Help to Save the ACA by Being Selfish

You can help save the ACA (aka Obamacare) in the Senate by helping to foil the Republican efforts to smuggle the bill through the Senate unseen.

The Indivisible folks have a website that lets you file an amendment to exempt yourself from the strictures of the Senate’s version of Trumpcare.  Whatever the GOP bill ends up proposing, you can help stall its progress by asking your Senator to file and debate an amendment exempting you, as an individual, from its (very mean) provisions.  You can also add other comments, which will be entered into the Congressional Record to say why you think Trumpcare is an abomination.

So, in the interests of all of us, help run out whatever clock the GOP has in mind. Go forth and ask for an exemption — just for you.

Link here.

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?

 

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.

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?

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?

 

Reducing Recidivism: Start with Low-hanging Fruit

The Council on State Governments, at the request of the Governor and other state leaders, is taking a year-long dive into our state’s criminal justice system. A preliminary report shows we have a recidivism problem: three out of four persons convicted in Massachusetts in one recent year have been convicted before.  Among the most common infractions are crimes involving motor vehicles.  And within that category, the crime that has sent the most people back to jail is operating with a suspended license.

This fact is not news to advocates of a recently-enacted state law that repeals an automatic driver’s license suspension imposed on most people convicted of drug offenses. For the 27 years that this counterproductive relic from the War On Drugs was in effect (until its repeal this March), Massachusetts residents jailed for drug offenses faced an additional penalty after being released: a five year license suspension and, after the suspension period was served, a $500 license reinstatement fee. Some of those people whose licenses were suspended on this basis ran the risk of driving with a suspended license, and the unlucky ones found themselves back in jail. So a welcome side-effect of the repeal of  the license suspension law is the lowering of our recidivism rate — many people who no longer need to serve this license suspension are no longer being convicted of operating with a suspended license.

And as this repeal demonstrates, we’re taking another look at our “tough on crime” presumptions, also welcome news in a state where we spend more on incarcerating people than in funding higher education for them (it costs more than $50,000 annually to incarcerate each inmate in our state prisons).

Which brings us to an amendment that the State Senate adopted in its budget debate last week. Current law requires people receiving court-ordered probation to pay a monthly fee (between $50 and $65) and provides that they can be jailed for failing to pay.  Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has concluded that this fee erects an enormous barrier to re-entry for probationers, the majority of whom are indigent and a significant number of whom have mental health and substance abuse problems. He offered a budget amendment to give the courts discretion to decide in each case whether this fee should be imposed and to end the practice of jailing probationers for failing to pay it. The amendment was adopted on a 31-7 vote, and it now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the annual budgets that each branch has passed. If the House agrees to this provision, it then goes to the Governor. We can make re-entry easier for people on probation and save ourselves the cost of incarcerating them at the same time.

Some of our criminal justice problems are tough to crack. But not all of them.