Republicans Could Exploit Weak Job Market to Move Up from Irrelevance in Legislature

Friday, March 28, 2014

As good as we basically have it in a progressive state like Massachusetts I’m always struck by how bearish we are about the future.

The Great Recession ended in June of 2009, economists tell us.   Almost five years later, it seems like the trauma it inflicted has not come close to healing.

For my job, I have to watch what goes on in the legislative and executive branches of Massachusetts government, and follow developments in the state budget.  Practically every time I go to the State House, I notice a different state-funded group asking legislators for money, more money.  Never having enough money to spread among the needy constituencies on your doorstep could be the hardest part of serving in that building.

Many members of the Massachusetts House, some 12 or 13 reps, have recently resigned or announced their intention not to run again.  How many quit, at least in part, due to the weariness that comes from not being able to help people who need help?
For a long time, I’ve attributed the heavy public mood to the panoply of financial problems confronting the typical family: the high cost of buying a home, the high cost of a college education, the high cost of health care, the high cost of state and local taxes, the highly unlikely prospect of getting a raise exceeding the inflation rate, etc.

But lately I’m thinking there’s one issue bigger than all the rest suppressing the natural tendency of the American people toward optimism: the job market.  We aren’t creating enough new jobs.  And the jobs we are creating don’t pay enough.  I think it’s that simple.
A lot of good stuff has been written on this topic.  One of the best expositions came in April, 2013, from the National Employment Law Project, which published a briefing paper titled, “Scarring Effects: Demographics of the Long-Term Unemployed and the Danger of Ignoring the Jobs Deficit.”  I urge you to seek it out at:

Here are some excerpts:

·         “The elimination of good jobs over the past three decades continues to hollow out our nation’s middle class and fuel growing income inequality.”

·         “The Great Recession exacerbated a long-term trend away from good jobs.  Six in ten jobs lost during the downtown were in mid-wage occupations.  By comparison…employment in lower-wage occupations grew by 2.8 times more than employment in mid- and high-wage occupations.”

·         “…the Congressional Budget Office is warning that unemployment is likely to stay above 7.5 percent through 2014, marking the sixth consecutive year with unemployment that high, ‘the longest such period in the past 70 years.’ ” 

·         “…research shows that the loss of a good job during a severe downturn – the job loss pattern of this downturn – leads to a 20 percent earnings loss lasting 15 to 20 years.”

·         “Well into the recovery, the youth unemployment rate was stalled at its lowest level since WWII.  Traditional avenues into the workforce – manufacturing, retail and construction – have been closed to the youngest workers who have to compete against millions of unemployed with more job experience, making it hard to get a foothold.”

·         “…the United States faces a jobs deficit of nine million.  This is the number of jobs needed to restore the labor market to its pre-recession health after accounting for jobs lost during the downturn as well as potential labor market entrants.  At the current pace of job growth (183,000 jobs per month in 2012), the United States will not close the jobs deficit until 2019.”
If the National Employment Law Project is correct, if the nation’s “jobs deficit” lasts until 2019, it would almost certainly have an impact on the make-up of the Massachusetts legislature.  The overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, a fact of political life here for decades, could become a thing of the past.

There is at least one cadre of small-business Republicans I am aware of that has already coalesced around the goal of defeating a select group of Democratic office holders in districts where the economy has been especially sluggish.  This group has the relatively modest aim of replacing eight to ten Democrats in each of the next four to five election cycles.  It hopes to do this by sticking to the theme of economic opportunity and avoiding issues like abortion, gay marriage, welfare benefits, transgender rights, etc.
If the Republican Party had to depend only on Republicans to carry out this plan, they wouldn’t have a prayer.  Only 11% of Massachusetts voters are registered Republicans. 

Fortunately for the Republicans, they have a large number of Independent (unenrolled) voters to turn to for aid and comfort.  Some 52% of registered voters are Independents, a much bigger share than are Democrats, 37%.
Independents are always the key to electing the Republicans our state frequently favors in gubernatorial elections, but not in most other races.  Think of the Congress, where our nine U.S. reps and two U.S. Senators are all Democrats, and of the constitutional offices like Treasurer and Secretary of State, all held by Dems.

Should the job market remain a bear market, Republican candidates could find receptive audiences all over the state, and especially among younger voters yearning for a life as good as their parents had.

A FURTHER NOTE ON THIS SUBJECT: The New York Times published an article on Monday, April 28, which filled in more of the picture of our weak job market.  It was headlined, "Recovery Has Created Far More Low Wage Jobs Than Better-Paid Ones," and said, in part, "...the strongest employment growth during the sluggish recovery has been in low-wage work, at places like strip malls and fast-food restaurant...the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones."  You can find the article at:

To the Chagrin of State's Largest School Bus Operator, DEP Never Stands Idle on this Point

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When a police officer or a DEP inspector tells you to stop your engine, it’s best not to act like you can’t hear them over the hum of the pistons. 

No one driving a motor vehicle that has come to a stop may keep the engine running for longer than five minutes.  That’s the law in Massachusetts. 
There are some exceptions to the five-minute rule, such as for vehicles making deliveries, but most motorists, truck and bus drivers are bound by it in most situations.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has had an active anti-idling program for years.  As part of it, the agency educates school bus companies and drivers on the anti-idling law and enforces it during spot checks at schools.  Children are especially vulnerable to the exhaust gases and particulate matter produced by diesel engines. Think of how many kids you know who have asthma and carry inhalers with them to school.  The danger posed by a parked-but-running school bus, or a whole line of such buses, is real and immediate.
Earlier this month, the operator of the largest fleet of school buses in Massachusetts agreed to a whopping settlement in a case related to anti-idling violations and related problems.

Under that agreement, First Student, Inc. will pay $300,000 in civil penalties for idling violations outside schools and at its own facilities, and $150,000 to help fund state projects aimed at reducing particulate emissions and encouraging the wider use of hybrid motor vehicles.
First Student, a subsidiary of FirstGroup America, operates around 1,700 school buses in more than 30 Massachusetts communities.

According to a March 5 press release from the Office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, MassDEP conducted in 2008 and 2009 a series of unannounced inspections at Massachusetts public schools and other locations where First Student operates diesel-powered buses.  Those inspections, the release said, “found many instances of unnecessary idling” at schools in Springfield, Brockton, South Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury and Roslindale.  The Coakley press release went on to say:
“An administrative consent order, signed in 2010 between MassDEP and First Student, required the company to cease excessive idling, properly educate its drivers, inspect its own facilities and schools for idling instances, and report to MassDEP on a quarterly basis.  As part of the order, First Student paid the Commonwealth a $40,000 administrative penalty.

“The company has paid administrative penalties on this and two other occasions totaling $75,000 for non-compliance with the state’s anti-idling regulation.  First Student also paid $128,000 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 for idling violations in eight states, including Massachusetts.
“While First Student complied in part with the 2010 consent order with MassDEP, the Commonwealth again found numerous idling violations by company drivers between June 2010 and January 2013 at parking lot locations and schools across the Commonwealth, and also found First Student failed to conduct required inspections and to properly report violations.”

We’ve all used the expression, “Your tax dollars at work.” 
Always we use it sarcastically, as when we see a state police officer in a cruiser parked in the passing lane of a highway, blue lights flashing, but with no ostensible reason to be there, making the traffic crawl, or when we call a department of state government and get drawn into a humongous list of options -- “If you want the second assistant deputy secretary, press  0” – and are sent ultimately to an extension that no longer accepts messages because “the mailbox is full.” 

This is the first time I’m using it ingenuously:  “Your tax dollars at work?  Easy:  DEP’s anti-idling program.”


Kayyem's Candidacy Reminds Us that a Governor's Race Is No Place for the Self-Effacing

Friday, March 21, 2014

One may subscribe to the theory that we need more good people running for office and more people of diverse backgrounds and professions running for office without surrendering the capacity to be astonished at the immoderate ambition of the occasional candidate for governor who arrives in the public arena out of the blue, never having run even for school committee, and avers that he or she is the best person at this time to lead the Commonwealth.  One may be taken aback by the candidate’s self-possession and confidence and still welcome that person’s candidacy, although I personally do not find myself in so welcoming a mood in most such instances.  No, I am more of the ilk of Sam Rayburn, the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, (1940-47, 1949-53 and 1955-61).  Rayburn famously remarked to his protégé, Lyndon Johnson, on the occasion of Johnson extolling the intelligence of John F. Kennedy’s advisors to him in the summer of 1960: “I’d feel a hell of a lot better about that bunch if just one of them had once run for sheriff.”

What is it about the Juliette Kayyems of the world that keeps them from ever considering a run for sheriff?  What compels them, as she is now compelled, to seek the top job in Massachusetts politics, governor, on her first try at politics?  The obvious answer is they believe they’re at least as well qualified as anybody else who wants the job, and they have the confidence to put that belief to the test.
Kayyem, who is 44 years old, has reason enough to be confident.  A graduate of Harvard University (1991) and Harvard Law School (1995), she has been an advisor to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, a homeland security advisor to Governor Deval Patrick, in which capacity she oversaw the Massachusetts National Guard; a member of President Obama’s transition team, and an Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the federal Department of Homeland Security.  She’s also been a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a columnist for the Boston Globe.  Last year, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for a series of articles she wrote on allowing women soldiers to fight in combat.  Then there’s Kayyem’s marvelous family: she’s married to David J. Barron, a fellow Harvard and Harvard Law grad, whose nomination by President Obama for a judgeship on U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, is pending before the U.S. Senate.  Juliette and David have three children they’re raising in Cambridge.

I went to see Kayyem this past Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Rappaport Center at Suffolk University Law School.  She spoke for about 20 minutes and took questions for 45 minutes or so.  I liked how she delved into every subject with unselfconscious enthusiasm.  She was very knowledgeable, articulate, and engaging.  Her physical presence is strong: she’s tall and thin, with long, dark hair and big, bright, warm eyes.  She appears to be a dynamo at the height of her powers, a force of nature.  Yes, she’s got charisma. 
It’s hard not to like Juliette Kayyem.

If you look at her campaign web site, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of her campaign platform, and the degree to which she has thought out the issues, which she identifies as: reforming the criminal justice system, honoring veterans, finding opportunities for business growth in solutions to climate change, providing education “from birth to career,” growing the economy through a “connective infrastructure,” ensuring women’s health and workplace economy, and reinvigorating the state’s “Gateway Cities.”
If I had any criticism of Kayyem’s performance at Suffolk, it's that her answers were too long, so long in some instances that she was far from the point of origin by the time she finished.  With an affirming kind of audience before her, she could not resist the urge to over-communicate.

I’d also say that she has to be careful to avoid comments and asides that may grate on people who will never be able to afford a place in Cambridge, which is to say most of the voters in statewide elections.  Kayyem was rolling along the other day when she happened to mention in the middle of an answer that her husband had been nominated for a federal judgeship, which had caused one-half of the Kayyem-Barron union to observe (and the other half obviously to agree): “The higher we go, the less we make.”  
It was a throwaway line, barely noticed in the torrent of her policy-speak.  But, if Kayyem were to win (by some incredibly fortunate series of events) the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, it's the kind of comment that could come back to bite her.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever going to feel sorry for a federal judge and his high-achieving, Harvard-lawyer spouse.

The danger of being perceived as an elitist is, overall, the greatest threat to the Kayyem candidacy.  If she gets the nomination, some pundit or pontificator is bound to dig up that old William F. Buckley, Jr., quote and hurl it at her like a grenade -- you know, the one where Buckley said:  “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
Kayyem, however, has two more immediate problems.  First, she has to get 15% of the vote at the Democratic nominating convention to qualify for the September primary ballot.  Then, she has to face off, most likely, against a seasoned campaigner like Martha Coakley or Steve Grossman.

Coakley started small in politics, running for a Dorchester seat in the Massachusetts House and losing, and subsequently running for Middlesex District Attorney and Massachusetts Attorney General (successfully), U.S. Senate (unsuccessfully), and Attorney General again (successfully).   Sam Rayburn would appreciate her paying her political dues.
The Democratic primary would be Coakley’s fourth time on a statewide ballot and Kayyem’s first.  Pondering that possibility, Kayyem is no doubt heartened by the fact that: (a) one of her mentors, Deval Patrick, won the governor’s job in his first-ever run for office, (b) Patrick beat Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly for the nomination, and (c) attorneys general more often fail than not when trying to move up to the governor’s suite.  Historically in the U.S., AG is not a great springboard to governor.

NOTE: The U.S. Senate confirmed Kayyem's husband, David J. Barron, as a justice of the First Circuit Court of Appeals on May 22, 2014.  The court hears appeals from the U.S. District Courts for the districts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island. 


There's No Smoke in the Eyes of Would-Be Medicinal Pot Shopkeepers

Friday, March 14, 2014

I know plenty of people who smoke pot or who used to smoke it.  But I have never known anyone who used marijuana for medicinal purposes or even expressed an interest in medicinal pot.

When Massachusetts voters approved a November, 2012, ballot question legalizing the possession and use of marijuana for the treatment of various medical conditions, I figured the demand for the stuff would be fairly small.  I thought that some existing pharmacies would sell it, and that it would become a minor sideline for them.
Little did I know that we the voters -- Yes, I was for it – had set the stage for a new multi-million-dollar industry featuring elaborate, indoor pot farms and a string of new retail outlets around the state selling only medicinal marijuana.  These outlets are called Registered Marijuana Dispensaries (RMDs).

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) has been authorized by law to license up to 35 RMDs, all of which must be constituted legally as non-profit organizations.
When the DPH announced the award of provisional licenses to 20 RMDs a few weeks ago, some hell broke loose because of who was chosen and how the DPH selection committee applied the licensing criteria.  The fact that Bill Delahunt, former Norfolk DA and a retired Congressman, is affiliated with the organizations that won three provisional licenses rattled a lot of folks.  Some powerful figures on Beacon Hill are now saying the DPH should do over parts of the licensing process or all of it.

I haven’t looked into the details enough to form an opinion on whether the process was so flawed as to require the invalidation of the results.  However, I happen to know one of the seven persons on the selection committee, Cheryl Anne Sbarra, senior staff attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.  She’s a scrupulously honest and fair person.  Because of Cheryl’s presence, I’m inclined to believe the process was as sound as anything this new and complex could be.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have misgivings about voting to legalize medicinal marijuana.  I wonder about all the people and resources chasing the limited number of RMD licenses.  There were 100 organizations in the hunt.  The smart money must smell a bonanza.  If the margins in peddling pot were not so great, would the competition for the licenses have been as intense?   Would the protests from some of the losing bidders been as loud?

I don’t know what the typical RMD will charge for an ounce of grass, but they’re obviously planning on selling a lot of grass. 
Take Bay State Relief, Inc., one of the fortunate 20 provisional licensees.  On its application, Bay State Relief said it anticipated revenues totaling $4,838,314 in the first year of operation.  It also said its first- year expenses would be $4,911,393, meaning they’d lose $73,079. Imagine someone ringing up $4.8 million in legal pot sales in little old Milford, Massachusetts, which is where Bay State Relief intends to locate, at 13 Commercial Way.

Here’s another interesting example from the ranks of the winning bidders.  Brighton Health Advocates, Inc., doing business as Compassionate Care Clinics, said on its application that it expects sales to total $5,051,537 in the first year, and that its net profit, or margin, as they like to say in the non-profit world, would be $1,883,298.  This particular Compassionate Care Clinic will be set up at 132 Alden Road, Fairhaven.
One may infer that droves of Massachusetts residents will be heading to physicians’ offices soon, clamoring for medical marijuana prescriptions.  I could well be among them; the stress at work has been killing me lately.

A doctor must certify that I suffer from a debilitating medical condition before I can get my weed.  According to the DPH, the law specifies those conditions as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis “and other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician.”   That last part seems a large enough loophole for most of us to stumble through.  What could be more common than debilitating stress in our post-Great Recession, flat-wages, dog-eat-dog world economy?
Another thing that’s got me wondering are the “Heyyyyyy, Man” names so many of these dispensaries are going by.  It’s like they hired Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick to dream them up. 

A few of the winning licensees have marvelously mellow monikers, like Good Chemistry of Massachusetts and Garden Remedies.  And some of the losing bidders aren’t bad either in the category of California Dreamin’.  I’m talking about you, A New Leaf Dispensary.
If bringing medicinal marijuana to the masses were such a serious undertaking, shouldn’t our elected officials and regulators have insisted that the dispensaries adopt more sober names?  Had it been up to me, there would have been none of this whimsy and suggestions of “compassion.”  I would have imposed Soviet-style dullness on the system.  Each one of the dispensaries would have a number: RMD No. 1, RMD No. 2, etc., based on the order in which their names were drawn from an empty marijuana planter.

I can’t get over how much money is going to be changing hands in this new “industry.” 
The other day I was talking with a friend about this.  “I can’t believe it, Mike,” I said.  “A hundred companies went to an incredible amount of time and trouble, not to mention expense, trying to get one of these licenses.  I can’t believe there’s enough pent-up demand for this kind of ‘medicine’ to justify all that.”  

Mike has invested in real estate and in retail businesses for years, with notable success.  He was glad to open my eyes. 
“Don’t you get it?” he said.  “These people know that medical marijuana is the first, necessary step on the road to legalization of pot possession for recreational use.  This is the way the whole country is going.  Most people don’t see much difference between having a couple of drinks and smoking a joint.  If you get one of these dispensary licenses, which come with the obligation to have a source of cleanly cultivated pot in Massachusetts, you’ll be sitting pretty a few years from now when we make it legal to have a small quantity of grass on you.  These are the liquor marts of the next generation.  Who wouldn’t want in on that?”







Embittered in Defeat Three Years Ago, Cape Cod Politician Wants another Bite of the Apple

Thursday, March 6, 2014

There’s nothing like the thought of the Massachusetts Senate, I guess, to change some men’s minds and raise their hopes.  Take Matt Patrick, for example.

On December 17, 2010, roughly three years and three months ago, Patrick gave his farewell speech on the floor of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  He’d lost his recent attempt to win a sixth term as a rep from Cape Cod. 

Patrick, to his credit, chose not to deliver the standard remarks on that occasion – you know, the boilerplate that has to do with how much the departing lawmaker has enjoyed his service at the State House, how highly he has esteemed his colleagues, how much he has treasured their camaraderie and support, how he is certain to look back fondly years hence, through the mists of time, on these, his marvelous, marvelous days, in service to the public, etc. 

Rather, Patrick offered some very candid comments on how damn frustrating it can be when you’re just one of the crowd in the House.  Kyle Cheney, a reporter for the State House News Service, was there to capture this rather unique moment for posterity.
“If you play your cards right, vote the right way, keep your criticisms to yourself, you have a chance of becoming a chairperson of a committee,” Patrick said.

(Then eventually), he said, “You find yourself not participating in debates, not even listening, because you and everyone else knows what the outcome will be.  It’s preordained.  You continue to play the game until one day you find out that some lobbyists have more influence than you, and you ask yourself, ‘Is that right?’  Or you find out that your bill has been sidelined by someone quietly without explanation, or you are asked to vote for something you oppose…It’s a system that has evolved over the decades and it is all we know.”
Though Patrick bravely dispensed with clichés at his curtain call, I can’t help but toss one his way now: Time heals all wounds. 

How else to account for Patrick’s energetic return to the public arena?
Not only is he back in the game, he’s shooting for a much bigger prize than the last time he faced the voters in November, 2010, when they took his House seat and gave it to his townsman David Vieira, a Republican.

Matt Patrick has just entered the race to succeed Senate President Therese Murray, who’s finishing up her allotted eight years as Senate leader and will end her historic run at the State House in early January, 2015. 
Patrick’s old House district encompasses five precincts in Falmouth, four precincts in Bourne and the entire town of Mashpee.  Murray’s Senate district is many times larger, including all of Plymouth -- the largest community, geographically, in Massachusetts -- and all of Pembroke, Kingston, Bourne, Sandwich and Falmouth.

When Patrick was interviewed earlier this week by the Cape Cod Times, he said that one of the lessons he’d taken from his loss to Vieira was: “Don’t hold back.”
I’m a sucker for that let-me-at-em kind of talk.  I love it when our public officials go all Harry Truman on us.  Patrick, who has staunchly defended the environment in his current role as executive director of the Westport River Watershed Alliance, no doubt means it. 

That does not mean he won’t hold back from speaking of preordained legislative outcomes, floor debates one can’t help but ignore, and crafty lobbyists who get the drop on you.

There Are Many More Interesting Topics in MA than the Billions Wasted Yearly on Health Care

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hello?  Did anyone hear what the Health Policy Commission said on January 8?

Of the many, many billions of dollars spent on health care in Massachusetts in 2012, it said that up to 39% of it “could be considered wasteful.”

Thirty-nine percent of all health care spending in 2012 was $26.9 billion.

This was just one of the gems in the commission’s 2013 Cost Trends Report, which was released that day.  The report in its entirety may be found at:

I read the commission’s press release on the report, and a few days later, the report itself.  It’s an amazing document.  Anybody who cares about the future of Massachusetts should read it.

Massachusetts is hooked on health care.  Per capita health care spending here is higher than in any other state.  More than 16% of all economic activity in Massachusetts is related to health care.
I kind of expected the 2013 Cost Trends Report to shake things up, or at least to dominate the news for a week or two.  How wrong I was.  Again.

Who can think about blowing $26 or $27 billion when you have to keep up with what the Kardashians are doing or you’re worried about the draft choices for the Patriots this spring?  Who can possibly pull his mind away from that all-important St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston?
Hospital fee structures?  Boring.  Whacko Hurley?  Fascinating.

No one may want to think about what we could do with all the money we waste on health care, but someone has to.

In that spirit, I will point out that, if by some miracle we could recover that blown $26.9 billion, we could fund at least 70% of the entire state budget in the next fiscal year.  Every taxpayer could get a huge refund.  Our economy would grow faster than the “medicine” they’ll be cultivating in those new, legal pot dispensaries.

Here’s another way to think about it.
The legislature is now considering a bond bill that would allow the state to finance some major, long awaited transportation projects around the state.  In that bill, for example, is $2.3 billion to build the new commuter rail line from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River.  All of the projects combined in that bill will cost $13.15 billion, or less than half of what we wasted on health care in 2012.

The Health Policy Commission is run by a brilliant young man by the name of David Seltz.  Very few people, if any, understand the intricacies of health care policy and health care spending in Massachusetts to the degree that he does.  There could not be a better man than David Seltz to lead the state’s first truly comprehensive effort to bend the health care cost curve downward.

“I look forward,” he said on January 8, “to the conversations and policies this report will generate as we continue to strive to make the Massachusetts health care system more efficient and effective.”

How are those conversations going, Dave?