Shaunna O’Connell, Welfare Queen, Goes for her Third Term

It’s been a while since we checked in on the race for State Representative in the Third Bristol District (Taunton and Easton), where Republican Shaunna O’Connell is seeking re-election to her third term.

As you may know, Representative O’Connell has made a big name for herself by raising at every opportunity the spectre that public benefits, like welfare, are going to people who don’t deserve them, like immigrants. She’s a regular on the pages of the Boston Herald, and lately, as her website informs us, she’s taking her signature issue national on Fox News. Her Fox hosts are as uninterested as she is in mentioning the fact that the entire welfare program in Massachusetts accounts for less than one percent of the state budget, or in exploring whether other issues affecting her constituents may also be deserving of attention.

This year her electoral opponent is Taunton native and Gold Star brother Keavin Duffy, Jr., who won the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate and who believes that the growing income inequality in Massachusetts is an issue that the residents of Taunton and Easton may also be interested in.

Candidate Duffy has challenged Candidate O’Connell to debates and has gotten under her skin recently by pointing out that she has sponsored legislation that would replace the state government employee retirement system with a voluntary 401K style plan. This observation provoked an angry response from her campaign manager, who stated unequivocally that during her time as a State Representative “she has not filed any legislation or amendments regarding changing pensions.”

Hmm. Except that she has. Here it is in black and white (and you can find link to this amendment on the State Legislature’s website here):

Representatives Webster of Pembroke, Adams of Andover, Levy of Marlborough, Lyons of Andover and O’Connell of Taunton move to amend the bill by adding the following section…

The provisions of [the state employee retirement law] relating to defined benefit plans shall not apply to any employee hired after July 1, 2011. They shall be covered by 401 (K) coverage with the state, county, city or town providing a 7 per cent match….

Obvious and categorical misstatements like this one are the kind of thing that prompt additional scrutiny of a candidate’s positions. Further on his letter, for example, the campaign manager says this: “O’Connell has been a fighter for the workers of the district. She crossed party lines to vote for the minimum wage increase.”

Well, that’s true enough, so far as it goes. But it does omit the fact that Representative O’Connell also voted in favor of an amendment that would have increased the minimum wage by a much smaller amount. A fully accurate statement of Representative O’Connell’s view on the minimum wage issue would disclose that she favored an increase from $8 per hour over three years to only $9.50 per hour, rather than the $11 per hour that was enacted into law. In other words, Representative O’Connell thinks that when the minimum wage is fully phased in 2017, workers making that amount — including those who are her constituents — really ought to be earning $3000 less per year.

Not surprising that one side is eager to debate the issues of importance to the citizens of the Third Bristol district and the other side is eager to go national on Fox News.

Here Come the Ballot Questions

Update: The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the casino repeal question should be on the ballot, so six questions appear headed there.
____________________________________

So it’s looking like there will be either five or six questions on the November statewide ballot.

Proponents of questions were required to submit an additional 11,000 or so voter signatures by last Wednesday to city and town elections officials. And to judge from their subsequent press releases, the campaigns for these six questions succeeded in collecting far in excess of the required number and therefore are on their way to the ballot:

  • Patient Safety Act
  • Limit Hospital CEO Compensation
  • Earned Sick Time for Employees
  • Prohibiting Casino Gambling
  • Updating the Bottle Bill
  • Repeal of Gas Tax Indexing

(More details on the substance of these questions here.)

The folks at Raise Up Massachusetts, who were collecting signatures for both the Earned Sick Time proposal and a Minimum Wage Increase proposal, announced today that they would not move forward with the minimum wage question and instead would accept the terms of the minimum wage bill that is now on the Governor’s desk. They plan to focus their efforts now on Earned Sick Time.

Whether the final number of ballot questions is five or six is up to the Supreme Judicial Court, which is now considering whether or not the casino prohibition question meets the requirements the State Constitution has set for ballot questions (the Attorney General ruled that it did not).

But whether it’s five questions or six, the 2014 ballot will be the busiest since 2000, when the questions numbered eight. For you hard-core ballot question fans, here’s a list by year of the number of ballot questions and, of those, the number that were approved: 1994 – 9/5; 1996 – 1/1; 1998 – 4/4; 2000 – 8/4; 2002 – 3/1; 2004 – 0; 2006 – 3/0; 2008 – 3/2; 2010 – 3/1; 2012 – 3/2.

In a couple weeks, the Secretary of State will hold a lottery to assign the numbers (1 through 5, or 1 through 6) to the ballot questions. It looks like the folks working on the gas tax indexing repeal have jumped the gun. They’ve already got a logo for that question (which proposes to repeal a provision passed last year to indexing the tax the state imposes on gasoline to the Consumer Price Index in order to keep tax collections reasonably comparable to the costs of constructing and repairing roads and bridges). Their logo urges voters to Vote “Yes 2 Repeal” indexing, which rather strongly implies that their petition will be Question 2 on the ballot.

The gas tax folks have a one in five (or one in six) change of winning the #2 spot in the lottery. Otherwise, they’ll have to modify their pitch to something like — “Vote ‘Yes 2 Repeal’ indexing by voting yes on Question #5.”

It could be a confusing election year.

Coming Wednesday 4/2: House Debate on Minimum Wage (AND Unemployment Insurance AND Domestic Workers)

On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee released its bill covering not only the minimum wage but also unemployment insurance and protections for domestic workers. Amendments to the bill were due on Friday in preparation for debate this coming Wednesday.

By Friday’s deadline, a total of 99 amendments had been filed. Among the subjects of greatest interest,

  • Tipped minimum wage: Amendment 88, sponsored by Democrat Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and 40 co-sponsors, would raise the tipped minimum wage to $5.25, half of the regular minimum wage of $10.50 proposed by the House bill.
  • Providing for future automatic increases in the minimum wage by tying it to the Consumer Price Index: Amendment 50, sponsored by Democrat Russell Holmes of Mattapan. This amendment has no-cosponsors, which likely means that the word went out that minimum wage indexing is DOA in the House and members’ time would be used more productively on other subjects.

It is still entirely unclear what will happen after the House passes its bill. Even though both the House and Senate will have acted on both the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, their bills will be like “ships passing in the night,” because, as reported earlier, the House declined to use either the minimum wage or unemployment insurance bills passed by the Senate and instead is starting at Square One with an entirely new bill. No House-Senate conference committee will be appointed to work out the differences until this standoff  is resolved. (A HT to Brian from Health Care for All, who points out that the U.S. Congress, not widely known as a model of cooperation, has found a way of resolving these conflicts.)

More on the amendments filed:

  • The majority (55) were filed by the distinct minority (31) of House Republicans. They include the cuts to Unemployment Insurance eligibility and benefits that many businesses have been asking for.
  • The restaurant industry is very well represented among the Republican amendments, with proposals including an exemption from any minimum wage increase, and the establishment of a “meals tax holiday” in July. (The most alarming of the restaurant amendments, entitled “Equity for Restaurants,” would take away the authority of the Board of Health to revoke a restaurant license for health code violations, granting only the lesser authority to impose a series of fines, increasing as the number of violations total six in a six-month period. Note to self: find out which restaurants are pushing this amendment and don’t eat there.)
  • DINO award to Representative Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham) for sponsoring an amendment to establish a two-tier minimum wage, one for adults and one for teenagers, and for suggesting that the concerns expressed by former Representative and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh about the need for more jobs for teenagers would be alleviated by this proposal.
  • The amendment topic on which there’s the most bipartisan agreement is a proposal to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, under which the state’s taxpayers help low-income working families by providing them with an annual subsidy at tax time. The GOP’s rather surprising enthusiasm for the idea is the result of gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s endorsement. He’d rather boost this anti-poverty program instead of increasing the minimum wage. (Is it me, or is it true that the only time that Republicans are interested in having government help the poor is when it appears that private business is going to be asked to do so?)

After this week’s debate, stay tuned to see if the House and Senate reach agreement on any of the many issues now in play.

Yesterday’s Minimum Wage Fracas – What Was THAT About?

UPDATE, March 25: Forecast for minimum wage bill: mainly preposterous, with gusts reaching absurdity.

After last week’s scrapped takeoff, House Representative Tom Conroy announced today that the House will release its bill dealing with the state minimum wage and the unemployment insurance system very soon. The new House bill will add yet a third issue to the mix — workplace protections for domestic employees.

The Senate has already acted on the first two issues (minimum wage and unemployment), but it hasn’t acted on the workplace protections issue. The procedural result of the action the House is planning to take will, like the bill the House hoped to launch last week, “reset the process” and will require the Senate to act again on minimum wage and unemployment. But this time, the House will not need to go through the Labor Commmittee, because the workplace protections bill is no longer in that Committee. Instead it is in the House Ways and Means Commmittee and will apparently serve as the vehicle for the House to act on all three issues at once.

After charging that the Senate rather than the House is the true “obfuscatory body” here, Representative Conroy added that “this process issue should not get in the way of politics.”

OK, here’s another suggestion – how about not letting this political issue (of the sibling rivalry sort) get in the way of helping people?

_________________________________________

ORIGINAL POST, March 21

If you’re following the campaign to increase the state’s minimum wage, yesterday was something of a head-scratcher.

A quick recap – in November, the State Senate passed a bill that largely tracked the minimum wage increase proposal that is making its way to the statewide ballot in November. The Senate bill would increase the minimum wage to $11 over three years, increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to 50 percent of the regular minimum wage, and provide for automatic increases in the minimum wage in the future by tying the wage to the Consumer Price Index. In response, House of Representatives Speaker Bob DeLeo pronounced the Senate bill too unfriendly to the state’s business interests and proposed pairing any minimum wage increase with changes to the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) system to reduce those business costs. Many in the business community want to see those cost reductions come in the form of eligibility and benefits cuts to unemployed workers who file UI claims.

Yesterday began with a post to BlueMassGroup by House Labor Committee Chairman Tom Conroy introducing the House proposal. It would increase the minimum wage to $10.50 over three years, slightly less than the Senate proposal, and it would not make future increases automatic. The UI changes in the House bill would not have included any cuts to benefits or eligibility (as the employers were undoubtedly hoping), but instead would have reallocated the costs among employers, with employers whose workers used the UI system more often (the so-called “frequent fliers”) paying more than employers whose workers rarely used it. As it happens, the Senate passed a UI bill in February that took a very similar approach to reallocating the costs of the system.

So, in substance, it is fair to say that the Senate and the House were reasonably close on the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. The differences, one might think, could be worked out in the conference committee process.

But there was a big problem yesterday, and it was procedural, not substantive. The House wanted its bill to originate in the Labor Committee. That would have meant that the bill would then go to the House for passage and then over to the Senate. But what about the bills — both minimum wage and unemployment insurance — that the Senate has already passed? They are both sitting in the House awaiting action. If the House started the process over by having the Labor Committee act, then the Senate would have to schedule new debates and essentially re-do the work it has already done — a penalty for having acted first.

And that’s pretty much the point. House leadership hates it when the Senate goes first. Under the State Constitution and by tradition, the House goes first on any bills that raise tax revenue and on the annual budget. The House seems to feel that example should be followed in all cases, even in those cases where the deadline for the joint committees to have finished their work has passed. As it happens, that day was the day before yesterday. After the deadline has passed, a committee can take action only if both the House and Senate agree, and yesterday the Senate declined to let the Labor Committee do so.

Representative Conroy, understandably upset at losing the opportunity to move his bill forward, accused the Senate of pettiness. But from the Senate’s point of view, the problem is that the House so rarely goes first these days. All the committees, including the Labor Committee, include more House members (who number 160 in total) than Senate members (who number 40 in total), so the House completely controls the committee process. (You could make the argument that because Senators represent four times the number of people that House members represent, the committee membership really ought to be adjusted. But it hasn’t happened.)

So in order to preserve the Senate’s opportunity to act, they adopted Rule 19, which allows them to introduce and act on a bill that has not yet been through the committee process. The Senate used that rule to introduce and pass both its minimum wage and unemployment insurance legislation.

So what happens now? The Senate could agree to let the Labor Committee act, which would mean re-doing their work after the House has finished and postponing the final resolution of these issues. With only four months left in the legislative session and much, much more work to be done, one might wish for a simpler way out of this impasse, and fortunately one exists. The House can use the bills that the Senate has already passed as their vehicles for acting on minimum wage and unemployment insurance. We’ll see if — and when — they do.

UPDATED – Get Ready: More Minimum Wage and Unemployment Insurance Talk

After a very slow start in 2014, the minimum wage debate is heating up again.

Tomorrow, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez will be in town to talk about President Obama’s plans to raise the federal minimum wage, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo will be addressing the Boston Chamber of Commerce. The speculation is that the Speaker will be affirming his support for making any increase in the state’s minimum wage contingent on changes to the Unemployment Insurance program that would restrict workers’ eligibility and benefits.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which has been one of the most vocal supporters of changes to the UI system, sent a memo to Legislators yesterday renewing its prior demands for eligibility and benefits cuts, and adding a new one: a two-tier minimum wage, under which only adults would see an increase to $10 per hour and teenagers would continue to earn the current $8 rate. (A quick tutorial on the teen minimum wage is here).

The employer community is also very eager to see legislation passed that would freeze their UI payments for the coming year, blocking a scheduled increase. The Senate included that provision in the UI bill it passed in November, which is awaiting action in the House. The House for its part included it in a supplemental budget passed last month (the Senate did not include the provision in its supplemental budget). Today, the House and Senate agreed on a compromise budget, which will be on the Governor’s desk soon, and the employers are undoubtedly dismayed to see that the freeze was not included.

The suspense builds…
____________________________________________

UPDATE: March 13, 1:00 PM. From the Speaker’s remarks today (text of his prepared remarks is here:
Minimum wage proposal:
$9.00 on July 1, 2014
$10.00 on July 1, 2015
$10.50 on July 1, 2016
No indexing to inflation.

Tipped minimum wage proposal:
$3.00 (presumably on July 1, 2014)
$3.35 (presumably on July 1, 2015)
$3.75 (presumably on July 1, 2016)
No indexing to inflation.

Lower minimum wage for teenage workers not mentioned.

UI Proposal:
The changes the Speaker mentioned in his address to the Boston Chamber do not include either of the significant changes to eligibility or benefits being advocated by employers (reduction of maximum duration of benefits from 30 to 26 weeks; increase in amount of time needed to work to qualify for UI from 15 to 20 weeks). His proposal would freeze the UI rate for the coming year (which is pretty universally agreed upon), and appears to adopt some version of the Senate’s reworking of employer costs so that employers whose employees collect UI frequently would pay more than employers whose employees collect less often. His proposal does not appear to increase the amount of wages on which employers pay UI taxes, as the Senate bill does, which would leave the UI financing system vulnerable to being underfunded. The Speaker’s proposal also includes some changes to reduce UI costs for cities and towns (not for employers generally) that Governor Patrick recommended in January.

Overall, it’s hard to imagine that the Massachusetts High Technology Council and other employer groups are thrilled with this proposal (but the Senate bill is still a better approach).

UI “Reform”: Let’s Count the Savings (this won’t take long)

House Speaker DeLeo said again this week that he plans to couple legislation to increase the minimum wage with changes to the unemployment insurance system that businesses want. Meanwhile, the coalition that secured far more signatures than necessary to put the minimum wage increase on the November ballot, Raise Up Massachusetts, has taken the position that pairing the two bills is unacceptable.

So as the standoff continues, let’s take a closer look at one of the UI changes that top every corporate wish list: eliminating the “lenient qualification requirements” that allow Massachusetts workers to qualify for UI after 15 weeks of work in the prior year, when many states require 20 weeks. Some facts:

  • An unemployed worker in Massachusetts who has worked for only 15 weeks receives benefits for a far shorter time than someone with a longer work history – so parity is already built into the system.
  • People whose work histories are short because they work in jobs clearly intended to be seasonal positions are not eligible for UI. In his Globe column stating that they are eligible, Scot Lehigh must have forgotten about the part of the UI law expressly excluding them. Not even business groups are making this claim.
  • According to Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the largest employer trade associations and a big advocate for this change (and therefore without any reason to lowball its potential savings), estimates that it will reduce costs by $30 million annually. Let’s put that number in context: the total amount of money collected in 2012 to pay the UI benefits earned by unemployed workers was $1.767 billion. Thirty million dollars represents 1.7 percent of that total.

The argument from business, therefore, is that Massachusetts needs to try to become a more competitive place for employers by revamping our “antiquated and expensive” UI system so that it excludes more unemployed workers and leaves them to fend for themselves unless our state’s tattered safety net can help them. All for employer savings of (at most) 1.7 percent, and at a social cost that hasn’t been estimated yet. Got it.

The “Five Stages” of Opposition to a Minimum Wage Increase

The 2014 Legislative session has gotten underway, and employer groups opposed to an increase in the state’s minimum wage are firing warning shots and charting diversionary tactics to try to keep this very popular proposal at bay.

For example, on Monday, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, popularly known as AIM and one of the largest employer trade groups, endorsed a version of the familiar “Walmart Strategem” — that a better approach to alleviating poverty would be for the state to pick up the tab by increasing its Earned Income Tax Credit. But even if the state doubled the size of this program, eligible families would see an average increase of maybe $400 or so, almost nothing compared to an increase in the minimum wage. (Also, does anybody really recall AIM making a big priority of expanding this taxpayer-funded program before? ed. – AIM says they have supported in past but not claiming “big priority”)

For the upcoming minimum wage battle, it seemed to me that those of us in support ought to have a guide to the various lines of attack we may anticipate. And so, borrowing from the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to track the grieving process and a variety of other human ailments, here are the “Five Stages” of Opposition to a minimum wage increase.

First Stage: Denial. In this stage, the subject is given to repeating statements such as “this can’t be happening,” and “it is impossible that the order of the universe might be altered.” An example from our friends at Mass. Fiscal Alliance, who cannot contemplate such a development:

[Employers must] develop a campaign plan that addresses their largest two concerns: making payroll and knowing where their income is going to come from…by increasing the minimum wage rate, you are making it almost impossible for many to win; the rules are being changed for them.

Denial generally proves to be only a temporary defense and is soon followed by the other stages.

Second Stage: Anger. In this stage, the subject wants someone to blame and lashes out in anger that is often misdirected or displaced onto others. An example from our friends at AIM, in which anger is displaced onto the co-workers of those who would benefit from a minimum wage increase:

[Increasing the minimum wage] causes multiple problems for employers. It can erode morale among workers as existing employees become angry that newer or lower-skilled colleagues are making nearly as much or, in some cases, more than they are. That anger can in turn accelerate turnover as the result of employees quitting.

Third Stage: Bargaining. In this stage, as it becomes evident that the unwanted event might nonetheless occur, the subject attempts to negotiate conditions under which it might be acceptable. An example from our friends at the Mass. High Technology Council:

[Although employers] do not support the Senate’s approach to raising the minimum wage as a stand-alone proposal, there is a considerable change in opinion when cost-reducing reforms to the Unemployment Insurance system are considered as an inseparable component of the minimum wage proposal.

Fourth Stage: Depression. In this stage, the subject feels despondent and bleak about the future. As the debate progresses, we may expect to see evidence of this stage in the form of a downturn in business confidence as employers are surveyed about their outlook and the prospect of a minimum wage increase clouds their horizon.

Fifth Stage: Acceptance. In this stage, the subject finally begins to feel that things are going to be okay after all. Those of us who support a minimum wage increase hope that with acceptance also comes the realization that employers and employees are not engaged in a zero sum game, and instead, we all do better when we all do better.

Onward!