Democracy, Not Its Subversion, Produced Latest Defeat of Expanded Bottle Bill

Thursday, June 28, 2012

To hear the advocates of an expanded Bottle Bill tell it, the only thing preventing the bill from becoming law this session is a cadre of legislative leaders “beholden to special interests.”

A coalition of groups that wants to extend the five-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda containers to fruit juices and other non-carbonated, bottled and canned drinks claims that a majority of legislators support an expanded Bottle Bill, and that such a bill would pass if it were put to a full vote in the House and Senate.

By not allowing such a vote, legislative leaders are guilty, at least in the eyes of this coalition, of sabotaging the democratic process.

Here for example is what James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, told the State House News Service on June 14:

“There’s only one reason why they won’t bring it (an expanded Bottle Bill) to the floor for a vote.  They are beholden to the special interests that don’t want them to bring it to the floor for a vote.  Because they know they don’t have the votes.  They’ll lose.  If this comes to the floor for a vote, we have the votes, so they’re using a procedural maneuver to subvert democracy right here in the birthplace of freedom.”

The so-called “procedural maneuver” consisted of the vote earlier in the day by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to send all matters dealing with an expansion of the Bottle Bill to study, effectively ending the initiative in this (2011-12) legislative session.  Ten members of the committee were recorded in favor of the study motion, seven opposed.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, called that vote a “mockery,” and said the committee was “flying in the face of the sentiment of just about everyone in the Commonwealth,” according to the State House News Service.

It’s easy to understand why the bigger-and-better-Bottle-Bill folks are frustrated and angry.  They’ve knocked themselves out for 14 years, seven long legislative sessions, trying to get a law on the books they sincerely believe is needed to reduce waste and protect the environment, and they just came up short again, crushed at a moment when they felt so close to the prize.  (Reportedly, 82 of the 160 members of the House and 23 of the 40 members of the Senate support this legislation.)

But after the emotions are spent, reality sits there unmoved, staring you in the face, cheerfully willing to tell its story.

In this instance, reality says the majorities in both branches in favor of an expanded Bottle Bill were slight and tentative.  They were somewhat like a good friend who too readily agrees to testify for you in court, but turns up mysteriously ill on the day of trial.

Reality says that, when concrete measures to expand the Bottle Bill were put to an actual vote, ten out of seventeen legislators voted no; then reality asks, “Tell me, please, what was ‘undemocratic’ about that vote?”

Reality says the Bottle Bill coalition had the misfortune of launching its 2012 offensive in contravention of the truth that “timing is everything in life,” that the aftermath of the worst economy since the Great Depression was not an auspicious time to push something your opponents were sure to label a new tax on consumers, a new and costly burden on Massachusetts retailers, and a competitive handicap for businesses in communities near the borders with neighboring states.  (As Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, succinctly told the Associated Press: “In a tough economy the last thing Massachusetts consumers need is another tax and higher grocery prices to pay for a costly recycling system that doesn’t work.”)

Lastly, reality says that, in an election year, a major responsibility of a legislative leader is to shield his or her members from making a difficult vote on what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a tax increase -- and especially when that measure is not a budget-balancing imperative but rather a new-policy option. 

In every democracy, policy has always been shaped by politics.  We should be careful in wishing it to be otherwise.

POSTSCRIPT:  On June 20, the Massachusetts Recycling Challenge, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Food Association and the Massachusetts Beverage Association, announced it would fund a two-year program, at a cost of $533,000, to study and test new recycling initiatives.

Decision to Ditch an Expanded Bottle Bill Shows the Lure of Other Recycling Incentives

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Looking at legislation to expand the state’s Bottle Bill, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy definitely saw the glass as half-empty.

It would be more trouble than it was worth, the committee decided, to extend the five-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda containers to fruit juices and other non-carbonated, bottled and canned drinks. 

Last week, the committee shattered all hopes of expanding the Bottle Bill by voting to send several bills that would have accomplished that feat to study.  “Study” is the place in the Massachusetts Legislature where bills go to die.  You might call it the landfill for luckless legislation.

I clearly remember when the Bottle Bill was enacted many years ago, and how much I favored the bill, and how I welcomed the boost it would give to recycling efforts in this state.  I consider myself a scrupulous and proficient recycler, although that appraisal is no doubt inflated, as self-evaluations usually are.

So why did I find myself nodding in agreement as I read the State House News Service account of the meeting last week when the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy tossed those new and improved versions of the Bottle Bill in the ditch? 

It isn’t that I’m tired of stuffing empties into a big green garbage bag every few months, driving five miles to a liquor store, and getting $3.15 for my trouble.

It isn’t that I’m bothered by that grizzled gent who prowls our neighborhood in a beat-up sedan on the mornings our recyclables are at the curb and ferrets from our bins the Schlitz cans I put there by mistake after a long night.

And it isn’t that I’m convinced deposits on fruit juices, iced teas, energy drinks, bottled water, flavored water, sports drinks, etc., equate to a new tax on every citizen of Massachusetts, although that policy would indubitably increase handling costs to retailers.

It’s more a feeling that there must be a better way in the year 2012 to get more people to recycle all recyclable goods, and that recycling rates would rise if we provided more free sites where people could drop off their empties and other recyclables.   

I’m leaning toward agreeing with the folks at Real Recycling for Massachusetts, an anti-Bottle Bill group, who advocate “expanded recycling through measures that are more effective and less burdensome (than mandatory deposits), including expanding curbside pickup, making it easier to recycle on-the-go, making recycling accessible in more public places such as parks and arenas, and supporting comprehensive litter prevention programs,” and no, I’ve never been on Real Recycling’s payroll or the payroll of any similarly-oriented organization.

You can make the argument that plenty of money is available to pay for non-deposit-driven recycling: the tens of millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits claimed each year by the Commonwealth.  This is a source of a line item of approximately $40 million in the state’s general fund.  (Interesting fact: It was estimated that an expanded bottle bill would have generated an additional $20 million for the general fund from unreturned drink containers.)

But if the legislature, due to overall budgetary pressures, could not see its way clear to diverting a big chunk of that $40 million to expanded free recycling sites and programs, I would like to see the nickel deposit on beer bottles and cans converted to a permanent tax earmarked for expanded curbside pickups, more recycling centers and the like.

That way at least I could tell my wife I was doing it for the environment every time I reached for another. (Six pack)

Next: The alleged thwarting of the majority of legislators who supposedly favored an expansion of the Bottle Bill.

Isn't It Time Correction Officers Had Their Own Monument, Too?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

If I were a consultant to the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which I have never been, I would advise its members to try to get a monument to correction officers somewhere on Beacon Hill. 

The public needs to be reminded of the indispensable role correction officers play in society.

We need also to be reminded that correction officers serve on the front lines of public safety, doing a job as important as a police officer’s and a firefighter’s.

A monument to correction officers at the center of state government would serve those ends.

Standing today on the grounds of the State House, on either side of the building’s Bowdoin Street entrance, are the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Memorial and the Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Memorial. 

Their beauty, their size and their prominence all proclaim that the people of Massachusetts will never forget those who have given their lives to protect us and will always honor those who continue to risk their lives in these professions.

It’s time we made a similar proclamation about correction officers.

We have no problem thinking and talking about the heroic exploits of police officers and firefighters.  But there’s something about the work of correction officers, and their workplaces, that brings out our squeamish sides. 

We’d rather not think about the people sent to our county houses of correction and state prisons, and the people responsible for keeping them under lock and key.

We’d rather not dwell on the crimes these prisoners committed, as they often involve extreme cruelty and depravity, or on the difficulty and danger of watching over such criminals on a daily basis.

Lots of attention is paid to high-profile crimes and to the trials of criminals who have done awful deeds.  But once the perpetrators are found guilty and locked up, we forget about them.  No one wants to be reminded of the hard work and high cost of keeping them locked up.  No one wants to consider for very long how imperfect our correction system is, and how the system grinds on the mental and physical health of the officers who keep it going so the rest of us can sleep safely in our beds.

On Friday, June 1, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security conducted an annual program at the State House honoring state and county correction officers for their bravery, dedication and service to the citizens of the Commonwealth, an event known as the Correctional Employees of the Year ceremony.

Among those honored that day in the House chamber were eight officers at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley who had stopped a savage fight between rival gangs one day in early-February, 2011:

Lieutenant Donald Ferrara, Lieutenant Michael Moran, and Correction Officers Steven Mason, Kevin Shepard, Ryan Hills, Richard Barber, Michael Snow and Dustin Belland. 

Each received a Meritorious Recognition award for instantly disregarding his own safety and jumping into the fray.  Unarmed, these guards had to fight the prisoners hand to hand, disarm some of them, and restrain all of them in a matter of minutes.  Most suffered injuries in the process.  They were freely credited on June 1 by state officials with having prevented the fight from escalating into a major disturbance.

I would never take anything away from a police officer or a firefighter.  But should you ever find yourself in that nice park on the Bowdoin Street side of the State House, please ask yourself, “If I had to take one of only three jobs, would I rather be a police officer, a firefighter or a correction officer?”

Anyone who answers that question honestly, I believe, will have to support the idea of a monument to correction officers on Beacon Hill.

Note: The Massachusetts Department of Correction houses more than 11,000 inmates in 18 facilities.

Postscript: On Tuesday, June 26, 2012, the State House News Service published the following item:

DOC STICKS BY STATEMENT ON SHIRLEY PRISON ASSAULT: Patrick administration officials on Tuesday declined to release more information about an assault at a maximum security prison Monday that led to seven correction officers being taken to the hospital.  Noting the incident is under investigation by State Police and the Department of Correction, department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said an incident report on the assault at the Souza-Baranowski prison in Shirley was not available and suggested that the News Service file a Freedom of Information Act request for the report.  Wiffin read a statement the DOC released Monday describing an emergency response effort launched at 1:30 p.m. Monday after a correction officer was assaulted by an inmate with a weapon in a general population housing unit.  During the response, according to the statement, two other officers were injured while trying to restrain the inmate and help their fellow officer.  Wiffin said the unit was secured two minutes after the emergency response was initiated and that the prison remains in lockdown Tuesday.  While the statement said three officers were injured, it also said seven correction officers were taken to the hospital and six have since been released.  Wiffin declined to say why seven officers visited the hospital.  She said the response to the incident was "quick and very effective."  Souza-Baranowski on June 18 had a prisoner count of 1,385; the facility is designed to host 1,024 prisoners.  12:16 p.m." 

This Is One of Those Times and Issues When It's Not So Great to Be 'Mr. Chairman'

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Would you like to be Steve Walsh or Dick Moore, the House and Senate chairs of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing?  I wouldn’t.

More than any other members of the legislature, they had to come up with the answers over the last year on how to put the brakes on health care costs and thereby save the state’s unique system of universal health care, which most people, at least in Massachusetts, seem to see the beauty of. That was a $67 billion challenge.


That’s the total amount spent on health care in one year here.

To try to put that number in perspective, the entire state budget for the next fiscal year (FY 2013) is going to be somewhere north of $32 billion.

According to conservative estimates, of the $67 billion spent annually on health care, about 20% goes to unnecessary treatments, excessive administration, the after-effects of preventable medical errors, and readmissions to hospitals that could have been avoided through higher-quality care and better medical decision-making.

Twenty percent of $67 billion is $13.4 billion dollars.


How would you like to figure out how to squeeze even 10% out of that $13.4 billion?  If I had that assignment, I’d find myself hopelessly lost after one week of wandering about in our bewilderingly complex, densely interwoven, multi-layered health care system.

And how would you like to face all the folks who have a strong interest in the health care status quo -- all the big hospital systems with deep-pocketed board members, all the Top Gun/Top Dollar physician specialists, all the medical entrepreneurs with free-standing, “state-of-the-art” diagnostic labs and surgical centers -- and basically tell them, “My duty is to make sure you don’t make as much money next year.”

If you’re Representative Walsh or Senator Moore, that’s what you have to do.

Then you have to listen respectfully to the status quo folks as they warn you not to push this health-care-payment-reform thing too far or you’ll wind up killing a lot of good-paying jobs in our state’s job-rich health care sector, the “Golden Goose,” as ex-Partners board chairman Jack Connors and others call it, which is in fact the case. 

Squeezing money out of our health care system, the most costly in the nation and world on a per capita basis, inevitably means jobs will be lost and fewer new jobs will be created. 

If you’re a member of the legislature, it’s a sure bet you didn’t run for office to vote for something that puts people on Unemployment, and you didn’t run to make more people jobless at a time when Massachusetts is continuing its slow-mo recovery from the Great Recession, the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

Your constituents, the folks you see every day at the coffee shop, the post office, the Little League game, etc., they elected you with the idea that, maybe someday when they were in a pinch, you’d help them or someone in their family find a job, not lose one.

The alternative to squeezing money out is allowing health care to eat up more of everyone’s budget year after year-- every company’s, every community’s and every household’s budget.

As Rick Lord, chief executive of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said in a March 26 blog post, “Doctors, hospitals and other health-care providers argue that reductions in medical spending will harm a sector that represents 13 percent of the gross state product in Massachusetts.  Fair enough.  But why should the employers who make up the other 87 percent of the state overpay to support the 13 percent?”  See  http://blog.aimnet/org/AIM-IssueConnect/bid/76364/Rising-Health-Costs-Mean-Real-Mon

If you’re Representative Walsh or Senator Moore, you ’re damned if you do cut the rate of increase in health care spending, which is what differing versions of health care payment reform legislation passed recently by the House and Senate would do, as opposed to actually cutting the total amount of current health care expenditures.  And you’re damned if you don’t cut the rate of increase.  You have to do something.

If you do nothing, our system of health care, which does so much good, could well turn into something bad, a monster that slowly devours every other collective and individual priority in sight.

Yikes.  Steve Walsh and Dick Moore, you have to stop that thing!

Warren Couldn't See This Controversy Coming, Now She Can't Make It Go Away

Friday, June 1, 2012

Should Elizabeth Warren’s handlers have foreseen the controversy that has overshadowed her campaign for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts? Of course. 

And the folks in Western Massachusetts should have anticipated the tornadoes that ripped through their towns one year ago today.

There are just some things in life that are so weird and improbable that you can’t imagine their happening, never mind anticipate or avert them.

The I’m-part-Cherokee-but-can’t-prove-it story certainly falls into this category.

Who thought that, when this story first broke some five weeks ago, Elizabeth Warren would still be struggling today to put it behind her?  Nobody I know.

Outside Scott Brown’s campaign team and the editorial staff of the Boston Herald, most people have been saying that the questions about Warren’s Indian heritage really have nothing to do with her ability to serve in the Senate and will not sway their vote one way or the other in November.

But you have to wonder, If Warren is unable to end this controversy soon with a short explanation and the natural application of her personality, will people turn decisively against her because she hasn’t handled herself well on the hot seat?  Will they judge her “unsenatorial” due to a lack of judgment and finesse?

In other words, will the way she reacted to the story prove more important than the story itself?

Yesterday, I was thinking, Why doesn’t Warren just invite a big-time reporter in for a quiet, one-on-one conversation, and say something simple and succinct, like:

“I always believed I had American Indian blood in me because my parents told me I did.  There was no reason to doubt them.  But if that is not the case, it is a mistake that has no bearing on this campaign.  It was an honest mistake.  No one hired me to be a law professor because I, in good faith, indicated that I had Indians in my family tree.  I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by that, and I apologize to the voters for the way this controversy has drawn attention away from the meaningful issues of this campaign.  Now let’s talk about those issues.”

Then this morning, I saw on the front page of the Boston Globe an article about Warren by Brian McGrory, a certifiable journalistic heavyweight, an article headlined, ‘I won’t deny who I am,’ and I thought maybe this will be good for her because she’s taking the controversy head on.  There’ll be no hiding from McGrory.  The headline, however, should have told me she was digging in on the not-yet-substantiated assertion of Indian ancestry, which I wasn’t thinking was the best thing for her to do at this point in time.

Sure enough, McGrory quoted her as saying, “In the 1930s, when my parents got married, these were hard issues.  My father’s family so objected to my mother’s Native American heritage that my mother told me they had to elope.  As kids, my brothers and I knew about that.  We knew about the difference between our two families.  And we knew how important my mother’s heritage was to her.  This was real in my life.  I can’t deny my heritage.  I can’t and I won’t.  That would be denying who my mother was, who my family was, how we lived, and I won’t do it.”

Later this morning, I saw posted on the State House News Service a press release from the “Elizabeth Warren for Massachusetts” campaign in which she blasted Scott Brown for having suggested that her parents may have been mistaken about her mother’s heritage.  The release was based on a press conference Brown had with reporters in Somerville yesterday.  It said, in part:

“…Republican Scott Brown was asked about Elizabeth Warren’s family history that had been passed down to her by her mother and father.  He responded with an attack on their integrity, implying that her parents lied to Elizabeth and her brothers.

“Said Brown, ‘My mom and dad have told me a lot of things too, but they’re not always true.’

“Warren responded with the following statement:

“ ‘Scott Brown’s comments about my parents are totally out of line.  I resent him questioning their honesty.  My mother and father are not here to defend themselves and should be off limits.  Don and Pauline Herring are not fair game and Scott Brown should apologize.’ “

Of course, she’s right.  Her dead parents should be off limits.  But hasn’t she herself brought them within those ill-defined limits by offering their statements as both the reason she’s convinced of, and the proof of, her Native American heritage?

Doubling down does not seem the best bet for putting this story behind her, which is not to say this controversy will be fatal to Warren’s campaign.  It has to run out of steam eventually and collapse of its own nothingness.

The election is five months away.  Warren’s still tied with Brown in the polls.  And one can never rule out a weird and improbable event hitting the Brown campaign.