Talk of Inspection Fee Surpluses May Have Subtly Influenced Committee Vote on Bottle Bill

Friday, July 27, 2012

Whoa, how come nobody told me about that?

That would be a good way to characterize the way many legislators reacted this spring upon learning there was a ton of money parked in the state’s vehicle inspection account.

The legislature, you may recall, used $51 million in surplus vehicle inspection revenue to help close an end-of-fiscal-year deficit at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

When that move was made, several reps and senators from beyond the metropolitan area complained about using fees collected from motorists all across the state to avert a Boston-centered debacle.  Then most of them voted, reluctantly, to go along with the rescue plan.

“I will be supporting this because I understand how badly the T needs this influx of funds right now,” Rep. George Peterson, a Republican from Grafton, said on June 13.  “But we need to come up with a long-term strategy.  Because if we don’t, the next time we come here to throw some money at the problem, I won’t be that supportive.”

Like ill will, reluctance tends to linger in the legislature -- and to manifest itself in unexpected policy ideas.  Take, for example, what happened with an amendment proposed this week by Republicans to the Senate version of the transportation bond bill, Senate Bill 2360, An Act Financing Improvements to the Commonwealth’s Transportation System.

Amendment #61 would have added language to Section 28 of Chapter 6C of the Massachusetts General Laws requiring the Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to include in its annual fiscal report to the legislature information on any accounts with surpluses, and to supplement that information with an analysis and an explanation of “whether the surplus is necessary to the viability of the fund.” 

Further, Amendment #61 would have required MassDOT to inform the legislature if it anticipated future expenditures from surplus accounts, and to provide the legislature with “any recommendations to eliminate an unnecessary surplus, including but not limited to reducing the amount of the fee or funding source of the fund; provided, however, that, six months prior to filing the report, the department shall provide notice of any funds with a surplus and the amount of the surplus.”

Speaking on behalf of the amendment on Tuesday (July 24), Senator Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican who is highly regarded in the upper branch, said most legislators were “surprised” to learn in June there was a surplus in the vehicle inspection account fat enough to blot out a huge chunk of the T deficit.

“We probably should not be running surplus accounts that accumulate unbeknownst to the legislature,” said Knapik, as quoted in the State House News Service.  “If we knew there was $51 million, wouldn’t it have been nice to reduce the cost of inspection fees.  I think what was the most objectionable was the very existence of this fund that we didn’t know about…We are looking for a report that would be filed every year.  What is in the fund?  What is the fund about?  Does a surplus even need to exist?  That truly is the question.”

It’s probably going too far to call the Senate discussion on Amendment #61 a debate, especially since it was so brief.  At the end, the measure failed on a lopsided 5-32 vote.  Knapik was joined on the losing side by fellow Republicans Bob Hedlund of Weymouth, Richard Ross of Wrentham, and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester.  Only one Democrat voted yes: Jim Timilty of Walpole.

That result mirrored what happened in the House of Representatives on June 13 when Richard Bastien, a Republican from Gardner, tried to tack an amendment on the T bailout bill that would have reduced the annual vehicle inspection fee from $29 to $25.  The surplus in the inspection account proved the fee was too high, Bastien said.  Though it may have been a plausible argument, only 33 reps voted for the fee cut, while 119 voted against it.

The actions of June 13 in the House and of July 24 in the Senate appear to have been abject defeats for the minority party on Beacon Hill.  If I were a Republican legislator, I don’t think I’d see it that way, however.

Instead, I’d be tracing -- with only a hint of satisfaction on my face -- invisible lines between those two discussions on the inspection fee account surplus and the 10-7 vote on June 14 by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to send a proposed expansion of the state’s Bottle Bill “to study,” effectively killing the measure in this session.  

(The Bottle Bill expansion, which would extend the state’s five-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda containers to fruit juices and other non-carbonated, bottled or canned drinks, recently enjoyed a brief revival as an add-on to the Senate version of an economic development bill, but is almost certainly destined to fail in the House, where the chairman of the economic development committee, Joe Wagner of Chicopee, has branded it a “tax,” and says it does not belong in the bill.)

It is my theory, which I have no way of proving, that a majority of House members is skittish about expanding the Bottle Bill because unclaimed bottle deposits generate a surplus of about $40 million a year, money that winds up in the state’s general fund, and Bottle Bill foes never tire of calling this surplus a tax.  Their skittishness increased, I believe, every time Bottle Bill foes pointed out that the expansion would likely inject an additional $20 million in unclaimed deposits per annum into the general fund.

The scales in the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy may have come down against an expanded Bottle Bill on June 14 in any event.  But in that close 10-7 vote, I see the June 13 discussion on the “unknown” inspection fee surplus as possibly decisive.

Looking for Legislative Drama? Forget Health Care Reform, Focus on Section 42

Friday, July 20, 2012

In just over 10 days, the Massachusetts legislature will have to adjourn for the year.  The State House will remain open, and informal House and Senate sessions will be held every week until the end of December, during which only non-controversial legislation may be taken up. Work on all major legislative issues will have to cease, by law, at midnight on Tuesday, July 31.

As is usually the case at this point in the two-year session cycle, the legislature has a huge backlog of pending legislation and a tiny window of time in which to address it. Much work remains to be done, by all accounts, on several pressing, major bills.

Perhaps the most prominent and complex matter the legislature now faces is health care payment reform and cost control, a bill that will have far-reaching impact on the state’s health care industry, all in the name of preserving our unique system of universal health coverage. 

Not far behind are significant bills in the areas of transportation system funding, economic development, penalties on utilities for storm-related power outages, siting of land-based wind energy projects, and a casino compact for the Wampanoag Indians in southeastern Massachusetts, to name just a few.

If you’re looking for the most fascinating issue that will play out over the next week and a half, however, look to none of the above.  Direct your attention, instead, to Section 42 of House Bill 4225, An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth.

HB 4225 aims to foster continued growth in the generation of electricity from renewable sources and to blunt the factors that drive up electricity costs.  Section 42, authored by Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, would facilitate the redevelopment of coal-fired power plants as natural-gas-fired plants. 

It would accomplish that by requiring power distribution companies – and, by extension, consumers -- to purchase electricity from these redeveloped sites for periods of at least 15 years.  In other words, it would give the redevelopers a legal, financial advantage as an incentive to replace dirty coal with cleaner-burning gas, thereby benefiting the environment.

There are only three coal-fired plants left in Massachusetts: the Salem Harbor Station in Salem, Mt. Tom in Holyoke, and Brayton Point in Somerset.  But there is an active proposal to replace only one of those with a gas-fired facility: Salem Harbor Station.

Dominion Power, owner of Salem Harbor Station and the largest single property taxpayer in the city, is planning to close the plant in 2014, and to unload the property for the best deal it can get.  Everyone serving in Salem’s government is concerned about replacing those big Dominion tax dollars.  Power plants, by their very nature, are rich sources of property tax revenue. 

So up steps the straight-shooting, very savvy Rep. Keenan. 

As the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Keenan had a unique opportunity to help a developer help his community, and he took it.  Who would not have done the same in that position?

Section 42 set off what the pundits like to call a firestorm of opposition.  The New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA) placed full-page ads in the Boston papers complaining that Section 42, if adopted, “will cost consumers billions of dollars for potentially uneconomic, unnecessary power plants and hurt Massachusetts’ clean energy policy.”   Those ads exhorted readers to tell their local legislators “you want Section 42 removed from HB 4225.”  

A coalition of business, consumer and environmental groups issued a press release saying it wanted to demonstrate “vehement opposition” to Section 42.  Dan Allegretti, regional chairman of the Retail Energy Supply Association (RESA), was quoted as saying, “RESA and its members are deeply concerned that this measure will adversely impact the value of customer choice for businesses and consumers across the Commonwealth.”

At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, D-Peabody, whose district includes Salem, weighed in with a letter to the editor saying he fully supported Section 42. “…I applaud Chairman Keenan for his foresight in drafting this section to the House’s version of the energy bill,” Berry wrote.  “Although the language of Section 42 did not appear in the Senate’s version of the bill, I am strongly advocating for its inclusion in the final version that will emerge from the legislature.”

The differences between the House and Senate versions of An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth are now being worked out by a six-member conference committee. Everyone is wondering what House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray are saying to their respective conferees about Section 42 now that it’s blown up into a big, media-magnetic controversy.

Fred Berry is not only the longest serving member of the Senate, but probably also the single most beloved and admired legislator on the Hill.  Will President Murray be able to say no to him, especially since he’s retiring from the Senate when his term expires in December and is no doubt appealing for one big, last favor for his district?  And will Speaker DeLeo want to buck one of his key committee chairmen, a member of his leadership team, on a matter near and dear to that chairman’s heart?  (It’s kind of hard to imagine that Chairman Keenan put Section 42 into HB 4225 without first running it by the Speaker.)  

If Section 42 survives the conference committee, and if HB 4225 is endorsed in the subsequent re-votes in the House and Senate, will Governor Deval Patrick veto that one section when it gets to his desk? 

If he does veto Section 42, it will probably be game over.

By the time a Section 42-inclusive HB 4225 gets to the governor, there will be fewer than 10 days left on the legislative calendar.  The governor has up to 10 days to sign or veto something.  If the governor vetoed Section 42 on the tenth day and sent it back to the legislature, the legislature would no longer be in session and would not have the ability to convene and vote to override the governor’s veto. 

At that point, Section 42 would be dead.

Don't Forget Marty Meehan When Compiling Your List of Governor Candidates

Friday, July 13, 2012

Having declared long ago that this term will be his last, Governor Deval Patrick is already a lame duck. 

He won’t have a noticeable limp in his political gait, however, until after the elections this November, when anyone who’s serious about succeeding him must begin assembling a campaign.

The obvious ones in the line-up include, for the Democrats, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, State Treasurer Steve Grossman and Attorney General Martha Coakley.  For the Republicans, it’s Charlie Baker, who lost to Patrick in 2010. 

Of course, some candidate who's not on anyone’s list right now could emerge and make a credible run: Norfolk State Rep. Dan Winslow for the Republicans, for instance, or former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang for the Democrats.

And let’s not forget the sage of the Merrimack Valley, Martin Thomas Meehan.

Comfortably ensconced now for five years as chancellor of UMass Lowell, Meehan appears to be retired from politics. Only if he had a seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Court would he appear higher above the battle.

Per usual, appearances are deceiving.

The former Democratic congressman in the Fifth Massachusetts District (1993-2007) has the stuff to be a formidable candidate for the gubernatorial nomination the day he announces.

He’s a youthful, energetic and driven 55-year-old who happens to be sitting on a campaign treasury of almost $5 million.  Money is the mother's milk of politics, as the cliche goes, and Meehan holds the title to a dairy farm.

And if the recent commencement exercises he directed at UMass Lowell are any indication, Meehan’s political instincts remain as sharp as Simon Cowell’s tongue. 

Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was the guest speaker at the May 26 event.   Two members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Ed “The Dean” Markey and Niki "Widow of St. Paul" Tsongas, were on the podium and had speaking roles.  And Ed Markey’s wife, medical luminary Susan J. Blumenthal, M.D., was presented with an honorary doctorate, as was venture capitalist Robert S. Ward, who graduated from UMass Lowell in 1971 and recently pledged to donate $1 million to the school.

While Meehan has never run state-wide, his base was Middlesex County, the most populous part of the state, and he never lost an election.  (Did I mention that he has a smart and accomplished wife and two handsome sons?)

Why would Meehan ever walk away from the top job at his alma mater, a job he loves and a sure thing for as long as he wants it, for a chancy re-entry into the brutal, goldfish-bowl world of Massachusetts politics?

Four reasons:

One, he’s at a good time in his life to run for this open governorship, and timing is everything.

Two, if he loses, he can collect his very sizable public pension.  (Post-defeat, his family would not be threatened economically.)

Three, he’s a blue-collar kid from Lowell; he’s always been the most ambitious guy in the room; and Massachusetts governor is a big, prestigious prize, a job that would put him on the national stage.  

Four, on the retail side of politics, he takes a back seat to no one in Massachusetts. (He can look at any possible combination of credible opponents, and say, "I won't be fighting above my weight.") 

The Punishment of Sal DiMasi Has Turned into a Horror Story. When Is Enough Enough?

Friday, July 6, 2012

On an unspecified day in December, 2011, Salvatore F. DiMasi, the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, told the staff at the Federal Medical Center (FMC) prison in Lexington, Kentucky that he was concerned about some lumps on his neck and wanted to see a doctor. 

Sometime later, in January, 2012, someone on the prison staff took a close look at those lumps and concluded DiMasi would need blood tests and an examination by a specialist at the University of Kentucky Hospital.

This information comes from a motion filed June 19 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Boston, a filing pertaining to an attempt by Tom Kiley, DiMasi’s attorney, to gain more time for preparing an appeal of DiMasi’s conviction in the Cognos software sale scandal.  (In September, 2011, DiMasi was given an eight year sentence and incarcerated at the Kentucky facility.)

Before DiMasi could be seen at the University of Kentucky Hospital this winter, he was sent north on a long, circuitous trip by bus with other convicts, his ultimate destination the federal prison in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  This journey consumed many days and involved stops at various federal lock-ups along the way.   The purpose was to enable DiMasi’s appearance before a grand jury in Boston investigating alleged hiring improprieties in the Massachusetts Probation Department.

When the grand jury was done with DiMasi, he was put on another convict bus and shipped back to Kentucky by the same water-torture route he left it.  At every prison stop along the way, both coming to Rhode Island and returning to Kentucky, DiMasi made his medical condition known to authorities and asked to see a doctor.

“Mr. DiMasi arrived back at FMC Lexington on March 25 and immediately reported to sick call the next day,” the Kiley motion states.  “He again began trying to find out what was happening with his throat and the lumps on his neck and what, if any, treatment he would receive.

“On April 24, 2012, approximately a month after he arrived back in Kentucky, Mr. DiMasi was finally sent to the University of Kentucky Hospital to see a cancer specialist, Dr. Gal, who examined him and immediately sent him to have a thin-needle biopsy – the test the doctor in Rhode Island had recommended two months earlier…”

The Kiley motion continues:

“Dr. Gal had found a lesion on Mr. DiMasi’s tongue, suspected that the involvement of the lymph nodes may be sign of a cancer spreading and worried that the biopsy had been delayed too long.  The thin-needle biopsy was positive for squamous cell carcinoma.”

Thirteen days later, DiMasi returned to the University of Kentucky Hospital for exploratory surgery, “with a triple scope exam and an incisional biopsy of the lesion, which came back for squamous cell carcinoma.”  And fifteen days after that, he was informed he had Stage IV tongue cancer, meaning the disease had spread from his mouth to his neck and now posed a serious threat to his life.

“On or about June 6, 2012, Mr. DiMasi was transferred from FMC Lexington, Kentucky to FMC Butner in North Carolina,” the Kiley motion states.  “Mr. DiMasi is preparing to begin radiation on his tongue – which will be quite painful and affect his ability to speak.  He will be unable to eat and will require a feeding tube placed in his stomach.  After radiation is completed, Mr. DiMasi will undergo seven weeks of chemotherapy.”

The earlier cancer is detected, the better the chance of curing it.  That’s an axiom of modern medicine.

A patient suffering from Stage I tongue cancer, for example, has a 71% chance of being alive five years after treatment has been completed, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).  If, however, that same patient was diagnosed when the cancer was at Stage IV, like DiMasi’s, his chance of surviving for five years would drop to 37%, the ACS says.

Let’s imagine that Sal DiMasi, a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School, had retired from politics at the end of 2008 to take up the full-time practice of law and had never gotten into trouble because of Cognos. 

In that case, can anyone doubt that the former Speaker, having served in the House for 30 years and held one of the highest elected offices in the state for four years, would have been able to obtain an appointment with the best oral cancer specialist at Dana Farber or Mass. General Hospital within 48 hours of discovering those lumps on his neck last December? 

And can anyone doubt that DiMasi’s cancer would have been accurately diagnosed in those first 48 hours and that he would have entered treatment promptly, thus limiting the spread of the disease and the scope of required treatment?

DiMasi, who will turn 67 on August 11, has lost all his savings and assets, his reputation, his pension, his license to practice law and ability to earn a living, and now his health.  He is going through a very painful and debilitating course of medical treatments.  At the end of that, he will have less than a 50/50 chance of living another five years.  The man has suffered a great deal, and will suffer a great deal more before it is over for him.

It’s time once again for the U.S. Department of Justice to earn its name.  It’s time to parole Sal DiMasi.