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.

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.

 

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.

Field Notes from the State House: The “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” List

With the Legislature’s 2015-2016 session down to its last six weeks, it’s time to begin recording casualties — bills that just aren’t going  to make it into law.  The list is not a short one, so we better get started.

First up: a bill to close a loophole in state campaign finance law. The loophole in question was first discovered and used to great advantage by former gubernatorial candidate and now-Governor Baker.  It allows state political figures to pay state expenses with federally-raised money and to avoid disclosing the source of money spent on campaigns for state party membership.

The bill to close the loophole was filed by Senator Jamie Eldridge with the backing of Common Cause following an April decision by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance that the Baker campaign’s use of these funding practices does not violate current state law. Because Senator Eldridge’s bill was filed after the January 2015 deadline for legislation to be considered automatically, both the Senate and House had to agree to allow it to move forward. The Senate has done so, but the House has not.

More evidence of the oft-rumored bromance between the Governor and the Speaker?  It’s pretty hard, for example, to imagine GOP Governor Romney receiving this sort of consideration.

The Speaker insists to the contrary, telling the Globe through his spokesman that the sole reason for the bill’s lack of progress is its late filing date. “With rare exception, the House generally does not fast-track late-filed legislation, especially with eight weeks left.” Well, OK — and there’s no man behind any Green Curtain that we must not pay attention to.

There may be other reasons why the Speaker is letting the clock run out on this bill. For one thing, the loophole is available to both parties, not just to the GOP. For another thing, the Republican state committee elections on which Baker’s folks spent $300,000 in undisclosed contributions resulted in the defeat of many socially conservative GOP party members. Their ouster helped to smooth the way for the Governor to signal his acceptance of the transgender public accommodations bill (assuming that it reaches his desk). With Baker’s opposition eliminated, the Speaker also had a much easier time of things with that troublesome piece of legislation. What’s not to like about this new GOP state committee?

 

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.

 

Legislative Transparency: If it’s Good for the Goose…

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 Globe disagreed with him, dismissing his argument as “a tough-on-crime sentiment that harks back to the original, 1980s-vintage view that led to the failed law.” The Herald, often a Lyons fan, parted ways with him on this issue and urged the House to agree to the Senate in conference committee negotiations on the bill.    

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 proposal and acknowledged that it could restore the licenses of drug dealers as well as drug users. 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.

About a half hour after the recess began, the presiding officer (Rep. Paul Donato of Medford) called the House to order, but he did not ask for a quorum call.  Instead he announced that an amendment was pending and asked the Clerk to read the amendment. While the amendment was being read, he asked the Clerk 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 one minute. No one spoke in favor of the amendment or in opposition to it. After the vote, a House member requested a quorum call.  Rep. Donato said he could ascertain that a quorum was not present and 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) in the most opaque of ways. Ordinarily this peeves advocates of greater legislative transparency like Rep. Lyons. But probably not in this case.