How the House Republicans Win Backroom Deals While Decrying Them

The editorial boards of both the Herald and the Globe are calling on the Legislature to repeal a misguided 1989 law that revokes the driver’s license of anyone who is convicted of a drug offense and imposes a $500 fee to reinstate a license after the suspension time (one to five years) has been served.  The law was conceived in the fond hope that it would deter drug use. Thirty years later, we know that it doesn’t, and what’s worse, it steers those with drug convictions back toward recidivism by adding to the re-entry obstacles they face.   

Last September the Senate passed a bill to repeal the law, and in January the House approved part of that bill. Both editorial boards greatly prefer the Senate version. The Senate repealed the license suspension law in its entirely.  The House, on the other hand, kept the license suspension law for some drug trafficking crimes — it adopted an amendment to that effect that had been filed by a group of seven Republican representatives. One of those Republican representatives, State Rep. James Lyons of Andover, told the Globe that license suspensions should continue to be imposed on “thugs who are selling drugs to our family members.”  The Herald, often a Lyons fan, parted ways with him on this issue and urged the House to agree to a complete repeal.    

For those not familiar with Rep. Lyons, he’s the Massachusetts chairman of the Cruz for President Committee and his legislative priorities include reducing the state income and sales taxes.  A member of the minority party, he’s also a frequent critic of the practice of lawmaking by backroom deal outside of public view.

You may be curious how Rep Lyons and his colleagues succeeded in keeping a portion of the license suspension law in place. It has something to do with lawmaking by backroom deal outside of public view.

The morning of January 6, Speaker DeLeo expressed support for the proposed repeal at a press briefing. The House took up the bill around 3 o’clock that day.  Four amendments were pending, all of them filed by Republican Representatives. One of the amendments was defeated on a voice vote without debate. Then the House stood in recess.

Legislative action in the House is punctuated by recesses, some brief and some lengthy. During the lengthier recesses, House members often return to their offices to tend to other business. When the House returns from a recess, often the first order of business is a roll call vote to ensure that a quorum is present.  Often, but not always, and not in this case.

After a half hour or so of a recess of indefinite length, the presiding officer (Rep. Paul Donato of Medford) called the House to order, but he didn’t ask for a quorum call. Instead he announced that an amendment was pending and called on the Clerk to read it.  As the Clerk was beginning to read the amendment, Donato instructed him to dispense with the reading of the remainder of the amendment, then called for a voice vote, pronounced that the yeas had prevailed over the nays and that the amendment had been adopted. It all took about a minute. No one spoke in favor of the amendment or in opposition to it. After the vote, a House member requested a quorum call and  Rep. Donato instructed the court officers to summon the members.

The tape.

 

 

 

Thus, the GOP amendment to keep the license suspension law in place for some crimes was adopted (after some very minor tweaking — and definitely outside of public view). The Republican minority got its way merely by threatening to debate the policy merits (if any) of its position. The Democratic majority was spared both a roll call vote and the need to bestir itself to counter whatever the GOP might have had to say.

Sometimes this kind of opacity peeves Rep. Lyons. But less often than you might think — and certainly not in this case.

 

 

The GMO Labeling Bill: Doing Nothing is Doing Something

[Update: March 7, 2016: The Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture has given this bill a favorable report.  There are 115 days left in the Legislative session for the bill to make it to the Governor’s desk.]

Original post: January 10, 2015.

A question for our Legislature, whose leaders reportedly are looking to get more done this year than last: to enact or not to enact the GMO labeling bill?

It would be hard to find a bill with more legislative support: 155 of our 200 lawmakers are sponsors. Think of all those happy press releases. Plus the support is bipartisan — in fact, a supermajority of the state GOP delegation is on board. The long sponsor list reflects the fact that 93 percent of Americans agree that genetically modified food ought to be labeled as such.

Opponents of labeling, including agribusiness giants like Monsanto, say over and over again that there’s no difference between genetically modified food and conventional food and imply that anybody who wants GMO labeling is a Luddite cousin of the anti-vaccination folks, the climate change deniers and the creationists. And it’s true that those who favor GMO labelling lack hard evidence that GMO’s present a unique health risk. Slate columnist and labeling opponent William Saletan has called GMO labeling an ill-advised fixation that “only pretends to inform you” with useful knowledge.

But in last year’s encyclical on our responsibility to take care of God’s creation, Pope Francis offered a broader perspective on this issue that included a distinction between GMO science and GMO business. “Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has…helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.” The science of GMO’s may be benign, Francis wrote, but the business of GMO’s as presently conducted destroys ecosystems, reduces plant diversity, and concentrates productive land in the hands of a few wealthy oligopolies.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine made a similar point: whether or not GMO’s by themselves present health risks, they are the corollary in our agricultural system of a very copious use of herbicides. Monsanto sells “Roundup Ready” seeds that have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides. Monsanto also sells “Roundup,” its brand of the herbicide glyphosate that can be applied as liberally as needed because the seeds are have been genetically engineered to withstand it. Weeds offer no competition and crop yields go up.

Because we now have crops that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate, we now dump 250 times as much of it on our amber waves of grain as we did 20 years ago. Maybe the crops won’t hurt you but what about the herbicides? And despite Monsanto’s insistence that glyphosate is safe, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined last year that it is a “probable human carcinogen.” Also, not at all surprisingly, resourceful weeds that are resistant to glyphosate are emerging that will require agribusiness to up its herbicide ante.

Another argument that agribusiness often makes against GMO labeling is that any regulation of this agricultural practice should happen at the federal level, so that there can be one uniform standard, and we can reduce costs to industry and eliminate confusion for consumers. Well, a loud amen on that one. Let’s ask the folks who have been calling for the reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban what they think our odds are. The only work that Congress has put into GMO regulation has been to try, at the behest of agribusiness, to keep states from regulating it themselves.

Which brings us to Vermont, where a 2014 law requiring the labeling of genetically modified food will take effect this July, unless Congress intervenes or unless the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rules otherwise. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, having been unsuccessful so far in its effort to persuade Congress to outlaw regulation by the states, has sued Vermont, contending that the labeling law burdens their First Amendment right to free speech. The Grocery Manufacturers lost in District Court and a panel of the Second Circuit has heard their appeal. Eight states, including Massachusetts, filed an amicus brief in support of Vermont’s GMO law. Two of those eight states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed GMO labeling laws, but those laws will take effect only when several other contiguous states do the same.

So here we are in Massachusetts. GMO labeling may not be the perfect proxy for what we ought to do to protect our food supply, but even GMO labeling opponents agree that the runaway use of herbicides is one big problem we would have less of without the existence of GMO seeds, and labeling advocates offer many more. We’re next door to Connecticut and almost next door to Maine, and they’re watching. If we pass the GMO labeling bill, we’re joining with our New England neighbors. If we don’t, we’re making Monsanto happy.

(Cross-posted on BlueMassGroup.)

 

Who’s Going to Get Fulfilled at Amazon’s New Fulfillment Center?

Amazon is coming to Fall River. The on-line giant announced yesterday that it will occupy a million-square-foot building that’s going to be built on the Fall River-Freetown line. The new warehouse, which in Amazon-speak carries the name “Fulfillment Center,” will join 50 or so similar facilities around the country.

So who among us can look forward to being fulfilled by the Fulfillment Center?

For starters, Amazon customers in Massachusetts, who can look forward to next-day delivery of their $600 premium foosball table with enamel screen-printed graphics or their Natura Bisse Oxygen Cream (immediately softens the most dehydrated skin, $88 for a 2.5 ounce jar).

Second, Amazon itself, which in addition to its profits gets more than $6 million in state and local tax breaks for choosing the Fall River site.

Third, Governor Charlie Baker, who’s pretty excited about it all (as is the predominantly Democratic Fall River area legislative delegation).

Anybody out there who’s not going to be so fulfilled?

Well, construction companies in Massachusetts, which lost out on the building contract.  That went instead to a company from East Rutherford, N.J.

And the people who will be working in the new Fulfillment Center? Amazon is promising 500 full-time jobs at an average salary of $35,000. Which might well sound good to people in Fall River right now, where the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. But that average salary will still leave a Fall River family of four about $25,000 short of what they need to live on (and 500 jobs is only half the number of jobs Amazon was promising Fall River a year ago).

Then there’s the issue of the working conditions at Amazon’s Fulfillment Centers. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call newspaper has been covering the working conditions at Amazon’s nearby Lehigh Valley Fulfillment Center for the past five years. Anybody contemplating an Amazon job in Fall River and anybody who is unequivocally keen on Amazon’s arrival in the state might want to take a look at the Morning Call‘s stories about life in an Amazon warehouse: punishing productivity quotas that result in the firing of workers unable to meet them and injuries to many who try (keep in mind that workers must cover a warehouse that’s the size of 21 football fields); a management structure in which the real employer is not Amazon itself, but a temporary help agency called “Integrity Staffing Solutions,” which can take advantage of laws that limit its liability for unemployment insurance and can help reduce the risk of encroachment by labor unions through constant employee turnover; triple-digit temperatures in the warehouse during the summer (on this point, Amazon was at pains to say that it had arranged for paramedics to be in ambulances parked outside the warehouse to treat the severely dehydrated).

If you take another look at Governor Baker’s enthusiastic comments about Amazon’s arrival, you’ll notice that he’s very excited to help Amazon meet all its needs — and that the Massachusetts residents who will be working there are a mere afterthought:

“Our collaboration and partnership with Amazon is a good example of where the state has worked with, and will continue to work with, companies and help them meet their needs for everything from tax incentives to training new employees to permitting so that they can continue to grow in the Commonwealth.”

Points for honesty.

Let’s Occupy the Film Tax Credit

A reprise of an earlier post, in light of the Herald article today reaffirming the folly of the state’s film tax credit program.

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Original Post: May 7, 2013

Old joke – a merchant tells a customer that the goods he’s selling actually cost him more than he’s charging the customer for them. When he’s asked how he can afford to sell them at a loss, he answers: the profit comes from selling in volume.

Sadly, something akin to that joke is serving as the premise for our state’s film tax credit program: all our tax break giveaways are — somehow — going to boost our bottom line.

This is the eighth year Massachusetts has offered a film tax credit. For the first six of those years (2006-2011, the years for which data is available), the state gave away $327 million in credits. These tax credits attracted $186 million in new spending, which yielded $44 million in new revenue. That is to say, for every dollar we spent on film tax credits, we lost 87 cents and retained 13.

Given its abysmal record so far, why is it (to borrow a line from a movie that was not filmed in Massachusetts) that we just can’t quit the film tax credit? Let’s review.

In 2005, Massachusetts enacted a relatively modest film tax credit, which was signed by Governor Mitt Romney. The credit under that program was limited to $7 million, and it was not refundable. Also in 2005, director Martin Scorsese filmed a movie about Boston, The Departed. Most of the filming for that movie, however, took place not in Boston but in New York. And especially after that movie won four Oscars in 2006, people got to talking about how other states were poaching on what should be our movies and how we needed to do something about it.

So in 2007 (possibly influenced by one film director who said that film executives “would shoot a movie on Mars if they could get a 25 percent tax break”), Massachusetts opened the spigot wide, where it remains today. Now we reimburse film companies for 25 percent of their production and payroll costs, and we also throw in an exemption from the sales tax. Most significantly, the film tax credit is now refundable and transferable. This means that after the film company has paid the state taxes it owes, it can sell the remainder (usually at a slight discount) to a company or individual who owes state taxes and who can therefore capture the full value of the credit. As soon as he signed the legislation, Governor Deval Patrick (apparently unconcerned about criticism that the point of the the film tax credit was to let politicians hobnob with Hollywood celebrities) hurried off to hang with Denzel, who was in town filming The Great Debaters. And probably at exactly the same time, markets sprang up for the buying and selling of film tax credits.

Who’s buying them? Primarily insurance companies, financial institutions and other corporations that owe state taxes. Of the $327 million in film tax credits that have been generated since 2006, these organizations have purchased $280 million, or 86 percent. They have paid an average of 89 cents for a dollar’s worth of tax credit and thereby reduced the state taxes they would otherwise have had to pay by $30 million.

In the difficult budget years after he signed the film tax credit into law, Governor Patrick has lost some of his original enthusiasm. He now believes that the credit should be capped at $40 million per year. There’s no cap under current law. This is an entitlement program — filmmakers are free to come to Massachusetts and we are obliged to pay them 25 percent of their production costs, whatever those costs are. And if past experience is a guide, 87 cents of every credit dollar we give will simply disappear. The Department of Revenue estimates that the projects claiming the film tax credit in 2012 will cost the state more than $78 million. Representative Angelo Scaccia of Boston filed an amendment to the House budget last month to cap the film tax credit at $40 million, but it was rejected; the prospects for closing the spigot are not good.

So what to do? How about — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? The market for buying film tax credits is open to everyone. Maybe some civic-minded individuals or companies or individuals who owe state taxes could purchase tax credits at the going rate of 89 cents on the dollar and then, instead of keeping the 11 percent savings, donate it to a worthy cause. Or we can organize ourselves into (gasp!) collectives and then share the proceeds among us. As the insurance companies and financial institutions have demonstrated, there’s lots of money to be had. If they can make millions from this policy debacle, why can’t we?

So what do you say? It’s showtime!

Hartley Boudreau, 1 – Boston Herald, 0

The supplemental budget that’s making its way to the Governor’s desk includes a small offering of vindication for retired Lynnfield police officer Hartley Boudreau.

Three years ago, Boudreau was on the receiving end of some Boston Herald vituperation that designated him the “poster boy” for an alleged public employee income scam the paper was busy flogging:

A retired Lynnfield cop, already collecting a pension check while pocketing thousands in detail pay, has now managed to score taxpayer-funded unemployment benefits — part of a pattern of public cash grabs that has municipal officials howling to the Patrick administration for reform.

To flesh out the story a bit, in 2012 Mr. Boudreau was 70 years old and receiving a pension of $36,000 a year for his 32-year career as a police officer. (It’s doubtful that he was receiving any significant amount of federal Social Security retirement income because state and municipal employees in Massachusetts do not pay into that system.) The town of Lynnfield had supplemented his income in recent years by employing him as a part time police officer, but those wages were subject to a statutory cap limiting a public employee’s post-retirement earnings. When Mr. Boudreau reached the cap (of $25,000 annually), the town ended his part-time employment. He then applied for and received some unemployment insurance benefits under a statute of some 58 years’ standing that expressly permitted him to do so. Based on his $25,000 salary, the benefits he received could not have exceeded $9,000 and might have been less. Mr. Boudreau was required to pay both federal and state income taxes on them.

(A pause here to note that when some people — Donald Trump — avail themselves of the benefits of the law by, for example, filing for bankruptcy when their investments go sour, they are praised and admired for their shrewdness. But when others do, not so much.)

The Herald put the Patrick administration back on its heels with this issue, to which the paper devoted more than 20 stories and editorials. The state’s unemployment insurance agency immediately rescinded Mr. Boudreau’s benefits and appointed a special commission to investigate whether, as the Herald was claiming, Mr. Boudreau was no more entitled “to an unemployment check than the Powerball winner who decides to ‘retire.’”

But as time passed and the Herald was probably beginning to conclude that it had extracted just about all the outrage against government workers that this particular vein was going to yield, the Patrick administration reinstated Mr. Boudreau’s unemployment benefits, concluding that the law intended him to be eligible. The special commission that the Governor had appointed also determined that policy behind that law had much to recommend it: the average public pension was a mere $28,000 annually, the number of former public employees across the state receiving both pension and unemployment benefits was probably not much higher than 100, municipalities choose whom to hire and they are free not to hire retirees if they want to avoid any risk of owing unemployment insurance, and federal law requires that states treat their public sector retirees the same as their private sector retirees, who are certainly eligible for unemployment benefits if they are laid off from post-retirement jobs.

So when the city of Boston recently sought permission to hire retired police officers for part-time work and the question of the possible future eligibility of these officers for unemployment benefits arose, Governor Baker signaled his assent to that notion and the Legislature responded by including a provision affirming the law as it stands.

SECTION 76. Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, a retired police officer of a city or town who is appointed as a special police officer pursuant to special legislation shall be subject to chapter 151A of the General Laws.

So far, no comment from the Herald.

The Dog Ate My Homework: Water Conservation Edition

Update, September 30: This afternoon, the House adopted the amendment I wrote about in this post. On to the Senate.

Anybody who shares any remotely credible explanation of why I’m wrong and how it is that this bill would make only minor and benign tweaks will be thanked with a copy of The Scarlet Letter.

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An amendment to the supplemental budget that’s up for debate in the House tomorrow would broaden a 10-year old law that allows landlords to bill tenants for their water usage under some circumstances.

The current law lets landlords who have installed water-conserving fixtures in their rental units and have also installed water submeters that accurately measure water usage to the tenants’ apartments to charge tenants for water once they have certified to the local board of health (under the penalties of perjury) that they have complied with these requirements.

The amendment, filed by Representative Angelo Puppolo (D-Wilbraham), would appear to apply to situations in which the rental property has been sold to new owners since the time that the former owners certified that they were in compliance with the law’s requirements but the certification cannot be located.

One might think that an appropriate solution in these cases (which should be few in number since the local boards of health have records of the certifications) would be for the new owners to provide proof that their properties are equipped with water-conserving fixtures and water submeters.

But instead, the new owners need only file a new “form” to the effect that their rental units are in compliance with the law. The form, which need not even be submitted under the penalties of perjury, concerns almost by definition a topic about which the new owners are confessing their lack of direct knowledge — they weren’t involved.

The House tried to get the Senate to agree to this change during the conference committee negotiations on the main budget in June, but the Senate said no. If the change goes through this time, expect that suddenly lots of tenants will be obligated for water charges on top of their rent.

Driver’s License Revocations – What Were We Thinking?

On Thursday the State Senate will debate whether to repeal a 1989 law that revokes for a period of one to five years the driver’s license of anyone who is convicted of a drug offense. Any drug offense — even offenses that have nothing to do with cars or driving. The law also imposes a $500 fee to have a license reinstated after the time has been served.

The arguments in favor of repeal seem overwhelming: the law has failed as a deterrent (people with revoked licenses drive anyway because they need to get to their jobs and need to get their kids to school). It busies law enforcement with issuing additional citations to drivers whose licenses have been revoked instead of tending to more important matters. Licensed drivers are saddled with additional insurance costs because more unlicensed (and therefore uninsured) drivers are on the roads. And the law adds to the difficulties that those who have been convicted of drug offenses have in reintegrating — staying out of prison and off drugs. As one of the state’s public defenders described the law to the Globe, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”

If anybody could defend the policy wisdom of this law, it would be the state’s District Attorneys. And even they favor repeal.

All of which leads one to wonder, what in the world were we thinking when Massachusetts and other states passed these license revocation statutes and the U.S. Congress chimed in with a law purporting to withhold highway funds from states that did not follow suit? It was after all, only 25 years ago. Some of us were of voting age then. Madonna was around.

To judge from the debate in Congress, the answer seems to be that we were worried about our teenaged kids getting involved with drugs, and we believed that the threat of losing a driver’s license would be sufficient to deter them and to win one battle in the larger war on drugs.

Some excerpts from that debate:

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the law’s chief sponsor: “As millions of parents know, driving is very important for the younger set and…57 percent of teenagers in a recent poll said that suspending driver’s licenses would be a ‘very effective’ deterrent.”

Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn): “Local police testified that they have begun to target the steady stream of suburban kids coming into the city to buy drugs. Some of their more successful efforts included seizing the arrested drug buyers’ cars, or their fathers’ cars as is often the case.”

Representative Gerald Solomon (R-NY): “I am a father of five children…yearning for that great rite of passage into adulthood, as I said, to get that first driver’s license….[This law] would send a meaningful message to the youth of our country and at the same time when they are most impressionable and most susceptible to peer pressure to try drugs.”

(It seems not to have occurred to these members of Congress that the teenage children of important personages might be the just kind of people on whom police departments might think it advisable to go easy.)

In any case, our state’s experience with drug laws of all kinds over the past quarter century demonstrates that suburban teenagers have not been the demographic most likely to be the object of enforcement. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants reported in his State of the Judiciary speech last year, that distinction belongs to members of racial and ethnic minorities.

In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year…racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses. I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact.

If someone asks you what is meant by the term “institutional racism,” you could point them to the driver’s license suspension law. Go Senate.