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WELFARE KINGS: BAKER MOVES TO MAKE CORPORATE GIVEAWAYS EVEN SWEETER

1826 APPARENT HORIZON

June 28, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

If you think that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston lavishing $270 million in tax breaks and direct aid on General Electric in exchange for moving their world headquarters to the Hubis unconscionable, you should realize that the deal is only a more extreme example of the existing government gravy train for corporations hereabouts. In fact, to focus on but one of several programs that give public money away to businesses for dubious reasons, the state government is already able to dole out a total of $30 million in Economic Development Incentive Program (EDIP) tax credits each year to all approved corporate applicants.

But that’s apparently not enough for Charlie Baker. The governor sponsored an economic development bill in January (H.4413, formerly H.3983) that will allow the EDIP cap to be boosted to $50 million a year whenever another big GE-style deal is in the offing. And with the House expected to vote on it this week and the Senate next week, the proposed legislation is well on its way to passage.

The tax credits in question are approved by the Economic Assistance Coordinating Council (EACC)—a14-member board consisting of seven gubernatorial appointees (representing six regions of the Commonwealth and one institution of higher education) and seven high-level state government officials (one of those seats being currently vacant). The EACC meets quarterly to approve EDIP credits, and local Tax Increment Financing (TIF) credits proposed by qualified municipalities.

Interestingly, as reported in the Boston Business Journal, General Electric did not go for EDIP tax credits to help finance its new world headquarters in Boston. “It’s not necessarily that GE did not want EDIP credits or that the state felt infrastructure grants alone were the most attractive package, according to [Mass Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay] Ash. It’s that the state’s options for GE under the current incarnation of EDIP were limited.”

Baker’s economic development bill would make things significantly less limited for companies like GE —or, as the press buzz would have it, for the “next General Electric.” Because the already undemocratic EDIP process, overseen as it is by unelected staffers and appointees on the EACC, would be made even more undemocratic in the case of what the bill calls an “extraordinary economic development opportunity.” In a manner that CEOs on the make will find most advantageous.

And what exactly is an extraordinary economic development opportunity? It’s the situation that arises when a giant corporation like GE wants extraordinary amounts of state money to site facilities in the Commonwealth. To paraphrase the bill, if the secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and the secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance agree that a corporation is going to build or rehabilitate a significant facility in Massachusetts, or relocate a business to Mass from a facility outside the Commonwealth—and either create at least 400 new jobs, or create at least 200 new jobs in a “gateway municipality” (state government speak for an economically depressed city) or in an adjacent city or town that is accessible by public transportation to residents of a gateway municipality—then it can be declared an extraordinary economic development opportunity and become eligible for much bigger EDIP tax credits than have been allowed heretofore. So large that the EEAC will be allowed to extend the total amount of EDIP credits it’s allowed to hand out in a single year from $30 million to as much as $50 million.

To clarify, let’s say that there are 29 companies each getting $1 million in EDIP tax credits in a particular year. Then a big company like GE comes along, and also qualifies for $1 million—which means that the EEAC has given out the $30 million in tax credits it’s allowed to disburse annually. Under H.4413, the big company can then be declared an extraordinary economic development opportunity and qualify for up to another $20 million. Reaching the special new cap of $50 million in EDIP credits for that year.

Two points to consider here:

  • First, the above bill language is clearly aimed at enticing large companies like GE to move major facilities here from another state. And perhaps GE is planning to go back to the public trough and apply for the newly expanded EDIP tax credits if the bill passes. One might even surmise that this language was written just for GE.
  • Second, such a move cannot be stopped by normal means. According to the bill, the “decision by the secretaries to designate or not to designate a proposed project as an extraordinary economic development opportunity shall be a decision that is within the sole discretion of each of the secretaries, and may include such conditions as the secretaries shall in their discretion impose.  Such decisions shall be final and shall not be subject to administrative appeal or judicial review under chapter 30A or give rise to any other cause of action or legal or equitable claim or remedy.”

Thus vast sums can be given away to big business by the Baker administration and its successors to favored corporations with no easy possibility of reversal.

Shocked? Outraged? Good. There’s still time to stop H.4413. Make GE Pay, the grassroots coalition that’s working to stop the GE Boston deal, has announced that they are working with Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D – Acton) and other legislators to remove—or at least improve—the EDIP cap section of the bill. Contact coalition coordinator Eli Gerzon (eligerzon@gmail.com) for details. And follow Make GE Pay on Twitter (@makeGEpay) and on their Facebook page (facebook.com/makeGEpay) to keep up with all the latest.

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

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

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

 

ADDENDUM

Since the list of current Economic Assistance Coordinating Council members is not on the Economic Development Incentive Program website, EDIP staff was kind enough to provide a copy upon request:

CY 2016 EACC Board Members

Director of the Office of Business Development (or Designee) – Co-Chair
Ms. Carolyn Kirk (Ex Officio)

Director of Department of Housing and Community Development (Designee) – Co-Chair
Mr. Louis A. Martin (designee) (Ex Officio)

Director of Career Services (or Designee)
Mr. Ken Messina (designee) (Ex Officio)

Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development (or Designee)
VACANT (designee) (Ex Officio)

Representative of MOBD designated by the Director of Office of Business Development
Mr. Nam Pham (Ex Officio)

Representative of MOBD designated by the Director of Office of Business Development
Ms. Annamarie Kersten (Ex Officio)

Director, Commonwealth Corp. (or Designee)
Ms. Rebekah Lashman (designee) (Ex Officio)

WESTERN REGION REP.
Ms. Kathleen Anderson (Governor)

CENTRAL REGION REP.
Mr. Paul F. Matthews (Governor)

EASTERN REGION REP.
Mr. Drake Behrakis (Governor)

SOUTHEASTERN REGION REP.
Ms. Jennifer Menard (Governor)

CAPE & ISLANDS REGION REP.
Mr. David Keator (Governor)

MERRIMACK VALLEY REP.
Mr. Joseph J. Bevilacqua (Governor)

Representative of Higher Educational Institute
Dr. Michael D. Goodman Ph.D. (Governor)

KILL SHOT: YEARS OF STATE AUSTERITY BUDGETS PUT UMASS BOSTON IN JEOPARDY

UMASS TOP

June 10, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS 

Community needs to join Faculty Staff Union movement for a return to full funding

There is only one appropriate response to the looming layoff of 400 unionized non-tenure track faculty at UMass Boston. Rebellion.

We are well past the era of shots across the budgetary bow of public higher education in the Commonwealth. We are now in the era of kill shots. It is not possible to eliminate roughly one-third of the faculty of a major research university without destroying that university. One cannot run a school without teachers, after all. Teachers who are already denied the possibility of secure, properly-paid, full-time, tenure track faculty jobs—as has become the dominant practice at colleges across America.

So, the threatened faculty, the remaining faculty, the staff, their Faculty Staff Union (Mass Teachers Association), the other campus unions, the alumni, and—most importantly—the students and their families have to essentially declare war on state government. Now. The entire UMass Boston community needs to demand proper funding for the school. Or risk losing everything that generations of Bostonians have fought for. A public university of our own with an “urban mission” to provide a top flight education to its residents with as little expense to them as possible.

The proximate cause of the crisis is a combined $22.3 million deficit that the UMass Boston administration recently announced for this fiscal year and next. Their unfortunate response is to propose: increasing class sizes, raising tuition (yet again), and savagely cutting faculty jobs.

But the ultimate cause is the long term starvation of the public higher education budget by the Mass legislature. According to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, state funding for public higher education has fallen from $1,339,713,711 in FY 2001 to $1,187,476,006 in FY 2016 (numbers adjusted for inflation)—an 11.4 percent drop. Yet it’s worse than that statistic makes it seem since the budget was well below the FY 2001 figure every year between then and now. Meaning that the system has lost more than a billion dollars over the last decade and a half.

Put another way, the ultimate cause is ideological. And that ideology has a name: neoliberalism. Its central precepts of fiscal austerity, privatization, deregulation, and union busting in the service of making the rich richer have been followed with near-religious intensity for decades by both major political parties in state governments and in the federal government alike.

In the present context, neoliberalism translates to refusing to fairly tax corporations and the rich—which would allow our public higher education system to be funded to a tolerable standard—trying to run colleges like for-profit businesses instead of nonprofit services, and transferring once-public costs to individual families. Forcing students to take out increasingly burdensome loans to stay in school. A recipe for disaster, if ever there was one.

Writ large over the entire state government, the neoliberal ideology has led to one crisis after another—in the public health system, in public K-12 education, in the public transportation systems, etc., etc. And will continue to do so until the disastrous course its political partisans have put us on is reversed by popular political action.

All signs point to a small increase (1-1.5 percent) in state spending on public higher ed in the final FY 2017 budget, but nowhere near enough to make up for the years of cuts. Or even to keep up with inflation, let alone forestall the crisis at UMass Boston.

Saving UMass Boston—and the Mass public higher ed system—is going to take a real struggle. The Faculty Staff Union and its allies are doing a fine job of protesting the cuts. But they need solidarity. Lots of it. The kind of movement required has to be statewide and systemwide. And even that probably won’t be enough. A reform of the necessary scale will need help from outside the public higher ed community. It will need the newly emboldened radicals from the Bernie Sanders campaign, #BlackLivesMatter and other rising social movements to join the fight.

That’s a tall order to be sure. But every journey starts with a first step. Here’s how you can help:

  1. Sign the UMass Boston Faculty Staff Union petition.
  2. Get on the “Stop the Hikes and Cuts” bus at UMass Boston on June 15 and join the UMB community in protesting the upcoming UMass Board of Trustees meeting.
  3. Drop an email to FSU@umb.edu to get more involved.

Pressure on the UMass Boston administration is already mounting. That might explain why UMB Chancellor Keith Motley told the Boston Herald this week that “he has not approved any cuts on campus and that most staff who received pink slips would be called back for the fall.” Cold comfort for the 400 faculty members currently in limbo, unsure of whether they should start preparing for classes as usual—or continue looking for new gigs in a tight academic job market. And with UMass President Marty Meehan guaranteeing that budget cuts are coming to the entire UMass system by July, it doesn’t seem like Motley will be able to avoid finalizing the faculty layoffs for very long.

Unless he proposes cutting the often-outrageous administration salaries across the board to help balance the budget as public higher ed advocates have long suggested. Wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.

For a community perspective on the crisis at UMass Boston, check out the testimonial from recent graduate Cady Vishniac.

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

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

AUSTERITY BUDGET, PART 4

Untitled drawing (2)

June 6, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The Worst of the Senate FY 2017 State Budget Proposal

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

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

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

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

Environment & Recreation

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

Public Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#makeGEpay Budget Amendment Filed in MA Senate; Advocates Encourage Public Support [an Apparent Horizon breaking news report]

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May 25, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The #makeGEpay advocacy network — including Jewish Voice for Peace-Boston and dozens of other local community organizations — just announced that Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) has filed a “Community Benefits for Corporate Tax Breaks” amendment to the Massachusetts Senate’s budget proposal. If included in the final state budget, it would mandate that any part of state government that gives $25 million or more to a corporation “for the explicit purpose of economic development or job creation, shall provide at least 5 per cent of that total expenditure for the purpose of providing affordable housing in communities in the regional planning area where that corporation is located.”

The amendment was filed in response to what critics call giveaways to major corporations like General Electric — which was recently promised over $145 million in state grants and incentives with no public oversight (and over $125 million more from the City of Boston). It’s co-sponsored by Senators Barbara L’Italien (D-Andover) and Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford). Full text is available here.

Advocates are encouraging Mass residents to call your state senator and ask them to “support amendment 836 cosponsored by Senator Eldridge.”

To find out who your rep is and what their number is use this website:http://wheredoivotema.com/bal/MyElectionInfo.aspx/.

They also recommend that people tweet support of amendment 836 using the #makeGEpay and #SenBudget hashtags.

  

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

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

AUSTERITY BUDGET, PART 3

Untitled drawing

May 24, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

Environment & Recreation

House proposal

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

SWMC proposal

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

Public Health

House proposal

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

SWMC proposal

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

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

House proposal

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

SWMC proposal

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

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

House proposal

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

SWMC proposal

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

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

House proposal

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

SWMC proposal

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

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

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

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

 
 

ECONOMIC VIOLENCE: VERIZON CUTS OFF HEALTH CARE BENEFITS TO STRIKERS AND THEIR FAMILIES

VERIZON PIC

May 6, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As the Verizon strike enters its fourth week, the 39,000 union members on picket lines up and down the East Coast—and now taking their campaign nationwide—are continuing to hold fast for a better contract than the giant corporation has thus far been willing to offer. But a strike is no walk in the park. Not in the America of 2016. On May 1, International Workers’ Day,  Verizon cut off health care benefits to the strikers and their familiesan estimated 110,000 people overall. And while the two unions organizing the strike—Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—have socked away millions to pay strike benefits, helped members file for expensive stopgap COBRA health insurance, and even offered to pay medical expenses for members outright in the case of CWA, many people with chronic conditions are being put at serious risk of having their medical care disrupted. With potentially dire consequences.

Yet it’s difficult to find mentions of this vicious move by Verizon in the major American press. Coverage of the issue has been spotty at best. Despite it being a great example of why working families need proper national healthcare. Almost like it was not news at all. Even in centers of strike activity like Boston.

That’s a problem. When there are big layoffs by large companies owned by extraordinarily wealthy people, when wages are slashed, when huge numbers of jobs are outsourced to countries with even worse labor standards than our diminishing protections here in the US, much of the news media treats these tremendous crises for working people as mere footnotes to the much more important coverage of corporate bottom lines.

If any criticisms are raised—usually in passing and rhetorically—they are generally dismissed with easy answers. As with the 12,000 workers currently being laid off by microchip titan Intel. A recent and very typical article in The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s newspaper of record, discusses the 2150 expected layoffs in their state matter-of-factly—explaining that Intel is “Oregon’s largest private employer and pays some of the state’s best wages.” So the loss of so many good paying jobs is really going to hurt the regional economy. But the piece then goes on to say that “Intel is a hugely profitable company—and a growing one.” It has other exciting divisions doing lots of whiz-bang things. Sure, those divisions are not necessarily in Oregon or even in the US—Intel being yet another multinational with robust manufacturing operations in low-wage countries like India—and it’s not at all clear that workers in those other divisions will make money as good as the laid-off American chip workers made. Nonetheless, the basic message of such articles is that “the market will take care of it.” Jobs will be lost here, but gained back elsewhere. Then all will be well and right with the world again.

But “the market” doesn’t take care of working families. It takes care of owners and top executives and big investors. Who use their massive and growing profits in this New Gilded Age to rig the political and economic systems to focus on their interests. Not everyone else’s.

 

That’s why Verizon’s union workers are on strike. It’s gotten to the point where they have no choice. In large part because the company has been doing its level best to wipe out its unions since its formation in 2000. To remove the last obstacle to allowing its management the freedom to do what so many non-unionized American companies are able to do to their workforces with impunity: ship many once-decent jobs abroad, and turn the rest into part-time, contract and temp jobs. Hiring people when they need them, and getting rid of them with impunity when they don’t. With no promise or expectation of good wages, benefits or job security.

All of these corporate moves are best described as economic violence. Because they destroy lives. And for all the criticism that labor gets for being unreasonable on the still-too-rare occasions that it mounts more than symbolic protests, unions like CWA and IBEW are remarkably restrained in the face of that ongoing violence. Hands tied by decades of anti-labor legislation, they limit their responses to those allowed by law: withholding their labor for as long as possible, picketing Verizon properties, “mobile picketing” (following scabs to worksites and talking to consumers about the strike), encouraging the public to boycott Verizon Wireless, and gamely waging PR battles in an often dismissive pro-corporate press. Trying to win enough hearts and minds to convince Verizon management that settling with the union is cheaper than letting the strike drag on.

Which might work this time as it has in several past strikes. But it’s getting harder for unions like CWA and IBEW as the years go by and their membership continues to shrink at the hands of mercenary profit-hungry companies like Verizon. They’re in a very difficult situation. But there’s one thing that readers can easily do to help expedite Verizon union workers’ herculean task of defending what they have while fighting to expand the labor movement back to some semblance of its former strength: When you hear about economic violence by bosses against workers, spread the word. Tell your friends, family and workmates. Don’t let atrocities like cutting health care benefits on striking workers remain a footnote in the national discourse. Make some noise. Then do the same at your own workplace when things get tough. Learn from Verizon’s unions. Fight back however you can. And in a few years, labor conditions might start finally improving for American workers again.

Readers who would like to support the Verizon strikers should visit standuptoverizon.com

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

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

AUSTERITY BUDGET: PART 2

HOUSE PIC

April 28, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environment & Recreation

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

Housing

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

Transitional Assistance

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

Other Human Services

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

Economic Development

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

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

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

 
 

STRIKE MATTERS: VERIZON’S UNION EMPLOYEES FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS

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Photo by Jason Pramas

April 22, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

BOSTON –  From the St. James Avenue side of Copley Square on Thursday afternoon, passers-by could be forgiven for wondering what the group of 300 people in red T-shirts opposite them was cheering about. If they were told that they were seeing the front lines of a desperate battle for the future of the American working class, they wouldn’t believe it. But the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members and their families did not turn out for a nice day in the sun. They were there to fight.

The general public may be aware that 39,000 unionized Verizon workers (out of a total of 178,000) have been out on strike for a few days—including many here in Boston. But the vast majority of onlookers don’t understand the stakes.

Verizon (officially Verizon Communications, Inc.) is no ordinary company. Rather it’s a vast telecommunications conglomerate that has benefited hugely from government tax breaks, subsidies, and a favorable regulatory climate since it was created in 2000 out of the merger of Bell Atlantic (which had only recently merged with fellow “Baby Bell” NYNEX) and GTE.

It has two major businesses: its traditional wireline service, based on the old copper wire phone system and the newer fiber optic FiOS service (weirdly coming soon to Boston six years after Verizon said it would stopping building it out in any new cities). That’s where virtually all of the company’s 39,000 unionized workers are employed. Then it has Verizon Wireless—which was originally a joint venture of Bell Atlantic and the British telecom Vodafone, bought outright by Verizon in 2014. Only a handful of its wireless employees are currently unionized.

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Photo by Jason Pramas

Basically, Verizon leadership wants to focus on its extremely profitable wireless division and cut back its wireline service. The numbers show why. According to Fortunemagazine, “Wireless now brings in the vast majority of the company’s sales and profits. Last year, for example, the wireless unit brought in revenue of $91.7 billion, up 5% from a year earlier, and an operating profit of nearly $30 billion. The older wireline unit, which also includes wired video and Internet service, brought in revenue of only $37.7 billion, a 2% decline from the year before, and an operating profit of just $2.2 billion.”

Unfortunately, Verizon—like so many companies these days (our “new Boston neighbors” at General Electric spring to mind)—is a world class tax dodger and loves soaking the government for free handouts. According to the nonprofit Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2013, the corporation made over $42 billion in profits, received a $732 million tax break (an effective federal tax rate of -2 percent), and paid almost $1.3 billion in state taxes (an effective state tax rate of 3 percent).  In the same period, it made almost $4 billion in foreign profits and paid $274 million in taxes (an effective foreign tax rate of 7 percent). And this year? In the first quarter of 2016, Verizon has made $4.31 billion in profits.

According to the nonprofit Good Jobs First, Verizon has also received about $149 million in state and federal subsidies. Free money. And about $1.5 billion in federal loans, loan guarantees, and bailout assistance. Almost free money.

The nonprofit Americans for Tax Fairness adds: “Verizon also reported $1.9 billion in accumulated offshore profits in 2012, on which it paid no U.S. income taxes … Verizon raked in $956 million in federal contracts in 2011, according to the federal government. It also recently landed a new nine-year government-wide contract worth up to $5 billion to provide communications services and equipment to federal agencies.”

So Verizon is filthy rich with help from its friends in the government. Just like its predecessor, AT&T, in the days of “natural monopoly” before its 1984 breakup into regional Baby Bells. Unlike the old AT&T, though, Verizon is not interested in putting up with a unionized workforce in exchange for what are approaching monopoly profits in markets it and the handful of other remaining telecoms dominate. It has eliminated thousands of unionized jobs since 2000. How many? There were 85,000 unionized Verizon workers on strike in that year. There are 39,000 now. Do the math.

Photo by Jason Pramas

Photo by Jason Pramas

This brings us to the central issue of the strike. Verizon wants to convert lots of decent jobs—unionized and ununionized—to contract jobs. Many of them abroad. Union leaders recently told CNN Money: “Verizon has outsourced 5,000 jobs to workers in Mexico, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic.” The company is also “hiring more low-wage, non-union contractors.” Increasing wages, minimizing out-of-pocket health costs, preserving job security, keeping traditional pensions, and stopping forced out-of-state work transfers are all very important issues, too. And certainly worthy of more discussion in these pages. But, as ever, contingent work is a dagger pointed at the throat of organized labor. According to Computerworld, the Trade Adjustment Assistance forms that workers losing their jobs due to outsourcing file with the US Department of Labor show that offshoring jobs is indeed proceeding apace at Verizon—despite management denials.

Once jobs have left the US, it’s highly unlikely they’re coming back. And if it’s hard for unions to organize units like Verizon Wireless now, it’s nearly impossible to organize workers transnationally. Similarly, once “regular” full-time jobs with benefits have been replaced with lousy part-time, contract and other contingent jobs, it’s very difficult to convert them back. And it’s extremely difficult to organize contingent workers into unions or other types of labor organizations.

That is why this strike matters to all American workers. If well organized and militant union members at Verizon—who have gone on strike against the company and its predecessors in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2011 and now—can’t stop the outsourcing and destruction of decent jobs, unorganized workers spread across the planet in industries like telecommunications will find the task insurmountable.

Yet that’s where we’re heading. The end of traditional labor unions. The end of decent jobs. The war of all against all. This is where latter day capitalism is taking us. Unless we help good unions like CWA and IBEW win this strike, and start expanding the labor movement again. This isn’t about “the dignity of labor,”as the Boston Globe would have it. It’s about class war. Working people didn’t start it. But we sure as hell had better finish it. Before it finishes us.

Readers who would like to support the Verizon strikers should visit standuptoverizon.com

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

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

 
 

AUSTERITY BUDGET: BAKER HITS STUDENTS, HOMELESS, POOR, EVERYBODY BUT THE RICH WITH FY17 BUDGET PROPOSAL

Blend

February 25, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

If you’re a working person, and you want to understand the annual Massachusetts state budget process, the best resource to consult is the Mass Budget and Policy Center (MBPC). It issues timely reports detailing every major budget proposal and wrapping up each final budget. And it keeps the interests of the Bay State’s working families front and center. All while providing much-needed historical perspective to numbers that are often presented ahistorically by state leadership and much of the press corps. Governor Charlie Baker’s most recent budget proposal was released in late January, with MBPC’s report, “Analyzing the Governor’s FY 2017 Budget,” following soon afterwards. Naturally, I’ll be using it as my source for most of this column.

Baker is said to be a nice guy. But he’s also a neoliberal’s neoliberal—handing out millions to giant multinational corporations like General Electric with one hand while cutting critical social spending with the other. So it’s no surprise that MBPC called his budget proposal—known as “House 2” in this second year of the Commonwealth’s two-year legislative cycle—an “austerity budget.” As has become depressingly typical in the United States of the early 21st century, tax increases on the rich and corporations are so far off the table that you have to go to Sweden to even hear the barest rumor of such an idea. Or at least you did until Raise Up Massachusetts started its constitutional amendment campaign to tax the rich and Bernie Sanders started getting serious airtime. The lack of progressive taxation at the state and federal levels leaves the Mass government continually starved for funds, and the annual budget process turns into an exercise somewhat akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

The resulting budget proposal is therefore too harsh to break up into the kind of “good, bad” typology that may be appropriate for happier times. I’ll instead employ a more realistic categorization of the main budget lines into The Bad, The Mixed, and The Cops. The last category because one can’t help but notice that budget lines that fund police seem to increase with more regularity than other lines. I’m sure the police forces in question still never think they’re getting enough cash. But I respectfully disagree.

Although the list of budget lines below seems long, it is an extremely basic overview of the Baker proposal—provided here in the public interest. If you have some free time, and you really want to get a handle on the intricacies of the Mass state budget, I highly recommend reading the entire MBPC report. Or going directly to the source and wading through the full proposal.

For the quick and dirty summary, read on …

THE BAD

K-12 Education

To quote a special MBPC report on the FY 2017 K-12 education funding proposal: “The Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 education funding formula aims to ensure that every child in every district can receive an adequate baseline education. […] For FY 2017, the Governor proposes increasing Chapter 70 aid by $72.1 million over last year (1.6 percent).” This is the lowest increase since the 2008 recession. In addition, due to a new method of counting low-income students, the proposal ends up cutting or level-funding Chapter 70 aid for some communities—potentially causing local funding crises. One city under threat is Attleboro—which is slated to see only a .56 percent K-12 budget increase when municipal funds are included. School Finance Director Marc Furtado told the Sun Chronicle that amount is “not enough to cover increased costs in health insurance—never mind salaries, special education, maintenance and other items.” Closing the budget gap could require asking teachers to forego pay raises of 2-3 percent, making all students pay for busing and sports fees, and eliminating after-school programs in the middle schools. Other affected cities and towns will be even worse off.

Higher Education

The public higher education system in Massachusetts includes the University of Massachusetts system, the state university system, and the community college system—all of which have been woefully underfunded for over two decades. Resulting in huge increases in tuition and fees in that period. The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal cuts $6.3 million (.5 percent) from current FY 2016 levels.

Environment and Recreation

The FY 2017 budget proposal cuts $14.9 million (7 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. This includes a $4.4 million cut (15 percent) from the Department of Environmental Protection, a $2.1 million cut (14.4 percent) from the Hazardous Waste Clean-Up program, and a $9.2 million cut from State Parks and Recreation. In that last case, the budget proposes that the Department of Conservation and Recreation retain $19.2 million that it collects from parking, camping, and entry feels—which lowers the cut to $6 million.

State Employee Health Insurance

The FY 2017 budget proposal tries to shift more state employee health costs onto state workers—increasing the share of health insurance premiums paid by employees hired before 2003 from 20 percent to 25 percent. Baker also wants to increase the share of retired state employees health premiums from 20 percent to 25 percent. The two moves would save $33 million. State retirees are definitely at risk with this plan, and long term current employees will take an effective pay cut.

Housing

The FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a $20.1 million increase (4.32 percent) from current FY 2016 levels. But actual FY 2016 is slated to be higher than planned, making it a $6 million cut (1.29 percent). Most of that cut falls upon the Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program that serves over 4,000 homeless families with a $36.8 million increase over the FY 2016 budget, but $6 million less than the actual amount being spent on the program in this fiscal year.

Juvenile Justice

The FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a slight decrease in funding for juvenile justice programs run by the Department of Youth Services (DYS) below current FY 2016 levels. Most DYS programs are level-funded or decreased from last year.

Transitional Assistance

These programs help low-income individuals and families meet their basic needs and improve their quality of life when faced with an emergency. They used to be called welfare—rather than the current Orwellian appellation “transitional assistance.” The FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a decrease of $18.2 million in funding below current FY 2016 levels.

Other Human Services

These programs include supports for veterans, funding for the Soldiers’ Homes, and a few particular cross-agency initiatives. The FY 2017 budget proposal calls for level-funding veterans services (including the Soldiers’ Homes) with a $2.3 million decrease in funding for administration at the Soldiers’ Homes. The Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), a state supplement to federal funding for a network of food banks, is not being funded enough to keep up with inflation—while the demand at area food banks has been increasing.

Economic Development

These programs aim to strengthen the state’s workforce, support community investments, and stimulate economic activity. The FY 2017 budget proposes a decrease to economic development programs of $16.3 million (11 percent) from current FY 2016 levels.

Transportation

To directly quote the MBPC governor’s budget report: “In the Governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal, the most significant change for transportation is a $30.9 million reduction to the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund as compared to the current FY 2016 budget. This fund contributes to highways, transit, intercity rail, small airports, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Motor Vehicle Registry, while also receiving funds from the Commonwealth Transportation Trust Fund, tolls, and federal transportation sources. The proposed FY 2017 amount of $327.7 is 8.6 percent below the current FY 2016 budget of $358.5 million, which itself had been reduced $6.5 million by the Governor’s January 9c cuts.”

THE MIXED

Early Education

These programs prepare children for K-12 education. The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a small increase of .8 percent over this year, less than the expected rate of inflation.

MassHealth (Medicaid) and Health Reform

The governor’s budget calls for $15.41 billion for MassHealth programs, and $157.9 million for MassHealth administration and operations, an increase of 5 percent. The proposal does not ask for any cuts to member eligibility or benefits, but has a variety of strategies to control costs—including freezing rates for most providers (with the exception of behavioral health and substance abuse), and directing members to lower-cost health care. However, the proposal does not include insuring an increased number of members. Rather it seeks to maintain enrollment at 1.89 million members and hold MassHealth cost increases to 5 percent. This is problematic because, despite the relative success of the program, there are still too many Mass residents who don’t have health insurance.

Mental Health

The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposes an increase of $12.8 million (1.7 percent) over current FY 2016 levels, barely enough to cover inflation. But there is an increase in funding for residential behavioral health treatment for drug addicts.

Public Health

The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal increases this line by $7.9 million (1.35 percent) over current FY2016 levels. The main increase is $9.3 million (7.1 percent) more for funding for substance abuse programs in the Department of Public Health. This still level-funds most of the state’s substance abuse programs, but increases funding for the Bureau of Substance Abuse by $9.1 million to support an increased level of prevention and treatment. Most other public health programs are level funded or cut.

Child Welfare

Given the recent scandals in the Department of Children and Families, the governor’s budget proposes a 5.1 percent increase over the current FY 2016 appropriated total for child welfare services. Mainly for more caseworkers, administration, and oversight. However, DCF spending estimates for the remainder of FY 2016 are expected to be $16.8 million more than current appropriations; so a supplemental budget appropriation may be needed this fiscal year.

Elder Services

The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a slight increase to funding at $267.9 million. A major part of the plan for Elder Services is to combine some of the major accounts that provide funding for elder home care services—resulting in a slight decrease of about $770,000 for those services. Elder Protective Services—which investigates elder abuse and neglect—would see a $5 million increase. Grants to the Council on Aging—which provides grants to local council on aging centers that provide services to and advocates for elders—would see a decrease of $850,000.

Disability Services

These programs provide a range of services for people with disabilities. The governor’s FY 2017 budget proposal calls for a 2.7 increase from current FY 2016 levels. A number of the programs are being level-funded or cut, including services for people aging with developmental disabilities, people with autism spectrum disorders, and young adults with disabilities during their transition year from youth services upon turning 22.

Pensions

Here I’ll again quote the MBPC budget report: “In his FY 2017 budget proposal, the Governor recommends increasing the state’s contribution to the Pensions Reserves Investment Trust (PRIT) Fund by $226.1 million to a total of $2.20 billion. This represents an increase of 11.5 percent over the $1.97 billion contributed to the PRIT in FY 2016. This annual appropriation is in accordance with the 1988 state law that requires the Commonwealth to set aside money in the present in order to fund the future pension costs of public employees. The specific amounts to be contributed annually to the PRIT are stipulated in Massachusetts General Law, with a five year schedule included therein, running from FY 2012 through FY 2017.”

THE COPS

General Local Aid

These programs help cities and towns fund vital local services such as police and fire protection, parks, and public works. The FY 2017 budget proposes to increase Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) by $42 million (4.3 percent) over current FY 2016 levels.

Prisons, Probation and Parole

The FY 2017 budget proposes to roughly level-fund prisons, probation, and parole services for $1.36 billion. Of special note, the Essex County, Bristol County, Plymouth County, and Norfolk County Sheriffs’ Departments would receive increases of 10 to 20 percent above FY 2016 levels.

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

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