Post-Debate Take-Away: I Would Not Want to Be Found If I Were That Fisherman

Friday, October 31, 2014

I don’t see any mystery as to why the media hounds have not yet found the manly-man fisherman who made Charlie Baker cry.  He doesn’t want to be found.

Think about it.  If you were the guy who once told a candidate for high public office that you had “ruined” the lives of your two sons by pressuring them to follow you in making a living from sea, would you want your name and picture in newspapers and on TV screens across Massachusetts?
Who in their right mind would give an interview to a reporter in which he said something like, “I can’t believe how stupid and bull-headed I was.  My boys wanted to go to college.  They could have been doctors or lawyers, or, even better, hedge fund managers.  But, no, I insisted: They had to carry on the family tradition, they had to be fishermen, and they had to take over my boat someday.  Now fishing is a dying industry and my sons are broke and in debt and they no longer work with me.  They barely even speak to me at family gatherings.  I feel like they hate my guts.  Who can blame them?  I hate my guts.”

If you missed the televised debate between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley this past Tuesday night, and you haven’t read or seen any of the news accounts of it, an explanation is in order.
Near the end of the debate, one of the three moderators asked both candidates, “When’s the last time you cried?”  Baker described a chance encounter he’d had with a fisherman, “a mountain of a man,” on a dock in New Bedford.  Baker said that, as he talked with the man about fishing, the man pointed to his two sons who were standing aboard the boat he’d just stepped down from, and said that they’d both been star football players in high school and had both been offered college scholarships because of their athletic skills.  Baker halted and began choking up.  He struggled, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears as he completed the story.  The gist was that the fisherman forced his sons to bypass college and become fishermen, too.  But the sons had done poorly as fishermen and now the father felt terribly responsible, telling Baker, “I ruined their lives.”

I was watching the debate in the kitchen with my wife and daughter as we ate dinner.  I remember being surprised by Baker’s display of raw, honest emotion, and thinking it would probably work to his advantage with the electorate because everyone would see that this incident had left a deep and permanent impact on Baker’s soul.  What better counterweight could there be, I thought, to the accusation frequently hurled Baker’s way that he's a heartless manager who cares more about numbers than people?
I figured the incident would just stand there for the rest of the campaign as what it obviously was: a small and telling moment in a long campaign filled with more significant moments.  I figured the reporters would play it up, more or less straight, for one day, then move on to bigger stuff.

Having worked for long spells as a newspaper reporter and as a paid petitioner in the halls of government, I should have known better.  I should have known Baker’s tearful narrative would set off a frenzied search for that eternally regretful mountain of a fishing man.  I must be losing it.
We do some work for an organization that provides services to commercial fishermen.  I was not half-way through the day after the debate when I heard from someone in this organization that reporters from the Globe and Herald, and operatives from the Coakley campaign, too, were “all over New Bedford trying to find that fisherman.”  

No one has found him yet.
Various reasons for that failed quest have been proposed.  Some were quick to say that fisherman cannot be found because he does not exist.  Others said he is not in New Bedford to be found because he was not a New Bedford fisherman in the first place but rather a fisherman from another port or state making a brief stop there.  That does happen with some regularity, I was told by someone who knows about such things.

When it came out that Baker’s encounter with that fisherman had occurred back in 2009 or 2010, some commenters jumped on him for offering up an old tale.  They suggested that Baker had, with cold calculation, dredged up the story from his distant past because it was dramatic and bound to elicit a strong response within himself and in his audience.  I don’t buy that. There’s no way Baker could have known some hard-bitten journalist was going to ask, “When’s the last time you cried?”  It was a screwball question.  The episode unfolded so fast and so strangely that you knew it had to be spontaneous.  It had the feel of unconsciousness, not deliberation.  Speaking of the encounter on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Baker conceded he might have erred in recalling some of the details but he held firm to the essence of the story.
This afternoon, the State House News Service reported that Martha Coakley is now saying Baker’s story could be an “amalgam of stories,” and that Baker should submit to further questioning on it.  I hope he does not.  The whole thing has now entered the tiresome stage.

Everyone saw enough and heard enough when Baker told the story to decide if it was on the level or not.  Everyone basically understands that a story can be inaccurate in the details and still true and meaningful as a whole.  We all tell stories like that.
Remember the words of the fisherman who told one of the newspapers on Wednesday: “I could show you ten guys like the one Baker described.”

Besides, there are at least a couple of more important things for Baker and Coakley to be talking about in the next four days, like how to improve the Massachusetts economy, and how best to manage the leviathan of state government.











All's Fair in Love and Politics When Excellent Health Insurance Is the Prize

Friday, October 24, 2014

I wonder how many persons on the public payroll in Massachusetts have done what Peter Mortimer has.

Mortimer’s an attorney and longtime member of the Board of Aldermen in the City of Melrose, where I reside.    A sincere and amiable fellow, he works diligently at the part-time job of Ward Six alderman, a position that comes with a second-rate salary of $5,000 a year and a first-rate health plan.
As related in an article in the latest edition of the Melrose Free Press, (“Alderman explains retirement,” 10-23-14), Mortimer, age 58, was concerned that a bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature in early 2013 would threaten his eligibility for lifetime health coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission.  He was so concerned that he quietly arranged to “retire” from the Board of Aldermen before House Bill 59, An Act Providing Retiree Healthcare Benefits Reform, could become law.  He applied to retire in December, 2013 and his application was approved some six months later, retroactive to the date he had applied, according to the Melrose Free Press.

If you think Mortimer became a former alderman when he retired, you can be forgiven.  This is kind of a confusing situation.
Mortimer, you see, was re-elected to the board in November, 2013 and sworn in to a new term in January of this year, said term running through December, 2015. Between being re-elected and beginning a new term, Mortimer briefly retired, as he was allowed by law to do.  And because he had been on a public payroll for at least 10 years as of his “retirement date,” Mortimer preserved his right to obtain health coverage through the state for the rest of his life.  He also preserved his wife’s right to the same.

During the entire time Mortimer was working out his retirement, House Bill 59 was pending on Beacon Hill.  One of its main provisions was a 100% increase in the minimum number of years someone on a public payroll would have to serve, from 10 to 20, before becoming eligible for health coverage in retirement.
Mortimer need not have worried. 

House Bill 59, which had been filed by Governor Deval Patrick in the House on February 12, 2013, never gained traction in the legislature.  On July 31 of this year, the Joint Committee on Public Service sent the bill to “study,” a legislative euphemism for trash bin.
As a public retiree, Mortimer is collecting the normal salary of a Melrose alderman and his monthly retirement benefit of $78.15, the Melrose Free Press reported, although he has directed his pension checks to an account to be used solely for charitable donations.

“I would never take both (an aldermanic pension and an aldermanic salary),” Mortimer was quoted as saying.
The law allows Mortimer the public retiree to make up to $15,000 a year as Mortimer the public employee, as well as any additional amount in the private sector.  There’s no limit to what he can make in the law, his chosen profession, for example.

When House Bill 59 was heard by the Joint Committee on Public Service on October 31, 2013, the hearing room, Gardner Auditorium, the largest such space in the State House, was “packed with municipal workers, corrections officers and labor union groups opposing the legislation,” according to the State House News Service account of the proceedings, (“Patrick’s Retiree Health Care Bill Met with Backlash from Workers,” 10-31-13).
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, testified in favor of the bill, saying, in part, “Without any reform, retiree health care is projected to cost municipalities more than $1 billion within five years and nearly $1.5 billion in 10 years.”

According to Widmer, cities and towns spent about $800 million on health care for retirees in Fiscal Year 2012, an amount equal to nearly 90% of the $899 million granted by the state to municipalities in unrestricted aid.
Among those testifying against House Bill 59 was Ebba Hierta, the director of the public library in the town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.  If the bill passed, she said, it would not make sense for her to continue working in the public sector.

Hierta, age 59, told the committee she had left the private sector for a job in the public sector because of the promise of health care security in retirement.  “That promise was made to me when I took my job.  It’s just patently wrong to pull the rug out from under people who are nearing retirement,” she was quoted as testifying. 
It would seem that Alderman Mortimer agrees with Library Director Hierta on that point.

“The purpose of this (retiring in December, 2013) is to prevent something that I’ve already earned being taken away from my family,” he told the Melrose Free Press.

Mortimer pointed out that he, personally, has not heard complaints from Melrosians about his retirement happening on a track parallel to his continued service as an alderman.
“People who know me, people who vote for me, said what I did is completely reasonable,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.  “There may be a handful of people out there who object, (but) everyone who’s talked to me, when they understand what the situation was, said, ‘I would have done the same thing.’ ”

Completely. Reasonable. 
Mortimer touched on a point that’s larger even than he probably realizes: Most people in Massachusetts would love the opportunity to obtain health coverage in retirement that is as high in quality and as attractive in price as that offered through the Group Insurance Commission (GIC).

Most of us will never have that opportunity, even as most of us are obligated to support the mission of the GIC through the taxes we pay.
Maybe just a handful of people in Melrose think like I do, but what the hell.  The way the world goes round today, I think, the public servants serve the public and the public serves the servants.


It's Still 'The Economy, Stupid,' but You'd Never Know It by Coverage of Gov Race

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Both major party candidates for governor have plans to improve the state’s economy but we’re not hearing much about them.  The news media remain focused, per usual, on the horse-race aspects of the election:  who’s ahead in the latest poll, who’s trending up or down, whose “unfavorable” are higher, etc.  The media’s also fixated on Charlie Baker’s supposed gender gap and Martha Coakley’s supposed need to redeem herself for losing the Senate election to Scott Brown.

Meanwhile, the most important issues facing citizens over the next four years, all of which have to do with money, seem mired in the background.  I’m talking about stagnating personal incomes, the crazy costs confronting first-time homebuyers, the lack of good paying jobs for our children and grandchildren, and the soaring price of electricity at a time when the U.S. is awash in the natural gas needed to generate it.
On their campaign web sites, you can easily find what Baker and Coakley say they’ll do to strengthen and stimulate the economy.  You can acquaint yourself with the details of both plans in less time than it takes to watch a TV sitcom.  See links below to Baker and Coakley web sites.

Maybe you’re real busy and don’t have the time.  Maybe you’re not willing to spend half an hour on such an exercise.  Worry not.   The other day I decided to print out the Baker and Coakley economic plans, and to circle what I consider the five top highlights in each, and to reproduce them verbatim below.
Charlie Baker

“Promote Entrepreneurship: Reduce Fees for Starting and Maintaining a Business.  Forming an LLC (limited liability corporation) costs $500 and each such business must also pay an annual filing fee of $500 to the state.  The state should eliminate the initial filing fee and reduce the annual fee to $125.”

“As Governor, Charlie will designate a member of his staff to be the point person for entrepreneurship and economic growth.  This person will be empowered to engage and coordinate state agencies to maximize their responsiveness and collective impact on business formation and growth.  In addition to playing this intergovernmental role, he or she would be responsible for pro-actively identifying barriers to new business formation and making recommendations to the Governor’s cabinet and the legislature for reducing or removing those constraints on entrepreneurship.”

“If state revenue increases, total local aid will increase: Level-funding local aid is not sufficient if state tax revenue increases.  In the first year of a Baker administration, total local aid (including education funding and unrestricted aid) will increase by at least 75% of the revenue growth rate; in each subsequent year, local aid will increase by 100% of the revenue growth rate.’
“There are close to 25 separate federal and state programs that support revitalization of distressed cities and neighborhoods.  In addition, there are numerous other infrastructure, public safety, education, and workforce development programs that could have a direct impact on enabling or stimulating economic growth.  As Governor, Charlie will consolidate economic development programs in order to create Opportunity Zones in high-need communities and regions.  These zones will be established through a competitive process, whereby public-private partnerships representing individual cities or regions submit focused and actionable strategic plans to stimulate sustainable economic growth and job creation.  Successful proposals will not only address key infrastructure, tax and regulatory barriers to business growth, they will also include ambitious and creative approaches to: encouraging entrepreneurship; deepening connections between employers, career technical high schools and community colleges; expanding high-quality PK-12 school options; and improving public safety.”

“Housing that’s affordable for working people is an important component of thriving communities, but there is no single solution to the insufficient supply of affordable and market-rate housing.  The state needs to be flexible and provide a range of tools, assistance and encouragement to cities and towns to build more housing that working families can afford.  Continuing to support tax credits for affordable and market-rate development, working with communities on zoning reform and maximizing federal housing dollars are all important strategies.  The state can lead by example by pursuing the use of currently unused state-owned land near transit as an opportunity to develop market-rate housing.”
Martha Coakley

“The core foundation of the Coakley-Kerrigan growth strategy is to invest in our people.  The Commonwealth’s educated workforce is our global calling card and most important strategic asset.  Everyone deserves an outstanding, affordable educational experience from pre-K through college or vocational training.  We know the best way to build an economy that is fair and prosperous, that creates opportunity for all and levels inequalities, is to invest in providing a world-class education and workforce training aligned with our new economy.”
“We need to build an economy that works for everyone – in every region of Massachusetts.  This means identifying the unique strengths and needs of each region, and working with local leaders to determine how the state can be an effective partner to address any challenges…The Coakley-Kerrigan growth strategy includes a community-and-region-based partnership model, providing collaborative investment and support to cities and towns, allowing regions to harness and maximize their unique and diverse industry strengths and economic opportunities.”

“We must ensure Massachusetts is a welcoming place for new and established businesses to grow and stay.  This requires a predictable and collaborative business environment, where regulatory red tape can be tackled, government partners and dialogues with employers of all sizes, and we all work together to confront the spiraling costs of health care and energy.”
“Technology innovation is driving our economy in new ways every day.  Nearly 40% of our economy is now defined as within the innovation economy.  Our Commonwealth’s legacy industry strengths in areas like health care, manufacturing, and financial services are adapting and transforming into globally-leading, innovative industries…To create a great environment that encourages new technology-based industries to thrive, government must be an active partner with industry and academia.  We can continue to lead the world in life sciences and clean technology and support our emerging industries like big data, eHealth, digital marketing, and robotics by supporting talent retention and workforce development and investing in research and development.”

“To ensure economic growth in all regions, communities, and sectors, we must be constantly striving for a more level and inclusive playing field for the Commonwealth’s workers and businesses.  Economic fairness is the backbone of sustainable, healthy economic growth, allowing all people and companies the chance to attain their maximum potential…We need to ensure that the Commonwealth is a home for good jobs which provide workers with the opportunity to earn a decent wage, support their families, and save for their future.”


What Hurts Bottle Bill Expanders More: Ads that Lie or a Case that Doesn't Cut It?

Friday, October 10, 2014

On July 9, I posted an item on what I considered the weak point in the case for Question 2.  If interested, you can read it by clicking on:

Question 2 on the November 4 ballot proposes to amend the Bottle Bill by requiring deposits on a wider array of beverage containers. 
Under the existing version of the Bottle Bill, we have to pay a five-cent deposit on every beer and soda can or bottle we buy. If Question 2 passes, we’ll have to pay deposits, as well, on containers for all non-alcoholic, non-carbonated drinks.

I said on July 9 that voters could reject Question 2 because: (a) tens of millions of dollars in container deposits go unclaimed every year, and (b) those unclaimed deposits wind up in the state’s general fund, where they support the overall functioning of our government.
“When Bottle Bill foes complain that the law is outmoded, and that it has created an everlasting, hidden tax and a spending crutch for the legislature and governor to quietly lean on, it’s hard to dismiss those arguments out of hand,” I said.

I should have searched for the actual text of Question 2 before writing on this topic.  It was clearly a mistake not to…but I don’t know if it was a mistake so large as to negate my fundamental point, which was that voters are naturally skeptical of the effectiveness of government spending and reluctant to put new dollars in government hands.
If I had read the Question 2 text, I would have seen the subsection of the amended version of the Bottle Bill calling for creation of a stand-alone account to be known as the Clean Environment Fund.  All abandoned deposits collected under the Bottle Bill shall be deposited into this new fund, the subsection stipulates, and the fund “shall be used, subject to appropriation, for programs including but not limited to projects supporting the proper management of solid waste, water resource protection, parkland, urban forestry, air quality and climate protection.”

At first blush, the Clean Environment Fund looks like the perfect answer to those who complain that an expanded Bottle Bill will only give government more money to play with.  No longer would abandoned, or unclaimed, deposits go to the general fund, where they could be spent on anything.  Instead, they’d be sequestered and could be spent only on projects good for the environment.
Well, not exactly. 

The bill language contains that key phrase of lawmaking: subject to appropriation.  That means the legislature would have to vote specifically every year to authorize expenditures from the Clean Energy Fund on those enumerated environmental purposes: “the proper management of solid waste,” and so on.
In a bad year, a time when the state budget is running in the red, the legislature could vote to take money from the fund and spend it on something deemed more urgent -- health care or law enforcement, for example.

Even in a not-so-bad year, like the one we’re having now, the legislature could vote to take money from the fund and spend it on something like a larger workforce in the Department of Children and Families.  It would not be hard to make the argument that we need social workers to protect vulnerable kids more than we need new parks, say, in 20 different middle-class suburbs.
One has to wonder, also, about the elasticity of terms like “water resource protection,” “parkland,” “urban forestry,” and “climate protection.”  Legislators of a creative bent, which is to say any veteran rep or senator who knows her way around the budget process, could make a lot of projects in their districts fit those categories: a new road that happens to better protect an aquifer from salt run-off, new trees on Main Street, a new baseball diamond at the high school, solar panels at city hall to reduce the burning of oil to heat the building, etc.

Well over $30 million in container deposits will go unclaimed during the current fiscal year.   If the new version of the Bottle Bill becomes law, that figure could increase by as much as $20 million.
This past summer, proponents of expanding the Bottle Bill were touting polls indicating that 62% of Massachusetts voters favored the expansion.

Now that the polls have flipped, with 60% saying they oppose expansion, the “STOP Litter: YES on 2” group is blaming their declining prospects on a big-budget, deceptive advertising campaign by the “NO on Question 2: STOP Forced Deposits” group, which they say is just a front for the beverage and bottling industries.
That may be the case.  It could also be that voters are taking a close look at what an amended Bottle Bill would do and are thinking the results would be nebulous, burdensome, and not worth the costs.

Ever Increasing Municipal Retiree Health Costs a Big Problem in Places Like Everett

Friday, October 3, 2014

After reading the latest Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) bulletin on the oversized burden retiree health care costs put on municipal budgets, my first reaction was, Steve Wynn can’t build that casino in Everett fast enough.

Everett was cited in the bulletin because it is a good example of a bad situation -- a place where the average citizen barely gets by, and where the cost of providing health coverage to retired municipal employees consumes an ever larger share of local revenue.

An independent non-profit research organization, the MTF used two criteria in selecting Everett and eight other municipalities for analysis.  First, a city or town had to have a population of at least 10,000.  Second, the average annual per capita income in that city or town had to be among the lowest in the state.  Besides Everett, those municipalities are Amherst, Chelsea, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lawrence, New Bedford, North Adams and Springfield.

“Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013, the total costs for retiree health care coverage in the nine municipalities rose from $71.8 million to $88.8 million, an increase of 24 percent, while property taxes grew at half that rate, a modest 12.1 percent,” the bulletin said. 

The bulletin said that “The jump in retiree health care spending is especially striking when considered in the context of the tiny two percent growth in the total budgets of these nine communities between 2009 and 2013.” 
The bulletin pointed to the irony of local taxpayers funding a benefit for municipal retirees “that most of them do not receive,” i.e., private health coverage in their golden years.
“Few residents have access to any (private) retiree health care benefits themselves,” the bulletin said, “let alone the generous ones provided by municipalities.” 

It went on to cite figures from the Agency for Health Care Quality and Research showing that, in 2013, only 7.3 percent of Massachusetts private sector establishments offered health insurance to retirees over age 65, and only 8.8 percent offered it to retirees prior to age 65.
The MTF has long argued that the system governing health care benefits for retired public employees should be reformed.  It restated that case in its latest bulletin.  The MTF called upon the legislature, for example, to double the years that a municipal (or state) employee must work before qualifying for health benefits in retirement, from 10 to 20, and to eliminate altogether pre-Medicare coverage for retirees.

If I were back living in Everett, I’d be writing letters now to my rep and senator asking them to support every change in the system supported by the MTF.  Otherwise, I’d say, the tens of millions of dollars promised to the city every year by the Wynn Everett casino might end up going mainly to retiree health care.
Of course, retired city workers, once they got wind of my letters, would soon be writing letters to the same legislators saying don't you dare change that system.

To find the MTF bulletin, go to the foundation’s website, and click on “Retiree Health Care Costs Are Straining Budgets in the State’s Poorest Cities.”