved.

Annals of Income Inequality: June, 2016, Edition

A couple items this week from the income inequality file.

First, as State House News reports (paywall), the Baker administration is about the business of reining in the overtime hours of the 39,000 people in the state who work as personal care attendants. PCA’s, as they are called, assist people who have severe disabilities with daily activities like getting dressed and bathing. This help enables many disabled people who might otherwise need to live in a nursing home to remain in their communities.

The cost of the PCA program is rising, and to cap that increase the Baker administration is restricting the number of overtime hours that PCA’s may work. As you may imagine (there being 24 hours in a day), many of the 26,000 people receiving PCA services require more than 40 hours a week of assistance. Nonetheless, the administration is targeting this program for savings by requiring advance approval by the state for any PCA working more than 40 hours per week, up to a maximum of 60 hours.  No word on whether the administration is anticipating that this restriction might result in more nursing home placements of persons now able to live outside that setting.

PCA’s now earn $13.68 per hour, which translates to an annual income of $28,454 for a forty-hour week. (If you’re curious, the income necessary to afford a studio apartment in the state is $36,142).

Second, as DigBoston reports, the Baker administration is asking the Legislature to increase the amount of economic development tax credits the state awards to corporations annually from $30 million to $50 million, and also to allow the administration complete discretion to decide which corporations receive these new incentives (aptly named Extraordinary Economic Development Opportunity Credits).

By “complete discretion” to award these credits, the Baker administration is proposing that, to quote from its bill:

The decision by the secretaries to designate or not to designate a proposed project as an extraordinary economic development opportunity shall be a decision that is within the sole discretion of each of the secretaries, and may include such conditions as the secretaries shall in their discretion impose. Such decisions shall be final and shall not be subject to administrative appeal or judicial review… or give rise to any other cause of action or legal or equitable claim or remedy.

Wow – so much for the separation of powers. It’s not clear (to me at least) that this “extraordinary” delegation of authority to the executive branch to award tax credits, which expressly precludes any sort of court review to control abuses of discretion, would be constitutional.  The Supreme Judicial Court has in the past approved laws in which the Legislature delegates its power to tax — but on the condition that certain safeguards have been met, including that some means of judicial review is available for parties aggrieved by the resulting decisions.

In any event, interested persons are invited to suggest to their Legislators that funding overtime hours for PCA’s to provide assistance to persons with disabilities is a higher priority, especially in this time of severe budget austerity, than funding extraordinary tax credits for favored corporations.

 

Tantrums by Toddlers on the Governor’s Council

It seems that four of the members of the Governor’s Council, that vestigial organ of state government, are throwing their sippy cups at the news that Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito intends to preside at this summer’s hearings for Governor Baker’s three nominees to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Never mind that under the Constitution the Lieutenant Governor is also a member of the Council and presides when the Governor is absent. Also never mind that the Governor has “full power and authority, from time to time, at his discretion” to call the Council together. Also never mind that there’s plenty of precedent for the Lieutenant Governor to preside on occasions that the Governor regards as appropriate, like, for example, nominations to the state’s highest court. With a Trumpian self-regard, four Councilors have gotten themselves in a huff over the plan.

Councilor Marilyn Devaney of Watertown (who has been known to throw other objects besides her sippy cup) demanded to know why the Lieutenant Governor was intent on usurping “our duties.”

Councilor Robert Jubinville of Milton openly conceded that he wanted the spotlight: “I don’t know why you want to take it away from us. This is a chance for councilors to do a hearing like we did with Judge [Ralph] Gants, to get some publicity and you’re taking it away.”

In response to the argument that Lieutenant Governor Murray had presided over the hearings for the SJC nominations of Governor Patrick, Councilor Christopher Ianella of Boston pouted thusly: “Murray at least asked.”

Councilor Eileen Duff of Gloucester went so far with her indignation to suggest that it might affect the votes on the nominations: “This is all about publicity, it’s all about press and it’s all about Karyn Polito. It’s not about the Governor’s Council and it’s not about the candidates. It’s absolutely disrespectful and outrageous….This administration is not setting these people up very well now for not having a whole lot of tie votes coming up.”

Really, these people are judging our judges?