Thursday, April 30, 2009

House budget part 3: When vote trading may be the right thing

Third in a series of thoughts on this week’s budget battle.

When the Massachusetts House ignored my advice and passed a sales-tax increase Monday night--bumping the rate from 5% to 6.25%--Speaker Robert DeLeo was forced to scramble to put together 107 votes in an effort to build a majority large enough to override Governor Patrick’s threatened veto. Rep. Dennis Rosa of Leominster told the Telegram & Gazette the House leadership was working hard to get votes changed:
Freshman Rep. Dennis A. Rosa, D-Leominster, said he was asked to back the speaker’s tax plan repeatedly throughout the day, but held his ground to vote against it.

“My arm got twisted two or three times yesterday, but politely twisted,” he said. “It was fine with me. They made me a sales pitch and I made my case that I had to represent my district and stand up for my people,” Mr. Rosa said.

“Leadership wasn’t happy with it but I think they understand my decision.”
In my two earlier posts I was critical of Worcester Rep. Vincent Pedone for changing his vote for what appear to be less-than courageous reasons. But would it be different if a representative changed his vote in return for a project or funding that was vital to his community?

For instance, take the situation that may have faced Rep. Harold Naughton of Clinton. (And I want to make it clear here that this is a completely hypothetical situation. Not only do I not know if Naughton changed his vote from No to Yes, I don’t have any idea why he would have made a change if he did. I’m presenting this just for the sake of argument.) When the budget was first released a couple of weeks ago, Clinton was looking at taking a significant hit in local aid. Not only was the town facing the 32% cut in local aid that all cities and town are facing, but Clinton also faced the loss of an additional $500,000 in aid, as explained by the Times and Courier:
Half that cut comes via the elimination of an annual state payment of $500,000 to operate the wastewater treatment plant on High Street, Town Administrator Michael Ward said Tuesday. State Rep. Harold Naughton Jr., D-Clinton, vowed to fight the cut.

“I feel that’s not just a statutory obligation, but a moral obligation of the commonwealth,” Naughton said. “This will be my priority. Every resource that I have [will be brought] to the fight.”

The payment enables the town to pay its $500,000 annual bill to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which operates the sewer plant and the Wachusett Reservoir. Naughton said the payment is intended as compensation for the state taking Clinton land to build the reservoir in the 1890s and 1900s....
The article goes on to suggest that Naughton had not yet committed to raising the sales tax:
“I think we’ll see some proposals for taxes,” Naughton said. “I think you’ll see debate on a raise in the sales tax, I think you’ll see us return to debate on the statewide meals and hotel tax...I still need to listen to some debate and be convinced one way or the other.”
So in our scenario, we know that there is something that Naughton is willing to “use every resource” to fight for, and that he had not publicly committed to voting for a sales tax. Fast forward to Monday. In the Democratic caucus, Naughton does not commit to being one of the 81 yes votes Speaker DeLeo needs to pass the bill. Suddenly, the Governor’s letter hits everyone’s e-mail box and DeLeo starts to scramble to pick up an additional 26 votes to ensure a veto-proof majority.

If DeLeo heads down to Naughton’s office or pulls him aside on the floor of the house and asks “what will it take to get you to join us on the sales tax?” the answer is… “Put the $500,000 for the MWRA treatment plant back into the budget and I’ll vote with you.”

Again, I’ve made the DeLeo-Naughton scenario up in my head, so it may not have happened that way. But if it did, would that be reason enough to change a vote? Is raising the sales tax worth the additional $500,000 in local aid for Clinton?

I don’t know. I expect that this is one of the toughest parts of being a state rep or senator: how do you balance what you think is best for the state against what you think is best for your district? I hoped that Naughton would vote against the sales tax, but perhaps he had reasons other than tax philosophy to do so.

Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, it will be interesting to see if Clinton ends up with the $500,000 after all, and how much more Naughton will have to fight to get it.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

House Budget part 2: The Governor wins by losing

Second in a series of thoughts on this week’s budget battle.

When the Massachusetts House ignored my advice and passed a sales-tax increase Monday night--bumping the rate from 5% to 6.25%--they did so over Governor Patrick’s threat of a veto. While Governor Patrick lost the vote—-the house approved the proposal by a bare veto-proof margin—-he is likely to have won the public relations battle. In the end, that might be more important than the vote on the tax increase itself.

Despite his threat, the governor is not going to veto this plan. If he were truly committed to vetoing the sales tax hike, he would have waited until after it passed to make that known. The Telegram & Gazette makes that clear:
There were just over 81 votes in support after a caucus Monday morning.

It was only after the governor said he may veto the tax hike if the House failed to adopt numerous controversial reforms that House leaders interrupted their session and spent the next 10 hours converting enough Democrats to line up with the House speaker in a show of strength against the governor’s threat.

When it was clear Mr. DeLeo had more than the 107 votes for the tax hike, House leaders proceeded with the vote. But there were many holdouts. In the end 14 Central Massachusetts House members voted for the sales tax and 11 voted against it. There were just over 81 votes in support after a caucus Monday morning.
The governor had to know that the House was nowhere close to having the votes to override his veto early in the day. Had he kept his mouth shut, he could have vetoed (or issued his threat) after the measure had passed.

He also had to know that he would come out of this fight smelling like a rose. Patrick can claim that he tried to stand up for the people of the Commonwealth in opposing a broad-based tax increase and that the only reason the increase went through was because Legislature dislikes him so personally that it was unwilling to put personal politics aside in an effort to stick it to him.

An example of a rep who may have at least partly changed his vote due to frustration with the governor’s politics is Worcester’s Vincent Pedone, who we have quoted before:
Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, D-Worcester, who along with Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, panned the sales tax idea last week, came around to join the speaker’s tax hike proposal Monday night. He said the governor’s “surprise letter” on Monday created “a much different dynamic” on the vote….

He said House members also took the governor’s action as a move against them for political gain. He argued the House has acted on four of five reform packages, even though the governor claims they do not go far enough.

“Sending the letter is not leadership,” Mr. Pedone said, also criticizing a video of the governor on his Web page urging supporters to contact legislators and demand more reforms. “It’s pure pandering to the public,” Mr. Pedone said.
So Rep. Pedone and potentially 25 other members changed there vote from no to yes because the governor publicly threatened to ratify their no vote and veto the bill? It appears that some members may be so petty that they would change their vote because a governor they do not like publicly supported their position. That’s just backwards.

(And sending the letter to the members of the legislature—-and the media-—as well as circulating a video message urging citizens to call their reps to lobby for the governor’s position is both leadership and pandering. There are a lot of us who wish the governor had been doing more of this sort of leading...he seems too often to be content to roll out policy ideas and hope that people instinctively embrace them, instead of advocating and campaigning for them.)

Of course, as I said above the sales tax hike will likely become law one way or the other. When the house and senate versions of the bill go to conference, you’re likely to see a final bill that includes the senate’s stronger reform measures merged with the house sales tax plan. And the governor will sit behind the big desk as he signs the measure, and take credit for holding the legislature’s feet to the fire on the issue of reform.

Or the governor may go all the way and strike the sales tax hike from the final bill, fully knowing that his veto will be overridden, and burnishing his improbable reputation as someone who is trying to put the breaks on the Legislature’s taxes.

Next: When vote trading might be a good thing


House Budget part 1: Saving you from sugar tax by taxing everything else

First in a series of thoughts on this week’s budget battle in the state house.

Well, the Massachusetts House ignored my advice and passed a sales-tax increase Monday night, bumping the rate from 5% to 6.25%. In my previous post, I suggested the idea that being “afraid that voting for a string of tax changes would look bad on [a reps] record” was “a ridiculous thought if I’ve ever heard one.” Rep. Vincent Pedone of Worcester appears to be one of those members, as evidenced by his comments in the Telegram & Gazette:
Mr. Pedone said he switched [his vote] partly because of the argument that raising one tax was better than the numerous smaller tax hikes the governor has proposed. “It was a realization that we could not get core services delivered to the people of the commonwealth without this tax increase,” Mr. Pedone said….

“I don’t want to tax candy, and alcohol, and soda, and increase tolls, and continue down the line of the ‘taxes du jour’ proposed by the governor,” Mr. Pedone said.
So instead of taxing “candy, and alcohol, and soda,” Mr. Pedone thinks we’re better off by raising the sales tax on everything else. That’s I cannot follow that logic at all, unless Pedone does not want to be on the record as “Yea on sin taxes, yea on gas taxes, yea on meals taxes.” Instead he can say “Well, I only voted to raise taxes once.”

It will be interesting to see if this pretzel-twist logic wins the day, or if voters see through it.

Next: The Governor Wins by Losing


Monday, April 27, 2009

House should reject broad sales tax increase

After all of the discussion all spring about whether or not Massachusetts should raise the gas tax or the meals tax or the hotel tax or a “sin tax,” the legislature unveiled a proposal today to raise the sales tax by 1.25 points to 6.25%. From the AP, via the Telegram & Gazette:
The move would raise the sales tax to 6.25 percent from 5 percent and generate an extra $900 million a year in revenues at a time when the state is struggling with plunging revenues, rising unemployment and a deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

The plan — a copy of which was given to The Associated Press — rejects any other tax increases, including proposals to raise the state income tax rate or apply the sales tax to a range of services that currently are exempt from it.

It also rejects Gov. Deval Patrick's proposals to add 18 cents to the state's current 23.5 cents per gallon gas tax, expand the sales tax to include alcohol, candy and soda, and allow local communities to increase taxes on restaurant meals and hotel rooms.
There was talk last week that such a proposal was in the works, but the details were just leaked last night. Call me a cynic, but I wonder if the sales tax increase was House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s plan all along. For weeks, the state has been debating a handful of proposals put forward by Governor Patrick, none of which included an across-the-board sales tax hike. The governor has been getting hammered. So DeLeo sits back and lets the guv take all of the heat, then unveils his proposal the day before it is going to be voted on, ensuring that it does not face the same level of public debate and scrutiny that Patrick’s plans have been subjected.

I realize that this is the most pie-in-the sky, naïve thing I’ll ever write on this blog, but the legislature should ensure that all amendments are filed 48 or 72 hours before they are to be debated so that the public has the ability to comment. A whole lotta good it’s going to do anyone who might oppose this or any other plan when your state rep isn’t going to be around to get your comment because he or she is in session debating the bill or amendment the same day it is being filed.

While I wouldn’t have proposed exactly the same set of measures that Governor Patrick has, I believe that a revenue plan similar to the governor’s is a better plan than the across-the-board Sales tax hike. My plan would look like this:
  1. Allow cities and towns the local option of raising the meals tax by up to three points, with all of the revenues to be returned to the city or town in which the tax was levied.

  2. In lieu of a gas tax, expand the current sales tax to include gasoline. At a current price of $2.00 gallon, the sales tax on gas would be 7.9 cents (taxed on $1.58, which is the price of gas minus existing taxes). All of the revenues from the sales tax on gas would be earmarked for transportation.

  3. Expand the current sales tax to include all alcohol sales, as well as food and beverages that are packaged for immediate consumption. This is different than the sugar tax in the sense that a two-liter bottle of soda or a box of cookies that you bring home from the grocery would not be taxed, but the 20-oz soda and package of Ho-Hos you pick up at the convenience store would be taxed. This is the same system they use in Rhode Island and it makes all of the sense in the world: if you are buying groceries you don’t get taxed, if you’re buying something to eat immediately you do get taxed, just as you would if you bought food for immediate consumption at a restaurant. I wrote about this a couple of months ago. This part of the plan also differs from the governor in the sense that this revenue would not be earmarked for health care, but would instead go to the general fund.
My plan would increase revenues in the areas the governor has diagnosed, would help pay for transportation debt, and would increase funding to those local communities who wish to participate in the local option meals tax. But it would not raise the tax rate, so sales taxes on big-ticket items such as televisions, automobiles, building supplies, etc. would not increase. It would also give cover to those representatives who are afraid that voting for a string of tax changes would look bad on their record (a ridiculous thought if I’ve ever heard one, but apparently it is real).

Of course, by the time this post is published the legislature may have already passed the 6.25% plan, since there isn’t any real opportunity for the public to weigh in. The good news is that Governor Patrick is apparently going to veto any sales tax hike.


The Republican Flu

As concern over the Swine Flu grows, keep in mind which party removed $800 million that Obama had proposed to improve our nation's ability to fight the next pandemic flu:

Thanks so much.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Time to buy the man a calculator

Just catching up on this...Last week, the Sentinel and Enterprise ran a story on the trouble facing the city of Leominster if the cuts proposed in the Legislature’s budget make it into law. My jaw just about hit the floor when I saw this quote from newly elected state Rep. Dennis Rosa:
One area Mazzarella said he is watching is the cut in Lottery aid to cities and towns.

Mazzarella said the cuts should be equitable across the state based on the loss in revenue to the state Lottery.

State Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, also said he's watching the Lottery money.

"I'm trying to figure out how much of a percentage we got cut compared with other communities," he said.
Huh? This is the budget put out by the legislative body of which you are a member and you don’t know how Leominster’s budget cuts compare to other communities?

Well, I do. Because I looked up the proposed 2010 budget, the final 2009 budget, and took out a scratch pad and a calculator and did the math. It literally took me all of 15 minutes to figure out that all of the communities that I care about received the same percentage cut to their budget.

First, here are the figures from FY2009 budget, the proposed FY2010, and the cuts. All numbers taken from the links on the Legislature’s web site, which must have been difficult for the rep or his staff to locate:
                FY09 (Actual)   FY10 (Prop)     Deficit        Change
Leominster $7,111,354 $4,821,700 $2,289,654 -32%
Sterling $ 856,049 $ 579,472 $ 276,577 -32%
Clinton $2,754,261 $1,938,212 $ 816,049 -32%
Lancaster $1,030,300 $ 697,426 $ 332,874 -32%
There you are. All of the communities in the No Drumlins region received 32% funding cuts. Rep. Rosa, you can thank me later for doing the tough work.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

The "Seventh-day Adventist college"

I have made a conscious effort not to blog about my alma mater, Atlantic Union College. Over the last year a handful of items in the news have frustrated and angered me, but I’ve decided not to write about them because I know and love too many of the people at the college. I don’t go public with my frustrations because I value those relationships. Let’s just say I’m not happy about this or this or this and leave it at that.

But one of the things I have noted as I read coverage of the college in the Telegram and Gazette is that it is almost always identified as a “Seventh-day Adventist college.” Whether it is good news or bad news (and recently, it’s been a lot of bad news) doesn’t matter, the T&G includes the church as an identifier.

It has always stuck out to me. I don’t know if it is included because the T&G thinks the religious affiliation of the college is important, because they think the average reader doesn’t know of the affiliation, or if there is another reason, but it is nearly always there.

I decided to compare the T&G’s coverage of AUC with its coverage of Anna Maria College in Paxton. I chose Anna Maria because it is similar to AUC in three ways: it is a religious school (Catholic), it is a small college (not as small as AUC, but smaller than other religious schools in the area—Holy Cross, Assumption), and it is not located in Worcester, but in one of the outlying towns. In my comparison, I included articles about the colleges that were written by T&G staff and editorials. I did not include press releases or articles from the sports section.

I found that The T&G refers to AUC and Anna Maria very differently. In 17 articles about AUC, 15 of them (88%) referred to the college as a Seventh-day institution. There was no consistency in the placement of the reference—sometimes it was referenced in the lead but more often the reference was added later in the story—but it was consistently there.

In contrast, of 13 articles about Anna Maria College, the institution was only specifically referred to as Catholic three times (23%). There were a couple of occasions where the reference was not specific but a reader might infer the affiliation (by the mention of a bishop, for instance), but generally speaking, the college’s religious affiliation was not included.

Now, I don't know if this is a T&G policy or if it is simply the preference of Karen Nugent, the reporter the T&G has assigned to the Clinton/Lancaster area. On the one hand 88% is pretty consistent, one could argue that the paper clearly has a policy it uses in referring to AUC's affiliation. On the other hand, the only two articles that do not reference Seventh-Day Adventists were two of the three articles written by reporters other than Nugent. In other words, Nugent is 14-for-14 in including the reference, other reporters are only 1-for-3 in including the reference.

Let's look at how different writers reference the college in articles written about the same event. On August 6, 2008, Nugent wrote about an oil spill that took place at AUC:
LANCASTER - Diesel fuel that leaked from a generator at Atlantic Union College Monday was contained before it reached the nearby Nashua River, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said yesterday.

Between 300 and 500 gallons of fuel used by college generators to produce electricity and hot water at the Seventh-day Adventist college were discharged when a gasket in one of the generators broke, spokesman Edmund J. Colletta said.
Matthew Bruun filed this report last month, outlining the action taken against the college:
LANCASTER - Atlantic Union College is facing steep penalties from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in connection with an oil spill last summer that polluted a brook feeding the Nashua River.

The EPA is seeking penalties of up to $177,500 against the college for violating the Clean Water Act, and additional penalties of up to $32,500 per day for violating the Emergency Planning and Right to Know Act, according to a news release issued yesterday.
I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing that Nugent would have written "The EPA is seeking penalties of up to $177,500 against the Seventh-day Adventist college" had she been the one to file the story. When the Clinton Item covered this story, they omitted the religious reference; articles in the Lancaster Times and Clinton Courier also did not find the church affiliation germane.

Again, I'm not sure why Nugent, who I have written about before, always includes the reference. Is it because she finds the affiliation important to the subject of the articles? If so, her colleagues and competitors do not agree. Is it because she thinks AUC is small and obscure enough that most readers won't know what it is without an identifier? Perhaps, but the college has been around since 1882, it's probably well enough established by now. Does she think that Adventists are peculiar? Well, she wouldn't be the only one.

Maybe I should begin referring to the T&G as "a New York-owned publication."


Friday, April 24, 2009

The Mass-N.H. DMZ

Is there some sort of lawless, unclaimed swath of land between the commonwealth and our neighbors to the north? WBZ news suggests there is:
About 10 yards away from the town of Methuen is the tax free state of New Hampshire. That's why a sales tax increase is a tough sell with politicians representing border areas. "The sales tax is always a tough sell along the border," said Sen. Sue Tucker of Lawrence.
I wonder what is in that 30-foot wide swath between Methuen and N.H. Perhaps a Utopian land where those who set foot pay no taxes on alcohol, gas, income, property, or anything else. Or maybe that area is doubly taxed, which might suggest why no one lives there. Perhaps it is part of Canada, or has seceded like Texas hopes to.

I can't wait for channel 4's follow-up article on this mysterious place.


Saturday, April 18, 2009


As I'm sure the world has noticed--because my blog is incredibly widely read, as you can imagine--I've been in a bit of a posting lull. I blame facebook for that. As spring has crept up, I've been posting more pictures of the family and personal updates and those have been going on facebook instead of the blog.

Budget and town meeting season is coming and I'm going to try to get moving again. I'm sure you all can't wait.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hooray, Vermont!

I'm not technically a Vermonter, but my father's family has lived in Vermont for seven or eight generations--going back to before the American Revolution--so I've always considered myself a Vermonter (kind of like someone who is half-Irish considers themselves Irish). So allow me to be very proud of my fellow Vermonters, who became the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage without a court fight:
MONTPELIER — House Speaker Shap Smith’s voice choked with emotion as he read the vote count from the podium: 100-49.

By the narrowest of margins, the Legislature overrode Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto Tuesday and Vermont became the fourth state in the nation to allow same-sex couples to marry, and the first to do so without a court order.

“It really is a historic moment,” Smith said afterward.

“It means everything. It means we’re going to get married,” the Rev. Nancy Vogele, an Episcopal minister from White River Junction, said after the vote. She plans to wed her partner, Cheryl Elinsky, on Sept. 1, the day the law takes effect.
In some ways, the action in Vermont is more important for marriage equality than the legalization in states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Iowa because it was done by the legislature and not by the courts. That means that the people of Vermont decided, through their elected representatives, that this was the right thing to do. Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently say that those states who have legalized it have done so illegitimately because the decisions have come down through the courts, not the legislature.

(Although Massachusetts is a little different; while the original legalization of same-sex marriage came because of a Supreme Judicial Court decision, the legislature has voted on the issue twice and opponents of same-sex marriage had so little support in the legislature (less than 25%) that they couldn't put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.)

The Vermont legislature's vote to override the governor's veto is even more impressive when put into the context of Vermont's history. Apparently the legislature almost never overrides a governor's veto:
MONTPELIER – The votes in the first veto override in nearly two decades were still echoing in the Statehouse as pundits and politicians started talking about what the political implications will be in a state with a deeply divided government.

Including the gay marriage bill that was overridden and made into law over Gov. James Douglas' objections Tuesday, Douglas has vetoed 15 bills since taking office six years ago. During that time, although the Legislature has been controlled by Democrats most of that time, it has never been able to override one of his vetoes.

And in the state's entire history only seven times have one of the 134 vetoes by governors been overturned. The last time was a veto of a budget bill by Gov. Madeleine Kuinin in 1990.
This is only the seventh time that Vermont's governor has been vetoed in over 200 years of history? That makes the legislature's vote that much more gutsy and impressive. Hopefully other states (New Hampshire, for instance) will now follow Vermont's lead.



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