On the Road in NH, the Natural from Boston Had No Trouble Connecting

Thursday, May 29, 2014

      “Nothing truly worthwhile was ever achieved without absolute sincerity.”  
                                                                                             - Confucius

Jim Brett is a natural politician, maybe one of the best ever from the Dorchester section of Boston.  This means he must be a good actor, right?

Jim Brett never plays a part, which, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries ago, is the essence of morality.  “Never to play a part.” 

The world may be a stage but you can’t put people on if you want to live an ethical life.
Brett means what he tells you.  If he gives advice, it’s something he himself would do in a heartbeat, or has already done.

Maybe that’s why he got a standing ovation after delivering the commencement address at Rivier University, my wife’s alma mater, a few weeks back.  The kids could tell he was on the level.  And he said something worth listening to. 
There Jimmy was, the former prodigy of the Massachusetts House, in Nashua, New Hampshire, on a cool Monday morn in May, talking about “special” people on what was obviously a special day for the graduates.  But he wasn’t referring to the graduates; he was talking about persons who are challenged by physical, mental and other difficulties.

“…we find ourselves using the word ‘special’ as a kind of euphemism for something we have difficulty saying directly,” said Brett, who has been the President/CEO of The New England Council since 1996.*  “We say a child has ‘special needs’ or is a ‘special child,’ partly because it seems kinder than using some colder, clinical term, and partly because we are a bit embarrassed by our own difficulty in facing a disturbing reality.  Sometimes I wonder whether using the word this way says more about the speaker than the person spoken about.  But mostly, I think, it is used with genuine tenderness and caring.  The Special Olympics are an example.”
Brett knows this subject intimately.  His late, older brother, Jack Brett, was born with a significant intellectual disability.  “We five other kids (in the Brett family) were expected to, and we joyfully did, help look after Jack,” he says. 

Helping those with such disabilities is a profoundly serious commitment of his.  President Barack Obama recognized that commitment in a formal way by appointing Brett  chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities early in his first term.  This has given Brett a national platform on the issue.
Rivier is a Catholic college and Brett is “a fish-eating Catholic,” as they used to say in Boston a long time ago.  So it was natural for him, as he exhorted the graduates not to shun those who need their help, to allude to the events of Holy Week.

“A couple of weeks ago, at the Good Friday liturgy,” he said, “I listened to the familiar reading from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, prefiguring the crucifixion.  ‘He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, from whom men hid their faces.’  But in the particular translation used that day, the last phrase was recast: he was a man ‘from whom we turned our gaze.’  That struck me with a chill.  It seemed to emphasize not just a failure to see, but rather a seeing and, having seen, a turning away.  The question hit me like a brick: From whom do I turn away my gaze?”
Brett continued:

“Like an ancient idolatry, our popular culture is consumed with pursuit of physical perfection.  The images are relentless in the media.  Bodies that are not thought to be perfect enough are sculpted and air-brushed and photo-shopped until they are satisfactory for worship.  ‘If you don’t (or can’t) look like this,’ the images say, ‘too bad for you.’

“Advances in genetic research have given hope for treatment, and even cures, of serious and debilitating diseases, all to the good, but with that progress has come the prospect of designer babies, re-engineered to taste.
“The new eugenics is on the horizon pressing its case, arguing that some lives are worth more than others, that we shouldn’t ‘waste’ our resources on unworthy subjects, that the disabled and the elderly should cooperate by getting out of the way.

“These impulses whisper to us, ‘Turn away your gaze.’  They say, there are exceptions to full membership in the human family.  We rejected that advice with respect to Jack.  We didn’t look away; we looked to bring him closer.  We insisted that he was as much a member of the family as anyone.
“The advice to divide the human family into worthy and unworthy is, quite literally, inhuman.”

Jim Brett has never been an excluder.  He doesn’t hold grudges, doesn’t keep score.  Still, he got elected eight times (1981-96) to the House from Dorchester, the major leagues of Massachusetts politics. Amazing.

*The New England Council bills itself as “an alliance of schools, hospitals, corporations, and other private organizations throughout New England, working together to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the region.”  It identifies and supports federal policies of importance to all six states, and advocates for its membership regionally and nationally.

One Tough Vote Ended the Political Life of a Legislator from Bygone Era

Friday, May 23, 2014

One of my bad habits is holding onto stuff I don't really need.  Take the Boston Globe obituary on John Dolan, for example.  Dolan died one year ago, on May 24, 2013, at 90 years of age.  His obit can still be found in the piles of paper on my desk.*

I really don’t know why I’ve kept it.  I suspect it has something to do with the kind of man and public servant Dolan was. There was something innocent and genuine about him that calls for continuous contemplation. 
We can't let go of the memories of the Dolans of Massachusetts, those small-town, thrifty, upright Republicans, they who put much more into this country than they ever took out of it

John Dolan was born in Ipswich on September 7, 1922, the first of the five children of Charles L. Dolan and the former Rose Kilborn.  He lived with his family on Grape Island, a barrier island off Ipswich, just south of Plum Island, for the first 12 years of his life.   There was no electricity or running water on the island.
The Dolans left Grape Island for the mainland when the island was turned into a wildlife refuge.  Shortly thereafter, his mother experienced health problems and he was sent to the Hillside School, a boarding school in Marlborough for poor and homeless boys.  He remained at Hillside through high school.

In 1942, Dolan enlisted in the Navy and served throughout World War II as a gunnery captain.  He became the veteran’s agent in Ipswich after the war, met the woman who would become his wife, Lucy Eustace, and was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.  His wife took over as veteran’s agent while he was away.

When his younger brother, James, a soldier fighting in Korea, was killed in action in 1950, John Dolan was released from the service, upon the intervention of Senator Leverett Saltonstall, and assigned the hard duty of accompanying his brother’s body home for burial.
Back in civilian life, Dolan was elected Ipswich Town Clerk.  He later ran for the legislature, won, and was re-elected eight times.  His political demise came about abruptly after he took an unpopular stand on reducing the size of the Massachusetts House.

It was February 25, 1970.   The legislature was voting whether or not to advance a state-wide ballot question.  If placed on the ballot and passed by the voters, the measure would reduce the number of representatives from 240 to 160. 

Dolan favored the proposal up until the day of the vote, when he switched to the opposition side, a pivotal decision.  The measure was defeated by one vote.  Dolan was thrust into the headlines as the man responsible for its defeat.  Many criticized him harshly, including a slew of fellow Republicans.
He said he feared that Ipswich, which had always had a local representative, could have lost that voice when all House districts were enlarged, in accord with the smaller total number of representatives.

Up for re-election that fall, Dolan drew two Republican opponents in the primary.  He lost the nomination and left office the following January.  However, he managed to continue his career at the State House as research director for the House Committee on Natural Resources, an appointment that could have been made only with the blessing of the Democratic Speaker, David Bartley.
Four years after Dolan cast the decisive vote against a smaller House, an identical proposal made its way onto the ballot and was approved by the voters.  In 1978, the reduction went into effect.  Dolan left his job with the Natural Resources Committee around that same time and pretty much retired to a quiet life in Ipswich.  He remained active in the community and in veterans affairs. He published articles on the history of Ipswich frequently in the local press.

I believe that time has proved Dolan (and others) right on cutting the House.  We the people lost influence in the state capital when we shrunk that body by 25%.  We need more representation in the halls of government, not less.
Also, if we got a more efficient House by making it smaller, has that efficiency counted for much?

John Dolan died in his sleep one year ago.  In his casket, his family placed the cap he wore as a  Hillside School student.  All his life, he treasured that cap and the lessons he learned when he was young and, far from home, had to become a man.

*For this post, I am indebted to J.M. Lawrence and the fine article he wrote: “John Dolan, 90; cast memorable 1970 State House vote,” Boston Sunday Globe, June 23, 2013

Dean of House Didn't Mince Words on Univ. Endowments, Pensions, Film Tax Credits

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

It was good to see Angelo Scaccia, the longest serving member of the Massachusetts House, getting a few things off his chest during the recent FY 15 budget debate. 

Sure, Scaccia’s budget amendments went up in smoke on the day in question, Monday, April 28, but at least he spoke honestly, without fear, calculation or artifice.

Thanks to the State House News Service, which had a reporter on scene, we’re able to present The Dean’s words for leisurely perusal.
Up for consideration were three of 13 budget amendments filed by Scaccia, who let everybody know at the outset, “I had three amendments, but I got my arms twisted, Mr. Speaker, and I’m going to give up on two of them.”

One of the sacrificed amendments would have taxed all university endowment funds of $5 billion dollars or more at an annual rate of one percent.
“I think there were five (funds) that met that criteria (last year),” Scaccia said.  “Schools like Harvard, which are in my district, take up 51 percent of our taxable land base.  And in the case of Harvard and MIT, they give the city a donut: zero dollars.”

The other sacrificed amendment concerned the exemption of public employee pensions from the state income tax.  It would have subjected pensions above $50,000 per year to the tax and mandated that resulting revenues be used to reduce the state’s unfunded pension liabilities.
“For most of us,” Scaccia said, “$50,000 is something to look at down the road, but something that, if you’re a state rep, you will never get to.  We have folks, state troopers, (people) working in higher education, who are making oodles and oodles of money.  Years ago, the theory was not to tax pensions because most of us didn’t make much money.  Someone (today) is making $875,000.  [NOTE: He didn't say who.] That’s a lot of money.  His pension and other people’s pensions are going to bankrupt us in 20 or 30 years.  My amendment is every dollar after $50,000 is taxed at 5.2 percent.  Not bad to make $100,000 and only return to the Commonwealth $2,000.  I’m going to refrain from that issue, but I think it’s food for thought.”

Scaccia then turned to his amendment seeking to cap at $40 million per year the total amount of tax credits granted to professionals making movies in Massachusetts.
Citing a study by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Scaccia said film tax credits cost the state $80 million dollars in 2013; that is, if the film tax credit had not existed and if companies had shot as many movies as they did in Massachusetts that year, that’s how much additional revenue the state would have received.

“My amendment,” Scaccia said, “is the same as the one my dear friend from Milton (Deval Patrick) filed, my favorite governor.  He said we should limit this issue to $40 million per year…It costs us a lot more, but $40 million is a pretty good start. He (Patrick) had to be personally embarrassed to subsidize Hollywood’s actors, actresses, etc., while trying to pick the pockets of regular folks to the tune of $2 billion last year.” 
This was an apparent reference to the most recent revenue enhancements adopted by the legislature and governor.

Scaccia said, “Yeah, let’s make a protest.  Ben Affleck, the Wahlbergs, and all those poor producers from Hollywood.  We don’t have the luxury of protecting this industry.”
A brief, lonely protest it was.  At the end of his remarks, Scaccia moved to withdraw the amendment.  No one objected.

House Debate on Exempting Municipalities from Gas Tax: the Beauty Is in the Details

Friday, May 2, 2014

One of the many good things about my job is the subscription to the State House News Service that comes with it.  I’m a News Service nerd and proud of it.  I consume everything they serve up, especially this time of year, when the House and Senate are busy producing the state budget for the next fiscal year. I linger lovingly over the daily House Session reports, which provide drop-by-drop accounts of the often colorful and sometimes strange floor debates on the many, many budget amendments filed by House members.

It frankly amazes me that more of the stuff in the session reports doesn’t find its way into the mainstream media.  It’s so good.  Of course, that gives me the opportunity to put some of the neglected material  in my blog.  (I try to avoid tilling already-tilled ground.)
I’m glad, for instance, that the media seems to have totally ignored the discussion in the House chamber this past Monday, April 28, regarding a Republican attempt to pass an amendment that would have freed municipalities of their obligation to pay the state tax on gasoline of 24 cents per gallon.  Thanks to the State House News Service, I’m able to quote the participants directly and amply.

Rep. Angelo D’Emelia, a Republican from Bridgewater, filed  Amendment #43 to the FY 15 state budget, which would have exempted the state’s 351 cities and towns from the gas tax by adding some new legalese to Chapter 64A of the General Laws. 
In response, Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, who serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means, filed an amendment to amend D’Emelia’s amendment by requiring the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Department of Revenue to conduct a study of the municipal gas tax exemption before it could be formally considered by the legislature. Kulik’s measure, designated Amendment #43.1 and titled “Further to Amendment 43,” was essentially a foreign body that would kill its host.

Explaining his amendment, Kulik said, “I offer this further amendment for a number of reasons.  There are bills that accomplish this same thing pending before the Revenue Committee.  Another issue is, it’s difficult to determine what municipal use really means. It could open a Pandora ’s Box.  And the revenue estimate (of what the state would lose when municipalities were no longer paying the gas tax) is between $6 and $11 million.  But it could be more.  It’s prudent for DOR (the Department of Revenue) to look at this.  We need to know that (amount of lost revenue) before we make a decision like that.”
D’Emelia said, “I rise in opposition to the further amendment.  I believe the underlying amendment (#43) is pretty straightforward.  Municipal use (of gasoline) is easy to figure out: police, fire, highways.  By giving them this exemption, they’ll have certainty (when) putting their budgets together…This is a common-sense thing we can give to our communities.  I hope the further amendment is defeated.”

Rep. Bradford Hill, a Republican from Ipswich, said, “I stand in opposition to the further amendment.  Once again, we need to study an issue that has been brought up many times in the legislature…Eleven million dollars is what we’re talking about.  We don’t need to study the issue.  We know what the issue is.  It’s very cut and dry.  It’s $11 million that we want to help our cities and towns remove from paying…Between $5 million and $11 million out of a $33 billion (state) budget.  You talk about the municipal aid!”
Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Republican from Whitman, spoke also in opposition, weaving in the issue of indexing the gas tax to inflation.  In 2013, the legislature put gas tax indexing into law, meaning future increases will occur automatically (once indexing takes effect on January 1, 2015).  Opponents, however, have gathered enough signatures to put an indexing repeal question on the statewide November, 2014, ballot.  Voters will have the final say on the matter.

“With all due respect to the chair of Ways and Means,” Diehl said, “I’d like to say, even though the budget is going to increase for education, the gas tax increases will offset a portion of that.  This legislature has chosen to create an unknown future cost.  It’s a failed model.  For those of you who thinking (that) linking CPI (Consumer Price Index) to the gas tax is successful, let me put it this way:  If we did it (gas tax indexing) in 1993, we’d (now) have a $1.03-per-gallon (gas tax) between state and federal.  We know the cost: $11 million.  The state is bringing in unexpected revenue.  I respectfully ask that the further amendment not be passed.”
Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Republican from Billerica, said, “It didn’t take long to have our first ‘study amendment’ during our budget debate…Why don’t we just have an up-or-down vote on the amendment on the floor?”

Rep. Shauna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, said, “I stand in opposition to the further amendment.  If it’s too broad, let’s fix it, not hide behind a study.  This is a budget-buster for our cities and towns.  We talk about how we get more money back to our cities and towns, but (it’s) not much more, considering (state) revenues are up and the Lottery is up.  We rejected that opportunity.  You’re taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other.  We shouldn’t be making money on our fire, our police.  It’s going to get worse with inflation.  Will local aid keep up with that? If we look at this legislature, local aid will not keep up.”

Rep. George Peterson, a Republican from Grafton, said, “I’ve been here for ten terms, and I think every single budget cycle we’ve filed this amendment to give some relief to cities and towns.  It’s failed literally 20 times.  But we’re starting this budget debate, first amendment being debated, in the classification of revenue, and it’s already going to study.  I was joking with my friend from Lexington (Democrat Jay Kaufman, House chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue). This has probably been studied more than any other issue, and I asked him if any of those studies have actually been completed.  We know how much money it is: $11 million, out of a $36 billion budget, with a revenue stream (for the overall state budget) that is $600 million beyond what’s anticipated. But we can’t find $11 million for cities and towns.”
Rep. James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, said, “The question I have is based on what Mr. Peterson just said.  There must be nine other studies out there.  Can we get the other studies?  And, Mr. Speaker, could you tell us the date this (Amendment #43.1) study will be presented?”

The Dean of the House, Rep. Angelo Scaccia, a Democrat from the Hyde Park section of Boston, came to the podium.  He was in a fearless frame of mind, per usual.  He was eager to speak candidly, bluntly.  Here's what he told an attentive House:
“I can see this is going to be a long debate.  First of all, we shouldn’t have done the further amendment.  We should defeat this (the D’Emelia amendment) on the merits.  Money for Chapter 70, circuit breaker, charter schools.  These are monies we send back to cities and towns through our budget process.  Billions!  And we’re going to talk about $11 million.  I pay the gas tax, you pay the gas tax, all of us pay the gas tax.  I wish in my city they didn’t have to run (vehicles) so much.  Oooh!  Oooh!  Oh, my mayor is going to hate me.  We have become a room of individuals, who solely represent our cities and towns.  We represent the Commonwealth!  It’s nice to be a selectman, but if you want to be a selectman, leave here and go there.  I’m going to forego the money I was going to send back to my city (through the D’Emelia amendment).  I got a call from the city’s chief executive (Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh), and he said, ‘Let this go because we don’t need it, but I want to make sure you do the $25 million for charter schools and the $17 million for the circuit breakers.’  A long week, talking about a $37 billion budget.  This is not the item the Republicans should go after.  I have some amendments coming up that I hope they help me on because they do help cities and towns, but not $11 million.  It ain’t worth it.  Let’s go on to bigger game.  I hope the Republicans are with me on my amendment when we try to snuff out tax expenditures we give out to rich people: $500 million.”

A roll call vote was conducted.  Kulik’s further amendment killing D’Emelia’s amendment via “study” was adopted on a 116-32 party-line vote.

NEXT: What happened to those Scaccia budget amendments.