Thursday, March 22, 2012

Meanwhile, In Massachusetts State Government... March 22, 2012

So I am thinking of introducing another semi-regular feature. Quite frequently I see a little blurb about something going on in State govt that might prompt a Tweet or a Facebook post, but isn't worth a whole blog entry. I am thinking I might start collecting those for aggregated publication once a week (more or less). So here it is, the inaugural edition of "Meanwhile, In Massachusetts State Government..." (all blurbs are from the invaluable State House News Service unless otherwise noted):

We're Number One!

A bill raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour unanimously cleared a legislative committee this week, creating the possibility of a vote in the Senate on the first minimum wage hike in four years that would give Massachusetts the highest rate in the country...
Business groups warn that raising the minimum wage at this time would cripple efforts to stimulate job growth, hurting the prospects of adding jobs for teenagers this summer and putting small businesses at an even greater disadvantage to other states and online businesses.
"It's too aggressive and at the wrong time. Right now we need to be focusing on growing jobs and growing payroll not encouraging employers to reduce payroll by hiring less people and reducing hours," said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Hey, we're already falling behind our competitor states. Why not pick up the pace? Today, number one in minimum wage. Tomorrow, number one in job losses? The cellar is the limit.

Too big not to fail.

The commission reviewing the state's $26 billion tax expenditure budget is unlikely to recommend the elimination of specific tax breaks when it issues its final report in April, instead hinting at a longer process for reforming a menu of tax credits, breaks and deductions that the panel has concluded is "too complicated, too big." 
"I think it's unlikely," Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said, commenting on the likelihood that the commission will render judgments on individual tax exemptions, credits, rebates and other tax code carve-outs added to the state's statutes over the years.
"What we did discuss is making a recommendation around the fact that the tax expenditure budget is probably too big and should be reduced both in size and amount, and maybe some recommendations around approaches or criteria or areas that the Legislature and governor should consider for the purposes of going about that," Gonzalez told the News Service....
The commission, which has been meeting since October, has five more meetings scheduled before it is scheduled to vote to approve a final report on April 23. A draft report will be distributed to commission members on Friday, April 13 for review...
The commission spent much of its meeting Tuesday debating how best to organize the long list of tax expenditures into categories that would allow policy makers and the public to easily understand how the state is using its tax code.
"The work we talked about today to better articulate what the purpose of each one is and what the metrics for measuring effectiveness are is a helpful component to assessing and evaluating whether we should keep them or not, and the level of work involved in that is beyond the scope of this commission. This commission can't do that, so there's a little bit of a chicken and an egg," Gonzalez said.
I don't know why that last bit makes me giggle, but it makes me giggle. This commission has been meeting since October, and so far it has managed... to categorize existing tax breaks and decide that specific recommendations pertaining to individual breaks is just too big a task to be undertaken. Classic government efficiency at work.

What could possibly go wrong?

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to “pre-register” to vote under a package of election law changes that a Beacon Hill committee is preparing to advance Wednesday, according to a person briefed on the proposal’s contents.

By all means, let's register people to vote who aren't actually legally eligible to vote! What could possibly go wrong? Just another step in the long effort to make voting as effortless as possible - devaluing the franchise a little bit more every year.

Who speaks for the trees?

"Ticket please!"
A legislative committee voted Tuesday to delay consideration of bills to restrict paperless ticketing – a strategy employed by the Red Sox to preserve low-cost tickets for families but one critics say limits consumer freedom. The Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure voted Tuesday for an indefinite extension to consider the bill (H 1893), sponsored by Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton).
What-the-huh now? We need to protect consumers' freedom to... have paper tickets?

One step forward, 4 steps back.

In the wake of criticism over the cost to ratepayers of long-term energy contracts signed by National Grid and NStar to purchase power from Cape Wind, a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday endorsed a bill that would introduce competitive bidding to the renewable energy marketplace while more than doubling the amount of renewably energy utilities must purchase.
Honest to God. With all of the bad press piling up to the front, back, left and right of the so-called "green initiatives" that already exist (at both the state and federal levels), these folks think now is the time to double-down. These people aren't legislating in the real world - they are on a vision quest.

Getting a taste of the un-real world.

Gov. Deval Patrick called on local businesses Monday to ramp up internship offerings, saying such programs can help retain young workers in the state. "We need to retain more of the talent who come here for school and we can do it by exposing people to internships," Patrick said to a crowd of business executives at a speech sponsored by the Boston Chamber of Commerce and held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Just back from his vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Patrick said one of the ways government is encouraging businesses to help retain students and graduates in the state is through internships in state-funded areas like life sciences and the green sector. "Everybody wins. Students get a practical opportunity to apply their skills and get a taste of what the real job market is like. [Businesses] have an opportunity to build your talent pipeline and we all of us together have an opportunity to make the Commonwealth stronger," Patrick said.
 Hey, I'm all for the value of internships, though I'd imagine the interns who are needed get a better experience than those who are, you know, mandated. But the Governor's choice of example is amusing. State-mandated internships in "state-funded areas like life sciences and the green sector" may get many things (including a subsequent state-funded job), but they most certainly do not get "a taste of what the real job market is like."

But we were doing great when I left for vacation!

Speaking of the real job market...
Patrick repeated his frequent talking points about the state's job growth climate ranking highly compared to other states, not addressing new federal labor data showing Massachusetts tied for 40th in job creation in 2011.
Clearly the Gov hadn't yet received his post-vacation briefing.

Nearly $80 million* in savings!

More than 125 cities, towns and school districts in Massachusetts have taken steps to adopt municipal health insurance reform options made available under a 2011 law or recently used collective bargaining to shave health care costs, according to an update on the law, which estimates savings to date have reached $80 million.

The two-page update from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation predicts savings are "certain" to exceed the $100 million per year estimate frequently mentioned by proponents of the law prior to its passage last year.

Only four communities - Brockton, Easton, Kingston and West Springfield - have voted against adopting the reform law, while 94 municipalities and school districts have voted to adopt it.

The law was approved last year after tense deliberations over its impact on collective bargaining. The final law, intended to secure savings in part by shifting new costs to employees, included provisions that allow employees to share in any savings. The update estimates employees in communities where health plan changes are being made will save $35 million of the roughly $80 million in savings through premium reductions or "mitigation plans."

The report says 50 municipalities and school districts have reached agreements to make health plan changes, saving $50 million, without needing to turn to an outside review panel authorized under the reform law.

The estimated savings include $30 million not directly linked to the law but achieved by a dozen communities through collective bargaining changes made between January 2011 and July 2011, when the law was signed.
That sounds awesome. And if any significant amount of money is being saved by operation of the watered-down muni reforms passed last year, all to the good. But what the MTF is doing here is purporting to substantiate predictions in a way that cannot stand up to even a little bit of skeptical examination:  $80M in savings have supposedly already been realized as a result of the ballyhooed muni health insurance reforms. Of that $80M, $35M is accounted for by the "sharing" provision, which was tacked on at the tail end of legislative negotiations as a way to transfer "savings" away from cities and town to the unions. So from the perspective of the cities and towns (and their taxpayers), $80M pretty quickly becomes $45M. Then there's this: "The estimated savings include $30 million not directly linked to the law but achieved by a dozen communities through collective bargaining changes made between January 2011 and July 2011, when the law was signed." So $30M in "savings" are credited to the law... but were achieved before the law was even signed. And now $80M has dropped to $15M. Despite that rather radical reduction, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (which everyone knows is a non-partisan business-advocacy group and not at all a decidedly left-leaning group of active Democratic donors that just happens to be the media's favorite "watchdog") concludes that savings are "certain" to exceed the $100M per year estimate that bill supporters trumpeted during debate. Passing strange.

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