^ signing the FY 2019 Budget bill: Governor Baker, 5 days into the new fiscal year.

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Last week the House enacted its $ 41.88 billion budget, after which Governor Baker vetoed some line items, as Governors always do. Soon the final Budget will be law. What does it contain that may be of interest to reform-minded voters ?

Before I get to critiquing the Budget, here is ML Strategies’s analysis of the initial, April budget for you to study in great detail, if you like : https://www.mintz.com/newsletter/2018/Advisories/7158-MLS/FY2019-MA-Budget-Update_House-Ways-and-Means-Budget.pdf

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) offers these comments about the House and Senate Conference Committee Budget reported on July 18th :

Today, the House and Senate released the fiscal (FY) 2019 budget conference report, which will now go to Governor Baker for his review. The $41.88 billion budget reconciles the House and Senate spending plans eighteen days after the start of the new fiscal year. The conference budget is most notable in its decision to increase assumed tax revenue by $667.3 million over the amount agreed to as part of the consensus revenue process.

There’s been much talk, including some by me, about the State’s unexpectedly large tax collections this year. The extra money has generated some voter interest in boosting state spending on many items currently viewed as underfunded. MTF, however, notes that much of the State’s unexpectedly large revenue boost has come from changes enacted by the Federal government in its Tax Reform Act :

As MTF advised in our conference preview, while it is reasonable to reconsider the original FY 2019 tax revenue figures in light of strong tax collections, lawmakers should proceed with caution.
The recent surge in collections is in part driven by federal tax changes and therefore much of the revenue, especially capital gains and other non-wage income taxes, is likely to be nonrecurring.
Therefore, MTF suggested limiting any adjustment in FY 2019 to tax revenue sources not subject to volatility from year to year.

Further analysis :

The conference committee report boosted assumed tax revenues by a significant amount – $667.3 million – but assumes that $300 million of this comes from above-threshold capital gains revenue which must be deposited into the Stabilization Fund and therefore is unavailable for operating expenses. After accounting for increased revenue transfers to both the MBTA and the School Building Authority (due to increases in expected sales tax revenue), the tax revenue upgrade leaves $341 million available for budgetary spending. Until final tax numbers are released for the last fiscal year, it is difficult to gauge the fiscal risk of increasing spending by that amount,

In other words, the State Budget should be cautious about appropriating money that may be one-time-only. The Budget notes that it has enacted no new taxes or fees : yet it has increased Budget spending by 3.2 percent and $ 4.4 billion of “off budget” spending by 6.4 percent. (What might these “off budget”: items be ? MTF tells us : transfers to the pension fund, MBTA and school building authority.)

The Budget does not delve into the State’s pension liabilities, which past analyses have opined to be significantly underfunded. It would be valuable to know if the Budget cures at least a part of said underfunding. Have the off-budget transfers done so ?

To continue my main line of analysis : the Hopuse and senate combined to increase spending by the two legislatures’ maximum figure, making full use of the year’s tax windfall. Wrote MTF :

The House and Senate budgets differed by just $21.6 million in total spending, but that similarity masked more than $500 million in different spending choices. In fact, unique spending in both budgets combined was approximately $41.8 billion – an amount significantly higher than the revenues used by either the House or Senate. The decision to increase tax revenue available for the budget by $341 million allowed the conferees to opt for the higher spending figure in almost all instances where there was a discrepancy and add $153.1 million in new spending to offset otherwise underfunded accounts

Not surprisingly, the Budget includes this :

The conference report contains more than 800 earmarks that generally provide funding for local projects.

I do not oppose these local earmarks. The State Budget is not only a general account. It must take notice of unique local needs. I have myself advocated for Magazine Beach (in Cambridgeport) upgrades and reforms. These appear to be included in the Conference Budget.

Why the Budget includes under-funded accounts is beyond me. The following is an MTF list, in which Governor baker’s recommendation is on the left and the various legislature adjustments to the right of his request:

                             GOVERNOR          HOUSE         SENATE         CONFERENCE   DIF’RENCE

Indigent defense   $236,938,646   $189,739,504   $193,250,115   $244,031,412    $7,092,766
Family homelessness  $190,763,011  $181,107,614  $186,091,253  $193,745,706  $2,982,695
Sheriffs                         $626,715,238   $573,039,125   $579,845,616 $623,752,476 -$2,962,762
MassDot (snow and ice removal)

                                      $367,679,448     $323,109,448 $323,246,448 $358,546,448 -$9,133,000
Collective bargaining $107,246,977     $47,216,876   $47,216,876    $47,216,876 -$60,030,101
Settlements and judgments $10,000,000 $1,000,000 $1,000,000     $1,000,000    -$9,000,000
Total                  $1,529,343,320  $1,314,212,567 $1,329,650,308 $1,467,292,918 -$71,050,402

Policy items abounded, according to MTF — as they usually do. Very few made it past the conference:

Issue                                                   Proposed by              Conference

EITC increase                                      Both                              Included
TAFDC cap on kids                             Both                              Included
State Police audit                               House                           Included
Dairy farmer tax credit                    House                            Included
Conservation tax credit                   House                            Not included
Charter school growth cap             Senate                           Not included
CPA dedicated funding increase    Senate                            Not included
EMAC double jeopardy                   Senate                            Not included
EMAC hardship exemption            Senate                            Included
Higher education notification
requirements                                    Senate                          Not included
Municipal police training surcharge Senate                     Not included
County deeds fee increase             Senate                           Not included
Sports betting commission            Senate                          Not included
GIC membership change               Senate                          Not included
Immigration cooperation
restrictions                                      Senate                          Not included
Tax expenditure review                Senate                           Included
Pharmacy rebates                         Senate                          Not included

Governor Baker then vetoed $ 48,700,000 (about one tenth of one percent of  the total) so as t.o bring the Budget more in line with revenue expectations. said MTF :

The Governor’s vetoes are intended to produce a starting budget (often called the general
appropriations act or GAA) that pares down spending to fit within expected revenues and future obligations as well as to eliminate unnecessary spending. These vetoes – along with other revenue adjustments and assumptions related to unexpended appropriations – are sufficient to address several spending and revenue exposures in the Conference budget so that the budget is balanced.

Every Governor vetoes certain items in the annual State Budget proposal. Few of these vet.oes are popular with the legislators, and most get overridden. Why this budget charade even takes place, I have no idea, but it does take place. As MTF notes:

The $48.9 million in spending vetoes eliminate one line-item and reduce 45 others, by far the smallest number of spending vetoes during the Governor’s term.

Will any of Governor baker’s vetoes not be overridden ? Today we will know, because the close of business today is the end of this legislative session.

An under-funded Budget, one that assumes fairly optimistic, one time revenue receipts, but a fairly conservative, strong allocation to the State’s $ 1.89 billion Reserve Account : here’s  a Budget that doesn’t miss the mark by much, as we can see by Governor Baker’s downsized veto numbers. Hopefully the actual fiscal year up-coming will see the State’s employee pension liability further cured, our voluminous and diverse health care responsibilities better targeted and carried out, and more bond bills as needed because let’s not overlook the part that two major bond bills totaling $ 3.9 billion have played in bringing us a budget better adjusted than not.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere










^ ranked choice voting — the above is what a ranked choice vote ballot would look like

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On twitter this morning I entered a discussion, with two election activists, Ed Lyons and Jim Aloisi, about our State’s Party Primary voting system. We were exchanging suggestions as to why the system doesn’t work, if it doesn’t, and if so, how to improve it ? Answers don’t seem simple. I can think of many ill consequences that this or that change might give rise to. But first, let’s look at how did we get here ?

The late, September primary was enacted by a Democratic legislature, back when the state was still two-party competitive, to make it difficult for the Republicans, fast becoming outnumbered, to focus on the Democratic candidate. This scheme worked. A Republican candidate state-wide is hemmed in campaigning to 10.5 percent of voters until very late in the game. Curiously, however, the late primary did advantage one Republican candidate : for Governor. Because the Republican electorate is so small, a strong GOP candidate for Governor, with all the prospective power that a Governor holds, can dominate the primary process while the various Democratic candidates are still focusing on each other. Thus the late primary seems perhaps the single most important factor leading to what we now have : an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and a Republican Governor (since 1990, only 8 out of 28 years has a Democrat held the office.)

The legislature is not married to late primaries on principle, however., When a vacancy in one of our US Senate seats has occurred, it used to be that the Governor appointed a successor to hold office until the next general election. Not so after Scott Brown. The legislature enacted a very early primary and election in such case, giving the appointee on;ly a few months in office.

Thus we see that the present primary systems exist to maximize Democratic control of every office except Governor, which leaves the governor at the mercy of what sort of relationship the House Speaker wants to have with him or her. Fortunately for reform achievement in Massachusetts, Speaker DeLeo and Governor baker work very closely together, each for his own reasons, and the result has been consensus reform across the board. But what if it were otherwise ? It’s risky to have effective governance depend on the personal chemistry between two officials.

In any case, many activists want to change our primary system. Let’s take a look :

( 1 ) move the primary to June.

Doing so would definitely focus the campaign on the general election in which 60 to 70 percent of voters vote — a definitely democratic (small d) move, and much to be applauded. Yet an early primary would probably mean an even smaller turnout and would sharply increase the amount of donor money needed for that long general election.

( 2 ) make the primary open to all voters, where today only party members and unenrolleds can vote — and unenrolleds must choose which primary to vote in

The theory behind the current system is t.hat political parties are private entities (albeit  with procedures regulated by statute) and therefore elections within the party ought to be available only to party members and those who choose to join it. I understand tghe validity of this theory. Yet in a state where a majority of voters is not enrolled in any party, and chooses not to be, is it fair to all the voters to have only party nominees on the ballot to vote for ? The obstacles placed in the way of non-arty candidates, by way of increased nomination signature requirements, or in the way of write-in candidacies, whose votes will only be counted if the candidates use legal process to get there, all appear designed to leave general election voters with only two feasible choices. Thus the call to let all voters vote in every primary.

Despite this argument, even an open primary doesn’t work. Only a fusion primary, in which ALL candidates are on THE SAME ballot, achieves the aim of an open primary.

( 3 ) establish an all-candidate primary with a runoff to choose two for final election.

Sounds fair, yet t.he recent California primary shows the fault of this option : you get dozens of candidates, which can leave the voter with two fringe choices at the runoff. No thank you.

( 4 ) make state elections non-partisan.

Would probably have the same result as in the runoff option, only worse. Whatever option we decide upon, it should promote, not hinder, coalition candidates who can amass a clear majority of the 60 to 70- percent of voters who vote in our general election.

( 5 ) ranked choice voting in an all-candidate election, no primary.

Cambridge uses this system for its city elections. It works there. The idea is that the voter ranks ALL the candidates on his or her ballot by choice : first choice, second choice, and so on. The bottom candidate is eliminated, and his or her second choice, third, and remaining choice votes are then assigned to those candidates. When one candidate reaches a majority of allocated first choice votes, he or she is elected. Then repeat the allocation and elimination.

Advocates of ranked choice voting say that it would force candidates to be collegial, since all would ant second choice votes from each other. I’m not sure that will usually happen. The ranked choice system does not prevent voters from voting for only one candidate, thus making it potentially impossible for a candidate to win a  majority. Nonetheless, I like this idea. It’s worth a public conversation. At the very least, the late primary cries out for reform. And has cried out ever since the legislature enacted it.

The other important factor in how our election laws operate (MGL c. 55, for those who care to read all the rules) is the state committee that c. 55 requires recognized political parties to have. State committee members are either elected at each party’s Presidential primary every four years (two per district, elected by State Senate district, one man and one woman) or are appointed by the elected state committee members to auxiliary membership. State committee members are bound by party rules that prevent them, under pain of loss of office, from supporting candidates other than that party’s official nominees. Though the rigidity of these rules is not often enforced, in practice state committee members approach elections “party first, public interest second,m if at all.” This is true of both major parties’ state committee members. I know not very many who operate differently. (Which is not to say they aren’t great people to know. I know hundreds, and can’t say that I dislike more than a handful.)

Ranked choice won’t eliminate the narrow outlook of party officials, especially of party state committee members. Parties will still have a lot to say about who gets plenty of first choice votes. State committee members will still operate “party first, public second.” But the ordinary voter will loom much, much larger in a ranked choice general, election than in a small-turnout primary, held late Or held early.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ cities = commerce, and our nation is a commercial city writ large. As early as the 11th and 12th Centuries, as commerce revived in Western Europe, business and freedom, opportunity for all and justice, and the welcoming of immigrants have realized the hopes and ideals of all manner of people. It is our heritage as a nation and should be the Democrats’ message in 2020.

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My personal view is that the 2020 Democratic nominee for President can be just about anybody, and advocate just about any agenda, and win by a landslide. Given Mr. Trump’s stew of awfulness — the economic idiocies, his hatred for everybody who isn’t of white skin color, his corruption, his gratuitous cruelties, his nearly treasonous submission to Russian dominance, his enemies lists, his mendacity — the only way he could possibly be re-elected would be to have two major candidates facing him. He does command about 33 percent of voters. Add a couple of million votes to that and yup, he’s….B-A-ACK !

Yet if almost any Democrat, running on almost any platform, is almost sure to defeat the disaster in DC, that doesn’t mean the vast majority of America’s voters should just say “whatever.” It won’t help the nation much if the Democrats of 2020 are a party purely or chiefly of vengeance. Let Mr. Trump meet his legal and moral fate, but rescue the nation from echoes of it. By which I mean that the 2020 Democrats should embrace the everything that is America at its most promising, not this or that bones to pick.

Now to the question at hand : what should the 2020 Democrats stand for ?

David Brooks calls the current, media-favorite Democratic trend as “racial justice socialism.” The phrase recalls the 1984 and 1988 candidacies of Jesse Jackson, which failed despite their eloquence. It certainly has captured the news cycle via various victories by “racial justice socialists” in this cycle’s Democratic primaries. Like Brooks, I’m not inspired by this faction’s message. An American President should rise above any single special plea, even one as pressing as justice and civil rights for all. If the next President is to move the entire nation toward hope and ambition, and away from fear and division, he or she must find a way to seek justice and civil rights for all within a much broader agenda of reform in which a clear majority sees itself moving on up : because no matter how crucial civil rights and justice are for those who are denied them, the majority of voters has other aspirations and difficulties at hand; and a successful coalition includes a minority AND a majority. Ronald Reagan was able to do that, for Republicans; Barack Obama almost did that for Democrats.

I say ‘almost” because Obama never put into words what was his actual message. He sounded the social justice t.heme in Reaganite terms, yes, and spoke it brilliantly. Yet his actual message was business prosperity — regulated business prosperity, to be sure, but prosperity in a context of civil rights and “inclusiveness.” This was not only Obama’s actual agenda. It was his donors too. Obama brought to his side business leaders from all corners of the nation; and his term saw what I call “business progressivism” successfully demand several recalcitrant States to enact civil rights protections for LGBT people, women, even for immigrants.

This was a wise policy to embrace. Who has the money, and the jobs, commands in a nation as commercial as ours : and “business progressivism” —  business with a  social conscience if you will — has at many times in our history moved the nation morally and justly forward. This was true in Alexander Hamilton’s day — the Constitution was a commercial contract with a social justice partner — and it was true of Abolition’s merchant aristocracy. It has taken almost permanent hold since the Presidency of “Ike” in the 1950s.

Business progressivism has stood for freedom, the rule of law, commerce and “rising up” ever since the recovery of commerce during the 11th Century. The pactism of medieval merchants precedented our own Constitution, its rights and its reciprocities. As we are pre-eminently a commercial nation, peopled by those who immigrated here to pursue enterprise and a better life, business with a social conscience is knitted indelibly into our nation’s quilt. We should recall that 11th Century merchants came from all kinds of social classes : serfs, slaves, knights, loners. The Constitutions of many medieval cities expressly called upon people of every condition to come into them from near or far. (that of the Catalan city of Cardona, from year 1080, is quoted in Robert Hughes’s Barcelona. Which city by the year 1180 had a written governmental pact, the first such.) They read almost exactly like the famed Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. How could it be otherwise ? Commerce has no borders  — the more people who partake of it, the more customers — and money has no pedigree. Whatever you/ look like, whoever you sleep with, whatever language you speak or religion you profess, your wallet has the same buying power.

The message of business progressivism contradicts Mr Trump at almost every turn. It opposes his hatred of immigrants. It abolishes his corruption and lies. It gives the lie to his trade wars. It is skeptical of his love affairs with dictators. It transcends religious theories and skin color division. No message more overrides that of Mr. Trump than business progressive. It is a winning agenda.

To sum up : as money talks, those who have it, or earn it, command tremendous authority in the halls of decision. In my mind, the justice that 2020 Democrats should stand for is commercial justice — and all the social inclusion and expeimentalism that that arrangement encompasses.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere





Baker two

^ localism at work : Governor baker signs Criminal Justice Reform bill, with StRep Jeffrey Sanchez behind him, StRep Sheila Harrington next, and Speaker Robert DeLeo and Attorney General Maura Healey to his right.

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Recently New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of what he called “the new localism” that he sees taking charge of the nation’s political future. (You can read Brooks’s column here : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/opinion/national-politics-localism-populism.html )

He sees correctly. It has often been true that when central governments lose their sinew, power devolves to the locality, where personal connection takes over from capital city officials. It was so in 9th Century France: after the tremendous centralizing success of Charlemagne’;s 44 year rule, a succession of ever weaker Carolingian rulers presided ever more minimally over the increasing authority of a number of local dukes and  counts. A similar localizing took place throughout Western Europe in the 6th Century, as Germanic invaders degraded, and then erased the power of the Emperor and his bureaucracy. How could it be otherwise ? People living in community, rather than singly as hermits, need to agree on some sort of common rule, with an agreed-upon authority to enforce them. Local rule means, perforce, difference : every locality sees itself from its own point of view.

We don’t live in the 6th Century or the 9th, and communication between localities, hardly possible then, is available to all today and is used by all. Nonetheless, local customs are arising upon local conversations that differ from place to place. The needs of Boston, in respect of flooding, traffic, and impossible housing prices, are not the same as the needs of, say, Charlotte in North Carolina or Chicago, St. Louis, Spokane, or Duluth in Minnesota. Nor is the population of Boston at all the same as that of these other locations. We’re very much a polyglot, immigrant city; Duluth certainly is not, nor Spokane; t.he other cities, less homogeneous but hardly major immigrant destinations. Thus each of these places, and thousands more, in today’s America, have responded to national dysfunction and gridlock by taking the power of innovation and decision into our own hands.

Nothing about Boston’s localism — so notable for its innovation, self-starting, and experimentalist conversations about every reality of Boston life — more vividly shows what we’re like than the political success of Governor Charlie Baker. He is a registered Republican and everybody. knows it; yet despite our locality’s almost universal distaste for Mr. Trump, who also claims to be a Republican, Baker is viewed favorably by at least 70 percent of voters, and by a higher percentage of Democrats than of Republicans. What is going on here ?

Granted, that Massachusetts voters vote the person, not the party; 53 percent of our voters belong to no party — a higher percentage than in any other state that registers voters according to party preference. (Not all States do that.) Yet I don’t think that Baker’s success results entirely, or even chiefly, from our voters’ independence of mind. I think it arises from our strongly local command of the conversation, the agenda, and the power of doing. We have long held the view that a Republican Governor is better able than a Democrat to referee disputes among factions of our overwhelmingly Democratic legislature; and Baker has certainly been as successful a referee as any before him. But that tradition does not account for the almost universal respect that almost every elected has for him and his priorities.

I think we’ve simply decided that we will govern our state, and manage our cities, the way we want to, without regard for the word salads cooked up in Washington and, indeed, in opposition to them. If Washington sends us lemons, we make lemonade. If it confuses us, we talk around it. If it disrupts us, we build our own eruption., If it denigrates our immigrants, or our LGBT people, or women seeking health care, or people of color, or businesses that tariffs destroy, we uplift them all, safeguard them, economically enable them. Last year at his “State of the State” speech, Governor Baker concluded by saying, “I don’t represent Washington to Massachusetts, I represent Massachusetts to Washington.” That was a strong defiance at the time; today he has gone farther still. The legislation signed .his year by him, and the taxes and fees approved, and the bond bills, have very little to do with — indeed, contradict — the economic agendas that command Republicans in Congress; and of course, none of what Baker and the legislature have done has anything to do with the odd messages tweeted by Mr. Trump.

Not everyone understands the localist movement that Baker has dominated, much less why. Several candidates, who dub themselves “progressives” or “super left” (in one case) are challenging incumbent legislators on platforms addressed more to the misdeeds and reactionary policies of Mr. Trump than on local matters.  Their messages sound oddly dissonant, given the context — as if they had wandered by mistake into the wrong conversation. The legislature of 2018 is not an arena for reshaping the national Democratic message, and one suspects that the September primary will ill reward these candidacies.

We in Massachusetts hardly realize how uncommon the Baker success is, or his partnership with a legislature overwhelmingly/ Democratic. Only Maryland has anything like it — and Maryland, like Massachusetts, is essentially a city state dominated by its major city and thus a ready candidate for dynamic localism. In most states of our nation today, partisan warfare is the rule, similar to that in Washington. I doubt that this situation can continue. Even in states sharply divided by party, localities are making policy decisions regardless of those divisions. As cities in these states — Atlanta in Georgia, Omaha in Nebraska, Salt Lake City in Utah, Minneapolis in Minnesota, Madison in Wisconsin, Columbus in Ohio, Birmingham and Lee County in Alabama, and several cities in Texas — become huge economic dynamos, local autonomy in all of them ramps up. Governor Baker will soon have imitators of his success, because there will be more and more voters who promote local politicians for local reasons that will bring back to our two major parties (and especially to the Republican party) the diversity of interests that characterized them during our long period of “union and liberty, indivisible,” as Daniel Webster once orated.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



^ locked-out gas workers, with Councillor Ed Flynn (c) and his father, former Mayor Ray Flynn (r)

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Once again, as with Verizon three years ago, we in the Boston area experience an impasse between management of a major utility and its line employees. T>his time there’s been a lockout, a management move that pre-empts a strike.What Is the problem ? Why have things reached this impasse ?Let’s take a look :

First of all, it’s hard to believe the company’s health care costs argument. It wants to pass some health care costs back to employees, costs that the company now bears. Why does it insist on this ? If costs are an issue, why can’t the company apply to the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for a rate increase ? As I see it, the company can’t burden its employees with cost sharing unless and until the PUC denies a rate increase.

Second, why is the company trying to move from its traditional Pension plan to a defined-benefit 401(k) plan for retirees ? Granted that it seeks defined-benefit plans only for new hires. Yet the firm’s existing workers are hardly mistaken to worry that their employer might seek to transfer their pension to a defined-benefit plan. This is no small worry. A defined-benefit plan limits the employer’s contribution to a specific dollar mount, whereas in a traditional pension plan the employer contribution increases as the employee’s paycheck increases. A defined-benefit plan would be a bad deal for any employee. For those still working, it shuts down the value of any pay increase they may receive. For all pension plan members, it leaves them vulnerable to inflation’s diminishing the value of the defined dollar amount. A defined-benefit plan only works in two cases : one, a firm is expecting decline; two, an employee who, as his or her pay increases, will, with a defined benefit plan, receive more money in his or her current paycheck rather than in the retirement account.

There may well be employees who prefer defined benefit’s preference for higher current paychecks; but that, in my view, is up to the employee, not the employer.

In both its health care and retirement matters,m national Grid seems to be telling us that it insists on reducing future obligations. Why so ? Does National Grid foresee declining revenues ? Declining need for employees ? If solar power and hydro energy take over,m do they compete with national Grid ? how so ? It’s still electricity. Can’t national Grid build and operate solar power f arms and hydro energy importation ? I would like to see National Grid management tell us what in their financial projections impel them to an action as drastic as a lockout.

You should read this very detailed look at the National Grid case in this article from masslive.com :


As of this writing the lockout continues. City Councils and all sorts of higher level electeds have publicly backed the workers. I find their argument the better, on all fronts. If National Grid has a counter argument that it thinks crucial, let’s hear it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere






^ Governor Baker tours new Orange line cars

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That the MBTA is renewing and improving is no longer in doubt. Bit by bit the improvements can now be seen and used. Shock and awe it has not been: advances have arrived one by one, singly, not every day or even every week: but if you take a look now at what has happened in the MBTA world these past two years especially, you’ll see a lot of fairly awesome stuff:

( a ) Green Line extension has at last begun, fully funded, from Lechmere to West Medford.

( b ) the entire MBTA has now been digitalized. You can see on the digital sign board where yhour train is and how soon it is coming. T announcements arrive via digitalized advertisements placards.

( c  ) new cars are arriving for the Orange Line and Green Line. The Red Line’s new cars will follow soon.

( d ) A Silver Line connection, from Chelsea and East Boston to the Seaport, opened up three months ago.

( e ) connection of the Blue Line to the Red Line — no simple matter — is now the subject of an organized conversation about how best to do it.

( f ) track repair and signaling upgrades continue. No part of MBTA improvement has had a harder time. Almost every part of the running system needs repair and upgrading. Billions of dollars are involved. Governor Baker has opined that it might take a decade to complete this work. That is no reason not to do it.

( g ) new work contracts have been negotiated between the Carmens’s Union and MBTA management. There was much talk about privatization, but in the end the union gave some and management gave some, and today labor issues seem solved — for now.

( h ) the Fiscal Control Board that, by legislation enacted in 2015, controls MBTA financial oversight, has put in place new safeguards against sloppy budgeting. Reform of the pension operation overseeing employees’ retirement continues.

( i ) electric buses will be operative within five years, and also buses of varying sizes.

( j ) fare collection on the Commuter Rail has been reconfigured.

( k ) non-stop Commuter Rail between Worcester and Boston is now in place.

None of this has happened easily or dramatically. There’s not much news in step by step events, at least until enough steps have been stepped that the public can finally see 1000 steps all at once. Yet it is right here, in the arena of MBTA renewal, that Governor Baker’s dogged, day after day involvement in progress at its most minute level of devil-in-the-details, that the effectiveness of his no-drama governing style merits most applause. When repairing any vast public service system, step by step always beats bull -in-a-china-shop. If Governor Baker gets called “Mister Step By Step,” I for one fully approve.

Of course much credit must also go to our legislature for giving Baker the legal tools to kick-start his T reforms.

(Disclosure: it’s no secret that I am a supporter of Governor Baker, his methods and his politics. That said, there are reasons why I support it. He has a large fan base, that likes him no matter what, but I do not consider myself a fan. My support derives from judgment. There are many matters, of high policy, in which Governor baker has taken positions that win my heart as well as my head, policy preferences, especially in the arena of civil rights, that make me proud of him. I have said as much to his top people. Yet at bottom, my support for Governor Baker is a judgement call, not a fan’s cheer. I hope that you will grant me that measure of objectivity. As a journalist, I never forget that I owe my readers calling things as I see them, no matter what.)

MBTA renewal continues. Not until all the transit lines have new cars and fully operative track and signalling will we be able to take a time out. The Red Line to Blue Line connection won’t be decided on any time soon. A link between North and South Stations remains controversial, with no resolution. Which company will eventually operate the Commuter rail remains to be decided. Too many Charlie Card machines in T stations do not work properly or lack maintenance. Signalling problems continue to delay too many T schedules. The c ars continue to lack wi-fi, and the first attempt to install it failed to win approval by the communities the T and Commuter Rail service. Most above-ground T stop shelters are not winterized at all — even the vast Wonderland and Wellington T stations lack it. The South Coast rail connection remains unbuilt. It’s terribly difficult, by bus, to go from one location to another that is cross-town rather than to or from Downtown.

It’s likely that the MBTA will always need renewal and expansion. Financing will never lose its importance. The T can never again be left for another time, or have its finances impeded by unsustainable debt impositions. Yet for now, things look pretty good. Progress has been made and is on its immediate way.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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Representing the 15th Suffolk District since 2002, Jeffrey Sanchez seeks a ninth term in the Massachusetts House.

His is no ordinary incumbency. During the last House session he was named Chairman of the House’s Ways and Means committee, succeeding Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, who resigned his seat after many terms. The Chairman of Ways and Means directs the House’s annual state Budget proposal: a $ 41 billion behemoth allocating monies to literally dozens of agencies and departments. Many observers consider the Budget chief second in power only to the Speaker; and he or she who holds the position is prominently regarded as a future Speaker him or herself.

The idea of a city-resident Latino — Sanchez is of Porto Rican ancestry — becoming Speaker of the House has given Sanchez unique prominence in State and City politics. Nor is he a newcomer. His mom, the legendary Maria Sanchez, has been an influential activist in Mission Hill affairs since the 1970s. Even today, at Mission Housing Project events she draws as many people to her side as her famous son. Jeffrey Sanchez has all of that support as well, and his mother sees to it; and he has, by his rise to the top ranks of State House powers, acquired the support of all kinds of Mission Hill and Hyde Square (Jamaica Plain) activists. At least 200 of them attended his campaign kickoff in March at the Puddingstone Tavern.

You might suppose, in such case, that Sanchez would not have an opponent for re-election: but an opponent he has, and she is not insignificant. Nika Elugardo served on the staff of State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and thus has her own following of activists.

That said, there seems no comparison between the two, at least in fund raising. Sanchez’s most recent OCPF report shows he has $ 80,755.83; Elugardo has $ 16,866.37. The question thus arises : why is Sanchez being challenged by a candidate who has a measure of credibility, and what is her campaign about ? It would certainly seem that the voters of Sanchez’s city district (it includes one precinct of Brookline but is otherwise entirely a Boston district, including all of Mission Hill, the higher-income side of Jamiaca Plain, the power neighborhood known as “Moss Hill,” and three Jamaica Plain-ish precincts in Roslindale) would be mighty glad to have the House Budget chief as their State House voice.

Alas, the answer to my question is exactly what one might suppose : Elugardo asks voters to see Sanchez as part of an “establishment” that practices compromise where her voters want insurgency. We see this bifurcation elsewhere in this year’s primary season. Next door to Sanchez, Representative Liz Malia, a pragmatic reformer in the House even longer than Sanchez, faces Ture Richard Turnbull, who has for many years been the leading Massachusetts advocate for single-payer health insurance. A similar dichotomy pits City Councillor Ayanna Pressley — a very effective councilor at that — against Congressman Mike Capuano, who will be a committee chairman if Democrats take control of Congress this November. (Disclosure : I know and admire both Capuano and Pressley.)

There isn’t much in these challenges that we haven’t seen before. Age against youth, establishment and insurgent, long in office versus time for someone new — these are campaign themes you and I have heard from as long as we’ve been alive and sentient. Yet the journalist in me, as the voter in you, needs to ask, why should we replace an elected who is effective, and slated to become more so ? What can a replacement offer that the elected one cannot offer better ? In Sanchez’s case, especially, I see no convincing answer, no matter the enthusiasm of Elugardo, or her supporters’ very just aspirations, or her own argument that structural injustice is a serious problem. It is a serious problem; but how would defeating Sanchez alleviate it ? As I see it, promoting Sanchez further alleviates it more than defeating him ever could.

I’ve thought a lot about the significance of Jeffrey Sanchez as House Budget chief. My thinking is this : we’re on the verge of finishing the most productive legislative session I have seen in my adult lifetime. Prudent, forward looking reform has taken place in almost every policy domain, and a lot of that reform has been Sanchez’s doing. Governor Baker goes around the state awarding Skills Capital grants, ground breaking at workforce housing and affordable housing developments, announcing the renovation of university building and court houses, proclaiming hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to education at all levels. The money he announces doesn’t come from a magic wand. It comes largely from the prudent, forward looking reform knotted together by city-guy Sanchez and his Budget committee. I think the voters of his District — many of whom I met at his recent backyard fundraiser at the home of Jaime Rodriguez, an old friend — rise high above structural injustice on the strength of having as their State House voice the man whose Budget work improves life all across Massachusetts.

One last assertion : we are very, very lucky in Massachusetts to have consensus government, well across partisan divisions, by which all manner of reform has been legislated this year by votes unanimous or almost. From automatic voter registration and criminal; justice reform to gun-regulations and the transgender public accommodations civil rights bill, and from a $ 1.8 billion dollar housing bond bill to a $ 2.2 billion dollar education bond bill, and the extension of the Green Line to new cars on the Orange Line, and via the grand bargain bill which instituted a $ 15/hour minimum age and paid family leave, we enjoy almost an embarrassment of effective practical reform. Idealists did not get all that they wanted; but almost every activist got something. Which is how actual good government works.

If incumbent legislators ever deserved re-election, this is the time to reward a job incredibly well done.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ the nominee and the controversial President who nominated him

—- —- —-

Our nation is politically unready to handle a Supreme Court nomination, but that’s what we have. So what do we do about it ?

There WILL be hearings. There WILL be a vote. The likelihood is that Kavanaugh will be confirmed. There will also be political consequences, none of them helpful. Should the vote be put off ? I don’t see how that would do any less political damage. He has been nominated by a President whose performance is grievously suspect and whose very fitness for office looks well beyond the pale of acceptable. Mr. Trump has aroused the worst of our politics, a typhoon of anger and a backlash of outrage. In this climate even a fully Constitutional act — and a Supreme Court nomination is all of that — struggles for basic acceptance.

A nomination to the Supreme Court should not about politics. It wasn’t always this way. The only unavoidable political component is that presidents try to nominate someone who will judge Constitutional issues the way he or she would like. Other than  that,  politics should be left aside when confirmation is the question.

Unhappily, my view is at present not how nominations are treated. The Kavanaugh hearings will be long and loud, dominated by Senators grandstanding their partisan views of the Court, asking questions either to destroy the nominee or to pamper him. Few, if any, are the Senators who will actually try to assess Kavanugh’s suitability for confirmation; and even these Senators will only appear to assess, doing so because their constituents are about evenly. divided, and they, the Senators, hope not to be judged by. how they decide on the nomination.

Heroes there are none in this demeaning show of buncombe and blather.

I would like to offer you, my readers, an informed opinion of Judge Kavanugh’s suitability: but how many of you care ? How many of you want to assess him on the facts rather than his political effects ? Perhaps in a future column i will assess him. I’ve read several of his opinions in actual cases and read the facts of those cases besides. There is a story there. How many of you want to hear it ?

In Louis Brandeis’s time, 100 years ago, nominees rarely testified at the Senate. (John Marshall Harlan, Sr. was the first to do so, in 1877.) They did not campaign for the job. Their friends did that, and their opponents opposed. Qualifications and legal honor were the issues in Brandeis’s long confirmation battle. This battle was then a rarity. (Brandeis was Jewish, and while never said, that was the big big issue.)  Few nominees faced any kind of opposition. Nominations weren’t a big deal.  Nominees were confirmed as quickly as two days after nomination, most by unanimous vote.

All sorts of lawyers ended up on the High Court, from diverse work backgrounds. Not so today.

Much reform is needed if the High Court is to revert to at least approximating its original design: appointments for life in order to insulate the Justices from any kind of political input, much less retribution. I would suggest the following, knowing full well that my suggestions have scant chance of adoption in the current shape of Court nominations :

( 1 ) nominate people who have not spent their entire legal careers as judges. Choose electeds, corporate lawyers, union lawyers, public defenders, prosecutors, law school professors.

( 2 ) refrain from having nominees testify personally at hearings where they will be asked unanswerable questions, and questions improper to answer, whose purpose is to embarrass the nominee or worse

( 3 ) make it clear that the “advise and consent” clause of Article II, by which the Senate is given the power to confirm or reject Presidential nominees to office, includes the implied phrase “which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld,” so that the bad faith move made in 2016 by Senator McConnell — refusing to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee — can never again happen.

( 4 ) establish a custom that, whatever the background of a nominee, the next nominee cannot be of the same. For example, Judge Kavanaugh is a Federal judge. Under my suggestion, the next nominee cannot be a Federal judge, or even not a judge at all. And let the next nominee after that be of a different background than the prior two.

( 5 ) look less to a nominee’s legal philosophy than to his or her record of innovation and ad hoc advocacy. I am skeptical of all legal philosophies, knowing, as Justice Holmes so well wrote, “the ;life of the law is not logic, it is experience.” The law is far better served by common sense than by ideological commitments. The Constitution was an experiment; nothing like it had ever been tried except at the municipal level. It should be treated as an experiment now : an attempt to provide rules for promoting the General Welfare. The Constitution’s precepts seemed to those who ratified it to work better than any alternatives. “Work better” does not mean work perfectly. We should not expect interpretations of the Constitution to rise to exactitude.

As I have written before, the most fateful decision made by the Framers was to have a written Constitution. Other nations have accepted an unwritten one. Unwritten constitutions are freer to be flexible, to meet exigencies. Written ones tend inevitably to a conservatism arising from being written more than from what the present disputes require. But a written Constitution is what we have. The last thing Justices should do is to add an extra layer of conservatism to the conservation arising from it being written.

Let these my suggestions and this my argument infuse the future of our actual Supreme Court nominations and purposes.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




Maritime Festival

In East Boston, my family’s home town, there’s a citizens’ action association, dedicated to all things ocean, that bears the name “The Harborkeepers.” The picture above announces one of the many Harborkeepers events that have changed entirely the conversation many are having about what climate change will do to the ocean and the shores that border it. Whatever people may have thought about the ocean 100 years ago, or fifty, or even twenty, today the objective is to get comfortable with  — knowledgeable about — the ocean as a friend who is also an opponent.

If that sounds like paradox, it is so intended. Much in life is paradoxical. T>he ocean beckons; it also destroys. Water is not shy. It goes where it has access to go. It doesn’t care about your feelings, your heirlooms, your garage, your mattresses. At the same time, the ocean exudes great beauty at so many levels and offers opportunity for co operation — as any sailor knows. The great storms of literature — from the ominous calms and mad bursts in Moby Dick and the near capsizing in  Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus : or from the fatal horror in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm to the futile seductions in Homer’s Odyssey — all show communities of human beings overwhelmed by, or brought to the edge of fate by, the ocean unruly — human beings forced to humility, driven to co operate, taught their limitations, by the weakness of wood and cloth, the faith that takes us into the ocean’s carnivorous mouth in such flimsy devices, as if we were a team of Daniels against the lion or one hundred Jonahs inside the whale. To be sure, meeting the ocean involves the entire community. We saw it this winter and Spring as storm flooding inundated many low-lying homes and garages along Marginal Street.

That’s why The Harborkeepers directs its events at the entire community.

The ocean also requires an individual response. We can’t always rel;y on having community back up. Venture onto the ocean, and you are on your own. Just you and the sea, as in Ernest Hemingway’s great novel. Or when the sea ventures onto you, as it does in flood mode.

Each of us needs to prepare himself or herself on what to do — and what to know — about the sea that abuts us. You can’t learn to sail without learning about weather and the sea’s moods and behaviors. This, every kid growing up in a working port,. or near a working harbor, learns early, the way one learns a language : best and most naturally when young. That hasn’t been true, however,m of Boston’s sea-bounded neighborhoods. Ships brought immigrants here, but it did not bring them to sail. East Boston was not a place where anyone other than those who worked on ships or at marinas had anything to do with the Harbor except to dive into it from rotting piers. Most East Bostonians — including all in my family — fixed on Boston itself, across the harbor, and the jobs they could get over that side and beyond.

They could take that tack because in 1900, 1920, 19040, even 1970, the sea was no threat to anything. Today it is a threat. And so we learn first of all how to swim. Mastering that, we often proceed to learn how to sail.

There’s much more to sailing than you might think. You learn about boats, rudders, keels, sails, halyards, helms. You learn charts — of what’s out there and what;s underneath your boat. You learn ship to shore radio, LORAN, life jackets (of several types), horns, whistles and their uses; you learn what to do in a capsize or man overboard. You learn how to plot a course, and how to recognize buoys and channel markers — rules of the road, so to speak. You learn weather. You learn about various harbors and what sorts of facilities you’ll find there : supply marinas, restaurants, comfort stations, diesel fuel fill-ups.

All of t.his you learn individually. You may have crew aboard with you, but it’s not required. many people sail alone. You need to learn to do it, confidently. I’ve been in a small sailboat in a thunderstorm. It’s as frightening as you imagine. What should you do in such a situation ? You had better know BEFORE it happens. On the sea the weather can change on a dime, with little warning. Fog brings its own huge difficulties. Sounds bend in the fog. You may hear a ship’s horn thinking one direction when actually it has come from quite another.

The community can encourage you and advise you, but only you can learn the sea. It really is just it and you. The same is true when t.he sea comes at you in a flood. Today the sea invades East Boston only at storm time, but the year is coming — soon — when seas will live in your house. What will you do to turn nit aside ? Berms, raised foundations, sluice channels, even floating houses — Holland has them — demand one’s attention. This is where The Harborkeepers has offered concepts and urged conversations in which no idea is too outlandish to be discussed. We are going to have to be sailors, soon, even when we’ve not gone out to sea, because the sea has come to us; and having come to us, we the sailors it has sought will need to know all there is in a sailing course that the ordinary sport sailor learns. You’ll see what I mean pretty darn soon if you haven’t seen it already.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere






Who would have ever expected that civility in political participation would become a matter of debate ? Yet this is where we are in a nation where many political people are fast losing — have already lost — their composure.

It is easy to blame the President for what has happened. That would be a mistake. The current incivility began during President Obama’s years. It reached a fever pitch there, both from his opposition, which refused him even basic legitimacy, and from Congress, which refused to work with him on anything significant. The reforms that Obama and his party achieved were enacted with zero Republican support. Republicans not only shunned Obama’s policy moves, regardless of their utility, they did everything they could to repeal them once enacted. Then came the gravest move of all, Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to accord Obama’s Supreme Court nominee the “advice and consent” predicated in the Constitution.

Here is the language that McConnell spat upon:

“He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law…”

McConnell decided that the grant of consent power to the Senate gave the senate authority to refuse to even entertain a nomination. I doubt that is how any normal person would read that language. The list of appointments to which consent applies is a long one. If the Senate had the power, by the grant of consent, to deny consent to all of that list the Presidency could not operate. By what argument could McConnell assert that Article 2, Clause 2 vests in the Senate a power to prevent the Executive from operating ? Common sense reads the consent language as including an implied phrase ” which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.” One sees this language in contracts and Leases drafted today. It’s there precisely to avoid the bad faith consequence that McConnell applied because of its absence in Article 2, Clause 2.

McConnell’s move broke the Constitution. It is unlikely that the “advise and consent” clause of it will ever recover. This was an act of gross incivility. None of the anger that it aroused went beyond the incivility of McConnell’s destructive act.

McConnell crossed a Constitutional Rubicon. (the phrase comes from Caesar’s bringing a field army into Roman territory, in contravention of the Republic’s firm policy, by crossing the Rubicon River, in northern Italy, that served as the Roman Republic’s northern boundary.) The anger of activists over McConnell’s act was fully justified.

Caesar’s act initiated a generation of civil war in Rome in which thousands of activists died or were judicially murdered, the Republic was destroyed, and a dictatorship ensued. (a benign dictatorship, to be sure, thanks to the political wisdom  and caution of Octavian Augustus, but a dictatorship nonetheless.) Might something of the same soon befall our nation ? We’re well on the way. We don’t have actual civil war — yet — but the anger and intimidations, threats, conspiracy hallucinations, radical utopianisms, and downright race, anti-immigrant, and gender bigotries brick-batting every square inch of social media — not to mention flash points in the brick and mortar world — are dragging the rest of us into an arena we justifiably don’t want to die or be tortured in.

The Red Hen restaurant flap; the vitriol spoken by Congresswoman Maxine waters — and thrown back at her even more criminally; the harassment of DHS executives in a Washington restaurant; the constant foulness voiced by unhinged followers of Mr. Trump; the almost daily barrage of mass shootings by disgruntled jerks; the criminal, frightening, warrant-less, unConstitutional actions of DHS and the ICE, occurring daily and in many, many locations — all of these and more have shoved civility aside and taken us to the brink. The tearing apart of migrant and asylum-seeking families at our borders, and resultant incarceration of kids and parents — much of it in for profit prisons and tent camps, and paid for by transport companies given no-bid, multi-million dollar contracts — has created an entire industry of persecution. Scant wonder that citizens are angry, are losing their civil habits.

I see no good outcome for this torrent of anger, this combat of shout versus shout. You can’t shout a person into agreeing with you, can’t intimidate her into discussing anything with you. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” Ben Franklin.

Assuming that the wise reform policies of mainstream Democrats and a few Republicans deserve to become law — and I do assume it, what is the best course for achieving such an outcome ? You know t.he drill : vote. Organize, persuade, urge ordinary citizens to vote common sense. Do not shout. Do not talk At people. Listen TO them. Maybe you will learn something ! Listen to everyone; find policy suggestions that most of those you talk with can buy into. We do it here in Massachusetts,. where our electeds, of many policy persuasions, negotiate with one another and enact compromise legislation that advances a just and workable state. If we can do it here, in State, we can do it nationally.

Of course the nation is not like a State. Our Federal set up is infinitely complicated. It encompasses 55 jurisdictions: states, territories, the District of Columbia, Congress. To govern it, compromise and consensus are required. The Constitution itself was a compromise. (Today many utopians decry the Constitution for countenancing slavery, as if the Civil War and its aftermath did not correct that acceptance; as if progress is somehow illegitimate because its predecessor accommodated injustices.) Almost every legislative reform we live with was a compromise, a result of many discrete factions agreeing on what they could agree about.That is how civic progress is achieved. As the great Athenian lawmaker Solon (from whose name we now call legislators “Solons”)  is reputed to have answered when he was asked, “Did you give the Athenians the best laws ? “No,” he responded, “I gave them the best laws they would accept.”

The radicalism of Mr. Trump AND the opposite radicalism of his angriest political opponents are themselves a kind of incivility. With good and solid reasons, Ted Kennedy said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” updating Voltaire’s aphorism Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Both Voltaire and Kennedy understood that perfection is lethal to human beings and that seeking it is inimical to progress. Voltaire had seen the persecutions and illiberalisms that religious perfectionists imposed on his country (and to avoid which he had to go ito exile in Ferney, Switzerland, outside Geneva.) Ted Kennedy, who achieved so much reform, knew, too, that no progress would have resulted had he refused to yield to opponents.

We live these days in an arena of clashing insistences. What are we to do about it ? All around us is noise and inflammation.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere