On Tuesday, Charlie Baker Won’t Be Able to “Target Trump Without Saying His Name”

The wind beneath Charlie Baker’s wings blew again on Tuesday evening, as lawmakers received his State of the Commonwealth address with standing ovations too numerous to mention.

The Governor’s poll numbers appear to operate in inverse relation to those of the President — the more appalled we are by latter, the more appreciative we are of the former.  (Michael Jonas made a similar observation in Commonwealth yesterday.) And the contrast between the two speaks for itself, loudly, without any need for the Governor to mar his dignity (or his modesty) by stooping to invoke the President’s disrepute. An anodyne reference or two by Baker to “bipartisanship” can do the trick. As the Globe put it yesterday, “Baker targets Trump, without saying his name.”

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This Trump-Baker polarity has caused us to overlook important connections between them, like the fact that the Governor’s complex fundraising apparatus funnels money to the Republican National Committee, which it’s using to help maintain a Congressional majority for the President’s odious policies.

Next week may bring a new challenge to the Governor’s power to burnish his own popularity by appearing to transcend the detested Trump brand.

On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the immigration bill the Governor filed in August in response to a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court. That decision, which held that no authority exists to allow Massachusetts law enforcement officials to detain persons who are wanted only because of civil immigration violations, has barred police in the state from assisting with the President’s deportation agenda by holding such persons until ICE can come pick them up.

The Governor says that his bill would provide statutory authority for law enforcement officials to cooperate with ICE, but would not require them to do so. (Whether that statutory authority would pass state constitutional muster is an issue the SJC has not decided.) In advocating for the bill, Baker noted a history of state cooperation with federal immigration officials in apprehending dangerous criminals, a history to which he’d like to return.

But that’s just it — it’s history, no longer operative.  ICE is now under President Trump’s direction, and it’s very busy carrying out some of his most hateful policies. If that fact was not obvious when the Governor filed his bill in August, the “Operation Safe City” raids the following month, in which ICE specifically targeted Massachusetts, made it unmistakable.

Cooperating with ICE now means condoning raids and deportations without regard to the criminality of the persons being deported. It means endorsing a racist show of force being wielded for its own sake, contemptuously ripping apart families and our social fabric.

At the Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, the Governor won’t be able to conduct business as usual — targeting Trump without saying his name.  His administration will be standing with the President — openly supporting the authority of police departments to choose to become part of Trump’s xenophobic deportation machine. And if his bill were to become law, he’d be the one to enlist our State Police in Trump’s cause.

(The Judiciary Committee hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, January 30, starting at 1:00 P.M. in Room A-2.)

The State Earned Income Tax Credit: R.I.P?

(How Trumpism might play out in Massachusetts. One of a probably lengthy series.) 

Governor Charlie Baker, back from a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, held a press conference yesterday to offer his first extended remarks after the presidential election.

If, like Attorney General Maura Healey, you were hoping for a forceful denunciation of the presence of a white nationalist in the West Wing, you were disappointed: Governor Baker is willing to hold the record open for more evidence against Steve Bannon before issuing a judgment.  On most other subjects Baker took refuge in the comforting words of Mike Pence (!), who called for a “very deliberate and significant dialogue,” yada-yada.

Baker’s strategy of not confronting the President-elect was, if not courageous, probably fiscally prudent. After all, more than one-quarter of revenue for the state’s annual budget ($39 billion this year) comes from federal reimbursements. Much of that federal funding supports our universal health care plan. That health care money was on a track to expire, but fortunately four days before the election, the Baker administration secured a commitment from the Obama administration to provide nearly $60 billion over the next five years. Good news for sure — although it’s alarming that the feds’ promise is now reliant on a president who in the past has considered defaulting on the nation’s debt as a nifty solution to budgetary problems.

Health care is not the only program under threat from Trump administration policies. Our state Earned Income Tax Credit Program, which helps more than 400,000 families in Massachusetts who earn $50,000 or less, is, as a practical matter, in jeopardy as well. Governor Baker is a big supporter of the state EITC, and an increase to that program (the first in 16 years) was one of his first year policy successes. The state EITC program is still a modest one even with the increase (the average benefit will rise to $500 per family this year), but it’s nevertheless a step toward reducing income inequality, a disorder that Massachusetts suffers from in the extreme.

The tax overhaul that Trump is proposing is especially generous to the wealthy and especially hard on lower-income families, including those who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. His plan would entirely eliminate the head of household filing status and the deduction for dependents, both of which help to reduce the tax burden owed by EITC families.

The Trump tax proposals, to take just one example from the Tax Policy Institute, would increase the federal tax bill of a couple with four children making $50,000 a year from $210 to $1090. That result would swallow the benefit of the family’s state EITC several times over.We’re looking, in other words, at the prospect of a state EITC program that in many cases no longer helps low-income families directly but instead simply goes to help to pay their (newly-increased) share of federal taxes. How many things are wrong with that picture?

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.        

 

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?

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?

 

Your Film Tax Credit Dollars at Work–for Mark Wahlberg

It’s looking like the film tax credit is going to be with us for quite a while longer. Last year the Governor’s idea of scrapping it altogether in favor of a tax credit for working poor families met with very stiff resistance from film tax credit fans. This year his more modest plan to prune it back to its Romney-era size (in part by imposing a cap of $7 million per movie and by eliminating the option to sell the credit) hasn’t really been heard from since its January launch.

But if we can’t stop this perpetual train robbery, we can at least learn where the money is going (h/t to Jamie Eldridge and other members of the Senate who succeeded in getting us this window to peer into).  In 2014, the most recent year for which film tax credit information is available, one very big winner was Massachusetts native Mark Wahlberg, the star of Ted 2, which was filmed here that year. (If, like me, you haven’t caught Ted 2 or the original Ted yet, Wahlberg’s co-star is an animated bear and both stars’ vocabularies are largely scatological.)

We taxpayers ponied up $14 million toward Ted 2‘s production costs. For that money we could have paid for upgrades to 30 subway cars to extend their service for the better part of a decade or funded a year’s worth of rental vouchers for 2000 homeless families.  So far, Ted 2 has taken in over $240 million in box office and video sales, an amount that ought to reassure investors in Mark Wahlberg’s next Massachusetts venture that the film tax credit is not strictly necessary to its commercial success.

And as we were particularly reminded this past Monday, Mark Wahlberg’s next Massachusetts venture is already in production. Opinions vary on whether it’s too soon for a movie about the Marathon bombing and whether a Marathon bombing movie made by Mark Wahlberg will ever be appropriate, but come December, we’re going to have one called Patriots Day. Wahlberg and his production company at CBS have tiptoed around the movie’s possibly explotative nature and have offered a solemn but indefinite vow to “get it right.”

Apparently getting it right does not include respecting the wishes of any 2016 Marathon runners who don’t care to appear in the movie.

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Here’s an idea.  If the Patriots Day folks are really interested in getting it right, they could announce that they’re making this movie on their own dime and won’t ask us taxpayers to chip in a quarter of the production costs via the film tax credit.