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.