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THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

POPULAR NOT POPULIST: GOV BAKER CONTINUES TO POLL WELL WITH PEOPLE HE’S SCREWING

 

July 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There is no area of Massachusetts politics where it is more baffling to contemplate Gov. Charlie Baker’s ongoing popularity in the polls than the annual state budget debate. One can only draw two conclusions from such musing: either people don’t get the budget information they need from Bay State press, or a majority of Commonwealth residents simply enjoy watching poor people get kicked to the curb. While corporations are encouraged to line their pockets with public funds in ways that hurt everyone but the wealthy.

 

At no time of year is the contradiction of Baker’s popularity thrown into bold relief more than late July when he issues his line item vetoes and other modifications to the legislature’s final budget.

 

And this year that contradiction is sharper than ever. Because the most visible victims of the governor’s last budget action look to be people on welfare—many of whom are single mothers with children.

 

So last week, Baker refused to agree to a budget policy section that would remove the “family cap” that stops families on welfare from being able to receive extra benefits for children born while they were on welfare. Instead he sent an amended version of the family cap section of the state budget back to the legislature.

 

As reported by MassLive, “That amendment would lift the family cap but also change welfare eligibility laws so that an adult’s Supplemental Security Income is counted when determining if a family is eligible for welfare. SSI is a federal payment given to severely disabled adults.” … “According to state figures as of last year, 5,200 children with a severely disabled parent would lose their welfare benefits entirely under the change, and 2,100 children would lose part of their benefit.”

 

By contrast, MassLive continues, “Lifting the family cap would make approximately 8,700 additional children eligible for welfare assistance.”

 

If the family cap policy section of the budget had simply been vetoed, it could have been overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature like any other veto. But since its language was amended and sent back to the legislature for action, they have to vote on it like a new bill. After which, Baker has 10 days to act on it. And since he sent it back to the legislature at the end of its current session, the end of the 10 days after any new bill passes comes after the session is over. So Baker can simply veto it, and supporters will have to wait until next session to go through the entire legislative process again.

 

Advocates from organizations like Mass Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services are crying foul, given the heartlessness of the measure and the fact that it has taken years to get the family cap reform through the legislature.

 

As of this writing, the House has reinstated the original family cap language, and the Senate is expected to do the same. But Baker will almost certainly veto it within 10 days of passage as planned. After the legislative session has ended.

 

Which is a total drag, and exemplary of a backwards view of welfare as an “incentive” to “encourage” poor people to work. Language that Baker has used when explaining his position on the family cap debate—a standard conservative view, unfortunately shared by Republicans and many Democrats alike, that poor people are poor because of individual failings like “laziness,” not for any structural reasons beyond their immediate control.

 

But here’s another way to view welfare: People are poor because just as capitalism provides billions of dollars to a vanishingly small number of big winners like Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers, it creates millions of losers who have to struggle endlessly to make ends meet. Meaning inequality is baked into our economic system. Without strong government regulation, capitalism is incapable of even blunting the brutal impact of such inherent flaws, let alone somehow fixing those flaws.

 

Part of that inequality comes in the form of job provision. Since the drive for people at the commanding heights of the capitalist system is always to maximize profits, their concomitant drive is to do so by slashing labor costs whenever possible. One way they have done this since the 1970s is by changing labor from a fixed cost—as it tended to be under postwar American social democracy when over 30 percent of the workforce was protected by government-backed union contracts and there was a reasonable social safety net (including welfare)—to a variable cost.

 

The result? As was last the case at the turn of the 20th century while a militant labor movement spent decades fighting the “robber baron” billionaires of that era for redress, bosses can hire workers when needed at the worst possible rates and push them out when they don’t need them. Often without even having to officially fire workers—which would allow them to collect unemployment for a few months. And the largely ununionized workforce has almost no say about the conditions of its employment, or job policies in general, outside of insufficient minimum wage laws, easily avoided health and safety laws, and a few increasingly weak civil rights laws that might get a handful of people reinstated on the same bad terms on the rare occasions when open discriminatory practices by employers can be proven.

 

So by converting stable decent-paying union jobs to unstable contingent jobs—like temp, part-time, contract, day labor, and independent contractor jobs—over the last 40 years, capitalism and the capitalists who run it have ensured the creation of a growing impoverished underclass. This vast group of poor people acts as a reserve army of labor that, together with vicious union-busting that is on the verge of killing the American labor movement, accelerates the downward pressure on wages. And ensures that the only jobs that most poor people can get are bad contingent jobs.

 

When poor people can’t put together enough of these precarious non-jobs to make ends meet, they turn to welfare. But the old “outdoor relief” programs that provided poor men with jobs, money, food, and other necessities in many parts of the country were eliminated long ago (as were New Deal-era public jobs programs), and the remaining welfare system that largely benefitted poor women and children was hamstrung by the Democratic Clinton administration in 1996. Not coincidentally, its prescriptions were first tested here in Massachusetts in 1995 by our completely Democrat-dominated legislature—presided over by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. A so-called “libertarian” cut from much the same cloth as Charlie Baker.

 

According to a 2008 report (“Following Through on Welfare Reform”) by the Mass Budget and Policy Center, the one-two state-federal punch to poor women and children in the Commonwealth predictably ended up significantly cutting already meager welfare payments by imposing time limits on assistance and by mandating the most cruelly ironic possible change, “work requirements.”

 

Why cruelly ironic? Because the work requirements forced people who were poor because the only jobs available to them were bad contingent jobs to prove they were “working” before getting the reduced welfare benefits still on offer.

 

The new system was in many cases literally run by the very temp agencies that played a key role in making people poor to begin with. The “jobs” forced on people to qualify for much-denuded benefits were often not jobs at all. Welfare applicants were just “employed” by such temp agencies—now recast as privatized social service agencies—and forced to wait for “assignments” that were low-paying and sporadic. But unless they “worked” a certain amount under this system, no benefits. It was a hardline right-winger’s wet dream made flesh. The same capitalist system that made them poor now kept them poor. And state and federal government were no longer in the “business” of helping offset the worst depredations of capitalist inequality in what we still like to call a democracy.

 

So this is what popular Gov. Charlie Baker is up to when he plays games with reforms like the family cap. He’s screwing people who get a few hundred bucks a month in benefits out of an extra hundred a month for another kid born while they’re jumping through every conceivable time-wasting bureaucratic hoop and working the same shit jobs that made them poor to begin with. Meanwhile, he’s finding new and creative ways to dump more millions in public treasure on the undeserving rich with each passing year.

 

And you like this guy, fellow Massholes?! Just remember, in a “race to the bottom” economy presided over by capitalist hatchet men like Baker, once the poor are completely crushed, the working class is next. Followed by the middle class. Maybe think that over next time a pollster asks your opinion of the man.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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.

STOP BAKER’S ‘MORE SCHOOL COPS AND SURVEILLANCE’ PLAN

school parody image

Why the Mass budget surplus is better spent on infrastructure needs

 

July 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Having just been handed an estimated $1 billion budget surplus for the 2018 fiscal year, Gov. Charlie Baker was quick to make a proposal last week to divide up the unexpected spoils.

 

According to MassLive, “Around half of that will be placed in the state’s reserve account to be available in case of emergency. Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday laid out how he is proposing to spend the rest of that money, introducing a $583 million supplemental budget bill.”

 

And where does the surplus come from, readers might well ask? Well, the details are still a bit fuzzy, but the Trump administration’s drastic changes to the federal tax code months back seem to have resulted in what’s likely to be a very temporary state tax revenue increase.

 

Which explains why the Boston Globe paraphrased Noah Berger of the Mass Budget and Policy Center opining that “it would not be prudent for the state to spend the extra money from last fiscal year in the current one.” His preference being that “it should be spent on one-time capital expenses like roads or schools, or put away in the state’s savings account.”

 

But that’s not what Baker is proposing.

 

To be sure, there is money allotted for roads and the like. But only two items seem clearly earmarked for infrastructure expenditures: $50 million for cities and towns to fund local road and bridge maintenance and improvement projects, and $30 million for municipal clean water projects. Both worthy candidates for what is likely to be a one-time windfall.

 

The rest of the proposal is more problematic, however. Especially in its stated focus.

 

According to a July 13 press release from the governor’s office, “The administration is proposing a wide-ranging $72 million package to make school security upgrades in the Commonwealth’s schools and provide resources to students, staff, and first responders to better respond to threats within schools.”

 

Which is probably just red meat for Baker’s right-wing supporters. Massachusetts is definitely in dire need of more funding for K-12 and higher education. But it needs that funding on an ongoing basis.

 

What it doesn’t need is a supplemental budget better dubbed the “More School Cops and Surveillance Plan.”

 

Yet that’s exactly what Commonwealth students will get from the following proposed items that are part of the aforementioned $72 million section of the governor’s larger supplemental budget proposal:

 

  • $20 million in matching grants for security and communications upgrades in K-12 schools and at public colleges and universities

 

  • $4 million to provide training to school resource officers

 

  • $2.4 million to create a tip line to provide public safety and school personnel with timely information on potential risks

 

  • $2 million for a statewide “Say Something” campaign

 

It’s true that the proposed $40 million in additional aid to school districts in that same section to hire more social workers, mental health counselors, and psychologists is a good idea in general terms. But such an effort can’t amount to much if the funding evaporates next year. Something also true of most of the line items outside the ed-targeted package in the supplemental budget proposal that would provide funding for a variety of decent-sounding programs for K-12 and higher education, and “substance use prevention, education, and screening.” Plus a grab bag of other one-offs of varying importance like “$35.4 million for snow and ice removal costs in FY18” or wastefulness like “$8 million for multi-year municipal police training needs” (in a state that already spends vast sums on cops).

 

And, sure, we don’t want students (or school staff and faculty) to be vulnerable to killers with automatic weapons. But then we don’t want them to be vulnerable to asteroid strikes either, and most of what we could conceivably fund in the way of preparedness on that front would be about as useless as what the governor is proposing to fund for “school security.” Worse than useless, since the main result of such measures will inevitably be to increase official harassment of students of color and poor and immigrant students in their own schools. And the concomitant danger of their being shot for no reason. As the militarization of police proceeds apace. And their well-documented trigger-happiness is validated by the likes of Weymouth police Chief Richard Grimes in shockingly opportunist remarks at yesterday’s memorial for Weymouth Officer Michael Chesna—who was felled by a rock before being disarmed and executed by a random criminal over the weekend. Even as the K-12 school districts and the state colleges that serve those populations remain starved for funds with or without the FY18 surplus.

 

Regardless, there’s already a general decades-long trend toward stationing armed police on campuses nationwide, but that hasn’t stopped mass shooters from slaughtering students. There’s a veritable panopticon of surveillance measures from all levels of government on the population in general and on students in particular. Which also hasn’t prevented mass shooters from slaughtering students nationwide.

 

The things that might actually stop mass shooters from appearing in the Commonwealth—like stronger welfare and public jobs programs and more stringent gun control measures—are not in the cards in the current political climate. Even here in a supposedly left-leaning state that is unable to provide the first of those two needed reforms because it’s constitutionally prohibited from having a progressive income tax. The second, naturally, being blocked by a powerful and triumphalist gun lobby in this Age of Trump.

 

Fortunately, the legislature hasn’t weighed in on the FY18 supplemental budget yet—having failed to send the regular FY19 budget to the governor’s desk for his signature as of this writing either. So there’s still time for constituents to weigh in on how the surplus funds get spent.

 

And my suggestion would be to push your state reps and senators to fight for spending whatever part of the supplemental budget is not put into the “rainy day fund” on key capital projects. Like fixing public transportation infrastructure that stubbornly continues to disintegrate no matter how much Gov. Baker’s hand-picked MBTA flacks claim they don’t need any more money—as they had the temerity to do yesterday.

 

Once that’s done, then start agitating for the progressive tax system that would better fund state education, transportation, and social safety net programs for the foreseeable future. Because we badly need such reforms, and because—for those of you worried about a mass shooting at a Bay State school—families that have a stable income are less likely to produce violent misogynists and racists and nazis (oh my!), since they won’t need to find scapegoats for economic instability anymore.

 

Progressive taxation will be a very hard reform to win in the Commonwealth, as I’ve written many times in the past. But then so will better gun control legislation. Yet both are needed if we are going to have a more just, stable, and safer society.

 

We’ve got our work cut out for us. So let’s get cracking.

 

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.

GRAND SCHEME

workers protesting

 

Mass legislature helps, harms workers in “deal” with labor and business lobbies

 

June 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

No sooner did the Supreme Judicial Court shoot down the “millionaires’ tax” referendum question last week than the Mass legislature rammed a so-called grand bargain bill (H 4640) through both chambers. A move aimed at shoring up tax revenue threatened by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts referendum question that is virtually certain to lower the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent if it should go before voters in November.

 

The house and senate did this by rapidly completing the brokering of a deal that had been in the works between pro-labor and pro-business forces on those issues for months. Giving each side something it wanted in exchange for encouraging the Raise Up Mass coalition to take its remaining two referendum questions—paid family and medical leave, and the $15 an hour minimum wage—off the table, and the retailers association to do the same with its sales tax cut question. Both organizations have not yet made the decision to do so.

 

If passed, the so-called grand bargain bill will give labor watered-down versions of its paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage ballot questions, and give business something that’s explicitly anti-labor: the end of time-and-a-half wages for people working Sundays and holidays, and their ability to legally refuse to work Sunday and holiday shifts.

 

While Gov. Charlie Baker still has to sign the bill, as of this writing it’s looking like he will do so. Soon.

 

Which is a pity because it’s not such a great deal for working people as written. True, the grand bargain does ensure that the state minimum wage will raise to $15 an hour for many workers. But it moves up to that rate from the current $11 an hour over five years, instead of the four years it would take with the referendum version. Plus it betrays tipped employees, whose wage floor will only rise from a pathetic $3.75 an hour now to a still pathetic $6.75 an hour by 2023. Keeping all the cards in the bosses’ hands in the biggest tipped sector, the restaurant industry. Although it’s worth mentioning that even the referendum version of the $15 an hour wage plan would have only raised tipped employees to $9 an hour. When what’s needed is a single minimum wage for all workers.

 

It also makes Massachusetts one of the first states in the nation to institute paid family and medical leave for many workers. Which is truly a noteworthy advance. Yet again, the referendum version is better for workers than the grand bargain version.

 

But legislators gave away another noteworthy advance from 20 years ago in the process: time-and-a-half wages for many employees who work on Sundays and holidays. Which will hurt some of the same people who the new minimum wage and paid and family medical leave will help.

 

Thus far, the labor-led Raise Up Massachusetts coalition has had mostly positive things to say about the deal. However, the main union representing supermarket workers—many of whom currently take Sunday and holiday shifts—is already vowing to torpedo the grand bargain. Even though their union contracts also mandate time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays. And they’ve resolved to take down legislators who backed it over their protest.

 

Jeff Bollen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, minced no words on the subject in a recent video message to his members:

 

“I am really pissed off at our state legislature for stabbing retail workers in the back by taking away time and a half on Sundays and holidays for all retail workers in Massachusetts.


“Remember, it was this local union in 1994 with big business and the retail association wanting to get rid of the blue laws; so they could open up their supermarkets, their big box stores, and their liquor stores and make money on Sundays that we fought hard to get a law passed to protect you, the retail worker. And we did.”

 

The supermarket union leader went on to explain that state lawmakers “panicked” when the millionaires’ tax was derailed and pushed through the grand bargain to avoid losing any more revenue from the referendum question to lower the sales tax. He swore the union was “going to remove those individuals that voted against you. We’re going to get them removed and replaced with pro-labor legislators who are going to fight for the rights of working people.” And defiantly concluded: “We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to try to get this whole thing repealed.”

 

How much support the UFCW can expect to get from the rest of the labor movement remains to be seen. But the fact is that some Bay State working families are going to suffer nearly as much pain as gain from the grand bargain.

 

Worse still, there’s a deeper problem with the bill. It potentially stops the retailers’ referendum drive to lower the sales tax—which they’ve definitely put on the ballot to ensure that big businesses make more profits. But it must not be forgotten that the sales tax is a regressive tax that disproportionately harms working families. And even though the state desperately needs money for many programs that help the 99 percent, it remains a bad way to raise funds compared to a progressive tax system that would force the rich to pay higher tax rates than everyone else. Like the federal government has done for over a hundred years.

 

Yet since the rich and their corporations continue to rule the roost in state politics, and since a state constitutional amendment would be required to allow a progressive tax system in Massachusetts, there is no way that is going to happen anytime soon. As I wrote last week, the millionaires’ tax would have at least increased the amount of progressivity in the tax system had it been allowed on the ballot (where it was projected to win handily). But business lobbies got the SJC to stop that move.

 

Given that, the revenue lost from a sales tax cut would really hurt in a period when many major state social programs are already being starved for funds.

 

Nevertheless, many working families will take a big hit from the grand bargain bill as written: They’ll see the full introduction of the $15 minimum wage delayed by an extra year, they’ll get a worse version of paid family and medical leave, they’ll lose time-and-a-half wages on Sundays and holidays, they’ll see the sales tax remain at 6.25 percent… and if they’re tipped employees, they’ll still be made to accept a lower minimum wage than the relevant ballot question would get them and still have to rely on customers to tip them decently and their bosses to refrain from skimming those tips.

 

So, it would behoove Raise Up Massachusetts and its constituent labor, community, and religious organizations to stay the course with the paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage referendum questions that are still slated to appear on the November ballot. And pro-labor forces should also be ready to lobby harder for a better deal should Gov. Baker refuse to sign the grand bargain bill.

 

Of course, it could very well be that the bill will be signed into law before this article hits the stands, and that labor and their allies will throw in the towel on their ballot questions. And that would be a shame.

 

Here’s hoping for a better outcome for Massachusetts workers. Even at this late date.

 

Note: Raise Up Massachusetts announced that it had accepted the “grand bargain” bill shortly before this article went to press on Tuesday evening (6.26), according to the Boston Business Journal.

 

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: UMB DRUBBING, PAWSOX GRUBBING

UMB DRUBBING, PAWSOX GRUBBING

 

University cuts and a (possible) corporate scam just in time for the holidays

 

November 27, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

UMass Boston admin lays off more staff, unions push back

The neoliberal war on public higher education continues unabated in Massachusetts as the UMass Boston administration announced the layoff of 36 personnel last week, and a reduction in hours for seven more. According to the Boston Globe, all of them are “staff who clean the school, help run academic programs, work in the student health office, or in other ways support the daily operations of the university. Some have worked there more than 30 years.” UMB had 2,095 employees in 2016, but has cut 130 jobs so far this year. The university serves over 16,000 students.

 

As of this writing, campus unions are planning protests. Hopefully, such actions will ultimately build a political movement capable of operationalizing the prescriptions of the fine report a coalition of UMB “students, staff unions, and faculty” released in September. Entitled “Crumbling Public Foundations: Privatization and UMass Boston’s Financial Crisis,” it lays the responsibility for the budget crisis currently engulfing the university at the feet of the UMB administration, the UMass Board of Trustees, and the state legislature.

 

As well it should. The legislature has been slashing the state higher ed budget since the 1980s. The board keeps raising the tuition and fees paid by students and families to cover the resulting gap. And the UMB administration continues increasing the number of high-level administrators with questionable job descriptions and fat paychecks who somehow rarely face layoffs—despite costing the school far more per capita than each of the low-level employees who keep getting axed of late. All while expanding the campus in ways that don’t always benefit the urban students that institution was built to serve… running up unsustainable debt loads in the process.

 

The report calls for five major reforms that its authors believe would set the campus to rights:

 

  1. UMass Boston should not be required to show a positive net income in its budget. Instead, it should be allowed to make debt payments using the reserves it’s been forced to build up for the last few years—and the Board of Trustees should “release Central Office reserves” to help with those payments. Rather than compelling students and their families to shoulder such costs through ever-increasing tuition and fees.
  2. The UMB administration should engage in an open and transparent planning process with faculty, staff, and students that will “ensure that the campus can continue to provide an affordable and diverse education along with appropriate support services to its students,” review interest and principal payments, and review the rapid increase in high-level administrator expenses.
  3. The UMass Board of Trustees should endorse the Fair Share Amendment that will levy an additional 4 percent income tax on millionaires and spend the money on public higher education, pre-K-12 education, and transportation if passed by binding statewide referendum next year.
  4. The Mass Legislature should cover the cost of rebuilding crumbling campus infrastructure.
  5. The Mass Legislature should annually increase appropriations for public higher education until we are at least on par with the national average based on our state’s wealth.  The Commonwealth is presently at the bottom of the pack for state appropriations for public higher ed.

 

The white paper concludes with a visionary sentiment that’s worth reprinting in full: “In considering these recommendations, we ask that we all—members of the Massachusetts legislature, the UMass Board of Trustees, UMass Boston’s administration, and the larger community of Boston—remember the purpose with which we are tasked. Chancellor John W. Ryan, at UMass Boston’s 1966 Founding Day Convocation, reminded those gathered that ‘we have an obligation to see that the opportunities we offer… are indeed equal to the best that private schools have to offer.’ This is the expectation that the citizens of our Commonwealth have for themselves and their family members when they come to UMass Boston. This is the responsibility that UMB staff, faculty, and administrators take on each day on behalf of our students. This should be what guides the decision of the Board of Trustees and the Mass legislature as we work to address the crisis at UMB.”

 

PawSox Worcester visit: boondoggle in the making?

Meanwhile, in faraway central Mass, my Worcester Magazine colleague Bill Shaner is tracking what could be another big giveaway of local and state money. Seems that the Pawtucket Red Sox—the BoSox Triple A affiliate team—have been courting Worcester for a few months and might be looking to move there in exchange for lashings of public lucre. Shaner reports that multiple sources said that Jay Ash, secretary of Gov. Baker’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, attended a meeting last week between Worcester officials and PawSox bigs. Though “City and PawSox officials both declined to comment on the meeting, or whether or not it took place.” While “Ash’s staff confirmed he was in Worcester Monday but couldn’t say what for.” All I can say for now is that, like some capitalist Santa Claus, whenever Ash appears corporate leaders can virtually always expect a yuuuuge present from the Bay State and any municipal government in range in the near future. So this nascent Woo-town deal is definitely worth watching.

 

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.