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‘WALK THE TALK’

Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.
Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.

 

Mayor Walsh needs to act faster to mitigate regional global warming threats

 

June 13, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Environmental groups protested Mayor Marty Walsh last week during the International Mayors Climate Summit and subsequent US Conference of Mayors meeting—demanding fast action to make Boston carbon neutral (achieving net zero CO2 emissions) and better prepare the city for the many threats to the region from the already-visible effects of global warming. Like the two “once in a generation” storms this winter that both quickly flooded our waterfront.  

 

According to WGBH’s Greater Boston, “The good news, for advocates who think the city is falling short, is that Walsh says he welcomes public pressure in this area—and that big changes to the way the city operates are coming. Soon.”

 

The bad news, of course, is that pols can say anything they want. But are unlikely to act until their feet have been held to the fire. So, kudos to area climate activists for continuing to do that.

 

Interestingly, the summit was scaled down from a huge confab that would’ve hosted thousands of public leaders from the US and China in 2017 to a smaller 2018 conference that featured “20 US mayors and four officials from cities in other countries, including China,” according to the Boston Globe.

 

Walsh is doubtless happy to blame the election of the Trump administration for the lack of State Department support for the conference leading to a year’s delay and the lower turnout. Democrats like himself and former Secretary of State John Kerry—who originally announced Boston summit plans in Beijing in 2016—are getting a lot of political mileage out of poking holes in Trump’s slavish support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries that are directly responsible for global warming. While pointing to his pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord by 2020 as tantamount to ecocide.

 

Unfortunately, the Democrats have been no less slavish in their support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries at every level of government. And the Paris agreement is perhaps the best example of that slavishness.

 

Because the Paris climate accord is voluntary. So, even in countries that ratify it, the treaty can’t force the fossil fuel industries and the governments they often effectively control to do anything. No surprise there, since the process that launched it—the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—allows fossil fuel corporations to participate in everything from funding its meeting sites to directly influencing its negotiations and implementation rules, according to 2015 and 2017 reports by Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly INFACT). An advocacy group that previously helped organize the Network of Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals—a coalition of mostly third world NGOs that helped exclude nicotine purveyors from the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a World Health Organization treaty process. CAI and its allies have repeatedly called for the fossil fuel industries to be similarly banned from participation in the negotiation of climate change treaties. To no avail, thus far.

 

One can certainly argue, and many do, that having even a voluntary treaty on global warming is better than not having one at all. But if multinational energy corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, and BHP Billiton were willing to voluntarily phase their fossil fuel lines out of existence, I would think that they would be well on the way to carbon neutral status by now. After all, most of them knew about the dangers of global warming decades back. According to a timeline by Climate Liability News, Exxon knew in 1977, Shell in 1988, and those companies and many others formed the Global Climate Coalition specifically to cast doubt on climate science in 1989.

 

Almost 30 years later, it seems foolish to bet on companies that make obscene profits by selling fossil fuels to suddenly have a change of heart and agree to stop making those superprofits.

 

Circling back to Boston, Mayor Walsh drew fire from groups like 350Mass and Mass Sierra Club last week on largely the same grounds. The city is not doing much more than drafting plans to implement mainly voluntary measures to mitigate the effects of global warming in the coming years.

 

It’s also working on those plans—formally and informally—with major corporations that play a variety of roles in worsening global warming. From investing in fossil fuel industries to developing environmentally unfriendly buildings. And it’s potentially underestimating the threat from global warming by choosing to ignore more dire climate models in its planning that are still well within the mainstream of climate science. City government is also not addressing all the major systemic “tipping points” under investigation by climate scientists that could conceivably affect the Boston area and their interrelation to each other. Focusing instead on three imminent threats: sea level rise, air temperature rise, and more intense storms.

 

Major planning processes on minimizing the risks presented to us by global warming are absolutely necessary and a difficult undertaking at the best of times. Yet there’s little sense that Boston’s developing climate plans are going to result in the policy pedal being pushed to metal anytime soon. Hence, last week’s protestors’ event hashtag: #WalktheTalkonClimate. The environmental groups made clear that we need Mayor Walsh and the rest of city government to take swift action to reduce the many threats from runaway global warming as much as any one city or region can… and do less talking about the need to take swift action.

 

That means divesting the city of all financial holdings in fossil fuel corporations. And moving on the Boston City Council’s resolution of last fall unanimously supporting “Community Choice Energy”—a plan that would allow Boston to join with other municipalities in buying energy in bulk on behalf of residents and small businesses. Enabling the city to mandate a higher percentage of renewable energy in such purchases. Then creating regulations with real teeth aimed at mitigating the many likely harms to our city from climate change.

 

For example, Boston (and the Commonwealth) can enact regulations that would force developers of the millions of square feet of new building projects sprouting up around the city to prepare for flooding from global warming-induced sea level rise. Especially new construction in the city’s now massively overdeveloped waterfront. Hub solons can also pass regulations that would compel those same developers to power new buildings with genuinely renewable energy (i.e., not natural gas or nuclear). And regulations that would also make such buildings as energy efficient as possible.

 

Beyond that, the city should get going on actually building flood defenses and neighborhood cooling centers; and pressing ahead with operationalizing other big ideas currently under discussion in various city planning processes. Or outside of them in my case—as with my support for moving key city infrastructure to higher ground at speed, and eventually moving the seat of Massachusetts state government to Worcester.

 

Ultimately, properly preparing the city to deal with the negative effects of global warming is everyone’s job. Because politicians can’t do it all themselves. Nor should they. So, readers should contact the mayor’s office regularly to demand faster action on the issues mentioned above, participate in relevant public hearings and meetings to make your voices heard, and get active with any of the environmental organizations large or small that look to be fighting hardest in the public interest.

 

Just remember, Bostonians failing to be vigilant can result in city government dropping the ball on even fairly straightforward climate-related promises. Like former Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan to plant 100,000 new trees by 2020. As of this month, there’s been a net gain of 4,000 trees since the initiative was announced a decade ago.

 

In the same period, New York City promised to plant 1,000,000 new trees by 2017. And reached that goal two years early. They’re also well ahead of Boston with global warming preparations.

 

Worth considering why that might be. Before the next mayoral election.

TOWNIE: CITY ON A HILL

Worcester MA with covered wagon

 

Global warming will flood Boston. Why not move the state capital to Worcester?

 

May 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many small American cities have boosterish metro research organizations that look like a cross between a public policy outfit and a chamber of commerce, and the Bay State’s second biggest urban area is no exception. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau (WRRB) was founded in 1985 during a period when all of Massachusetts’ major cities were facing a funding crisis caused by the tax-slashing Proposition 2 1/2 and needed to find ways to keep their local economies functioning with less funding from state government. Since that time, according to its website, the “Research Bureau has prepared over 220 reports and held over 200 forums on topics including public administration, municipal finance, economic development, education, and public safety.” Its board is like a who’s who of the Worcester power structure.

 

In March, WRRB released a 10-page report, “Brokering a New Lease: Capturing the Value of State Offices for Massachusetts.” Not exactly the kind of title that’s going to inspire headlines, and it didn’t—only receiving coverage in the Worcester Business Journal and Commonwealth magazine. But the white paper actually makes an interesting point: Why are the headquarters of the many state agencies mainly in the Hub?

 

Boston has very expensive real estate prices. And even though the state owns some office buildings around town, many agencies lease commercial space for their headquarters. So, WRRB reasons, wouldn’t it make good sense to move some of those HQs to Worcester? Saving the Commonwealth money, and helping the Worcester economy with lots of decent state jobs in the process?

 

Consider that, according to the report, Class A office space in Boston was running as high as $60.85 per square foot in 2017. It then points out that the “state pays an average of $37 per square foot across its Boston lease agreements, with a high of $73 per square foot near Boston City Hall and a low of $19 per square foot in Hyde Park.”

 

Meanwhile, “Brokering a New Lease” continues: “The [WRRB] consulted the City’s Economic Development Office and local real estate brokers and identified 275,000 square feet of available space across eight buildings that could feasibly house a state office. … The average rent was $21.31 per square foot, and one local broker said $22 per square foot would be a reasonable minimum estimate for new leases involving capital investment.”

 

A savings of $15 per square foot on average—which translates to my back-of-the-envelope estimate of $4,125,000 a year that would stay in the Commonwealth’s coffers—is nothing to sneeze at. It’s true that removing 275,000 square feet of the 1,675,806 square feet that the state currently has under lease in Boston, according to the report, would mean that the Hub stands to lose 16.4 percent of its state office space. Not an inconsiderable economic hit for Boston’s commercial real estate market, and something WRRB staff do not seem to be concerned about. But Worcester’s gains would potentially offset Boston’s losses from such a deal, when considering the state economy in its entirety.

 

Which makes the report’s rationale for moving some agency offices sound reasonable on cost-benefit grounds alone—although I can understand why many state employees might not want to move from more cosmopolitan Boston to a city with less social and cultural opportunities on offer. On the other hand, with a significantly lower cost of living, state salaries will stretch a lot further in Worcester County. To the point of allowing low-level bureaucrats, who couldn’t dream of buying so much as a condo in Boston these days, to buy a house out there.

 

But what interests me about the report is not so much its original subject as something I’m sure that WRRB staff hasn’t yet given the slightest thought. Over the last few years, I’ve written numerous columns and editorials sounding the alarm about what I feel is Boston’s woefully inadequate preparations for the several major global warming-induced crises that scientists expect coastal cities to endure in the coming decades. One of the most dangerous of those is sea level rise. Much of Boston is low-lying former wetlands, and unless we start building major harbor-wide flood defenses soon, we don’t have a prayer of slowing the Atlantic Ocean’s reclamation of those areas. And doing grave damage to critical systems like power, transportation, and sewage in the process.

 

Even if Boston does build huge dikes, and make other needed changes to the city design, it’s only a matter of time before the ocean wins. Since sea levels are expected to continue to rise for hundreds of years until, potentially, all of Earth’s major land-based ice sheets have melted into the ocean.

 

So why not move the state capital to Worcester—a city whose elevation is 480 feet—in stages? Starting with getting state agencies out to the city appropriately nicknamed the “Heart of the Commonwealth” in the manner the WRRB suggests. Then building the bullet train to Boston that former gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren is so excited about. And gradually transferring more and more of state government to the “City of Seven Hills” (the place really has a lot of nicknames). Until, eventually, we move the State House itself.

 

In addition to helping state government better weather global warming, having our capital in the middle of the state could go a long way toward healing the many divisions between eastern and western Massachusetts.

 

Don’t get me wrong; this is not the kind of proposal I’d make if we weren’t facing climate change dire enough to threaten the survival of the human race. But we are. Not today. Not tomorrow. Someday soon, though. We’re already seeing signs and portents now in the increasingly frequent “wild weather” that dishonest meteorologists like to prattle on about on Fox and its ilk. Including Worcester becoming more of a tornado alley than it already was—something I don’t think is nearly as much of a threat as the anticipated 10 feet of sea level rise Boston is facing by century’s end. More, if the land-based Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets start sliding into the ocean faster than the majority of climate scientists are currently projecting.

 

In past writing, I’ve suggested moving critical Boston infrastructure to the hills in and around the city. We will still need to do that. But growing Worcester while shrinking Boston is another smart move to consider. And why stop at just moving the state government? Why keep the city’s population exposed to ever more fierce hurricane- and winter storm-driven flooding when we can gradually move to a nearby city that could absorb quite a lot of our population before reaching capacity? A city acceptably far from the sea and major river systems, and high enough to not have to worry about being permanently flooded out (except, perhaps, in the worst possible scenarios).

 

Anyhow, food for thought. I’d be curious to hear what the WRRB staff—and other policy wonks and urban planners in “Wormtown” (loving these nicknames)—think about my proposal. I make it in earnest, and hope it is taken in the spirit with which I offer it. They can reach me, as ever, at jason@digboston.com.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye [ironic, no?] 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.

THERE WILL BE NO OUTSIDE WORLD TO HELP US

Boston Underwater

 

Boston’s global warming plans must prepare region for worst case scenarios

 

March 28, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In a couple of recent columns—and several others over the years—I’ve looked at some of the specific threats that scientists expect Boston will be facing from global warming-induced climate change. While there’s plenty of room for debate about the anticipated severity and timetable of such threats, there is no longer any serious doubt that they are real.

 

Unfortunately, humans have trouble dealing with existential crises like an inexorably rising sea level and the relentless increase of the average air temperature.

 

We tend to try to plan for future situations based on what has happened in the past. What is, therefore, in the realm of our experience as individuals and as members of various groups. What we’re comfortable with and confident we can handle.

 

The many learned experts who have been working on the city of Boston’s various climate change initiatives are no less susceptible to this bias than anyone else.

 

Which is why the reports city government has been producing on making the city more “resilient”—to use the fashionable buzzword pushed by the Rockefeller Foundation and others of late—in the face of climate change all share a major flaw.

 

That is, despite understanding that global warming is by default—by its very nomenclature—a worldwide phenomenon, they treat the effects of the climate change it’s driving as essentially local.

 

Furthermore, they try to apply standard disaster preparedness and emergency management protocols as if global warming was simply a series of tractable crises of the type we’ve dealt with since time immemorial. Like the recent series of nor’easters (which were probably climate change-driven themselves).

 

So, sure, they reason. There will be power outages—some affecting critical infrastructure—so we’ll plan for that. There will be food shortages in some poor areas of the city that are already considered “food deserts” due to their lack of decent cheap supermarkets; so we’ll plan for that. There will be flooding; so we’ll plan for that.

 

Thus, the language that city officials (and an array of outside advisors and consultants) use in their climate change planning documents demonstrates that they’re either unable to see that previous human experience is insufficient to the task of grappling with global warming… or, more likely, that they’re unwilling to discuss the vast scale and centuries-long duration of the approaching crisis due to a combination of factors. Ranging from not wanting to be seen as alarmists to not wanting to anger top politicians and corporate leaders with big problems requiring expensive solutions.

 

For example, here’s an illustrative passage from the Climate Ready Boston Final Report, the big global warming preparedness white paper the city published in late 2016:

 

Members of the IAG [Infrastructure Advisory Group] have identified continued functionality of the city’s transportation infrastructure as a top resiliency priority. Many members have identified road and bridge functionality as a key critical requirement so citizens can evacuate; emergency vehicles can pass; maintenance trucks can reach impacted electric, communication, and water/wastewater assets for swift repair; and hospitals and other emergency facilities can continue to receive food, water, and medical supplies. In turn, the transportation system relies on continued access to electricity and communications systems, so tunnels may remain open, and any blocked paths are cleared quickly or detours swiftly communicated.

 

Note that it’s assumed that citizens will be able to evacuate the city if necessary. And that various kinds of critical vehicles will have fuel. And that parts will be on hand for infrastructure repair. And that food, water, and medical supplies will be available.

 

Climate Ready Boston’s series of reports and a raft of related studies certainly mention a variety of problems that the city will have to overcome to ensure that fuel, food, water, medical supplies, vital machine parts, etc. will be available as locals recover from each new storm, flood, or heat wave. Like making sure that Route 93 is no longer the main trade route for the city and that the portions of the highway that are susceptible to flooding be reengineered.

 

And they definitely allow for the fact that we’ll see more and more storms, floods, and heat waves.

 

But none of the growing array of reports and plans that city (and also state) government are producing consider this possibility: That at a certain point—especially if we continue along the climate change denial path that the Trump administration and the oil, gas, and coal industries are setting us on—Boston will be alone.

 

There will be no outside world to help us. Every city, every region, every nation on the planet will be engaged in a life-or-death struggle for survival as the effects of global warming get worse. And worse. And ever worse.

 

Because maybe humanity does not stop burning carbon in time. Because we do not replace our old dirty energy systems with new clean ones. Because we do not halt the despoiling of land, sea, and air. Because we do not reverse the “sixth extinction” of most species of plants and animals. Because we do not, in sum, stop the destruction of the human race itself and everything that matters to us in the world.

 

Hopefully, things won’t be so bad by 2100—which is the outer limit of the period seriously considered in city and state plans. Let alone in 20 or 30 years. But the minimal progress on climate change goals that have been made in the quarter century since the Kyoto Protocol was signed does not inspire confidence in human civilization’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to slow—let alone stop—the worst-case scenarios that keep any reasonably well-informed person up at night.  

 

So if the city and the state that surrounds it want to talk about “resilience,” they have to be able to answer these questions… and many more like them besides:

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) feed our already-growing population—when global supply chains are disrupted and ultimately destroyed, the oceans are dead, and much of America’s farmland has turned to dust bowls—given that we can’t even come close to feeding ourselves now? And what about all the climate migrants that will be heading north as parts of our continent become uninhabitable? How will we possibly feed them?

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) keep our growing population plus climate migrants clothed, housed, healthy, and gainfully employed in that situation?

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) produce enough clean (or dirty) energy to satisfy our growing power needs—including our vehicles—without outside help?

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) produce the manufactured goods that we need—including medical supplies and the materials we’ll need to rebuild during a never-ending series of global warming-induced disasters—when we’re on our own?

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) grow more food, support more population, and expand industry in the coming decades as we face the expected global warming driven fresh water shortages? Even as we grapple with more and more severe floods due to storms (fresh water), and storm surges (seawater).

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) move the city, our state capital, and its critical infrastructure to higher ground—while buying time to do so with the best possible flood defenses we can build?

 

✦How will Boston (and Massachusetts) help the entire population of the city to move to relative safety when global warming-induced climate change eventually makes our region uninhabitable, too?

 

Any planning process that fails to raise such questions is not worthy of the name. So both the city of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts had better step up their joint game… fast. Same goes for climate action groups that work hard to keep grassroots pressure on responsible government officials (and generally irresponsible corporate leaders). Work harder, grow your ranks, pursue mitigation efforts that might forestall the worst outcomes, become an unstoppable force, make positive change at least a possibility. If not a certainty.

 

Because if we can’t stop (or significantly slow) global warming, and we can’t find practicable answers to the above questions soon, then Boston is far from “resilient.” Let alone “strong.” It is completely unprepared to deal with global warming-induced climate change.

 

And all the reports in the world won’t save our city and our state from the grim fate that awaits us.

 

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: TAX DELINQUENT, TAX GIVEAWAY

 

Crutchfield sues Mass over online taxes, unions protest Siemens

 

Online retailer tries to duck sales taxes

For a long time, the internet was like the Wild West for online sales. Companies sold products to consumers all over the US, and the feds and many states were slow to tax those transactions. You know, because “innovation goooood” and all that. On Oct 1, Massachusetts finally started collecting its standard 6.25 percent sales tax on internet sales from out-of-state companies with 100 or more online transactions last year. And last week, according to the Salem News, “online car stereo and electronics retailer, Crutchfield Corp., says Massachusetts’ policy violates interstate commerce laws and is therefore unenforceable.”

 

Why? In its legal challenge the company is basically saying: You collect taxes on us, but not on other companies who might do the same business by other means. Virginia-based Crutchfield also says it’s covered by a Virginia law designed to protect businesses in that state from having to pay taxes in other states where the business has no brick-and-mortar presence. Yet the Commonwealth has already argued that under a 1992 Supreme Court decision, having “cookies” stored on consumer’s computers from companies like Crutchfield counts as a physical presence in the Bay State. The Salem News also notes that NetChoice—a group representing online retailers like eBay and PayPal—is arguing “that the Baker administration doesn’t have the authority to tax businesses with no actual presence in Massachusetts.”

 

What’s most fascinating about these developments is the lengths big online retailers will go to avoid paying very standard state taxes (and, of course, federal taxes) in places where they do a significant amount of business. Any corporate victory on this front translates to millions of dollars being effectively stolen from the public that could be used to pay for social goods like education, housing, environmental, and welfare programs. Just what we don’t need.

 

German multinational faces protests over job promises, tax breaks

Walpole is a town with a population of 24,000 at the 2010 Census, but it’s punching above its weight in lavishing tax breaks on the huge German conglomerate Siemens. And area labor unions—led by the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District (Metro BTC)—are not happy. According to Wicked Local Walpole, hundreds of residents and area union members turned out for an Oct 19 protest on Walpole Common to demand that Siemens Healthineers, the goofily renamed healthcare division of the company (formerly Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics Inc.), follow through on its 2016 promises to the community.

 

In March of that year, the Walpole town meeting representatives voted 76-51 in favor of giving tax breaks worth millions between 2018 and 2037 to Siemens—an average savings of 75 percent on its property tax for the 20 years, according to the Brockton Enterprise—in support of the $300 million expansion of its existing plant there. The company said it would add 400-700 “permanent jobs” to its existing workforce of about 700 by 2026.

 

But at the recent rally, Walpole Selectman David Salvatore told the crowd that Siemens has “only hired 32 Walpole residents” to date out of the 170 jobs the company says it has created since the deal was cut. In an earlier Boston Globe article—released just after the town meeting vote on the agreement—he had provided more background: “The benefits of this project are regional, and the burden is local. Of the 620 current employees at the Siemens plant, a mere 33 are Walpole residents; most are not even from Norfolk County, and 83 are from Rhode Island.” So, Walpole is putting a bunch of money on the table for a big company that has thus far only created about 60 jobs for town residents.

 

Union leaders, according to an Oct 16 press release, are angry that Siemens has not committed to using union labor to build the 300,000-square-foot expansion of the factory or to hiring more local workers—especially since it’s getting such a large tax break. Their pressure campaign is calling for “slowing down the slated expansion for further community input and review.” One would think that a company with a market capitalization of $109.8 billion in May, according to Forbes, can afford to work things out with its critics. But it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out, regardless.

 

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

TOWNIE: A WORM’S EYE VIEW OF THE MASS POWER STRUCTURE

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From the guy that brings you Apparent Horizon

October 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The rich and powerful interests that control Massachusetts politics and the state economy have their fingers in every conceivable pie. So numerous are their projects that it’s difficult for most news outlets to keep track of them, let alone cover them all. Yet it’s critical for our democracy that they be covered. Which is why I’m launching Townie—a regular news column that will provide short takes on all the elite wheeling and dealing that most people never hear about.

 

Business Organizations Sue to Down “Millionaire’s Tax” Referendum

In an era when taxes continue to be slashed for wealthy people and corporations as government social programs are starved for funds, one would think that the Fair Share Amendment (a.k.a. “millionaire’s tax”) proposed by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition of religious, labor, and community organizations would be a no-brainer. The idea is slated to be put in front of Massachusetts voters as a binding referendum question in November 2018. If passed, it would amend the state constitution to add a 4 percent tax on top of the Bay State’s infamously inadequate 5.1 percent flat income tax for all households earning $1 million or more. The money collected will be mandated to fund public schools, transportation, and road maintenance. All sectors that really need the money. And best of all, only 19,500 families would have to pay in 2019 if the tax goes into effect—0.5 percent of all filers.

Well apparently any tax is a bad tax in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s “business community.” No matter how many people it would help, and how painless it would be for the tiny number of 0.5 percenters. So, according to an Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) press release,  the leaders of five pro-corporate organizations are trying to torpedo the referendum before it can be voted on by filing a lawsuit against it at the Supreme Judicial Court. The plaintiffs are: Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Inc. (MHTC); Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Richard Lord, president and chief executive officer of AIM; Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF); and, Daniel O’Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP).

They claim that the referendum language is “riddled with constitutional flaws,” with the MTHC’s Anderson remarking that “Amending the Constitution to achieve taxing and spending by popular vote is just a terrible idea, and could undo much of the good work that Massachusetts has done in terms of creating a successful economic climate.” But no matter what kinds of arguments they try to make, it seems like what they’re most afraid of is democracy. Let’s see how far they get with the SJC.

 

About That Opioid Epidemic…

More proof that the rising number of deaths from opioid abuse has more to do with corporate greed than any personal failings of individuals suckered into addiction by pliant doctors colluding with pharma sales reps. And also that those few drug companies that pay any penalty at all for their role in destroying communities across the state, get little more than a slap on the wrist. According to a press release by the office of Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, “An opioid manufacturer will pay $500,000 to resolve allegations that it engaged in a widespread scheme to unlawfully market its fentanyl spray and paid kickbacks to providers to persuade them to prescribe the product…  Insys Therapeutics, Inc. misleadingly marketed Subsys, a narcotic fentanyl product that is sprayed under a patient’s tongue.” The money will be used to “help fund the AG’s prevention, education and treatment efforts.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin. The company claimed its spray version of the drug was useful for treating “minor” pain in non-cancer patients—despite the fact that the FDC had only approved the drug for use in more severe pain in cancer patients. It then pushed its sales staff to give kickbacks to doctors in the form of “fees paid to speak to other health care providers about the product.”

 

Boondoggle in Progress?

When a public college gets involved in land deals, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Especially when that college is UMass—a troubled multi-campus institution whose leadership would rather engage in property speculation than fight the legislature for more money for public higher education.

In 2010, the school’s independent development wing, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA), bought the former Bayside Expo Center property after its owners went into foreclosure. According to the Dorchester Reporter, in August, the UMBA issued “a Request for Information (RFI) as it seeks out ideas for the ‘highest and best use’ of the former Bayside Expo Center site on Columbia Point in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a ‘modern-day Harvard Square.’”

Last week, the newspaper reported that 16 developers have responded to the university’s request, including: Accordia Partners; American Campus Communities; Beacon Capital Partners; Bracken Development; Capstone Development Partners LLC & Samuels & Associates; Corcoran Jennison & BTUHWF Building Corp; Core Investment Inc.; Hunt Development Group, LLC & Drew Company Inc.; The HYM Investment Group, LLC; LendLease; Lincoln Property Company; Lupoli Companies; Rhino Capital & Ad Meliora; SKANSKA; University Student Living; and Waterstone Properties Group Inc. The Reporter says the UMass Building Authority “hopes to leverage public-private partnerships toward the massive mixed-use project.” Which usually means big public giveaways to corporations. One way or the other. Stay tuned.

Townie 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.

THAT ‘FREE SPEECH’ THING

Protest photo by Kori Feener

Photo by Kori Feener

Mayor Walsh and various police agencies were no friends of civil liberties at Boston’s monster protests against the ultra right

August 22, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Despite the “mission accomplished” happy talk in most of the news media, Saturday’s 40,000-strong Boston protests against extremism — and the tiny ultra-right rally that sparked them — were only wins for free speech to the degree their organizers and participants made them so. From a civil liberties perspective, they were highly problematic affairs.

First, Mayor Marty Walsh and various department heads in Boston city government slapped the right-wing rally with ridiculous restrictions on what otherwise would have been a very standard rally permit. Although scheduled for a public park that hosts dozens of similar rallies every year, only 100 people were allowed to attend. On the day of the event, the rally site — Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common — was surrounded by fences and a large number of police. The cops kept virtually everyone out of the arbitrarily-imposed cordon sanitaire — including a number of people who said they were supposed to participate in the rally and, as DigBoston reporter Sarah Betancourt criticized in the Columbia Journalism Review, the entire press corps.

Now, city solons certainly had reason to be concerned. But that doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of their extremist politics, the reactionaries had the right to hold a rally on the Common, and that right was severely and probably illegally curtailed.

Second, Boston Police Department Commissioner Bill Evans stated at a press conference last week that Boston would not use riot police at the outset of the protests and that “we plan on handling this on a very soft approach. You won’t see the helmets and sticks out there.” Yet “helmets and sticks” were very much the order of the day.

Platoons of Boston police and Mass State Police in nearly identical black riot gear were deployed all around the protests. Some were used to escort attendees of the right-wing rally off the Common when it ended and into waiting police wagons. But as Chris Faraone and other DigBoston reporters witnessed, those wagons tried to leave on the Boylston Street side of the Common where huge numbers of protesters were essentially trapped in relatively small spaces. When trying to move the wagons out of the park, the riot cops on hand did what riot cops do — they started shoving people, hitting them, and inevitably arresting those who argued they had nowhere to go. They even pepper-sprayed some people later in the afternoon.

That’s a problem right there — and the early stories we’re hearing from several of the 30 people arrested all around the protests are similar — but it’s not clear why the right-wingers were given a police escort at all. Aside from some black bloc-style antifa groups that typically limit themselves to defensive violence, and maybe a few random tough kids looking for a fight, the overwhelming majority of protest attendees were there to demonstrate peacefully. So the right-wingers were in little danger.

Ultimately, the BPD fielded at least 500 officers — including riot police and an unknown number of undercover cops. The MSP had around 200 troopers available and definitely deployed at least some of them, the MBTA Transit Police had a “substantial presence” including undercovers on duty, and security forces from other agencies were doubtless also on the ground. There’s really no way of knowing the total number of cops at this time. But even assuming the rough numbers we have are in the ballpark, that’s a lot of cops to deploy to a right-wing extremist rally that had already been cowed into submission by serious violations of its organizers’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and by the impressive outpouring of nonviolent protesters against it.

All of this is simply unacceptable in a democratic society. It’s perhaps understandable that any city government will have a police presence at such a big political event. But it makes little sense to have hundreds of cops — including militarized “robocops” — from a number of local, state, and, almost certainly, federal agencies on hand. Unless the city, state, and federal governments were more concerned about the protests against the ultra-right extremists than they were about the extremists. Which would absolutely be in keeping with the policies of most levels of American government — in ceaseless and ongoing collusion with the capitalists that own the country — since the founding of the nation. The things this “large-s” State fears most of all have always been democracy and social justice.

Returning to my first point: Why should anyone care about the right-wing extremists having their civil liberties violated Saturday? Because if the government can do that to a motley crew of nazis, fascists, racists, and little weasel shitposters of the type I regularly mock and deride on the interwebs, then they can do it to the broad left wing… and, well, anyone really. Which means that protestors interested in defending democracy won’t succeed by beating back a still-weak ultra-right street sideshow. No. The incipient movement for democracy won’t have won until the rise of what’s looking very much like a corporatist police state is stopped. But it wasn’t even slowed on Saturday. Quite the reverse actually.

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.

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REAL RIDESHARING

AH-TOP-PIC-200-DPI

 

Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)

July 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.

Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.

One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.

An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.

Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.

Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.

Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by 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 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

THE LONG GAME: SANCTUARY CITIES FIGHT POINTS TO NEED FOR GLOBAL LABOR PROTECTIONS

Original flag image by Adbusters. Or Betsy Ross, depending on who you ask

March 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and related federal agencies often rely on local police to help round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. That problematic lies at the heart of the rising sanctuary cities movement. Local governments in opposition to increasingly inhumane federal immigration policy under the Trump administration are passing resolutions ordering police forces under their control to refuse to aid federal agencies seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant advocates hope that creating large numbers of such sanctuary cities—plus sanctuary campuses and sanctuary religious institutions—will stop or at least slow the latest wave of deportations until the US finally develops a more fair and rational immigration policy.

That’s not going to happen without popular support. And all too many Americans have not been provided with the information that will allow them to make an informed decision on the matter.

Citizens who back slowing or stopping immigration do so because they believe immigrants “steal jobs” from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and/or increase crime. Positions that are not borne out by major research studies. But if they looked more closely at what has actually happened on the immigration front since the early 1990s, there’s every possibility that they would join a groundswell of support for progressive immigration policy… and for something else besides: support for strong labor legislation at the national and international levels.

So it’s imperative that nativist Americans begin to understand the structural crisis that led to the current situation. The biggest precipitating factor was a so-called “trade” treaty signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It went into effect in 1994.

According to labor journalist David Bacon, NAFTA was the result of a major lobbying effort by American multinational corporations with support from CEOs in Canada and Mexico. It was sold to Congress as a remedy to the supposed dilemma of migration from Mexico (and points south) to the US. The argument was that by eliminating “barriers to trade” like tariffs and taxes on major corporations, profits would rise, the economic boats of all three countries would be lifted, more good jobs would be produced, and immigration would slow to a trickle. Because there would be no reason for anyone to leave home.
As often happens in politics, this turned out to be a pack of lies. Removing the so-called trade barriers meant that US multinationals were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap goods and services. Goods and services that Mexicans had once produced for themselves either in Mexican-owned companies or in a robust public sector that included a strong nationalized oil industry.

The Mexican economy went into immediate freefall—throwing over one million people out of work. Then the American multinationals were able to move more manufacturing operations to Mexico than ever before—where they were free of pesky labor unions and tax burdens—resulting in the loss of over 682,000 good American jobs by 2010 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Corporations that kept major factories and farms in the US were free to take advantage of a seemingly endless flood of undocumented immigrant workers who are rarely able to organize into labor unions—since one call to the feds ensures the deportation of any “troublemakers.” Canada was also badly hurt by NAFTA. Billionaire CEOs got even richer, and extended their political power significantly in all three countries.

And here’s the irony: It is precisely those Americans who lost their jobs to NAFTA and other neoliberal schemes like it who voted for Donald Trump in significant enough numbers in key states to ensure his victory.

That’s why any successful movement for immigration justice must be linked directly to the most far-sighted sectors of the labor movement in the US and abroad. The key to ending the fight over immigration is to enshrine strong labor rights worldwide; so that major corporations will no longer be able to pit workers in the US against workers in other countries in what’s been aptly called a “race to the bottom.” Spread that message widely enough, and the nativist movement will evaporate—aside from a small core of outright racists. Because if workers can make a decent living wherever they live, then immigration will cease to be an issue anywhere. And when people do migrate to the future US once a fair immigration regime is finally in place, it will be much easier to do so legally and permanently.

Which is the kind of world we all want, yes? One in which the rights of human beings to make a decent living and to move about the planet freely are respected more than the rights of corporations to maximize their profits.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-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:

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

GENERAL STRIKE: IS THE TRUMP VICTORY SPARKING THE RETURN OF LABOR’S MOST POWERFUL TACTIC?

NYC (1970)

February 22, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

You know we live in interesting times when general strikes get discussed matter-of-factly in an American big city newspaper. A subject which would have only been raised in a publication like the Boston Globe in recent decades to attack it.

But to give the Globe’s Shirley Leung—an occasional target of my ire—credit where it’s due, she did just that in her recent column about three calls for general strikes against the policies of the Trump administration. One fairly small, hastily organized “Day Without Immigrants” strike last Thursday, and two upcoming one-day strike calls: “A Day Without a Woman” on March 8 (International Women’s Day), and a second “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1 (May Day, the international workers’ holiday) that are likely to be much larger affairs.

It’s fairly obvious why Leung is suddenly interested in the strongest tactic in labor’s arsenal. She’s a bit of a feminist and was supportive of Hillary Clinton, and like many people fitting that description is now considering political action that would have been unthinkable for her only three months agone. That’s fine. She gets some things wrong, but interviews some experts that know their stuff, and does her audience a service by discussing the concept of a general strike at all.

To review, a strike occurs when working people withhold their labor for any reason. A general strike occurs when massive numbers of workers from more than one industrial sector withhold their labor in a city, state, region, or nation. The difference is that a strike is typically called to demand redress in a single workplace or industry. A general strike is called to cause serious economic disruption aimed at bringing corporations and the government to their knees on a single issue, a group of issues, or even to overthrow the current political economic system itself. US strikes are usually called by labor unions, general strikes by coalitions of labor unions and left-wing political groups.

The problem for organizers considering the tactic is that general strikes are basically illegal. At least for labor unions. Leung briefly mentions that the Oakland General Strike of 1946 was the “last” general strike. But she didn’t say why. Turns out that the main reason there have been no “official” general strikes since then is because the Oakland action was part of the massive five-million worker national strike wave of 1945-46—in total, the largest sustained protest of any kind in American history.  The strike wave won some victories. Then triggered a political backlash by a coalition of major corporations and right-wing legislators, leading directly to the passage of the anti-labor federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The law specified a number of political economic tactics unions were henceforth banned from using, including: jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. Long story short, those types of strikes, boycotts, and pickets translate to a general strike. Not that the many general strikes prior to 1947 were treated as legal either, but after 1947 there was little ambiguity as to their legality.

Does that mean that the American labor movement just rolled over? No. It took decades for corporations and their political allies to crush it down to the diminished state it languishes in today—when only 10.7 percent of the US workforce is unionized (down from a high of almost 35 percent in 1954). And does that mean that there have been no actions like a general strike since 1946? Again, no. There have been subsequent general strikes if you include the major wildcat strikes of the 1970s and accept that the 2006 immigrant boycott (that Leung does mention) was essentially a general strike in some cities.

Wildcats are strikes organized by union workers against their employers … and two forces that often collude with bosses: the government and their own union leadership. The most recent major wave of wildcat strikes occurred in the 1970s. Some of them were large enough in some locales to be considered general strikes—especially where strikers drew support from other unions. Particularly the 1970 National US Postal Workers Wildcat Strike (200,000 workers in 15 states), the 1970 Teamsters Wildcat Strike (500,000 workers, mostly east of the Mississippi River), and the 1974 Wildcat Miners Strike (26,000 workers in West Virginia and Virginia). Some of the wildcats dragged on for weeks. For comparison, the Oakland General Strike involved 100,000 workers over a couple of days (although it wasn’t called as a traditional strike, and had elements of a wildcat).

As for the 2006 May Day immigrant action, “The Great American Boycott,” its title in Spanish was “El Gran Paro Estadounidense”—meaning “The Great American Strike.” In practice, as it involved multi-industry boycotts and strike actions, the 2006 mass walkout for immigrant rights can be viewed as a general strike. Over 1.5 million people participated. But since they were mostly immigrants, many American citizens, Leung included, don’t think of it as a strike at all. Certainly it wasn’t as strong as the 1945-46 strike wave, or the 1970s wildcat strikes. But in immigrant cities like LA and Chicago it definitely had significant political and economic impact. If it had gone on longer than a few days, many citizens would likely have felt those effects nationwide.

So the question is: Will the upcoming one-day strike calls have as powerful a political economic effect as a classic general strike? Probably not. In that case, will they be as powerful as a major wildcat strike? Not just yet. How about the 2006 Great American Boycott by immigrants? Will they be that big? That’s probably the sweet spot. The recent Women’s Marches were able to pull an estimated minimum of 3.3 million people out on a weekend when many participants weren’t working. Do a third of those numbers on a workday, and you’ve reached the lower estimate for the 2006 immigrant strike.

Frankly, both the March 8 and May 1 strike calls could be big. Both are aimed at constituencies that have demonstrated ability to turn out in large numbers. And neither call is led by labor unions that can’t easily call general strikes; so there is an opening to do so. But they will only be powerful to the extent that they threaten the established political order. And there the differences between the two events become clear. The March 8 Day Without a Woman strike is being called by some of the same forces that organized the Women’s Marches in January. Forces that, as I’ve previously written, are directly connected to the neoliberal Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party. Folks who just lost an election because they refused to put working people’s needs over corporate profits.

But the May 1 Day Without Immigrants strike call is being organized by Movimiento Cosecha—a fast-growing coalition of militant young left-wing immigrant organizers. They are potentially limited by their focus on immigrant communities. However, they were recently screwed by the Democratic Party and the Obama administration—which both failed to respond to their demand that all 11 million undocumented immigrants be granted legal status before Trump came into office. So they are less likely to heed the siren call of Democratic leaders to tone down their protests when they become inconvenient for the Dems’ corporate backers, and therefore far more likely to actually build their May Day effort into something approaching a general strike than the March 8 organizers are.

Their call to action makes that intent quite clear:

One day is just the beginning of a season of strikes and boycotts. We know that each time we strike for a day, we will build power. And the more days we strike, the stronger we will feel. The more desperate those in power become. The more the elite will want business to return to normal. They will be forced to figure out a way to give us permanent protection. And in the process, we will win the dignity and respect that we deserve and demand.

Ultimately, debates over whether major work stoppages are “real” general strikes aren’t the point. What matters is “boots on the ground,” and the ability of organizers to translate their numbers into political and economic gains. Any coalition that can pull millions out of work and into the streets against the Trump administration will write a new chapter in both American political and labor history. Which could be just the game changer our incipient movements for democracy need. But if there turns out to be more than one such coalition, so much the better.

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

 

HARD DRUG TRUTHS: END MANDATORY MINIMUM DRUG SENTENCES

January 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The opioid crisis is dire enough without adding insult to injury. With almost 12,000 deaths from overdoses in Massachusetts since the year 2000—increasing sharply in recent years with fentanyl-laced heroin hitting the streets—the human cost to users, their families, and our communities is already tremendous. But thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related criminal offenses that cost is far higher than it needs to be.

A bit of history is in order. Decades back, sentencing decisions for such offenses were generally made by individual judges—who could then lower or remove jail time, or order an alternative sentence to a drug treatment facility, for non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession and the like.  

The passage of the Controlled Substances Penalties Amendments Act by Congress in 1984—followed by a number of related laws on the federal and state level—took that power away from the courts and set mandatory minimum sentences that could not be modified by judges. Prisons around the country began to fill with drug offenders. And many nonviolent offenders ended up doing more time than violent offenders like members of major drug cartels.

Worse still, racism was baked into the new system, with drugs like the crack form of cocaine sold in poorer communities of color drawing far longer sentences than drugs like the powder cocaine sold in wealthier white communities. The arrest rate for people of color has remained consistently higher as well. According to the state Sentencing Commission, Massachusetts imprisons Black defendants eight times more than white defendants. Latino defendants are sent up almost five times more.

Then, in 1996, OxyContin—a synthetic opiate pain medication—came on the market in 80 mg pill form. It was developed by a small Connecticut pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma—an early pioneer … not in synthesizing oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin which had originally been developed in Germany in 1916, but in something more insidious: the direct marketing of drugs to doctors. According to Pacific Standard, Purdue doubled its sales staff in the first four years of the OxyContin rollout. That staff developed a database that identified doctors who prescribed pain medication more heavily than others. They focused their sales effort on those doctors—encouraging them to overprescribe the medication for a wide variety of conditions. In 2000, the company released a 160 mg pill specifically aimed at users that had developed tolerance to opioids—which became the wildly popular street drug we know today. Crushed and sniffed by tens of thousands of users in the Bay State alone. And so, by 2010, OxyContin accounted for over one-third of American painkiller sales.

Most of you know the rest of the story. The legions of newly addicted Oxy users eventually ran out of prescriptions, and turned to whatever they could get to replace it—inevitably leading many of them to heroin. A sane government would’ve stepped in early on in this process, shut a company like Purdue down, and significantly expanded public funding for solid treatment and recovery facilities for the drug’s many casualties. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Purdue was making over $3 billion a year on OxyContin by 2010, and had a lock on legal sales of the drug until its patent expired in 2013. Even as public funding for treatment got cut.

Meanwhile, street sales of Oxy and the resulting spike in heroin sales led to a whole new wave of nonviolent offenders sent to prison for years with mandatory minimum sentences.

Unfortunately, action to reform such strict sentencing laws has been slow to come at the federal level and here in the Commonwealth. With a new session of the state legislature just beginning, there are no new reform bills to recommend. But it’s reasonable to expect the main reform bill of the last session, An Act to Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws for Drug Offenses, will be reintroduced this time around. The bill would repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses and let courts impose sentences that fit the crimes.

It’s ironic that, according to WBUR, “several other states, including conservative states, have overhauled their sentencing laws” while ostensibly progressive Massachusetts lags behind. But thanks to the work of grassroots organizations like Jobs Not Jails and the Mass Organization for Addiction Recovery, high level officials like Mass Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Mass Supreme Judicial Court have recently gone on record in support of mandatory minimum reform.

That’s great, but without voters across Mass putting pressure on state legislators it could still be years before the needed reform passes. So, the best thing that readers can do to help stop this devastating outgrowth of the already tragic opioid crisis is to watch for the new mandatory minimum reform bill and join advocates to demand that your state reps and senators do the right thing and pass it.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-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.

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, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube