With Happy Hour Amendment, Senator Hedlund Played His Cards Well

Friday, October 28, 2011

If there were a "Champion of an Uncomfortable Truth" award in Massachusetts politics, State Senator Bob Hedlund would win it this year.

A Republican from Weymouth, Hedlund wants to amend the casino bill to make it legal for bars and restaurants in Massachusetts to offer patrons free or discounted drinks if casinos are allowed to do the same.

When he proposed it earlier this month during Senate debate on the bill, it looked like kind of a strange move for someone of Hedlund's philosophical bent. He was a lead sponsor in 2005, after all, of "Melanie's Law," which significantly increased the penalties for drunk driving.

And just this week, Hedlund was a featured speaker at a State House event in support of a bill that would require anyone convicted of drunk driving, even first offenders, to have a lock on his car's ignition preventing the vehicle from starting if alcohol were detected on the driver's breath.

Some skeptics immediately speculated that Hedlund was pushing a "Happy Hour Amendment" because he co-owns a Braintree restaurant called Four Square and wants to attract more elbow-benders to his business.

Not at all, Hedlund calmly responded, Four Square has no desire or plan to offer happy hours, which were banned in Massachusetts in 1984 following a series of ghastly drunk driving-related fatalities, and would not do so if they were re-legalized.

His only motive for bringing the issue forward, he explained, was to level the field on which casinos will be newly competing with restaurants and bars for the limited recreational and entertainment dollars of Massachusetts residents. If casinos will be able to feed free drinks to gamblers, as they clearly want to do, restaurants and bars should be able to do the same, he reasoned.

In a legislature where members have an unwritten policy of referring to casino legislation as the "gaming bill" -- never the gambling bill -- most folks were not happy to be discussing how gaming establishments will be loosening up their customers with free booze, even though it's been that way so long at casinos that people seldom comment on the practice.

Hedlund opposes the casino bill, so I think it's fair to surmise he's trying to turn the tradition of free casino drinks, judo style, into a weapon against the bill. For that, I give him a warm round of applause. Because not only is Hedlund smart on the politics, he's also right on the principle:

The Commonwealth should not make it easy for casinos to get their customers stupid any more than it should make it easy for someone to get loaded at a bar before driving home. Unless, of course, casinos want to provide free rides home to every gambler.

Romney Must Fall Asleep Wondering, Why Can't I Shake Herman Cain?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If you understand why the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States is going the way it is, please clue me in.

How did we get to where we are today, with the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, he who holds two advanced degrees from Harvard, running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with Herman Cain, a motivational speaker who's never held public office?

Is Romney such a weak candidate or Cain such a strong one?

If we could make a transcript of Romney's thought bubbles, they might sound something like Jon Lovitz, playing Mike Dukakis in that old Saturday Night Live skit, as he pauses in debate with Dana Carvey's loquacious-but-incomprehensible George H.W. Bush to marvel to himself:

"I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

The New York Times published a great article on Cain this past Sunday, ("Cain, Now Running as Outsider, Came to Washington as Lobbyist," 10/23/11), exploring his success as chief executive of the National Restaurant Association (1996-99).

The former CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain, Cain basically took "a once-sleepy trade group" and turned it into a "lobbying powerhouse," the Times said.

Give Cain credit. He had a plan to take Washington by storm as the tribune of the restaurant industry and executed it to a fare-thee-well. And all the while he was plotting an even bigger move, into politics.

As Boston's Tom Kershaw, who owns the bar on which the TV sitcom Cheers was based, said to the New York Times, "I think what was enticing to him (Cain) was coming to Washington and getting into the middle of the whole political arena. I think he had his eye on politics."

Though he was contemplating in the late-1990s a run for high office, the ultra-confident Cain did not hesitate to take positions that might later put him in an uncomfortable position with the public and the media. He allied the National Restaurant Association, for example, with the alcohol and tobacco industries in opposing tighter blood-alcohol limits on drivers and higher taxes on cigarettes.

"The restaurant industry literally became the alter ego of the tobacco industry during that period of time," Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Times.

If Cain wins the nomination, there will be ironies aplenty to plague the mind of Mitt, who bucked members of his own party back in 2004 and signed into law a bill banning smoking in the workplace. Some Republicans argued that the bill was an infringement on personal freedoms and would devastate the restaurant industry in Massachusetts, but Romney signed it because he believed in protecting the health of those who have to earn their livings in restaurants and bars. Breathing second-hand smoke should not be a job requirement for anyone, he declared.

Hard to believe, but I guess Cain could actually get the nomination in this strange political season, a time of wild gyrations in the nation's troubled soul.

"Bearing is fate," the Romans said, and Herman Cain has the bearing of a leader. His oratorical skills make the rest of the field look like rookies at Toastmasters. His confidence and conviction are dazzling.

If the Republicans do nominate Cain, I hope they'll double-down on the bet by choosing Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, as the nominee for vice president, thus producing the first all-ex-lobbyist national ticket.

As Jon Lovitz might then say, "Herman Cain, Haley Barbour. Yeah, that's the ticket!"

The Harshbarger Way of Influencing the Casino Debate Doesn't Add Up

Friday, October 14, 2011

In the prime of his life, Scott Harshbarger was one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a popular state-wide office holder regarded by many as a likely future governor.

Today, approaching his 70th birthday, he is a lawyer in private practice and a voice crying in the wilderness against casino gambling.

Harshbarger has said that our elected officials are "careening toward a cliff" as they push the casino bill toward enactment on Beacon Hill.

He has said it is "shameful" that "Beacon Hill clearly hasn't learned the lessons of its recent past and insists on moving forward with a bill that will only help casino owners, lobbyists and special interests."

He has said the casino bill "was worked out in secret by no more than three State House leaders and has been proven by the media to be a larded-up, special interest giveaway co-authored by the casino industry to help feather its nests at the expense of hard-working Bay State residents."

And he has harshly criticized the owners of Suffolk Downs, who are itching to compete for one of the new casino licenses, for making contributions to charities associated with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and East Boston State Senator Anthony Petrucelli, calling those donations "yet another instance of the looming shadows stretching into our political, social and now even non-profit culture by the greedy insiders and shady players that dominate the casino industry."

For someone who seriously wants the legislature and governor to reject casinos, Harshbarger's decision to attack publicly the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the governor doesn't add up.

Harshbarger is not stupid. He knows those words are like poison to the folks on Beacon Hill, those both in the leadership and in the rank and file. He also knows that the mayor of Boston will never forgive him for throwing him under the bus like that.

(One can safely assume that Harshbarger has no legal business with the city of Boston, nor does he hope to have a client who one day will need to bring a matter before the Menino administration.)

Harshbarger must also know that the people who do not hold public office and who have the most credibility and the most sway on Beacon Hill would never strafe the decision-makers in public before, or even after, a big vote.

One cannot imagine, for example, Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, accusing the senate president of engaging in "name-calling" rather than "embracing an honest debate on the complex issue of casino gambling," as Harshbarger has done.

So why is Harshbarger waging the battle in such a patently self-defeating manner?

Either he sincerely believes his rhetoric is the best way to rouse the public against casinos, or he just doesn't give a damn. Maybe he's earned enough that he can say whatever he wants whenever he wants, and anyone who doesn't like it can go to hell.

Or maybe he's still hurting over the heartbreakingly close election for governor he lost to Paul Celucci in 1998, an election many believe he would have won, if only the members of the Democratic establishment at the time had genuinely embraced his candidacy and pulled out all the stops to get him a victory.

Way down deep, could he be thinking, the big shots on Beacon Hill never considered me one of their own, and you know what, they were right, so I'd rather lose than ever have to pretend I have regard for any of them?

Prediction: It Will Be a Long Time Before Inspector General Sits for Another Q & A

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I clicked on the CommonWealth magazine interview with the Inspector General of the Commwealth of Massachusetts, Greg Sullivan, last week just to check out what he was saying. I didn't expect to find anything especially interesting, nor did I think I would be startled.

Boy was I wrong.

The interviewer, Colman Herman, opened the discussion with Sullivan by asking if anything had changed in state government since 1980, when the Ward Commission "reported that corruption was a way of life in Massachusetts, that political influence, not professional performance, was the prime criterion in doing business with the state, and that shoddy work and debased standards were the norm."

Sullivan, who served as Norwood's representative in the legislature in the Eighties and Nineties, and has been Inspector General since 2002, answered, "I think they have changed for the better overall. There are safeguards that have been put in place that I think have ameliorated to a great extent the problems that existed at the time of the Ward Commission. The Legislature set up ways to try to catch the crooks. We now have a very robust competitive procurement system for contracts."

"But," Colman persisted, "it's the rare week when you can't pick up a newspaper and read about yet another corrupt politician."

"It's a never-ending battle," conceded Sullivan, "because there is a subculture of corruption on Beacon Hill made up of people who always find opportunities to exploit the system to their advantage, but to the detriment of the public. It's a never-ending battle against the tide of people inside and outside of government who seek to use undue influence to affect government and to capitalize on loopholes. Influence peddling is probably as bad today as it ever was. It is unabated. And there's always a new loophole, a new trick, an artifice someone finds to get around existing law. We are engaged in a constant effort to close new loopholes. People have been able to find more wily, creative ways to do things that are difficult to catch. And it's not just in the Legislature, we see it all over government."

Wow, I thought, this is huge!

The Inspector General, who has legal responsibilities to detect and prevent "fraud, waste and abuse in the expenditure of public funds" (and a $2.8 million budget to fulfill that mission), is now on the record as endorsing the jaded view that a "subculture of corruption" exists on Beacon Hill.

Big headlines in the newspapers and dramatic pronouncements from TV anchors can't be far behind, I figured. This is the Inspector General speaking, not some barking dog in the blogosphere.

Reading on, I was startled again when, in response to a question on the legal problems encountered by three consecutive former Speakers of the Massachusetts House, Sullivan said, in part, "...They (Speakers) have a strong desire for money and they have opportunity. In the case of Speaker DiMasi, you have an example of an abuse of power that was tolerated by the membership for years. I was in the House for seventeen years, and one thing I observed was that there was an inordinate deference given by the membership to the speaker to a phenomenal degree..."

I thought: That's the kind of stuff that will shake the foundation at the State House. Sullivan must know what he is saying, he must have stuff to back this up, he must be getting ready to issue a report with some new, blockbuster findings.

CommonWealth posted the Sullivan interview online Tuesday, Oct. 4. Since then, the piece has not generated any big headlines, or caused any fall-out whatsoever, that I am aware of.

Checking for new developments today, Oct. 12, I returned to the magazine's web site and was surprised again -- this time by a comment on the interview that the Inspector General had posted on Friday, Oct. 7. It was the first comment that a reader had bothered to post. This is what the Inspector General wrote:

"I want to elaborate on my answer to the fourth question above. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has found that there was no financial gain or motive underlying (former-Speaker Thomas Finneran's) conduct. This differentiates Speaker Finneran's offense in a significant way from that of former-Speaker DiMasi with respect to motive. My response to this question was intended to address former-Speaker DiMasi's offenses, which my office helped to uncover and prosecute. Secondly, I did not mean to imply that Beacon Hill has an overarching 'culture of corruption,' because I am convinced that the opposite is true. An overwhelming majority of government leaders act with honesty and try to prevent corrupt activities from taking place. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in Coleman Herman's Q&A article, I believe that a small subculture of corruption has existed and continues to exist, as evidenced by continuing examples of criminal convictions."

All of us, I imagine, have had our Roseanne Roseannadanna moments, when, caught on a rickety verbal scaffolding of our own making, we have to climb down while muttering the word, "Nevermind." The Inspector General has just had his, to the great relief of the Massachusetts Legislature.

To read the interview with Sullivan, go to http://www.commonwealthmagazine.org/ and click on article headlined, "IG sees subculture of corruption. Sullivan calls special education a 'money pit' "

Senator's Position Prompts Tough Question: Are You a Snob If You Oppose Casinos?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In announcing his opposition last week to the hottest piece of legislation on Beacon Hill, the bill that would license three casinos and one parlor for slot machines, Dan Wolf presented an interesting scenario to all the parents and grandparents of Massachusetts.

"One day the phone will ring, and it will be one of our children, or grandchildren, calling with the great news -- they've found a job and will be starting work in a few days," the rookie state senator from Cape Cod and the Islands wrote in an op-ed piece published in one of his local newspapers. "We'll share their excitement and wonder what, of all possible things, they'll be doing. Providing health care? Building a school? Planting quahogs? Teaching kindergarten? Driving a bus? Writing computer software? Installing solar panels?

"Of course we'll be encouraging no matter what, but if the answer comes back that they'll be working in a casino, who among us would be quite as proud? And who will celebrate that legacy, which now belongs to us?"

In that same piece, Wolf noted, "Our economy has always been about education, innovation, health care, financial services and creative entrepreneurs. Our tourism industry has always attracted visitors from around the world because of our environment, culture and history."

With those who argue that casinos and slots are the "best way, only way, or right way for Massachusetts to create work -- or that those who oppose casinos somehow don't understand that we need jobs and need them now," Wolf said he "respectfully disagrees."

"...no doubt some jobs will be created -- solid, short-term construction jobs at the outset, then generally low-wage, longer-term jobs staffing casinos and related resorts," allowed Wolf, who co-founded Cape Air, perhaps the most successful regional airline in the U.S., and has been a leading voice of the business community on Cape Cod for more than two decades.

I'm inclined to agree with Wolf, but there are many folks following the casino debate today who say the case he espouses -- that we can and should be stimulating our economy in better ways, that we should be creating a higher-class of jobs -- borders on snobbery.

When I tried the Wolf argument on a co-worker, Walter, the other day, while shamelessly presenting it as my own, he responded as if I had suddenly addressed him in a voice like Prince Charles's.

"You're being a snob!" he said. "Who are you to tell someone the job he's doing is beneath him? Who are you to dismiss a job, any job, as low-class when you have a nice job for yourself?"

He's right in a way. If today you don't have a job, if you and your family are suffering the consequences of joblessness, and tomorrow someone offers you a job in a casino, tomorrow is going to be one of the best days of your life. If your family is cooking pancakes for supper and a constable is going to boot you from your foreclosed home tomorrow, a discussion on the finer points of job creation in the "innovation economy" could not be more beside the point.

Even though I wear a monocle, I don't think Walter really believes I'm a snob. He just wanted to put me on the defensive and put himself on a high-ground position. (He can't help it, he's a lawyer.) It's all about positioning these days, positioning and timing...and timing is certainly working in favor of the gambling conglomerates eager to enter the virgin Massachusetts market.

Back in the 1990s, when the economy was booming here and across the nation, it's hard to imagine casinos and slots getting the attention on Beacon Hill they've been getting the past two or three years. As Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders have observed, casino legislation tends "to suck all the oxygen out of the room," making other issues seem less important and consuming huge blocks of the legislative calendar.

There's a lot at stake in the upcoming competition for casino licenses. Reportedly, the gambling industry has sized up Massachusetts as another Pennsylvania, where casinos became a $2 billion per year industry within a few years of legalization. Estimates of the number of permanent jobs that would be created by three casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts range as high as 20,000 and as low as 7,000.

Someday we may look back and wonder why we didn't spend as much time in 2010-11 considering novel ways to promote our economy in the areas where it has been traditionally strong, like the ones identified by Senator Wolf, as we did on enabling a new form of legalized gambling.

Or maybe the sound of all those slot machines and of those Las Vegas-style shows at our resort casinos will forever drown out those who are saying we can stimulate our economy in other ways -- voices like that of University of Massachusetts President Robert L. Caret.

Commenting on a recent UMass analysis of increasing income and wealth disparities in the Bay State, Caret said, "Increasing education attainment and spreading the opportunity to benefit from the Bay State's global leadership in the innovation economy to our working families and communities outside Greater Boston will be critical to reversing these trends (toward greater disparities). The future economic and social health of the Commonwealth is dependent on that outcome."

If that's a snobbish message, I'll eat my monocle.

Surprises Imaginary and Real Point to Continuing Hard Times for Many in Massachusetts

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Last Friday, rounding the corner from Washington Street onto Milk Street in downtown Boston, I was surprised by a sign for a new business above a storefront at 25 Milk.


Times are tough, I thought, but you know they're really tough when someone starts a pawn shop in the Financial District. Flashing across my mind was the image of a down-on-his-luck stockbroker darting through the door to hock his gold cuff links.

To my relief, I soon learned that MILK STREET PAWNBROKERS was part of the temporary, on-street set for the new Jeff Bridges-Ryan Reynolds movie they're shooting in Boston, "RIPD." The title stands for "Rest In Peace Department" and the film concerns the exploits of a police force composed of ghosts who battle evil spirits who have refused to leave this world, an absurd but fun concept. (Never underestimate a movie starring Jeff Bridges, who in the remake of "True Grit" just made us forget John Wayne.)

Making movies in Massachusetts is generally good for our economy, but I don't know how much it will help a situation highlighted in a recent report from the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, named for the late Maurice A. Donahue of Holyoke, who served as Massachusetts Senate President from 1964 to 1971.
A little over a month ago, two UMASS professors, Michael Goodman and Robert Nakosteen, published a report in the Institute's MassBenchmarks journal indicating that "economic inequality across the state has worsened notably in recent years."

Rising income inequality across Massachusetts "reflects a divergence of the destinies of many Bay State families, communities and regions," they wrote. "While this pattern is by no means new, it is clear that recent events have served to exacerbate the inequality that has become a disturbing fact of life in the contemporary Massachusetts economy."

Professors Goodman and Nakosteen found that income inequality has been increasing the most in Greater Boston, where "the medium family income in the top fifth of families was ten times that of their counterparts in the bottom fifth" by 2008. From 1999 to 2008, families in the top 20%, income-wise, saw their median annual income go from $150,295 to $232,879, an increase of 55%. The full Goodman-Nakosteen report may be found at http://www.massbenchmarks.org/

If you're looking for other statistics on the plight of middle- and lower-income earners, they're not hard to find these days. The September issue of Health Affairs magazine, for example, reported that rising health care costs are exacting "a heavy financial toll" on many families, leaving them with less and less disposable income. From 1999 to 2009, the income of an average American family of four jumped from $76,000 to $99,000, according to authors David Auerbach and Arthur Kellerman; however, those families had to spend almost all of those added take-home dollars on health care and related expenses because inflation in health care consistently exceeded the general inflation rate by significant percentages.

Then there was the New York Times report yesterday, (Companies to Pass On More Of Health Costs to Workers, 10/3/11), which said, "Companies next year will push more health care costs onto their workers, who may see an increase of nearly 11 percent in what they have deducted from their paychecks for health insurance, according to an annual study by Aon Hewitt, a large Chicago benefits consulting firm."

The article went on to say, "As companies struggle to control costs in a tough economy, the 2012 annual employee premiums are expected to jump an average 10.6 percent, to more than $2,300. That figure has nearly doubled since 2005, when workers at larger companies paid on average $1,192 annually per employee and paid about 17 percent of the company's costs, according to Aon Hewitt data...The employee share projected for next year is a contribution of 22 percent of the $10,475 employer cost of the health plan."

Continuing my perambulations last Friday, I had another surprise, this one prompted by an all-too-real event on the Rose Kennedy Greenway near South Station: the beginning of an "Occupy Boston" action that is part of a movement by people in large cities across the nation protesting economic imbalances and the lack of opportunities for younger members of the workforce.
The local protest started with nearly 1,000 people but had dwindled to about 100 hearty souls on Monday, folks who had been camping out in tents all weekend.

"We're bringing our message to the 99 percent of Americans that feel that their ability to provide for themselves has been eroded and that their representation in government has been undermined," said Nadeem Mazen of Cambridge, a spokesman for the group, as quoted in the Boston Globe.

Who would have predicted there would be a tent city in Boston this fall populated by victims of the Great Recession? It likely hints at surprises-to-come in the elections of 2012.