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Maura Healey

TOWNIE: AIRLINES SUING, UMASS SCREWING

TOWNIE: AIRLINES SUING, UMASS SCREWING

 

Corporate attack on workers rights and a corporate-style attack on UMB by UMA

 

If there’s one thing I think people should do every day, it’s read the business press. Because that’s where you see how the world runs. A world that naturally includes Massachusetts.

 

Airlines sue Mass over sick time law

Case in point, Airlines for America—a coalition that includes JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, American Airlines, and several other carriers, according to the Boston Globe business section—sued Mass Attorney General Maura Healey last week over a 2015 law that guarantees sick leave to many Bay State workers. Including airline employees. “Now surely,” you’re all doubtless thinking, “an industry that wouldn’t exist were it not for decades of massive government subsidies couldn’t possibly consider doing anything that might hurt its workers by attacking a government program that helps them.” But no, the airlines are totally doing that. It’s what big corporations always do to their workers. Along with endless union busting.

 

According to the Mass.gov Earned Sick Time page, the law states that most workers “in Massachusetts have the right to earn and use up to 40 hours of job-protected sick time per year to take care of themselves and certain family members. Workers must earn at least one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked.” It further states that employers “with 11 or more employees must provide paid sick time. Employers with fewer than 11 employees must provide earned sick time, but it does not need to be paid.” Employers can “ask for a doctor’s note or other documentation only in limited circumstances.”

 

The airlines are basically trying to argue—in the fashion of sadly deceased comic Phil Hartman in the role of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer—that the Mass sick time law “frightens and confuses” them. And that with all the billions of dollars they either gouge out of travelers or simply have the federal government hand them whenever they cry poverty, they can’t possibly figure out how to sync up all their various state, national, and international sick time laws they’ve already handled for decades with the Commonwealth’s more decent law. Despite, you know, computers.

 

Bottom line, they want an exemption from the law to make slightly bigger profits and escape regulation, and they’re suing Healey to get their way. Claiming it’s unconstitutional and shouldn’t apply to airlines. The same thing they did in Washington State in February, according to the Seattle Times.

 

The AG should have fun with this one. But readers can give her a hand by calling up the airlines and their front group and telling them to stop attacking the Commonwealth’s sick leave program.

 

UMass Boston suffers more cuts while UMass Amherst buys Mount Ida College

A couple of related developments in the UMass system over the last several days. First, UMass Amherst is buying the private Mount Ida College in Newton for $37 million, according to WBUR. It plans to use the campus as a base for Boston-area internships and co-ops for its students. The school will also assume Mount Ida’s debt of up to $70 million.

 

The situation is widely viewed as an unfortunate attack on UMass Boston turf by the more “elite,” better-funded, and melanin-challenged UMass Amherst. With UMB faculty, staff, and students; higher ed experts; and the editorial boards of publications from the Boston Globe to the Lowell Sun asking why it’s necessary for UMA to spend big money on a separate suburban campus to connect its students to Boston. Especially given that there’s already the perfectly good but woefully underfunded UMass Boston campus in the city itself. Which could certainly use an injection of tens of millions of dollars from any source of late.

 

Speaking of which, second, UMass Boston is slashing the budget of 17 of its research centers by $1.5 million, including the famed veteran-focused William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, as part of its attempt to get out from under the $30 million in mostly new construction-related deficit it’s been saddled with by a state government that insists on running its colleges like individual businesses. Rather than branches of a single statewide public service.

 

It’s worth mentioning, as I do on a regular basis, that we need to move the state and nation to the kind of fully public higher education system that many other countries have. Which spends sufficient tax money to guarantee every US resident a K-20 education. And tells private schools like Harvard that they can only remain private if they stop taking public money.

 

That’s the only way we’re going to stop this kind of spectacle. Where two parts of the same state public university system—one, Amherst, that primarily serves middle-class white suburban students, and one, Boston, that primarily serves working-class urban students of color—work at cross-purposes to one another. Amherst with a larger budget, and Boston with a smaller one. Separate and unequal.

 

For the moment, readers can help out by joining me in signing the petition to save the William Joiner Institute at change.org. And those so inclined can protest the Mount Ida College sale to UMass Amherst at the Board of Higher Education meeting on April 24. But I think critical calls and emails to UMass President Marty Meehan will likely be most effective. You can find his contact page on the massachusetts.edu website.

 

Check out TOWNIE EXTRA: YASER MURTAJA, PRESENTE! here.

 

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

EVERSOURCE SCREWS MASS CONSUMERS

EVERSOURCE SCREWS MASS CONSUMERS

 

With a little help from its friends, the “regulators” at the Department of Public Utilities

 

December 5, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It is perhaps understandable that one of the most important Massachusetts news stories of the year was buried in the avalanche of reports coming out of Washington last week. But Eversource Energy, a large investor-owned utility serving much of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, just got a big rate hike approved by the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Utilities Commission. This despite strong opposition from Mass Attorney General Maura Healey—who believes the company should be forced to cut its rates, rather than being allowed to needlessly accumulate more profits on the backs of consumers.

 

According to Commonwealth magazine, “Eversource Energy won approval to hike power rates $36.9 million a year for its 1.4 million electricity customers, a slimmed-down boost from the company that initially requested a $96 million increase.” A situation the company had the temerity to complain about when it has already been making solid profits under the rate system that has been in place since 2005. The new rates—which will slam Western Mass especially hard—are slated to go into effect on Jan 1 and last until 2022.

 

Healey, for her part, said the 10 percent shareholder return the rate increase includes is “one of the highest in the country” for a publicly regulated utility, according to the Boston Herald. And Eversource has some serious rate-related skeletons in its closet, it seems. Even as its rent-seeking drama played out at the DPU, the AG started looking into recent allegations by the Environmental Defense Fund that the Eversource and fellow regional utility Avangrid, Inc. rigged gas pipeline reservations on frigid winter days to artificially drive up electric and gas prices to its customers. Then, according to The Republican, shortly after that charge was leveled several New England residents, represented by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, filed a related class action suit against Eversource and Avangrid for using the pipeline scheme to cause “electricity consumers to incur overcharges of $3.6 billion in a years-long scheme that impacted six states and affected 14.7 million people.”

 

There is much that can be said about how problematic it is to have former energy industry lawyers like DPU Commission Chair Angela M. O’Connor and DPU Commissioner Cecile M. Fraser—both appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker (Fraser only in July with the Eversource rate hike vote looming)—playing the role of corporate foxes guarding the chicken coop of the public trust. It’s also worth mentioning that the third commissioner, Robert Hayden, was a longtime DPU staffer—and ran for the Mass 10th Congressional seat as a conservative Republican in 2010 on a “small government” platform, according to the Barnstable Patriot. So don’t expect much consumer protection to come from his corner either. But even if the three-person DPU Commission was all pro-consumer, we’d still have to deal with the structural crisis of energy conglomerates using their money and political clout to continue to make state government dance to whatever tune they care to play.

 

For example, Eversource and other investor-owned utilities have remained extremely hostile to the new wave of renewable energy options. Especially solar, which they have consistently lobbied heavily and successfully against to prevent it from becoming widespread enough to potentially break their regional monopolies.

 

Reining in such entrenched corporate utilities will take a long, hard fight by a broad coalition of consumers and local governments. But there is one seemingly small change to state law that would go a long way toward winning such a conflict. A group called the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice (MAMEC), led by Lexington resident Patrick Mehr, got state legislators to file an important “muni choice” bill with significant support from dozens of cities, towns, and major stakeholder organizations around the state no less than eight times in 16 years between 2000 and 2016. If passed, it would have struck language from state law that gives investor-owned utilities like Eversource veto power over the establishment of new municipal electric utilities in the Commonwealth. It was shot down all eight times by the cheap and oft-used device of sending each attempt into “study.” Basically the same thing as killing the bill without as much PR blowback for state pols in the pocket of major corporations.

 

Turns out that 41 cities and towns in Massachusetts already have municipal—that is, publicly owned and managed—utilities. And advocates like MAMEC say they provide generally better service and, more to the point, significantly cheaper rates than energy corporations like Eversource. Sadly, the last new muni utility came online in 1926. It will take passage of a muni choice bill to allow more cities and towns to exercise that option.

 

MAMEC and its allies may have lost many battles against powerful, well-connected foes. But that doesn’t mean the idea of expanding the number of muni utilities is a bad one. Far from it. Because every new muni that comes online is another stake in the heart of the greedy, environmentally destructive, investor-owned utilities that will keep taking Mass consumers for a ride until they are brought to heel. Failing that, consumers can expect to get spanked with regular and ever more painful rate hikes for the foreseeable future.

 

So, I encourage readers to get active in the fight for a more fair, democratic, and environmentally conscious regional energy system. Working to get more public-spirited DPU commissioners seated is certainly a good interim goal. But creating a larger network of publicly owned and managed municipal energy utilities will go further down the road toward extricating us from the structural mess we’re in thanks to the big investor-owned utilities like Eversource. Though even that won’t solve all the myriad problems with our current byzantine system of electricity generation and distribution.

 

Regardless, check out MAMEC at massmunichoice.org. Patrick Mehr told me that the group remains active, and it seems like a good starting place for those of you who don’t want to continue to take rate hikes lying down.

 

Frankly, increased public pressure on Eversource and other investor-owned utilities in our region cannot come soon enough. Turns out the recent rate hikes are only the first part of the DPU order relating to Eversource. The second part is being released on Dec 31, according to a DPU press release, and advocates are warning that even worse rate shenanigans are in the works. So, find a good group working for utility reform and join it, or start your own utility reform group… or continue to be a victim of price gouging by investor-owned utilities. Those are your options. Choose wisely.

 

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.