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Grace Ross: Mass Laws 2012: the good, the bad and the ugly

Tuesday, August 07, 2012


Has this year’s Massachusetts legislation just become sort of emblematic of the times?

Most of the folks who are honest know that we are still in the worst economy of most of our lifetimes. Clearly, we would need significant economic policy changes to shift the situation. If you’re really going to lead as an elected official you’d have to take genuinely significant steps. You’d have to be persuasive both with facts (how often do we hear accurate facts out of an elected’s mouth these days?) and with passion for what it takes to rebuild a civic society. We have a number of folks who strive for this in our state legislature – the laws passed this session occlude the effort they expended.

The only other alternative for electeds is to run on either overblown promises – like the snake oil sellers during the frontier days, or worse: prove that you beat somebody else up who was weaker than you, ideally weaker than most voters. If you can’t find within yourself to actually improve peoples’ lives then, what? Make somebody feel better about somebody else having been given even a worse deal than they got?

Legislative Successes

So here’s a quick overview of the “success” of the legislative session that just ended. It’s a particularly disheartening list given some of the present legislative leaders - I would consider some to be among the best legislative leaders we’ve had in my 27 years of policy work. Also, any number of rank and file legislators who get elected because they have a passion for something burning in their hearts – before they’ve gotten too tangled up in just raising money for the next election, they’re still trying to stand for things.

Here’s the scorecard as I see it.

The big bills about the big important issues in our lives would be on the foreclosure crisis, the cost and quality of healthcare, and jobs. (My three focuses because they have to be shifted in order to change our economy). The promise from the snake oil salesman for the foreclosure bill?  "It is going to stop 100,000 foreclosures". The healthcare reform bill, the wildest claim? That it’s going to save $20 billion per year. And the jobs bill? Well, no one seems to even know how many jobs the jobs bill is suppose to create, but apparently it’s going to have a ‘big effect’.

The Foreclosure Bill

Here’s the reality: the foreclosure legislation. While it put in an important new protection from foreclosure, it’s going to be one that’s very hard for people to access; at the same time, it took away one of the oldest protections that homeowners should have been able to access in recent years. The entire number of foreclosures projected for Massachusetts for the next roughly 10 years before this crisis ends is 100,000 total.

The Governor signed the bill on Friday; if it’s supposed to stop the claimed 100,000 foreclosures, then starting today you and I, my friend, would see no more foreclosures going forward. Really?

Healthcare Reform

Look at the healthcare payment reform bill. The healthcare bill, like the foreclosure bill, started out with some interesting concepts about how we would save money. A key factor in the cost of healthcare seems to be whether the culture of billing for healthcare is on a fee for service basis (doctors, hospitals, and insurers make more money the fancier the services billed for), versus systems where, for instance, the doctors are paid a set salary and work as teams providing total healthcare for a complete human being. Preventative care, for instance, is not where the big fancy dollars are made; thus, you’d have to change the entire economic balance to value increasing health as opposed to charging for the most expensive last minute interventions for those already really sick.

A shift in the entire ethic of the delivery of care was the idea behind the payment reform bill, but it narrowed down to what the government can reach for. While our state government actually has a hand in the healthcare of over a quarter of the people of Massachusetts, that’s not generally considered enough to shift the entire healthcare culture. In any one industry they say you need about 35% of a market to change how an entire field functions economically. The claim of $20 billion in savings according to advocates following the financial costs of healthcare would mean that essentially no one in the state would pay another cent for all of that over one quarter of Massachusetts residents it helps cover. That’s nonsensical. What they should have made clear was they are projecting a $20 billion smaller increase in the future than has recently been projected- so it’s not savings yet at all.

The Jobs Bill

The jobs bill was not that expensive but it promises no job creation. It also includes a sales tax holiday. Those have been shown not to ensure a significant financial boost on even the retail industry, but it’s actually quite costly in the amount of tax dollars that we lose. Contrary to present day myths, tax cuts do not in general create jobs. The bill will try to fund internships and provide more job training in particular fields they think are strong fields in Massachusetts already.

Some of the key jobs bill provisions may lack the funding to make them happen. One requires bonding some money to pay for internships. Well, the state is sitting on some $16 billion in authorized bond money that they’ve been unwilling to borrow even though that money is directly related to job creation. They say they don’t want to have more debt. Even though at this point the state can borrow money for essentially zero interest. How then is authorizing more borrowing likely to become a reality?

So the big promises behind the big bills were not real.

No Delivery on Smaller Bills Either

How about some of the small bills? Let’s say we expanded the bottle bill – just requiring a deposit on bottles not now covered. This type of legislation has proven successful for every type of bottle that’s been covered for over a decade. It would bring in some revenue for recycling at the state level, decrease the cost to municipalities for paying for all the trash, and guess what? Help the environment. Turns out that having a deposit on a bottle vastly increases the chances that it’s going to be recycled. It’s a little bit of a charge to the bottling industry, but shouldn’t they too want a decent environment and we all live to buy another bottle another day? It got stripped after significant support and work. At least we could have created some environmental health and savings for our municipalities.

Similarly, it looked like we were going to get pre-registration for 16 and 17 years old to vote. The bill did not change the age by which you’re allowed to vote,; it does guarantee that we can still reach students in high school and hook them into the concept of democracy and engagement that they’re most likely to keep engaged the rest of their lives. That bill would not have cost the state anything really, but it would mean that we might have more democracy. It did not get taken up for a final vote. Maybe the problem is some folks don’t want more democracy.

In terms of foreclosures, we had tried to get pre foreclosure mediation that’s been proven to work in over 23 jurisdictions and in all the other New England states, but that got stripped.

One Real Win

The one real win – a big jobs bill – is that childcare workers can now legally unionize. That will actually stabilize their work and incomes. Turns out that it’s the folks at the bottom of the economy whose livelihoods and incomes were first slowly disintegrated and stripped – fast on the heels of which the same happened to the middle class. So reversing that trend is likely to be the biggest gift of this legislature.

Congratulations to the 43,000 who might actually begin to stabilize the bottom of our economic system in the state and have a ripple up effect.

The negative side of this legislative session?

There are some legislators who figured if you can’t run and win on something good, then maybe you can run on blaming somebody for everybody else’s misfortune – even if it is not true. They figured if you legislatively beat those up already struggling the most that will make you re-electable. They managed to beat up on immigrants, welfare recipients (whose income is a truly tiny part of our state budget), and those who have served their time and rehabilitated themselves to the best of their own abilities in a penal system that no longer puts much resources into that.
Yep, we’ve managed to beat up on those three populations – like policies that are hard on tiny percentages of our state residents are going to in any way address the sweeping dynamics that underlie even our state’s part of a world economic downturn.


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