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Charlie Baker

BROKEN MEDIA, BROKEN POLITICS

Charlie Baker

 

If Mass journalists were doing their jobs, Baker would not be so popular

 

It’s always funny to hear that Charlie Baker is a very popular governor… The most popular governor in the country at the moment, according to polls. Because he doesn’t do anything very differently than his predecessor Deval Patrick did. Or than Mass House speaker Robert DeLeo does. Or than most any state Democratic leader when it comes down to core economic issues—with the exception of the leaders with little actual power.

 

Baker, Patrick, DeLeo, and all their ilk in both major parties essentially follow the same game plan. They work to lower taxes for those most able to afford them, cut desperately needed social programs to the bone, and give away as much money as possible to giant corporations.

 

Much of the rest of what they do is posturing for the various constituencies that make up their particular electorates. And that’s the stuff that gets the most media coverage. Which is not to say they’re necessarily insincere about such activity. But they’re elected to represent the wealthy interests that run the Commonwealth, and the work they do for that most important constituency is always their top priority.

 

So when Patrick and Baker, for example, shovel over $1.5 billion in free public money at the biotech industry or arrange millions in tax breaks and direct state aid for huge companies that don’t need them on an ongoing basis—with DeLeo’s blessing in both administrations—to the extent those acts get coverage, they’re presented as done deals that are “good for the economy.” Then it’s on to the next press spectacle of the day. Events where they can “show leadership” and the like. As when there’s a snowstorm. In Massachusetts, a northern state noted for its frequent snowstorms. And the current governor gets on TV and says “stay indoors during the snowstorm.” That is apparently showing leadership.

 

Which explains Baker’s high numbers, I think. Simple public relations. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and all that. With most of the major news outlets gamely playing along. And his numbers are higher than Patrick’s were because he’s a white guy in a super racist state that likes to think it’s super anti-racist.

 

That’s what results in people that don’t pay attention to politics—including the vast majority of white voters—going, “Oh, Baker’s such a nice man” when pollsters ask their opinion of him. More than they did with Patrick. No doubt Baker is a nice man in person or whatever. Lots of people who do bad things when they have power are personally “nice.” Like, I’m sure when some buddy of his from childhood needs money, he’ll give it to him. Or at least loan it to him. But when all the legions of people he doesn’t know personally need good jobs with benefits, need free higher education, need major improvement to infrastructure like the MBTA—because of entrenched structural inequality—that’s a different story.

 

A story whose narrative you can hear if you listen to Baker’s remarks to the 2018 Mass Republican Convention in Worcester last weekend.

 

Stripping away obligatory pleasantries and nods to major supporters, the speech was aimed at the same white middle-class suburbanites who remain the base of the state Republican Party. Baker addressed them directly at one point while enumerating the “successes” of his administration: “We offered early college programs, our Commonwealth Commitment program, which dramatically reduces the cost of a college education. And increases in state scholarships to make the price of college more affordable for moderate- and middle-income families.”

 

See, he thinks they’re so important he mentioned them twice in a row: “moderate- and middle-income families.” No word about low-income families, though. At all. Not even a nod. Sure, working families are discussed. But in Republican-speak, “working families” isn’t code for “working class” as it often is for Democrats. It means “those who work.” As opposed to “those who do not work.” Like all those “lazy shiftless” folks that used to be called working class in more honest times. And those totally nonindustrious [ha!] immigrants. And the “undeserving” poor in general. Everyone who supposedly lives off the bounty of “our”––the good “moderate- and middle-income” people’s, the “taxpayers’”—labor.

 

But no mention of his most important constituency, the one he actually works for, either. “Small business” is mentioned a number of times. But not major corporations and the rich people that own them.

 

Still, they’re there. Lurking behind all of Baker’s remarks. Especially when he said several things that are completely and obviously false to anyone who follows politics reasonably closely. Like taking credit for “dramatically” reducing the cost of a college education. When public higher education is an absolute disaster in Massachusetts. When both the working-class families he seemingly deplores and the middle class he purports to represent—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—are forced to run up ruinous amounts of debt just to put kids through schools that were once so cheap as to nearly be free. While tuition and fees keep getting raised year after year. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

 

The rich and the corporations are there because public higher ed, like virtually every other beneficial government program, is being starved for operating funds. To fatten that 1 percent’s coffers. Because politicians like Baker make a virtue out of cutting taxes. Slashing budgets. Laying off public workers. Privatizing anything they can get away with. As Baker himself has certainly been doing at the much-beleaguered MBTA. Another public service he addressed in Worcester, saying: “We took on the special interests at the MBTA. Created a Fiscal Management and Control Board. And saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re rebuilding its core infrastructure.” While, in the real world, that same public transportation infrastructure continues to fall apart for lack of the needed direct infusion of state funds.

 

Is everything Baker does bad? No. Is he as dangerous as federal counterparts like President Donald Trump? Or the feral reactionary theocrat Scott Lively that fully 28 percent of Mass Republican delegates just chose to run against Baker in a primary this fall? No. Not yet at least.

 

But that’s not the point.

 

The point is that a polity where a Charlie Baker can be incredibly popular is a broken polity. And a news media that enables him is a broken news media. Baker does not represent even the interest of the white middle class that keeps voting him into office, let alone the working class as a whole. A media that was doing its job would make that patently clear. Every hour of every day. Yet it does the opposite. Because it too is controlled by the same rich and powerful interests that control politics and ensure pols like Baker keep getting elected. Whether those pols call themselves Republicans or Democrats.

 

So to fix politics, we have to fix the media. And I can’t address how that might be done in a single column. But my colleagues and I are trying our damndest to do it in practice at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. And the fix starts with journalists who are independent and strive to tell the truth about problems in media and the political system. Every hour of every day. Beyond that, there’s much more to say. So, I’ll plan to talk about specific potential fixes in future columns and editorials.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

YOUR MOVE, BOSTON

Boston Women's March 2017. Photo by Ryan Dorsey, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic.
Boston Women’s March 2017. Photo by Ryan Dorsey, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic.

 

Only a massive protest movement can stop government giveaways to megacorps

 

Boston politics—in both its state and local variants—seems to consist largely of backroom deals between government officials and major corporations punctuated by rituals of representative democracy that are increasingly put on just for show. Perhaps it has ever been thus. But that doesn’t mean that Bostonians have to like it.

 

One would be tempted to call this politics incipient fascism were it not all such a desultory affair—unsullied by any ideology other than a very primitive capitalist greed. And in that way, it is reminiscent of current federal politics. The fact that most of the damage is being done by people calling themselves “Democrats” rather than people calling themselves “Republicans” making almost no discernible difference.

 

Which is why it becomes tiresome to write about. One disgusting display of government servility to corporate power replaces another week by week, month by month. The storyline is always the same. Only the brand names change.

 

On the ground—physically close to the halls of actual power in the Financial District, Back Bay, and now the Seaport District, but a million miles away in terms of elite awareness—the situation is dire. People don’t have good jobs. Or affordable housing. Or adequate public schools. Or cheap, safe, frequent, and environmentally friendly public transportation. Or a proper healthcare system. Or pensions. Or sufficient leisure time. Or freedom from several kinds of debt peonage.

 

But city and state political leadership have no plans to fix these problems. Because they can’t do so without discomfiting the ascendant rich and powerful. So they squirrel around the edges. They juggle budget lines, and change program names, and reorganize departments, and send out obfuscatory press releases, and do whatever they can do to cover up the fact that they aren’t taxing giant companies and their owners nearly as much as they should be. And in failing to collect sufficient tax revenue, they lack the needed funds to fix the worst damage done by those companies.

 

Yet they never fail to find millions in ready cash for vast conglomerates like General Electric. And now Amazon. A multibillion dollar trust that did not pay a cent in US income taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—and is expecting a one-time $789 million break from thanks to Pres. Donald Trump’s kinder, more corporate-friendly tax plan.

 

So, sure, I could write another column this week inveighing against Mayor Marty Walsh’s new scheme to dump $5 million in local tax breaks on Amazon in exchange for bringing another 2,000 jobs to the city. Well, not to the actual city, but to job sites within 25 miles of the city, according to the Boston Globe. And not right away, but by 2025. Maybe. And dumping another $5 million if Amazon brings yet another 2,000 jobs to (Greater) Boston. Not the decent working class jobs that most Bostonians need, of course. Jobs that highly educated people from around the world will come to the area to fill. Exacerbating our housing, transportation, and environmental crises in the process.

 

And, yes, the proposed $5-10 million is not as much as Walsh arranged to throw at GE—in a deal swiftly running off the rails as that corporate behemoth crashes and burns thanks to the gentle ministrations of its own “activist” investors. But once Gov. Charlie Baker adds state money to the kitty, the new Amazon deal will start to look very similar to the earlier deal. Which he will almost certainly do. Given that he’s so excited for Boston to “win” the far larger “HQ2” boondoggle that he wants to pass a new law that will allow the Commonwealth to shovel truly epic wads of public lucre at the rapacious anti-worker multinational, according to State House News Service.

 

Yet with such deals becoming so frequent, it really strikes me that writing is never enough to change the politics that allows this kind of backroom deal making by itself—regardless of how boring or exciting it is for me to crank out. After all, providing information to the population at large only goes so far.

 

Political action is inevitably required. And not just by one journalist. Because stopping the public gravy train for corporations that are also among the biggest donors to state and local politicians’ war chests is going to take truly massive and sustained protest on the part of the people of Boston (and the rest of Massachusetts).

 

How massive? Well, remember last year’s Women’s March of over 175,000? Or last year’s 40,000-strong march against a few ultra-right weasels? That’s the scale of the street actions that would be required on a regular basis—in tandem with concerted and well-coordinated lobbying efforts—to not only stop particular giveaways to corporations like GE and Amazon, but to outlaw them. And, for good measure, start criminal proceedings against politicians and corporate leaders that collude to loot the public till.

 

Who will lead such efforts? Hard to say. But at the end of the day, I think it will be new entrants that will step into the political vacuum I’ve outlined, and directly challenge state and local government deals with major corporations. People like most of my regular audience. Working people, many without college degrees, that will finally decide that enough is enough. I think that the existing oppositional forces—ranging from the left wing of the Democratic Party through formations like Our Revolution to grassroots activist coalitions like Poor People’s Campaign to rising socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America to some of the more enlightened elements of organized labor—will play a role in the necessary popular movement that will emerge. But I suspect that the main energy will not come from those forces, but from new ones. As has been the case with the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in recent years. The trick will be sustaining early momentum long enough to bring some big corporations down to earth. And then moving on to tackling the truly terrifying federal corruption.

 

Until that happens, it’s going to be one sad government giveaway to huge companies after another in Boston. And I’ll do my best to keep you all up to speed on at least the worst of them. But I look forward to the day that I can help chronicle the victory of a powerful movement for social justice. Rather than merely track democracy’s looming demise.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

TOWNIE: MASS REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITIES FACE MAJOR BUDGET CRISIS

RTA bus

 

Gov. Baker’s proposed cuts throw gasoline on raging policy fire

 

February 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

A quarter-century ago, I lived in Lawrence for a few months. Because it was the closest place to Boston that I could find a cheap apartment on short notice. Unfortunately, I had a low-paying job in the city and couldn’t afford a car. So I took the commuter rail over an hour each way back and forth whenever I had a shift. Then at the end of the day, I was faced with getting to my apartment a couple of miles away from the station. Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) bus service ran near my place. But even in the early 1990s with a state budget that looks more humane in retrospect, it was infrequent at best. And my bus dropped me off a few blocks away from where I lived when it was running.

 

Now that was during rush hour on a weekday. If I got home later than early evening—especially on weekends—MVRTA buses had already stopped running. I moved there in December. And until I moved back to Boston the following March, through what proved to be a very cold winter, I would often get off my train, watch all but a handful of people get into waiting cars and leave, and then begin the long, frozen slog home. Across the Merrimack River, on sidewalks that were mostly unshoveled and roads that were indifferently plowed.


Standing in the middle of Duck Bridge one Sunday night in mid-February during a fierce snowstorm, I experienced a moment of nearly perfect alienation. The scene was completely desolate. No vehicles were on the road. It was pitch black except for the occasional street light with the darker black of largely abandoned textile mills looming in the middle distance. Snow was piling up all around me. The brutal wind off the water cut through my coat. My sneakers were entirely insufficient to the task of keeping me consistently upright—let alone keeping my feet warm and dry. And I remember thinking that if I had slipped and fallen into the river, no one would have the slightest idea of where I’d gone until spring. Because in the era before ubiquitous cell phones or texters, I could not have typed “aaaaaaah” to my girlfriend as I fell. So who would be the wiser?


Fast-forward to this week, and that memory immediately sprang to mind when I read the transportation section of Gov. Charlie Baker’s annual state budget proposal. And discovered that he’s planning to level-fund the 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) for $80.4 million, according to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, while most Bostonians are focusing on the ongoing fight to keep the MBTA solvent. Authorities like the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority… which is already cutting back bus, van, and Boston commuter service and eliminating that Sunday service I kept missing in the early ’90s. Since level-funding means a budget cut, given annual cost increases. And it’s not looking like the legislature is likely to swoop in to save the RTAs later in our now-normalized austerity budget process.


After all, if the legions of working- and middle-class Bostonians that rely on public transit can’t yet force elected state officials to properly fund the MBTA, the smaller numbers of riders in outlying cities like Brockton, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Lawrence are in even worse straits. Especially when many of them are immigrants who can’t vote.


Yet the need for public transit gets more dire the farther you get from Boston. If you don’t have a car in places like Athol, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, literally your only inexpensive transit option is bus service run by your regional transit authority. Which I’ve already made quite clear is of limited usefulness at the best of times. RTAs don’t go everywhere riders need to go and don’t run many of the times riders need to use them. As I experienced during my brief, unpleasant Lawrence sojourn.


People without cars in the many parts of the state that aren’t reached by the MBTA’s main bus and subway lines are already at a major disadvantage in terms of their ability to access jobs, laundry, shopping, education, social services, daycare, and healthcare in the best of times. If RTA service continues to be whittled away year by year, eventually there will be no public transportation left in many locales. And taking an Uber or Lyft won’t be an option for people that can’t even afford a hike in bus fare. Even while those private transportation services are angling to replace public transit for those that can pay their largely unregulated fares.

 

That is no minor problem—lest readers think that only small numbers of people lack cars in Mass cities outside of the Boston metro area. It’s a major crisis. For example, according to a Governing magazine article looking at car ownership in US cities with a population over 100,000, 19.3 percent of Worcester households and 22.2 percent of Springfield households did not have a car in 2016. Meanwhile, my colleague Bill Shaner at Worcester Magazine just reported that “[t]he Worcester Regional Transit Authority Advisory Board voted to send proposed service cuts to a public hearing after decrying the possible changes as a ‘death spiral’ for the bus system.


He continued, “WRTA officials unveiled several possible measures to bridge a $1.2 million budget gap, due mostly to budget cuts to the RTA system at the state level. The possible measures include routes cut wholesale, cut weekend service, and diminished routes, which would increase wait times between buses.”

 

Both WRTA Board Chairman William Lehtola and WRTA Administrator Jonathan Church agreed that the system would “cease to exist in a few years” if the funding crisis continues unabated.

 

Meanwhile, the Republican reported that Springfield RTA “the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has proposed a 25 percent across-the-board increase in fares and pass prices and a slate of service cutbacks, all to take force July 1.”

 

So make no mistake, this is a significant escalation in the war on Mass working families by Baker and any legislators that back similar cuts to public transit around the state. Cuts that RTAs have already been struggling with for years. As with the battle to save the MBTA and other public services, the RTAs can only be defended with a concerted fight from their riders. Whose goal must be to increase taxes on corporations and the rich in the Commonwealth, and to change state and local budget priorities to better serve the needs of all Mass residents.

 

Failing that, you’ll see a lot more people walking long distances in inclement weather statewide. And all too many of them won’t be able to escape their “transit desert” like I did. They will simply become more and more isolated. Until they literally disappear. The way I feared doing on a lonely bridge in the depths of a Merrimack Valley winter half a lifetime agone.

 


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

CRISIS AVERTED

MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.
MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.

 

MBTA bus mechanics beat back privatization… at a cost

 

February 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Unionized bus mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists Local 264 won an important victory last week when they agreed to a four-year contract with the MBTA—effectively ending a two-year effort by the transportation authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board to privatize three bus garages, eliminate 150 good jobs according to IAM District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian, and crush the union.

 

The attack on the bus mechanics, and all unionized MBTA workers, actually began in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker (with plenty of help from his pals at his old stomping grounds, the right-wing libertarian Pioneer Institute) pushed a three-year suspension of the landmark anti-privatization Pacheco Law through the Mass legislature as part of the annual budget. The suspension applied only to the T. Shortly thereafter, Baker appointed the five-member FMCB—one of them, Steve Poftak, being a former Pioneer staffer like the governor—to get to work privatizing a public transit system serving much of eastern Massachusetts.

 

Because, you know, reasons. Most of them involving transferring as much public wealth into private hands as possible. And freedom. For the rich to get richer and the poor to starve.

 

The 1993 law, officially known as the Taxpayer Protection Act, protects unionized state workers and the people of Massachusetts from outsourcing and related corporate malfeasance in six ways that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was thoughtful enough to summarize:

 

  1. Agencies seeking to contract out a service must prove not only that the move would save money, but that it would save money even if state employees were to work in the “most cost-efficient manner.”

 

  1. Firms cannot win business if they’ll pay less than the lowest amount the state pays its employees for similar services.

 

  1. Every privatization contract must contain provisions requiring the contractor to offer positions to qualified regular employees of the agency whose state employment is terminated because of the privatization contract.

 

  1. The contractor must add lost tax revenues to the cost of the bid if any work is to be performed outside Massachusetts.

 

  1. Private bids must also include estimated costs of monitoring contractor performance.

 

  1. Public employees have the opportunity to submit bids to keep the work in-house and “the agency shall provide adequate resources for the purpose of encouraging and assisting present agency employees to organize and submit a bid to provide the subject services.”

 

In suspending the law, the Baker administration meant to allow corporations free reign to eliminate huge numbers of good unionized public transit jobs and replace them with bad underpaid jobs with few or no benefits and little security. All in the service of reigning in costs at a quasi-independent transportation agency that is only having budget trouble because the state government—including the dominant Democratic legislative leadership that absolutely does not put its money where its collective mouth is—refuses to return to fully funding it based on its actual needs (see my 2016 column “Squawk or Walk” for more background). Rather than hobbling the MBTA with insufficient annual support and then dumping a huge amount of Big Dig debt on it for good measure. Because that might involve finally raising taxes on corporations and the rich. And corporations and the rich don’t want that. Just ask Raise Up Massachusetts—the folks pushing for the upcoming referendum fight for the “Millionaires’ Tax” that would devote money to properly funding public transit, among other worthy goals.

 

The expected script happily got flipped by the Machinists union and the labor-led INVEST NOW coalition, who fought hard for many months to demonstrate that privatizing the MBTA bus garages was a bad move. For everyone but the fat cats that stood to make millions off the misery of T workers and T riders alike. Since the already-overburdened, underfunded T bus system would basically collapse without the skilled union mechanics keeping its bus fleet in good order for short money.

 

The union coalition and allies like Attorney General Maura Healey scored major points when they demonstrated that only one private transportation company, First Transit, had submitted a bid to run the T bus garages in question. The same company that paid a $7.3 million settlement to the Commonwealth in 2012 after backing out of a contract to run the T’s The Ride, a door-to-door service for disabled commuters.

 

Advocates and labor-friendly legislators—including the author of the Pacheco Law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), himself—testified to the Fiscal and Management Control Board that First Transit’s action resulted in a $66 million deficit for the state, according to State House News Service.

 

Ultimately, the union’s grassroots campaign worked, and the FMCB, the governor, conservatives from both parties in the legislature, and the ideologues at the Pioneer Institute were forced to back off this latest privatization push. But all battles exact a cost. So while the T bus mechanics scored a solid win overall, their new contract looks to be a mixed bag. On the upside, it keeps all nine MBTA bus garages plus one support facility in Everett public and includes Taxpayer Protection Act provisions that will help provide Local 264 members legal cover against privatization until the law’s suspension ends later this year.

 

On the downside, it forces the workers to accept low cost-of-living raises over the contract term and allows the T to bring in new workers for worse money and benefits than they would have started with previously, according to the Patriot Ledger. And, like the Carmen’s Union contract that preceded it, the Machinists’ agreement allows the T to hire private contractors to perform work outside its 955-bus core service. But only if they “maintain the same procedures and quality standards followed by the machinists,” according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Since the devil is often in the details of such statements, it’s hard to tell if that will really stop T management from undercutting the union should bus service expand. Which it very well might—since the Boston Globe reported that T capital expenditures have risen under the Baker administration, even while it has done its level best to ram through cuts in operating expenditures on the backs of workers. Like the 406 bus mechanics and fuelers in Local 264’s MBTA bargaining unit, who are essentially having $4.1 million a year in concessions forced on them in the service of a completely avoidable budget deficit.

 

Still, all in all, the contract demonstrates that fighting for justice in the workplace remains far better than not fighting. If the union had been defeated, many workers would have lost their jobs and their families would have been immediately thrown into poverty. Their replacements would have been un-unionized and unable to easily defend themselves against T management. So, readers observing this fight should think twice before criticizing the bus mechanics, and think carefully about their own work situation. If your bosses decide to outsource your jobs to some fly-by-night company tomorrow, could you and your co-workers defend yourselves? For nearly 90 percent of American workers who aren’t unionized, the answer remains “probably not.”

 

The only thing that can change that sorry situation is for workers to stand their ground. Those of you interested in doing that should check out the website of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more information on how to form a union at your workplace: aflcio.org/formaunion.

 

It’s not easy to do, no lie. I lost a job for helping lead a union drive not three years back. Fortunately, all the other workers in my former unit at that employer are now unionized. So it’s worth the risk. And it’s necessary. And everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck should consider it.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

PRESS FAIL: AS GE CEO STEPS DOWN, BOSTON JOURNALISTS MUST DO THEIR JOB

AH-GE-TOP

 

June 14, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

recent column by the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung perfectly encapsulates the problem with local media cheerleading for General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston. The title alone says it all: “Will GE’s new CEO remain committed to Boston?” Because, like so many pieces on the subject by Leung and company, it fails to ask the key question: why did state and local government shovel huge amounts of public money to a private enterprise, and put it in a position to potentially cause grievous harm to a major city’s economy, to begin with? And why did the region’s newspaper of record — and much of the Boston press corps — back the scheme so uncritically?

But now, after all the prattle by fawning journalists about the days of wine and roses to come, it turns out that the various moves GE CEO Jeff Immelt made to reinvent the conglomerate as an “innovation” company came at the expense of a significant drop in profits. And it looks like the GE board balked and forced Immelt out — although the official line is that he “stepped down.” Doubtless after noting a rise in share prices in March after activist investors told Fox News that he might be pushed into retirement. He’s been replaced with a new CEO from within GE’s own ranks, John Flannery. Who hails from Chicago, and may not have the same warm fuzzies for the Hub that Immelt at least pretended to have. If Flannery doesn’t back the Boston deal as strongly as Immelt that could mean disaster for everyone who shilled for it. And if GE’s stock prices continue to tank, fuggedaboutit!

In that spirit, it’s worth recalling that the whole boondoggle was dumped on the public by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker as a done deal in January 2016. There were no public forums on the plan, no deliberation by the state legislature or the Boston City Council, and certainly no referendums. The whole thing was cooked up on the quiet by high level politicians, their aides, and top GE brass. In the end, over $145 million in state and city tax breaks and direct aid was promised to GE — together with another $25 million in state money to fix up the area around the site of the company’s new Fort Point HQ, and up to $100 million in repairs to the Old Northern Ave. bridge. Up to $270 million in public money in total. Although the bridge project is now up in the air; so the final total — as with all final totals in public spending — remains to be seen. Still, a huge amount of money to spend on a vast multinational any way you slice it. Especially when GE is not yet being asked to pay rent for the 20 year lease on the public property its new headquarters is using.

As my own series of columns on the deal showed last year, GE has a decades-long track record of screwing government at all levels, communities it operates in, and its own workers six ways from Sunday. Which is why unearthing corporate crime after corporate crime by way of demonstrating why the people of Massachusetts have absolutely no reason to trust the company did not require much new reporting on my part. It was a relatively simple matter of looking at major investigative stories on GE by several news outlets — including the Globe itself. What I found was disturbing in the extreme. Yet the largest Boston news outlets were virtually silent about the very obvious downsides to championing the payoff of a corporate behemoth to relocate its HQ to our fair city. And now the most prominent of them is clearly getting worried about its violation of the public trust.

To review, General Electric has done a lot of bad stuff over the last forty years — much of it in Massachusetts. It slashed tens of thousands of good unionized jobs here. Destroying the economies of Bay State cities like Lynn, Pittsfield, and Fitchburg in the process. GE played highly illegal games with municipal bond investment funds nationwide — and got away with it. It wreaked havoc with the environment in many of the places it did business. Notably in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River valley south to Long Island Sound. Which it polluted with carcinogenic PCBs. A horrendous mess that it partially cleaned up after a protracted struggle with the EPA and local activists. Yet it continues to try to weasel out of finishing the job to save some small fraction of its annual profits. Like it did in a similar Hudson River cleanup. GE also played a major role in creating the toxic housing debt that led to the 2008 financial crash, and was then bailed out by the federal government with boatloads of practically free public money. In exchange for ruining the lives of thousands of poor mortgage holders. And it did all this while paying hardly any taxes at all relative to its huge size.

Ultimately, far too many area journalists dropped bags of balls with the GE Boston Deal story. If they had been doing their job — instead of engaging in a particularly crass form of unthinking civic boosterism that one would expect of low rent PR consultants for a down-on-the-heels rust belt city — Boston might not be in the position it’s now in. Stuck with a bad deal and light a bunch of money that the city and state desperately need during our ongoing fiscal crisis. Which was created by the very neoliberal playbook that still guides both government policy and kid glove news coverage of same.

But that’s what passes for thinking on economic development in the American press of today. My colleagues in major news media generally don’t push for regional planning controlled by democratically elected politicians and overseen by the public in real ways. They don’t support a grassroots process directly involving local communities that start by asking “what do working families need, and how might those needs be best served?” No, they just figure “let’s encourage the pols to throw public money at big corporations, and then they’ll come to Boston, and we’ll have a great economy.”

Well an economy that’s not great for working people is not a great economy. It’s a bad, unequal economy. And that’s the root of most of our major societal woes in this era.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that next time top politicians cook up another backroom deal with corporate titans that the rest of the Boston news media will join my teammates and I at DigBoston in calling it what it is: corruption. Those who won’t should just go ahead and get jobs in the sleaziest PR operations they can find. Because they’re not fit to be journalists.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

WHEN SLOGANS REPLACE BIRTHRIGHTS

19.17-AH-TOP

How corporate ed reform threatens democracy

April 25, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the last couple of decades, it has become fashionable for Americans to attack our public education system. Behind these attacks is that most un-American of attitudes: elitism. This is problematic for a number of reasons — the main one being that America remains a democracy. Not a perfect democracy where citizens get to vote on pretty much every decision at every level, but a system of government where citizens can at least have some political impact when they stand up for themselves in the voting booth and in daily life.

In a democracy, the education of all children capable of being educated is a vital necessity. Because, as a political system, it can only continue if its history, practices, and values are taught to young citizens by older citizens on an ongoing basis. Further, living in a democracy requires the experience of being directly socialized into its norms.

A public school therefore is both the training ground of our democratic society … and its mirror. Virtually every kind of young person in any given community is there. From every background represented in that locale. Kids from every race, sex, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, immigration status, and belief system. Understanding that we’re still a very segregated nation, and that all too many neighborhoods, towns, and cities remain relative monocultures.

Regardless, this generally diverse student body has to learn how to get along and work together toward common goals. Just like they will to one degree or another in their adult lives. This, more than any of the sadly diminishing number of civics classes on offer in today’s public schools, teaches students how to be active citizens in a democracy.

Or at least that was the ideal when public education became the standard a century back.

But that ideal has been replaced by a pernicious new mantra: Public schools don’t work. Our government can’t afford to educate every child. And we shouldn’t try. Political front groups bankrolled by corporations — ultimately seeking to privatize public schools and convert them into a profitable industry — are convincing average Americans to help destroy their own birthright to a good public education on little more evidence than such cynical slogans.

They are leading the charge to steal public funds from public education — more than $450 million this fiscal year alone in the Commonwealth, according to the Mass Teachers Association — and give them to charter schools that do not have a mandate to educate every child in their communities. Only the better students who have parents with the time and money to participate in mandatory charter school family activities.

Public schools are getting stripped of their best and brightest in this fashion. Sending their performance into decline in many instances and strengthening the argument that charter schools are inherently superior to the publics. Something that study after study shows is not the case.
 Students in those charter schools do not sit in class with other students from every conceivable background. They sit with a limited selection of classmates.

And they are taught, whether their teachers intend it or not, to be elitists. Not just that they are smarter than other students — which can happen in any school — but that they are better than other students.

The same thing has happened for generations in private schools, too. But Americans do have the democratic right to organize private schools if they want to — as long as they are prepared to fund those schools without significant government support. And private schools have not attempted to tear down the public school system the way charter schools and the corporate titans behind them have been doing. Nor are they as damaging to our society as the often wildly anti-social and anti-democratic homeschooling movement has been. A topic for another day.

So, parents, remember that your decision about where to send your kids to school has very serious consequences for the future of our democracy.

And students, it’s true that no school is perfect, and that all schools suck at least some of the time. But where would you rather be? In a school that truly reflects your community and the best American values of equality, justice, and opportunity for all? Or in a school that only believes that “elite” students deserve a good education, and to hell with everyone else?

It’s your decision. As long as we remain a democratic nation.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show — co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunesGoogle Play MusicBlubrryStitcherTuneIn, and YouTube

 
 

ACTION CALL: SAVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION WITH INVEST NOW MASS

Photo of giant Charlie - Chris Faraone

Photo of giant Charlie by Chris Faraone

  

March 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the long four months since the election of President Donald Trump, this column has focused more on national politics than usual — with special attention to the promising wave of broadly progressive grassroots activism that has resulted. However, it’s important that our newly restive populace also keep related developments on the state political scene on their radar. So, here’s the first installment of an occasional “Action Call” series to review hot-button issues in Bay State politics, and to point readers toward forward-thinking advocacy groups they can join to take action in the public interest.

This time out, a look at the public transportation crisis. We may have just dodged a bullet with Gov. Charlie Baker backing off a plan to cut weekend commuter rail service for a year to ostensibly save $10 million while making upgrades to the rail lines — which would doubtless have been disastrous for the regional economy. But the MBTA — and 15 regional transit authorities across the Bay State — have been in serious trouble for some time. Though not for the reasons most news media focus on.

The origin of the present dilemma goes back to 2000, when the state eliminated the T’s “backward funding” system where any costs it could not cover with fares and other income were simply paid by state government, and replaced it with a “forward funding” system where the T received an annual outlay at the start of each fiscal year based on a fixed percentage of the state sales tax. Later, the budgets of the other regional transit authorities were “reformed” along similar lines.

Making the deal worse for populous eastern Massachusetts, debt that should be part of the state budget was loaded onto the T in “exchange” for getting the cut of sales tax revenue. Then those revenues failed to meet projected targets, leading to more debt. All of which caused the rising fares, worsening service, and diminishing investment in physical plant and rolling stock that riders have been made to suffer through — even as T ridership grew 15 percent between 2004 and 2014.

The solution to this problem is to return to funding the T and the regional transit authorities as the public services they are, and to stop pretending that they’re businesses — or that eliminating good union transit jobs and slashing desperately needed services with various privatization schemes will do anything more than line the pockets of favored consultants and contractors. Such a move will require tax increases on corporations and the rich that they will fight tooth and nail to stop. And that’s why large numbers of people will have to take to the streets to make it possible.

Readers interested in taking action to defend and expand public transportation statewide should check out the big new labor-community activist coalition, Invest Now Mass. Its member organizations range from T workers unions to public transit advocacy groups to civic associations. According to Invest Now lead organizer John Doherty, the coalition plans to pursue organizing in five areas: investment, equity, economic development, climate, and transparency. Plug in at its website: investnowma.org. Anyone interested in having an Invest Now organizer give a public talk in their city or town can click the “Host a Speaker” link in the “Take Action” section of the website or contact Doherty directly at 617–592–2230.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube

 
 

AUSTERITY BUDGET, PART 4

Untitled drawing (2)

June 6, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The Worst of the Senate FY 2017 State Budget Proposal

Continuing to track the worst proposed cuts at different stages of the vicious and dispiriting annual Massachusetts state budget process, it’s time for a look at the full Senate budget proposal.

As with my overviews of the worst cuts in the governor’s,  House Ways and Means Committee’s, House’s, and Senate Ways and Means Committee’s FY 2017 budget proposals, the numbers in this column are based on the analytical reports that the Mass Budget and Policy Center (MBPC) releases on an ongoing basis. In this case, the “Conference Preview: Differences Between the Senate and House Budgets for FY 2017.” For all the details, check out massbudget.org.

Nothing really new to see here. To quote the current MPBC report, “In the end, the House and Senate budgets are very similar. Not only are the budget totals within 0.1 percent of each other (which makes sense since they had essentially the same amount of revenue to work with), but the two proposals are also within half of one percent of each other in every major category.”

And so it goes. There is no protection from the budget ax for programs that benefit huge numbers of Bay State residents. Especially with a $311 million budget deficit looming before the end of the current fiscal year – due to spring tax receipts that are significantly lower than the Baker administration’s rosy increased projections of January. We live in an era when politicians are reduced to spending their days wrangling over which group will get screwed more. With two exceptions: the rich and the corporations they control. The very groups that can no longer be taxed in a political system they have bought and paid for.

Environment & Recreation

The FY 2017 Senate budget proposal would cut $11.4 million (5.36 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $201.4 million. A .14 percent smaller cut than the House proposal, after the Senate added back $5.1 million to this line during its full budget debate. Still a horrendous and ill-timed proposed reduction. And this far along in the budget process, one that is unlikely to be reversed.

Public Health

A minor bright spot. The FY 2017 Senate budget proposal would add $2.5 million (.43 percent) to current FY 2016 levels for a total $582.9 million. By adding $5.9 million back to this line during its full budget debate – mostly for substance abuse prevention and treatment – the Senate has now joined the House and Governor in essentially level funding public health spending in the Commonwealth.

Housing (funds for affordable housing, and shelter and services to homeless people)

The FY 2017 Senate budget proposal would cut $38.8 million (7.94 percent) from current FY 2016 levels, after adding back $3.5 million during its full budget debate. Leaving $450.0 million. $3.8 million more than the House proposal. As the MBPC report points out, “the Senate’s budget, like the House budget, is about $40 million lower than FY 2016 current spending for the Emergency Assistance (EA) program that provides shelter to low-income, homeless families. If this lower funding level is included in the final FY 2017 budget, it is likely that the Legislature will be required to provide supplemental funding for the program because the cost of providing shelter for those who are homeless and eligible for shelter will probably exceed the amount appropriated.”

Transitional Assistance (aka welfare, funds for short-term help for poor individuals and families)

The FY 2017 Senate budget proposal would cut $26.7 million (3.84 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $667.1 million. Although the MBPC report doesn’t say it, this represents a $5.5 million cut from the Senate Ways and Means Committee budget proposal. So unlike the other lines reviewed here, the full Senate debate actually took more money away from its original proposal rather than adding any back. The poorest of the poor have few defenders in the legislature. And it shows.

Economic Development (funds for programs that, among other things, help unemployed people find work)

The FY 2017 Senate budget proposal would cut $14.1 million (9.2 percent) from current FY 2016 levels, after adding back $8.8 million during its full budget debate. Leaving $139.1 million.

CORRECTION
In his Apparent Horizon column of June 6, entitled “Austerity Budget, Part 4,” Jason Pramas did not properly reflect some changes in numbers used by the Mass Senate between their Senate Ways and Means and full Senate budgets that were analyzed by the Mass Budget and Policy Center in their “Conference Preview: Differences Between the Senate and House Budgets for FY 2017” report. As a result, the numbers used in the Public Health and Economic Development sections of the column were incorrect. And while Pramas did identify an MBPC typographical error in the Transitional Assistance section of their report, the numbers in that section of his column based on that error were also incorrect. For the correct numbers, please check the updated MBPC report at
www.massbudget.org. The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism regrets the errors — which do not, we hasten to add, change the fact of the savage cuts to the budget areas in question in any significant way.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

AUSTERITY BUDGET, PART 3

Untitled drawing

May 24, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The Worst of the House and the Senate Ways and Means Committee FY 2017 State Budget Proposals

A weekly column like this one can only keep up with a limited number of current events. Although committed to tracking the worst proposed cuts at different stages of the often-savage annual Massachusetts state budget process, I had to write about a number of other pressing topics in the weeks after the passage of the full House proposal. So I haven’t covered the House budget until now, and will instead simply roll it in with my review of the more recent Senate Ways and Means Committee (SWMC) budget proposal below.

As with my looks at the governor’s and House Ways and Means Committee’s FY 2017 budget proposals, I’m continuing to base this series on the excellent analytical reports that the Mass Budget and Policy Center (MBPC) releases on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to check out all the details, you can find the latest at massbudget.org.

All proposals to date have been austerity budgets. The many critical services not touched on here are mostly level funded or being given minor increases—neither sufficient to keep up with inflation, and therefore both tantamount to cuts. No new taxes of any consequence have been proposed—as the state government’s financial situation continues to get worse year after year. The rich and corporations remain safe from giving anything like a fair share of their profits to the people of this “Commonwealth.”

Environment & Recreation

House proposal

The FY 2017 House budget proposal would cut $11.8 million (5.5 percent) from current FY 2016 levels—less than originally proposed, after money was added during the floor debate. Leaving $201.0 million.

SWMC proposal

The FY 2017 SWMC budget proposal would cut $16.5 million (7.75 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $196.3 million. A .75 percent larger cut than the governor’s proposal. And a 2.25 percent larger cut than the House proposal—making it the worst proposed cut to this vital state government department thus far. According to MBPC’s SWMC budget report, some of the cuts can be explained by shifting responsibilities like human resources from agencies within the Department of Environmental Protection to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, but the SWMC proposal “further reduces funding for several environment and recreation programs that have had significant cuts over the years.”

Public Health

House proposal

The House budget proposal level funded public health, as did the governor’s budget.

SWMC proposal

The FY 2017 SWMC budget proposal would cut $3.4 million (.59 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $577.0 million. $7.6 million less than in the governor’s proposal and the House proposal.

Housing (funds for affordable housing, and shelter and services to homeless people)

House proposal

The FY 2017 House budget proposal would cut $42.6 million (8.71 percent) from current FY 2016 levels—less than originally proposed, after money was added during the floor debate. Leaving $446.2 million. $19.2 million below the governor’s FY 2017 proposal.

SWMC proposal

The FY 2017 SWMC budget proposal would cut $42.3 million (8.65 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $446.5 million.

Transitional Assistance (aka welfare, funds for short-term help for poor individuals and families)

House proposal

The FY 2017 House budget proposal would cut $14.3 million (2.1 percent) from current FY 2016 levels—less than originally proposed, after money was added during the floor debate. Leaving $679.5 million. $7.3 million (1.1 percent) above the governor’s proposal.

SWMC proposal

The FY 2017 SWMC budget proposal would cut $21.2 million (3.1 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $672.6 million.

Economic Development (funds for programs that, among other things, help unemployed people find work)

House proposal

The FY 2017 House budget proposal would cut $9.9 million (6.5 percent) from current FY 2016 levels—less than originally proposed, after money was added during the floor debate. Leaving $143.3 million. $6.4 million (4.7 percent) above the governor’s proposal.

SWMC proposal

The FY 2017 SWMC budget proposal would cut $22.9 million (14.9 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $130.3 million.

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

AUSTERITY BUDGET: PART 2

HOUSE PIC

April 28, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The lowlights of the Mass House Ways and Means Committee FY 2017 state budget proposal

Time for a look at the latest act of the Commonwealth’s annual fiscal circus: the House Ways and Means Committee (HWMC) FY 2017 budget proposal.

As with the governor’s FY 2017 proposal three months back, I’m simply going to give readers a taste of the worst proposed cuts culled from the ever-helpful analytical reports that the Mass Budget and Policy Center (MBPC) releases at each stage of the budget process. If you’d like to check out all the details – and I highly recommend that you do—you can find the latest MBPC budget report at massbudget.org.

Beyond the outright reductions I review below, most other programs are slated to be level-funded or given slight increases—both of which amount to further cuts by failing to keep up with inflation. Meaning that if the HWMC budget proposal is enacted, our state’s financial situation will continue its downward spiral. Unless the Mass political establishment finally does the right thing and raises taxes on corporations and the rich to properly fund state government again. And that isn’t happening without a grassroots mass movement that hasn’t materialized yet.

The main bright spot in the HWMC proposal is a modest increase in funding for local public schools. According to MBPC: “The proposal both directly increases Chapter 70 funding (state aid to local school districts) by more than the Governor recommended and funds a reserve account that can supplement Chapter 70 aid for districts that were adversely affected by changes in the ways the state counts low-income students.” Which is nice, but not enough—especially with hundreds of millions of state K-12 education dollars being regularly dumped on charter schools.

Otherwise, there’s potentially good news for a few other programs—like the State Police getting a whopping $20.6 million increase (7.8 percent) to add new troopers to their ranks. Joy.

But overall, the HWMC proposal will slash the budgets of a large number of vital social programs in a time of continuing economic crisis. Read on for some of the disquieting particulars:

Environment & Recreation

The FY 2017 HWMC budget proposal would cut $16.1 million (7.6 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. Leaving $196.7 million. A .6 percent larger cut than the Governor’s proposal. Specific hits include gutting the Department of Environmental Protection with a very nasty cut of $4.4 million (15 percent) from current FY 2016 levels.

Housing

Funds for affordable housing, and shelter and services to homeless people. The FY 2017 HWMC budget proposal would cut $46.5 million (9.51 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. For a total of $442.3 million. A 4.96 percent larger cut than the governor’s proposal.

Transitional Assistance

This program used to be called welfare in (slightly) more honest times. It provides short-term help for poor individuals and families. The FY 2017 HWMC budget proposal would cut $27.2 million (3.9 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. For a total of $666.6 million. This represents a reduction of 35.9 percent since FY 2001 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Other Human Services

A grab bag of programs in various areas—notably support for veterans. For example, the FY 2017 HWMC budget proposal would cut veterans’ services (including the Soldiers’ Homes) $4.6 million from current FY 2016 levels. For a total of $146.1 million. That’s $1.9 million less than the governor’s proposal.

Economic Development

Funds for programs that, among other things, help unemployed people find work. The FY 2017 HWMC budget proposal would cut $26.7 million (17.5 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. This includes painful cuts to: the One-Stop Career Centers that serve unemployed people (a $525,491 cut from both current FY 2016 levels and the Governor’s FY 2017 proposal—for a total of only $4 million), YouthWorks (formerly Summer Jobs Program for At-Risk Youth, a 23.1 percent cut from current FY 2016 levels, and a 21.7 percent cut from the governor’s proposal), and the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund that provides training for unemployed workers that got zero funding – while the governor’s proposal would increase FY 2017 funding $2.2 million from last year’s levels for a total of $4 million.

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.