Say What? The Job of a Legislator 'Isn't Worth Doing Any More' ?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

I pay attention to Peter Lucas, who writes on politics for the Lowell Sun.  I seldom disagree with what he says and I never dismiss out of hand anything he says about Massachusetts politics.

So, when he did a column the week before Christmas on why so many persons leave the legislature in the middle of their terms, I lapped it up.  Lucas has been around forever, and, like I said, he really knows his stuff.

"...over the past five years," he wrote, "the upper branch of the legislature has seen at least five senior members, all Democrats, leave, taking with them years of invaluable experience that went out of the Senate chamber with them," ["Climate change spurs Senate's brain drain," 12-22-15].  I recommend you read the entire column by going to:

Lucas cited East Boston Senator Anthony Petrucelli as the latest example of this trend.  Petrucelli's resigning to join the lobbying firm headed by Dennis Kearney: Kearney, Donovan & McGee.  Dennis himself got his start in public life many years ago as a rep from East Boston.

The basic reason so many legislators have quit in recent years, said Lucas, is "the job is not worth doing any more because the business has changed."

Developing this theme, he quoted one unidentified "veteran senator," who said, "You can't help people anymore, which is why I ran for the job in the first place.  Sure, we still vote on a budget and on social programs, but they've made it a crime to help people, to help a constituent get a job, or get a kid into a state college."

A little further down in the column, Lucas quoted "one veteran legislator," who said, "We run for office and get elected to help people.  But now helping people has become a crime.  You can't write a letter for anybody anymore, you can't even make a phone call.  Everything is now recorded and designed to come back and bite you."

Then he quoted "another ranking legislator," who said, "Everybody is afraid to do anything."

At the very end of the column, he quoted "one veteran legislator," who said, "Who needs it?"

Yeah.  I guess.

In this post-Ware-Report/post-convicted-Probation-Commissioner world, who needs a seat in the Massachusetts legislature if it comes with a permanent de facto prohibition on helping a constituent land a job on a public payroll or a friend's kid gain admittance to a public university?

With patronage and doing favors supposedly gone the way of the Walkman, I thought legislators might want to turn their attention to more meaningful and rewarding activities.

If you accept the premise of "Climate change," no, they'd rather walk away from the State House than spend their newly-freed-up hours doing what's on the official job description: lawmaking.

Here's a topic I'd like to see Lucas, et al. at the indispensable Sun explore: Is enough actual lawmaking taking place these days to hold the interest of the sharpest legislators over the long haul?

Murphy Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges When He Goes to the Convention

Friday, December 18, 2015

When I read an account yesterday morning of Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy’s farewell speech it brought back the time in Springfield when Murphy and I went eyeball to eyeball and I blinked.

Saturday, June 1, 2001.  I was serving as a volunteer gatekeeper at the Democratic Party Issues Convention at the Springfield Civic Center.  A friend from Melrose, the one who’d asked me to volunteer, said it would provide opportunities to interact with party big shots and become better known.  I was into lobbying a little over three years at that point.
Around 8:00 o’clock that morning, I showed up at the appointed place in the civic center.  Along with about 15 other volunteers, I was given a big name badge on a lanyard to hang around my neck, a walkie-talkie and some cursory instructions. 

“You have to check the credentials of everyone – everyone -- who wants to come into the hall,” we were told.  “If they don’t have a name badge, they can’t come in.  No badge. No entry.  No exceptions.”  Our leader-instructor, also a volunteer, added, “Any problems, call headquarters.”
For most of the day, everything went smoothly.  Occasionally, I’d see somebody I knew and have a good chat.  Mainly it was boring.  And hard on the feet.  Interaction with big shots consisted of my hailing them enthusiastically by name and/or title (“Hello, Mr. President!”) and their barely nodding as they moved past me. 

Near the end of the day, as I was counting the minutes till I could pack it in and go home, a tall, large man approached my station, accompanied by at least two other, averaged-sized men.  Not one of them was wearing a Democratic Party Issues Convention name badge.  I had no idea who that mountain of a man might be.  The big guy noticed me eyeing him but did not break stride or speak to me.  I moved a step to my left to block their path.
To the big guy, I said, “Sir, you can’t go in without a badge.  If you have one, please let me see it.”

He was at least six inches taller than I and considerably broader abeam.
He looked sideways at one of the guys he was with and laughed.

“I’m Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy,” he announced.
As if on cue, Murphy & Co. immediately marched to the door of the convention floor.

I didn’t know what to do.  I had my radio in hand but had forgotten the instructions on how to operate the damn thing.  And what would I have said to “headquarters” if I had remembered how to use it?
“Help! I was just steamrollered by a large man claiming to be a Boston councilman.  He’s roaming the hall now with his buddies.  None are wearing badges. Repeat, none.  Quick!  Do something.”

How ridiculous would that have sounded?
I looked around.  No one in that crowded corridor seemed to have noticed what had happened between me and Murphy.  No other volunteer was in sight who might have also tried to halt him.  In less than 20 seconds, the badgeless wonders disappeared into the hall.  I imagined them in some choice seats, having a good laugh at my expense.  “Did you see the look at that guy’s face when we blew past him? Awesome move, Stevie.”

One’s moments of humiliation are never deep in the storage chests of memory.  Rather, they hover just below the surface.  They burst into the open whenever they will and taunt us.  And so have I been bothered from time to time by the way Murphy made short work of me on June 1, 2001.
The voters roughed up Stephen J. Murphy pretty good in November.  He is not a bad guy.  I wish him well, even as I try, not altogether successfully, to resist the urge to laugh at his newly acquired political irrelevance, as he laughed at mine that day long ago in Springfield.






'Star Wars' as a Fundraising Hook...and Other, Disparate, Attention-Grabbing Items

Friday, December 11, 2015

MAY THE FARCE BE WITH YOU.  I never got “Star Wars,” the cultural phenomenon.  It seemed like a good enough movie to bring your six-year-old to on an overcast summer afternoon, but basically a long cartoon with spectacular special effects.  I could not suspend disbelief long enough to accept a large, hairy, speechless,  ape-man as the co-pilot of a space ship or a robot that looks like a vacuum cleaner making unintentionally humorous asides to his human overlords during a stopover at a distant planet that seemed no more distant than the California desert.  So I had to groan when Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung announced this week in a press release that he will hold a fundraiser on Dec. 17 tied to a special showing of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Said Councilor Cheung, “As a self-proclaimed Star Wars fanatic, I’m counting down the days and hours to the premier of The Force Awakens and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy the experience with members of the Cambridge, Somerville and Boston community.”  This fanaticism for the magic of a make-believe force is harmless in most cases, of course, and I have to give the councilor credit for not going all egg-head on us in his movie preferences.  But how does he get away with referring to Cambridge, Somerville and Boston as one community? Has he forgotten that part of the unacknowledged reward of owning a place near Harvard Square is the delight in not having to own in the Ball Squares and Roslindale Squares of the world?

ROUND 1 GOES TO THE DEER. The great hunt in the Blue Hills ended last week with the population of deer in the 7,000-acre reservation having been reduced by 64 beasts.  The anti-hunting fanatics immediately spun that number as evidence that (a) authorities had seriously overestimated the deer population when they pegged it somewhere between 600 and 800, and (b) the hunt was, therefore, totally unnecessary, and cruelly so.  I wish they’d given more credit to the deer.  These are intelligent, Massachusetts-bred fauna, living in a wealthy suburb where the MCAS scores skew high.  They know the territory far better than the hunters, as not a single marksman had been allowed into the Blue Hills for the hundred previous years, and the deer were running for their lives while the hunters were doing what many consider a sport, albeit one with the considerable, real-life consequence of inhibiting the spread of Lyme Disease.
IT’S GOOD TO BE THE DEAN.  When Bridgewater’s David Flynn, one of the best natural politicians of his generation and an irresistibly gregarious gentleman and raconteur, got elected to the Massachusetts House 1998, he began his second stint in the legislature.   He had served there previously some three decades before, from 1964 to 1972. That long interruption did not prevent his colleagues from immediately designating him the “Dean of the House,” the honorific bestowed on whoever is the current, longest-serving member.  The good thing about being the Dean is you don’t have to do anything.  It’s an honor, truly, because you receive it from your peers, but an honor without legal responsibilities or duties of any discernable difficulty whatsoever.  Being the Dean is a kick. All the time, you get hear things like “Good morning, Dean,” “How are you today, Dean,” and “You’re looking especially chipper today, Dean.”  Then there’s the gratification of having the Speaker step up to the microphone to introduce you by saying something like, “I know we’re all looking forward to hearing what the Dean has to say on this subject,” and of having one of your pals give you a shout-out during a floor speech, as in, “The Dean has warned us that we ought not to go down this road…And we all know it pays to listen when the Dean speaks.”   If ever there was a man cut out to be the Dean it was David Flynn.  He loved people, politics, and kibitzing on the floor of the House.  Not one to take himself too seriously, he excelled at the showmanship aspects of public office – the holding forth, the emoting on cue, the delivering of remarks-for-every-occasion and all that.  Showmanship is a valid and valuable implement in the politician’s toolbox.  Flynn’s natural sparkle seemed to glow a little brighter every time someone addressed him as "The Dean."  It seemed that he found the whole business more than a little comical, which enhanced the charm of the great old Irish package that was David Flynn.  He served six terms, 12 years, during his second run in the House before retiring gracefully in 2011.  He went out on top in his beloved Bridgewater, where he’d started public life in 1957 by winning election to the Playground Commission.  On December 10, Flynn, age 82, died at his home after a brief illness.  He left behind his wife, Barbara, nine children, 30 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, a brother and a sister.  A Mass celebrating his life will be offered at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Bridgewater, this Tuesday morning.   The angels, no doubt, will welcome “The Dean” into paradise. 



Outcry for Mandating Sprinklers in New Homes Not Coming from the Public

Friday, December 4, 2015

There’s nothing preventing anyone who owns, or is buying, a home from installing a sprinkler system to stop a fire in his castle.

Have you ever known anyone who did that?
Similarly, anyone hiring a contractor to build a new home can ask for a sprinkler system and the contractor will install one.

Have you ever known anyone who asked a builder to do that?
I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems fairly obvious why Americans avoid home sprinkler systems: the cost.

The National Fire Protection Association says the average cost of putting a sprinkler system in a new house is $1.35 per square foot, while the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts says it’s more like  $4.02 per square foot.
According to CNN Money, the average size of a new home in the U.S. in 2013 was 2,598 square feet.  Multiply 2,598 by $1.35 and then by $4.02; you get, respectively, $3,507.30 and $10,443.96.  The average of those sums is $6,975.63

Proponents of home sprinkler systems, who include virtually every organization there is for firefighters and fire chiefs, point out that (a) homes with sprinklers cost only 1% to 2% more than those without, and (b) annual insurance premiums for homes with sprinklers are significantly lower than for those without, in some cases as much as 20% or 25% lower.
No one is really opposed to home sprinkler systems per se.  However, there are many who oppose efforts to make them mandatory in new homes on the grounds that (a) the costs of adding sprinklers would keep many first-time homebuyers out of the market, and (b) the increase in residential safety brought about by sprinklers is too small to justify both the cost and the depressing effect it would have on home-buying.  (Housing has always been a major component of the American economy.) 

There are at least two bills pending before the Massachusetts legislature that would give cities and towns the option of requiring sprinkler systems in newly built one- and two-family homes: House Bill 2089, An Act Relative to Enhanced Fire Protection in One and Two Family Dwellings, and House Bill 2095, An Act to Prevent Deaths by Fire.  Both were heard by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on June 18, and both remain before that committee.  The committee has yet to issue a report on either bill. 
Firefighters are intimately associated with the risks and results of house fires.  They know what it’s like to carry a badly burned child out of a still-smoldering building and to watch helplessly as a raging house fire prevents them from rescuing an elderly person trapped inside.  They regularly have to face mortal danger themselves inside burning buildings that might never have got burning if there had been a sprinkler system on premises.   It’s not hard to see why the men and women on the front lines of public safety are pushing for sprinkler system mandates. 

As professionals who choose to spend their lives risking their lives to protect and save others, firefighters are among the most idealistic and courageous individuals you will ever know.   They deserve to be heeded respectfully when they say, Yes, sprinkler systems are expensive, but the cost is nothing compared to the value of the lives they save.  And how do you put a price tag on a human life?
Nevertheless, I think they’re wrong when they go down the sprinkler mandate path, even if it’s only leading, at present, toward giving cities and towns the option of mandating them in new one- and two-family construction.

First, I agree with those who say House Bills 2089 and 2095 would set a bad precedent and cause problems in the construction sector by fracturing the hard-earned uniformity of the state building code.  Richard Crowley, chair of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, argued this point on June 18.  “I am a proponent of a unified building code that is fully integrated across the state,” said Crowley, a licensed builder. “For the 40 years the code has been in existence, it has worked very well from the user point of view.”
Second, I believe the home builders and realtors of Massachusetts are correct when they say the costs of sprinkler systems will discourage first-time home buyers, reduce the rate of home ownership, erect  new barriers to families trying to make it into the middle class, and drain energy from the Massachusetts economy.  Testimony submitted to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security indicates that, for every $1,000 added to the cost of a new home in Massachusetts, 2,500 more persons/families cannot afford to buy a home.

Third, the communities most likely to opt for a sprinkler mandate, if such an option was created by law, would be the wealthier ones, as local decision-makers reason, correctly, that well-to-do buyers will  just shrug at, and pay, the higher costs involved.  Wealthy suburban communities would thus become more costly, more exclusive.  Presumably, this is the kind of situation a uniform statewide building code is designed to discourage.  The code’s now the same for everyone, no matter where they reside; every Massachusetts resident is equal before it. 
Fourth, anything that could make housing more expensive in Massachusetts, which has, in the eastern part of the state, some of the highest housing costs in the nation, is not a welcome development.  We should be mindful that housing affordability is tied to income inequality, one of the biggest problems our society faces.

Five, home sprinkler systems do not seem to offer significantly greater protection than that provided by a much cheaper, easier-to-install alternative: hard-wired smoke detectors.  Ben Fierro, an attorney representing the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association, has noted that “Single-family homes under Massachusetts’s modern standards are required to have a hard-wired smoke detector.  With these in place, survival from serious fires is 99.62%.  With sprinklers in place, this number goes up to 99.82%.”  Referring to a calculation made earlier in this post, I can’t help but ask: How many homeowners are willing to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by two-tenths of a percentage point?  Here’s a follow-up: Would a local government be morally justified in requiring a family to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by that small a margin?
Six, just because a public safety improvement is possible doesn’t mean public officials ought to mandate private expenditures to achieve it.  We could reduce traffic fatalities by requiring all drivers and passengers to wear state-of-the-art helmets when they’re in a moving vehicle, but no one is seriously calling for universal, in-vehicle helmet use.

Lastly, I have some qualms about firefighters being in a position to benefit financially, down the line, from their legislative advocacy, which is often undertaken while they’re on the clock, even though that advocacy may spring from the noblest of intentions.  Residential sprinkler systems require at least annual inspections to make sure they are not leaking and will function properly in the event of a fire.  In every community I’m aware of, the local fire chief is responsible for administering the sprinkler system checks, and inspection fees are charged to the private citizens and companies who own the residential structures in question.  Firefighters, being the most knowledgeable persons in any locality on the science and mechanics of fire suppression, are the most logical (not to say most available) persons to conduct such inspections.  If local-option home sprinkler mandates come to pass, home sprinkler inspections will necessarily increase, as will the amounts collected through inspection fees.  Opportunities to earn private-detail, off-hours pay through inspections will almost certainly grow.







If Governor Did These 10 Things, He Could Ruin His Popularity in No Time

Friday, November 27, 2015

Charlie Baker has been our governor for 11 months and hasn't yet met a poll he didn't like.

In the past week alone, there were two news reports on polls showing that Baker enjoys a level of popularity most pols only experience in their non-waking moments.

The first story concerned a nationwide poll of more than 75,000 voters in all 50 states, which  revealed that Baker is unquestionably the most popular governor in the U.S., with an approval rating in Massachusetts of 74%.  The second was on a Suffolk University poll that pegged Baker's popularity at 70%. 

For context, consider that the Suffolk poll found Senator Elizabeth Warren to be the second most popular elected official in the state, with 54% favorability.

If you are an admirer of Charlie Baker -- and I consider myself one -- it's almost understandable to think he just might be able to defy political gravity indefinitely.  He's the Eagle Scout of governors, cheerily solving one problem after another.

Most voters have concluded, after getting a good, long look at him on the big stage, that he's a good guy who honestly tries to do his best.  Charlie Baker has nailed the key objective of establishing firmly within the public consciousness a friendly, trustworthy persona.

Which is not to say he couldn't blow it.  He may be smarter than most people stumbling around this planet.  But he's still human. 

Thus, did I engage in a thought exercise.  I asked myself, what series of bone-headed moves would our governor have to make now to squander all that goodwill?   Charlie Baker, I quickly concluded, could turn himself from the toast of Broadway to toast if:

  1. He challenged Maura Healey to a one-on-one basketball game for charity and lost to the much shorter attorney general.
  2. He then complained publicly for weeks about the officiating in the game vs. Healey.
  3. He exchanged the portrait of John Volpe in his office for one of Jeb Bush.
  4. He was captured on camera in the box at Gillette nodding a little too vigorously as Bob Kraft held court.
  5. He hired Chris Christie as a consultant to MassDOT to help improve traffic flow into Boston.
  6. He started referring to himself in the third person, as in, "Charlie Baker knows the state budget better than anybody.  Anybody!"
  7. He took up golf and used his clout to jump the wait list for membership in The Country Club.
  8. He gave up wearing suit jackets at press conferences, allowing the world to see how fond he is of Larry-King-style red suspenders.
  9. He ordered the State House henceforth closed on Harvard commencement days to honor all the Harvard men who've been elected governor.
  10. He joined Mark Sanford for a week of hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Take Your Damn Free Speech Elsewhere: T Public Property Not a Legal Public Forum

Friday, November 20, 2015

The MBTA, we learned this week, is reworking its already strict guidelines for advertising on T property. 

Metro Boston’s transit system wants to prohibit “ads concerning political issues or matters of public debate,” according to an agency spokesman.

Although that ban has not yet been formally adopted, it is, for all intents and purposes, already in effect.
You may wonder how the T does that.  Isn’t this America? Don’t we have something called a First Amendment with a guaranteed right to free speech? 

And didn’t the Supreme Court rule in the Citizens United case that you can’t put limits on campaign donations because cash is the equivalent of speech and speech cannot be limited?
Yes, but MBTA property is not legally considered a “public forum,” a status that was generically adjudicated and definitively settled years ago.  The Supreme Court has said that the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property “simply because it is owned or controlled by the government.”

As an official non-public forum, the T can make and enforce any reasonable guidelines it wants on advertising content.
There’s nothing stopping the T from opening the floodgates to political and issues advertising.  If it did, however -- as other public transit agencies have done -- it would permanently sacrifice its right to be considered a non-public forum in the eyes of the law.  Once a public entity makes a forum public, it can’t go back to being non-public. 

It would be messy, of course, if the MBTA allowed all comers to buy political ads or to advance their agendas on any issue of the day.  People would be constantly offended and outraged.  Lawsuits would grow.  Vandalism against “offensive” ads on the T would become common.
I’d take all of that in a heartbeat for the shot in the arm that no-holds-barred ads on the T would give to our public discourse, our democracy, and for the political maturity and equanimity it would necessarily foster in the citizenry.  The guy who said “the cure for offensive speech is not less speech but more speech” had it right. 

And the Supreme Court said it neatly in a 1969 case:  “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas,” emphasis on uninhibited. 
It would be a noble thing for the MBTA to have its essentially prosaic purpose support the exalted purpose of the First Amendment.

Sarah Wunsch of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union won my heart when she told the Boston Globe, “I’m sorry they (the MBTA) are going in that direction because I think we need more public spaces where people can share their views, even if people don’t love those views.”
On a practical level, how can the T leave all that money for political and issues advertising on the table when it’s starved for cash and floating trial balloons about the need for yet another fare increase?

Let’s hope Charlie Baker, who stout-heartedly took ownership of the T’s problems during the mass transit melt-down this past winter, will step up again and impose some of that common-sense he’s renowned for on this issue.

Somerville Mayor's First Impression of Casino Footbridge May Not Be His Last

Friday, November 13, 2015

Now Steve Wynn has sweetened the deal for his Eastern Massachusetts casino with a pedestrian bridge over the Mystic River.  The span would lead from the casino site in Everett to the fast-rising neighborhood at Assembly Row in Somerville.

Though only a concept, it’s already a bridge too far for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. 
He was quoted in today’s Boston Globe as saying, “A footbridge would benefit Steve Wynn and Steve Wynn only.  Wynn is looking to tap into the success of Assembly Row to get more people to his craps table.”

There are a couple of reasons at least why the mayor might want to blow up this plan while it’s just an image on a computer screen.
First, he’s a longtime opponent of casino gambling.  Back in the fall of 2014, Curtatone explained his views on the subject in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s public radio station.  “I’m opposed to casinos because casinos don’t build communities,” he said.  “In fact, casinos abide to the economies of extraction.  They take monies out of downtowns like Chelsea and Charlestown and Somerville and other communities and put them at the craps table and roulette wheel.”

Second, Somerville is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which seeks to overturn the commission’s decision granting a casino license to Wynn.
It would have been a news-making surprise if, yesterday, Curtatone had called a press conference to announce, “I still hate casinos as much as ever.  They exploit their customers and run roughshod over communities.  I’m hopeful our lawsuit against Wynn Everett will succeed.  But, you know what, I love that pedestrian bridge Steve wants to put up.  The guy’s a peach.”

This bridge would make it easier for Somerville residents to apply for jobs at the casino and get to work there, should they be hired.  It would make it easier for people living in Everett and other communities north of the river to get to the jobs and attractions of Assembly Row.  It would improve access to the public parklands on both sides of the River.  It might even make life safer for the many bicyclists who pedal to their jobs in Boston every day from the north.  What bicyclist in his right mind wouldn’t prefer a walkway over the Mystic to the traffic-packed Alford Street (Route 99) Bridge?
Memo to Wynn’s handlers at Mintz Levin: Recruit the organizations that promote cycling into your bridge campaign; start by contacting the Boston Cyclists Union at

Lawsuits and bureaucratic inertia notwithstanding, it’s looking more certain that a casino will be built in Everett.  An extensive environmental clean-up of the site, formerly the locus of a chemical factory, has already begun.
To bring us an eye-popping mini-Vegas on the Mystic, Wynn is committed to spending something like $1.7 billion.  This will be a pleasure palace worthy of the next incarnation of James Bond. 

Until they get the world’s greatest singer, Van Morrison, there “for one night only,” I won’t go near the place.  The gambling gene is practically non-existent in my bloodline.  I’d rather go to the dentist than go shopping.  I cringe at high-end restaurants where they put a little bit of food in the middle of a large white plate and charge you extra for the sides.

I do, however, get excited at the notion of an Everett-Somerville pedestrian bridge. 
If we’re going to get a casino there, I hope our leaders will make sure that bridge is part of the deal.  If it is, I predict it will be heavily used by the public, in ways we cannot yet anticipate, and for purposes that have nothing to do with enriching Mr. Wynn.

I also predict that, if the kill-Wynn suit against the Gaming Commission fails, Mayor Curtatone will endorse the bridge -- but not before extracting from Wynn a commitment to build the mother of all pedestrian bridges.  Joe knows negotiating.




My Favorite [Stolen] Insight: Chastity of Intellect Must Be Preserved in Public Affairs

Friday, September 18, 2015

When the spirit of George Will, that great god of conservatism, is upon me, I cannot resist the urge to begin a post with a quotation from some intellectual giant, past or present.  The urge is accompanied by the hope I’ll be thought a scholar if I am able to call forth so effortlessly the words of this or that Great Mind.   

In that spirit, I entreat you: ponder the words of George Santayana (1863-1952), the once celebrated Boston Latin- and Harvard-educated philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, who said (or maybe wrote; I’m not sure):
“Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon.”

They don’t make men of letters like George Santayana any more.  Or maybe they do.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never read a book by him and probably never will.  Philosophy, essays, poems and novels -- they’re so much work, you know.
I glommed onto the “skepticism” quote the other day when reading an article in a New Yorker magazine I borrowed from a doctor’s office because I was headed to the subway and needed something to distract me from the pain and misery of riding the MBTA.

The article explored the troubled history and eventual sale of a failed and foreclosed-upon casino in Atlantic City.  One of the parties involved was a university president, described as “a leading scholar of Santayana,” who had dreams of converting the hollowed-out casino to academic uses.  The author cleverly worked in this quote because it underlined the president’s ironic lack of skepticism when he got involved in the deal.  (Not long afterwards, the president had to resign.)

Anyway, it’s a good quote.  I especially like how Santayana connects skepticism to virginity.  A pronouncement with a sex angle always has more impact. 
As chance would have it, right after I read that New Yorker piece, I happened upon two quotations from notable figures in Massachusetts politics touching upon the subject of skepticism.

One, by Charlie Baker, was in a State House News Service article, dated September 11, concerning the governor’s thoughts on a meeting he’d just had with two of his predecessors, Bill Weld and Mike Dukakis.  The former governors were educating their successor on the virtues of spending at least a couple of billion public dollars on an underground rail link between Boston’s South Station and North Station.
“This is a lot of money, taxpayer money,” said Baker, “and a lot of people call me skeptical when I get into these conversations.  I’m not being skeptical.  I’m being cautious.  There’s a difference.”

(Question: If you are the Bill Weld who served as political godfather to Charlie Baker, is it better to be greeted by your protégé cautiously or skeptically?)

The other quote was by that machine of memorable quotations, Barney Frank, who retired not long ago from the U.S. House and recently published a book: Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage.
Frank was being interviewed in the online version of the best publication on Massachusetts public affairs, CommonWealth magazine. 

Reporter Gabrielle Gurley asked, “Now that you’re working in the news media, how does that affect your view of journalists?”
Frank said, “I don’t like journalists.  I like them personally.  They frustrate me though.  They are among the most intelligent people I deal with.  But there’s been a negativism that has suffused the profession for so long that I resent that.”

Gurley asked, “What do you mean by negativism?”
Frank said, “It was best summarized for me by a very good (retired) journalist named Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post.  An editor friend of his once said a few years ago, ‘I wish young journalists today were as skeptical of bad news as they are of good news.  If you tell them something good, they can’t wait to debunk it; if you tell them something bad, they can’t wait to push it into print.’ “

Charlie and Barney, and all those who aspire to follow in their footsteps, May they be forever chaste.





High Rollers Are Fine but Resort Casino Needs Orange Line Riders to Thrive

Monday, September 14, 2015

On the sidewalks of Everett, I have heard it said that Steve Wynn is quietly planning to lure planeloads of nouveau riche from the People’s Republic of China to his new “Wynn Everett” casino on the banks of the Mystic River.

According to this theory, there are millionaires galore in China who’ve experienced the Wynn treatment at his fabulous casino in Macau and who’d be eager to combine a stay at the Everett pleasure dome, the long-planned resort casino for eastern Massachusetts, with an extended weekend of shopping, sight-seeing and culture mavening in Boston.  
“You watch!” a friend of mine says. “Wynn will be doing charter flights from China every other weekend.  He’ll have yachts picking up his most loyal Chinese customers at the Logan Airport dock and whisking them to the casino.  These high rollers will be dropping Franklins at the tables as soon as they recover from the flight.  And when they’re not betting in the casino or eating at Wynn’s restaurants and shopping at the high-end shops in his luxury hotel, he’ll be sending them in his fleet of limos to the best that Boston offers: restaurants, shows, art galleries, you name it.”

Little known facts that bolster this line of thought: (a) Macau is one of the world’s richest cities; (b) Macau is the most densely populated city in the world.
The China-Wynn Everett connection also makes sense, as my friend sees it, because of the affinity China’s movers and shakers already have to Boston.  “They have business connections here,” he says.  “They’ve invested money here.  They’re sending their kids to Harvard and MIT.”

He asks, “Can’t you see it?  If you’re a member of China’s wealthy elite and you’re a regular at Wynn Macau and your kid is at Harvard, you’re going to stay at Wynn Everett when you come to visit the kid.  Hell, you’ll want to visit more often because you’ll have the casino as your base camp.”
I’m the last person to say if this is a valid theory.  I don’t know gambling from gamboling.  I can’t tell the difference between international markets and the International Houses of Pancakes.

But, but, if you read the recent, required environmental impact report on Wynn Everett by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, you’ll see evidence that Wynn will be depending heavily on familiars from Massachusetts, rather than foreign nationals, for the success of his resort casino near Sullivan Square.
“The MBTA’s Orange Line is a key component of the project’s transportation strategy to maximize patron and employee use of non-automobile travel modes,” the report states.  “A significant proportion of patrons and employees are expected to travel on the Orange Line.”

Wynn is going to make an annual contribution of about $382,000 to pay for additional service on the Orange Line to accommodate his employees and customers, according to this report. A little more than a grand a day isn’t that encouraging to anyone who rides the T and knows how inadequate and outdated Orange Line service really is, but it ain’t pocket change either.
As I thought about how critical the Orange Line will be to Wynn Everett, my mind wandered back to my days as a Northeastern student riding the Blue Line (1968-73).  I grew up in Revere.  That was the line you rode if you had to get to Boston.  On many afternoons in the spring, if I had no afternoon classes and no hours at my on-campus work-study job, I’d head home, taking the Blue Line to the Revere Beach or Wonderland stations, where I’d catch an Everett Station bus to home.  (We lived off Park Ave., near the Revere-Everett line.)  

When the racing season was under way at Suffolk Downs, Blue Line trains would sometimes be filled in the early afternoons with horse fans heading to the track. I was always fascinated by how intently they studied their racing forms as the trains rattled their way out of the tunnel to the Suffolk Downs stop.  Most of them held sharpened pencils in their right hands and stared closely down at their pencil points as they marked their forms.  God, did they need their horses to come in.

It’s weirdly reassuring, in a deja vu all over again kind of way,  to think I’ll soon be spending time in the company of casino patrons on the Orange Line as I spent my college years with racetrack patrons on the Blue.  The gamblers who take the Orange Line to Wynn Everett in 2018 will be no more likely to rise from the ranks of the desperate-for-a-windfall than the gamblers I watched on the hard benches of the Blue Line in 1968.  Yet I shall find some inspiration in the example of their blind persistence. 


Connector Failure and Its Aftermath Will Weigh on All Future IT Procurement in MA

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General is investigating the failure of the Governor Patrick administration and its chosen information technology contractor to adapt the state’s health exchange to the complex requirements “Obamacare” back in 2013.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts may also be conducting a full-blown investigation of the massive and costly failure of The Connector, as the exchange is commonly known, during the latter part of Patrick’s second term.
We should wait for those investigations to be completed before grappling with the specifics of how to prevent another public technology disaster like the one that engulfed The Connector.

But we don’t have to wait to acknowledge that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, like most public entities in the U.S., is not really set up to be a high-functioning, equal-to-the-private-sector procurer of cutting edge technology. 
This is not to disparage anyone on the public payroll now doing tech procurement.  I’m sure most of them are intelligent, honest, dedicated, diligent, etc.  I’d be surprised if our state procurement units have enough people to do the work as thoroughly and as quickly as it needs to be done.  And they probably lack adequate resources and support from management above.

Given how long The Connector failure and its costly remediation have been in the news, I suspect that Charlie Baker began to take stock of the problems in tech procurement before he was even inaugurated.  I hope that, now, he’s as eager to make changes in that area as he is in mass transit.
The cost of The Connector failure has been estimated from a quarter of a billion to a billion dollars, or more.  And the tab's still open!

Just this week, the Center for Health and Information and Analysis (CHIA), a state agency established under health care cost control legislation in 2012, cited the failure as a major reason the cost of operating the Medicaid program jumped 19% in 2014.
Some 200,000 Massachusetts residents who were unable to enroll in private health plans due to technical problems at The Connector were put on Medicaid as a stopgap, meaning taxpayers had to foot the bill in 2014 for millions of dollars in care provided to persons who otherwise would have gotten private insurance coverage.

Connector: The gift that keeps on taking.
Back in May, during debate in the Massachusetts Senate over the state budget for Fiscal Year 2016, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr tried to get an amendment through that would have allocated $2.6 million for assisting the Attorney General in recovering funds from the private vendor involved in The Connector failure and appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the failure.

Tarr’s amendment gained the support of only 8 of the 39 senators in attendance at that point.  Several senators argued against it.  They said the AG was already investigating The Connector; therefore,  the $2.6 million appropriation was not needed.
“Hardworking people are working to address the systemic dysfunction of The Connector site and to remediate something that has been a disaster,” said Senator Tarr.  “We need to try to bring to justice and hold accountable the people responsible for the expenditure and the loss of those hundreds of millions of dollars.  We know the federal government is underway in that task and the U.S. Attorney has subpoenaed records.  The level of dysfunction has brought the attention of the federal government’s chief prosecutor in Massachusetts.  It would seem that the U.S. Attorney’s client would be the federal government and the federal government might seek compensation for acts on behalf of the federal government.  Who will stand for the citizens of the Commonwealth?…We can’t just let go by the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars and inappropriate acts by people representing the Commonwealth.”

This was an instance, common in the annals of our state and federal legislatures, where the best argument didn’t win.
Boston’s Pioneer Institute has taken some of the most critical looks at The Connector disaster.  For a good sample  of what the Institute has said on this issue, go to:

As MassPort Boss Reminds Us, Boston Wouldn't Be The Hub without Fishing, Seafood

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tom Glynn was careful to describe Boston’s hottest new neighborhood as the South Boston Waterfront at the outset of an op-ed piece he wrote for the Boston Globe the other day.  You would expect nothing different from the CEO of the politically-attuned Massachusetts Port Authority.  From Glynn there will be no harping on the “Seaport District.”   (Why send all who call Southie their hometown into paroxysms of pain and anger?)

Anyway, it was a heck of a piece, that column by Glynn, which appeared Sunday, Aug. 23, under the headline, “Boston’s future depends on a thriving seafood industry,” for it contained a much-needed reminder that new apartment buildings, new office towers, and trendy new bars and restaurants are not the only key ingredients for a city striving for vibrancy in the 21st century.
“Long before the biotech firms, cool restaurants, and law firms made a home there (the South Boston Waterfront), seafood companies were doing business in that part of town. It is important that there be room for the industry going forward,” wrote Glynn, a Ph.D. from Brandeis, a former general manager of the MBTA in the Governor Dukakis administration, a former President Clinton administration labor official, and a former chief operating officer of Partners Health Care.  (If you can find a better resume, blog it.)

The only state where the value of caught fish exceeds that of Massachusetts is Alaska, Glynn pointed out. 
While the catches in New Bedford and Gloucester consistently exceed Boston’s, Glynn trumpeted the “rare ingredients” that position Boston as an “epicenter of the state’s seafood processing industry.” Those would be its “dockside access to fishing boats and seafood processors, an international airport, the interstate highway system, and a global shipping container facility.”

The annual Port of Boston fish catches have grown – “despite federal policy restrictions” -- by 80% in recent years, according to Glynn; and, today, some 58 seafood businesses are located within a 1.25-mile radius of South Boston.
As one who performs work for a great Massachusetts-based non-profit, Fishing Partnership Support Services, a kind of human resources agency for commercial fishermen, I was nodding vigorously as Glynn informed Globe readers that:

(a) the Boston Fish Pier remains the very active home of the city’s working fishing fleet, with 21 vessels currently berthed there, and
(b) six fishing boat owners/operators have their names on the waiting list for a Boston Fish Pier berth. 

Commercial fishing is far from dead in Boston and the other ports of the Bay State, although fishermen are, for the most part, experiencing hard times because of federal limits on days they can fish, competition from cheaper, less-regulated imported seafood, the high fixed costs of owning and running a fishing boat, (fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, etc.), and the high cost of living in Massachusetts.
If we want to keep a homegrown fishing industry, a distinctive feature of Massachusetts since the 17th century, and if we want local, independent fishermen catching local fish 10 or 20 years from now, we have to adhere to policies that help the commercial fishermen of Massachusetts and their families.

If you haven’t read Tom Glynn’s “Boston’s-future-depends” column, please do so.  It may be found at:

…and for information on Fishing Partnership Support Services, please go to:


Wynn Everett's Environmental Virtues Are Yin to the Yang of Casino Profits

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The site in Everett where Steve Wynn wants to build a resort/destination casino at a cost of more than a billion dollars has got to be the most run-down, contaminated, crummy looking oceanfront property in Greater Boston.  I speak as a witness.

It was a warm and humid summer day three years ago when I walked the entire site with a group that was thinking of putting a casino there before Wynn came along.  “My” group saw the potential in the site and was briefly intrigued with the idea of having the "Boston casino" in Everett, but it never actually took the proposal beyond the brainstorming stage.  This theme recurs often in my life:  I get the dreamers; other consultants get the guys itching to drop a billion-plus on a deal.
Anyway, the property on the Mystic River where a Monsanto chemical factory once stood, and where Wynn envisages a casino, is covered with fill -- a mixture of dirt, gravel, broken bricks and stones, and God knows what else, which was used to encase and smooth the land when the factory was demolished.  Some tall weeds have sprouted there but do not seem to be thriving as they do in most vacant lots. These weeds actually look malnourished. 

The property comprises 33 acres.  One acre equals roughly three-quarters of a football field.  So imagine 24 to 25 football fields of sheer ugliness standing in the shadow of a power plant and a terminally congested Sullivan Square.

Then visualize that property ending at a deserted, pollution-bombarded shoreline -- a place of rotting piles, broken concrete slabs from vanished buildings, crumbling revetments, and unidentifiable debris exposed in the black, oily muck of the outgone tide.   I’m surprised the Massachusetts Film Bureau hasn’t used this place as a permanent set for horror movies.

So give Steve Wynn credit.  He’s willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to decontaminate the site so that it's suitable for building upon and occupying.  And he’s willing to spare no cost to build what he vows will be a five-star hotel and a spectacular, self-contained mini-world, a Vegas-on-the-Mystic, a pleasure dome shamelessly dedicated to round-the-clock wining, dining, shopping and entertainment.
Monsanto closed up shop in Everett over 20 ago. No one, with the exception of Mr. Wynn, has come along since who has the resources, the vision and the willingness to redevelop the site.  The City of Everett has naturally embraced the man, his Revere roots notwithstanding.

Wynn knows environmental remediation is his strong suit in this nerve-ripping, high-stakes game of licensing Massachusetts’s first casino.  He seems to delight in pulling a new “environmental ace” from his sleeve every few days. 
On August 13, there was the announcement that the project, officially dubbed Wynn Everett, will include “a public harbor walk for pedestrians and bicycles that will extend the length of the resort’s shoreline and connect to a park.”

Robert DeSalvio, president of Wynn Everett, said, “We envision our harbor walk to be brimming with activity day and night, year round, both from a recreational and transportation perspective. Connecting (the new harbor walk) to the (existing) Gateway Center Park means more people can enjoy the Mystic River and access our resort without having to drive here by car.  It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unlock a beautiful urban waterfront that very few people today know exists.”
On August 19, there was the announcement that Wynn Everett “will exceed state regulatory requirements for environmental sustainability and feature advanced green initiatives, including the use of solar power and rainwater harvesting.”

Said DeSalvio: “The $30-million waterfront site cleanup and transformation (of the former Monsanto site) will have an historic impact on the entire region…The Wynn Resort in Everett will be a model of sustainability and energy efficiency when we begin our day-to-day operations.  It will bring to life Wynn’s deeply rooted principal of being an environmentally conscious and responsible leader in every community that we’re part of.”
Wynn’s long-range plan, I have learned, now extends beyond the casino site proper.  Sources in Everett say that a Wynn representative recently approached the operators of the Mystic Station power plant, which is located directly across busy Route 99 (Broadway) from the casino site, to explore the possibility of acquiring and demolishing three old and disused components of the facility (Mystic 4, 5 and 6) and of building a parking garage for casino patrons in their places.  The plan includes a pedestrian walkway spanning Route 99, garage to casino.

If the final license for Wynn Everett is granted, and if Winn ever gets to replace a part of the Mystic Station with an environmentally friendly and visually unobjectionable parking garage, the entire appearance of that industry-heavy part of Everett would change for the better, and dramatically so.  It would be so good that the people of Charlestown and Somerville, though they might remain opposed to the casino, would like the new look of things from across the river despite themselves.


Westfield's Three-Branch Pierce Begins Sunset Ride with Blessing from Supremes

Friday, August 14, 2015

If you held a high position in the judiciary and were doing a bad job, I don’t think the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court would issue a press release saying good things about you when you filed for retirement.

No, in that situation, the members of our state’s highest court would likely sigh with relief and begin the task of erasing you from their memories.  In the hallowed halls of the Adams Courthouse, the least said about a bust-out judge the better.
One may thus infer that the soon-to-be-retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Housing Court, the honorable Steven D. Pierce of Westfield, is the genuine article.  Else, why would we have the July 7, 2015, SJC press release with Paula M. Carey averring that Pierce “was an early proponent of management reforms that have increased accountability and transparency across the court system” and that “his leadership of the Trial Court’s Fiscal Task Force was key to our efforts to avoid layoffs through the fiscal crisis”?  Carey’s the chief justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court.

And why would we have Harry Spence noting in that same release that the Housing Court, under Pierce, is now “more widely recognized for the importance of its expertise and resources, such as housing court specialists who mediate cases, saving time and expense of litigation”? 
Spence, currently serving as administrator of the Trial Court, has been handed the task of repairing a damaged and/or disgraced entity of state and local government on several difficult occasions.  Think Chelsea, post-bankruptcy.  Being on the hard-nosed end of the political spectrum, he’s not one for easy or shallow compliments.

I thought it perhaps significant that the release on Pierce’s retirement was issued almost three full months prior his official retirement date of September 30, as if it were purposely setting the stage for a long, slow victory lap by the outgoing chief justice.
Pierce, who will turn 66 right after he retires, owns the distinction of having served in all three branches of state government, first the legislature, then in two gubernatorial administrations, and finally in the court system.  He also was once a serious candidate for the Republican nomination for governor and once came very close to winning a Congressional seat.

A Republican and a graduate of Duke University School of Law, Pierce was first elected to the Massachusetts House in 1978.  Within five years, he was the House Minority Whip, and, four years after that, in 1987, was elected Minority Leader.
In 1990, Pierce was a strong early entrant in the Republican primary election for governor, but couldn’t sustain his initial burst and wound up losing decisively to Bill Weld, who went on to defeat Boston University President John Silber in the November final and win re-election four years later against Democratic representative Mark Roosevelt.

Weld appointed Pierce to his first cabinet as Secretary of Communities and Development.  This proved to be only a way stop:  Silvio Conte, the long-time Republican incumbent in the old 1st Massachusetts District, died in 1991 and Pierce resigned to pursue the congressional prize.
Pierce won his party’s primary and faced off against Amherst State Senator John W. Olver in the final.  It was a heck of a fight.  Olver emerged victorious by a margin of only 1,934 votes.  Had Pierce managed to flip just 968 of those voters, he’d have gone to Washington and likely stayed there for years, as had Conte and as did Olver.

Pierce was back in state government by 1993 as a senior advisor to Governor Weld.  One year later, Weld appointed him executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, where he remained until 2001, when Acting Governor Jane Swift, a fellow denizen of Western Massachusetts, appointed him her chief legal counsel. 
Before leaving office at the end of 2002, Swift appointed Pierce as a justice of the Housing Court.  Governor Mitt Romney named Pierce the court’s chief justice in 2006; Governor Deval Patrick appointed him to a second five-year term in 2011.  The Housing Court Department is comprised of five divisions and has 10 authorized judicial positions across the state.

The (Springfield) Republican observed, correctly, in 2010 that “Few people have seen all sides of state government and worked in so many key positions as Pierce.”
I happened to have the chance yesterday to ask someone who served in the House at the same time Pierce did if he thought Pierce was really good or really lucky.  Without a moment’s hesitation, this gentleman said, “Good!  Steve had a good way about him.  He was good with people, good on the issues.  I don’t know how else to say it: he just had a really good way about him.  It showed in everything he did.  People genuinely liked him.”

I guess you can file the Steve Pierce story, then, under “Good guys finish first.”





An Outside-the-Box Thought on Proposals to Tax Vacation Home Rentals

Monday, August 10, 2015

Thirty-two or thirty-three years ago, I can’t remember exactly, friends of ours bought a second home on Cape Cod, in the town of Dennis.  It was an older, kind-of-smallish home, nothing fancy, and just a short walk from the beach.  They paid $39,000 for it. 

If that house were sold today, it would probably go for eight or nine times that price.
Around the time our friends bought into Dennis, my wife and I had been renting a cottage in Chatham for three weeks every July with my sister-in-law and her husband.  We must have done that for four or five years straight.  The house was on Sea Shell Lane, a narrow dirt road leading down a steep hill to the beach.  We paid the owner, a couple from Wrentham we never met, $350 a week.

I don’t know what it would cost to rent a place in that neighborhood today but it would probably be in the vicinity of $2,000 a week, maybe more depending on the house.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove over from Harwich, where my sister-in-law now owns a house, to take a look at Sea Shell Lane, as I often do when I’m on the Cape.  I like to call up the memories of when my wife and I were young, our children were little, and we were totally happy, together, by the ocean during the ripest part of summer.  It was not unusual in those days for me to go hunting for pennies to roll up so I’d have enough to buy a six-pack of Schlitz.

I have to use my imagination now to see the cottage as it was in those days. Twenty years ago, it was sold to a family that immediately enlarged it and turned it into the kind of fancy beach house that could be featured in the Sunday newspaper magazines. 
They don’t build little cottages on Cape Cod any more.

What Cape Cod has, everybody wants.  Countless souls dream of a home on the ocean, near the ocean, or tucked in a grove of pines and oaks next to one of those fresh-water kettle ponds that formed on the Cape when a monstrous block of ice melted 10,000 years ago.  There is not enough of Cape Cod to go around for all who want to own or rent a piece of it.  So the cost of being there keeps going up.  The contractors who build and repair and remodel homes, and the realtors who sell them, are always busy.  A guy in a pick-up who’s good with his hands gets his price there.
To know Cape Cod is to understand not only how precious it is but also how fragile.  It is one long, curving, immense deposit of sand -- a peninsula built from glacial run-off as the ice sheets covering this part of North America disappeared in the slow, pre-historical warming of our planet.  In many places, the Cape is covered by a thin layer of topsoil, which supports a handsome-but-hardly-robust tree cover.  Its edges are mostly exposed dune.

Even when the sea is relatively calm, it chews on those beaches, nowhere more relentlessly than on the outer Cape, the far, eastern wall of it that runs from Chatham up to Provincetown.  One loves the Cape more because its splendor is ever under threat.
A narrow arm of sand containing one aquifer of fresh water is not the most hospitable place to build a bunch of towns and to pack those towns every summer with hundreds of thousands of super-consumers who drive big boats and big cars, who need to live in houses with two (or three!) full baths, who must have access to supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants and liquor marts, and who panic when the trash haulers fail to make their second weekly pick-up.  Where super-consumers gather, super-trash results.  

Local officials have to worry about funding all of the infrastructure and services needed to sustain Cape Cod’s growing population and popularity.  They need more money every year to protect the resources essential both to human habitation, such as fresh water, and to the unique appeal of the Cape, such as open spaces and clean beaches.
It’s no surprise that many of those officials now want the authority to collect taxes from owners who rent their homes to vacationers.  Two bills are pending in the Massachusetts legislature that would give towns on Cape Cod and the Islands (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) the option of levying a new tax on summer rentals.  Town managers and select persons from Sandwich to Edgartown and from Yarmouth to Wellfleet feel they really need a new, substantial source of money.

How substantial?  No one knows for sure because there’s no system in place to track summer rentals across the region.  A study commissioned last year by the Island Housing Trust on Martha’s Vineyard found that between 20% and 25% of homes on the island are rented at some point in the year, and that a 5% tax on those rentals would generate as much as $6.3 million per year if both summer and off-season rentals were taxed.
A long-time innkeeper on the island was quoted in a recent article in the Martha’s Vineyard Times as saying, “I don’t think someone renting a place for $5,000 a week is going to balk at $250 (in new rental taxes).”  No doubt that gentleman is correct.

My wife and I just spent a significant amount to rent a four-bedroom house in Harwich for two weeks so that our entire family, which includes six grandchildren, could collectively enjoy a vacation.  The price was worth it: we had an incredibly good time from start to finish. 
If, next year, we have the money to rent that house again and Harwich has the newfound ability to hit us with a tax equal to 5% of the rent, we’d probably do it again.  I wouldn’t be happy with the tax because it has the feel of a money grab: townies squeezing outsiders because outsiders have the dough, townies want it, and townies can take it.  But I’d pay because it’s just so good to be on Cape Cod in July.  There’s nothing I know that can compare to it. I do, however, have one suggestion for the leaders of a Cape Cod that is increasingly taking on the look and feel of a rich man’s preserve:
When you start collecting that 5% or 6%, or whatever it will be, on every rental, and when the money starts piling up in those new rental tax accounts, please give some thought to creating with that money colonies of little, old-fashioned summer cottages all over the Cape and the islands, and to renting those cottages cheaply to low- and moderate-income families from Massachusetts, folks from Boston, Everett, Brockton and the like.

I even have a suggestion on where one of those colonies might go: Morris Island, in Chatham.  The miles of beaches on Morris Island are public, while the interior of the island is privately owned and taken up with estates owned by millionaires.  There’s a de facto limit on access to Morris Island’s beautiful shoreline via the small number of public parking spaces near the trails leading to the beaches, a common tactic in ocean communities.

After a few years of collecting rental taxes, Chatham could buy one of those Morris Island properties, take down the Architectural Digest-worthy behemoth that stands there, and replace it with 10 or 12 little cottages.  It would not be hard to find families that have never experienced Cape Cod and are eager to spend a week in one those new bungalows by the sea.
It is in our nation’s interest, I would argue, to have every child swim in the ocean, play on a beach, and breathe the salt air, night and day, at some point in their early years.  The ocean is the last wild and changeless thing most of us will ever be able to touch.  Something indefinably good happens when a person immerses himself in earth’s eternal waters.

We are the Bay State.  We should be as willing to spend tax dollars to assure that every child in Massachusetts can experience living by the sea at least once as we are to spend it on the conventional aspects of their education.

UPDATE: In March of 2016, the legislature's Joint Committee on Revenue gave a favorable report to House Bill 2645, An Act Providing for Local Aid Enhancement, which proposed to give the state and its municipalities the authority to collect taxes of 5% and 6%, respectively, on vacation home rental proceeds.  The bill was subsequently referred to the House Committee on Ways & Means, where it died on July 31, 2016, upon the adjournment of the 2015-16 legislative session.