"Hello, this is Barack Obama of Somerville"

In case you missed it … this was pretty sweet:

“Ya done good, Deval.” Yeah, pretty much. (Watch the Gov blush.)

Today in "even worse ideas": a special state lottery game to fund the Olympics

To be clear, this is only an idea and has not been formally proposed by anyone.  Still….

One of the options that the movers and shakers behind Boston 2024 have explored is their very own game run by the Lottery, which typically funnels money only to cities and towns. Though both sides say the talks were preliminary and led nowhere, the door has been left open just the slightest to revisit the issue….

[Said Boston 2024 executive vice president Erin Murphy-Rafferty:] “Our financial team conducted some very preliminary due diligence on the lottery ticket programs used by our local sports teams but chose not to pursue this any further with the Massachusetts Lottery.”

But they could pursue it with the Legislature, which [State Lottery Commission Beth] Bresnahan said they would need to do [because at present state law requires that all net lottery proceeds go to local aid]…. State Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley is House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, the committee that hears most bills related to the Lottery. Scibak said there would probably be resistance from cities and towns to watering down local aid funds but he said the possibility of a dedicated Olympic ticket was intriguing.

Oy.  Let’s just rattle off a couple of the ways in which this is a truly awful idea.

  • The Lottery, as problematic as it is, funds local aid to cities and towns.  If you drop a new, high-profile game into the mix whose proceeds go to fund the Olympics instead, that will almost certainly siphon off money that otherwise would have gone to paying firefighters and schoolteachers.
  • Lottery tickets are purchased overwhelmingly by people with relatively low income.  Yes, it’s voluntary, but the fact remains that if a lottery ticket is dedicated to funding the Olympics, then that portion of Olympic funding will be coming directly from the people who can least afford it.  That’s a far cry from the promises we’ve consistently heard from Boston 2024, which is that all the operating costs will be covered by corporations etc.
  • It’s impossible to precisely estimate how much revenue this would generate.  So if it’s part of the budget and doesn’t meet projections, someone else has to pick up the tab.

Please, someone, put this idea out of its misery before it gains any traction.

Wonk Post: 2016 Democratic Presidential Preference - Early Polling

Reality check. - promoted by david

From HuffPollster:

Clinton leads among Democrats - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic side, with just over 60 percent support when Democrats are prompted for their choice on the McClatchy/Marist and Fox News polls, and just under 50 percent on Monmouth’s open-ended question. Although Clinton’s dominance made it easier for Democrats to name a choice without prompting, nearly 40 percent were still unable to volunteer a preference.

'Our Policy of Isolation has Failed'-President Obama Normalizes Relations with Cuba

"This is a big f$%&ing deal." --Joe Biden, probably. - promoted by david

This is the biggest story in diplomacy since President Nixon came back from China. Our longtime policy of isolating the Castro regime has failed, not only to depose that regime, but to turn the Cuban people towards the United States. It has also failed Cuba-the lack of foreign investment has forced it to rely on handouts from client states, which have grown few and far between. The Russians pulled out after the Wall came down, the Chinese have a soft presence since the market is no longer lucrative, and Venezuela is undergoing an economic crisis due to globally low gas prices.

President Castro and President Obama, with an assist apparently from Pope Francis, have concluded 18 months of high level and surprisingly secret talks to exchange prisoners, exchange spies, free high level political prisoners important to the exile community, and gradually begin restoring relations. We will be re-opening our embassy and phasing out the sanctions the Executive Branch has authority to eliminate- mainly restrictions on remittance, travel allowances, and what goods you can bring back. A full embargo must be ended by Congress, but Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is already sponsoring a bill to do so along with Pat Lehay (D-VT).

The President in the boldest and most visionary stroke of diplomacy in his presidency, has begun the process of opening up full relations to Cuba. Only a moron like Marco Rubio, or a morally bankrupty opportunist like Robert Mendendez, would say something so un-patriotic that exposing the Cuban people to American culture, American democratic norms, and American consumer goods will somehow embolden the Castro regime. This is a diplomatic master stroke.

Heads up! BRA wants to extend its ability to exercise eminent domain for pretty much any reason

Fascinating story in the Globe today:

[Mayor Marty Walsh's] administration is seeking state approval to extend 15 of the city’s 18 urban renewal districts for another decade, allowing the BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] to use eminent domain powers, tax breaks, and other tools to shape development…. [I]t will seek to preserve urban renewal powers in 15 areas stretching from Charlestown to the Fenway, and to parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. Overall, the districts cover about 3,000 acres, or about 10 percent of the city.

Now, why is this important?  After all, you say, doesn’t the city already have the power to exercise eminent domain, offer tax breaks, etc.?  Well, yes and no.  I don’t claim to know all the ins and outs of these matters, but I do know something about the eminent domain piece.

As you probably know, both the state and federal constitutions permit government to take private property by eminent domain, as long as the taking is accomplished for “public use.”  In the (in)famous 2005 decision of Kelo v. New London, the US Supreme Court decided that the US Constitution does not prevent a city from taking private property, even if that property is in good condition (i.e., not “blighted”), not because it needs the property for a road or a post office or some other traditional “public use,” but simply because it thinks that a different private owner would make more economically beneficial use of the property – a so-called “economic development taking.”  There has of course been a lot of fallout from Kelo, including several posts here at BMG.  You can give yourself a refresher here, here, here, and here.

For present purposes, the important thing to realize is that, unlike the US Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has never authorized a pure “economic development taking” under the Massachusetts Constitution.  As I explained a while ago,

at least in Massachusetts, the law has long been that (to quote a 1955 Opinion of the Justices) “the expectation that adjacent areas and the city as a whole will benefit through the increase of taxable property and of values [is only an] indirect public benefit [that] has never been deemed to render a project one for a public purpose.”  Most Massachusetts cases upholding transfers of seized property to a private entity have noted that the seizure was undertaken in the course of “urban renewal,” or some other government program designed to remedy “blighted,” “decadent,” or “substandard” conditions.

As far as I know, Massachusetts courts have never held that a taking is permissible under the state Constitution solely for “economic development” purposes – urban renewal, slum clearance, blight removal, or some similar purpose was always part of it.

Which brings us to today’s news.  An “urban renewal district” is a marvelous tool that governments came up with decades ago in order to get around pesky constitutional restrictions on their ability to seize private property for economic development purposes (to be fair, they serve other purposes as well).  Basically, the documents creating these districts declare that an entire area of a city (usually many acres at a time) is full of “blighted,” “decadent,” and/or “substandard” conditions, or words to that effect, and that getting rid of these dreadful conditions is a public purpose sufficient to justify the use of eminent domain.  As long as a parcel of property has the misfortune to sit within one of these districts, it is subject to seizure, regardless of the actual condition of that parcel.  And the kicker is that these districts typically have an extremely long shelf-life – 40 years, for example.  To my knowledge, Massachusetts courts have generally upheld takings within “urban renewal” districts on the basis of the findings in the urban renewal plan, regardless of the actual condition of the property being taken or the presence of a more traditional “public use.”

So why is this in the news now?

Most of those districts are set to expire in April, but the BRA will seek a yearlong reprieve to solicit public comment about how its priorities for those areas should change. Then, it will seek state approval to extend its urban renewal powers for another decade.

Aha.  In other words, come April, the city will no longer be able to justify the exercise of eminent domain simply by pointing to a decades-old document that in many cases describes area-wide conditions that have long since ceased to exist.  Instead, it will have to supply a genuine “public purpose” parcel by parcel, every time it wants to exercise eminent domain.  How inconvenient that will be.

To be fair, the city recognizes that, in the past, it has badly abused its urban renewal powers.

Newly appointed BRA director Brian Golden acknowledged Tuesday that the authority has abused those powers in the past — by bulldozing whole neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s and more recently by being less than forthcoming about its financial dealings with developers and other parties.

But Golden pledged that the BRA will use urban renewal powers more sparingly in coming years to build moderately priced housing and promote business growth in neighborhoods. He also said citizens will have more input on zoning decisions and the use of public property.

“We will show people that we are a people’s BRA, not just a developers’ BRA,” Golden said in a meeting with reporters. “We will show them that with our deeds, not just our words.”

Maybe so.  If that’s the case, though, then I have another idea.  Maybe, instead of extending blanket “urban renewal” powers that are at least subject to the possibility of abuse, the city should propose a new document that spells out the “more sparing” public purposes to which Golden now claims the BRA will limit itself when exercising eminent domain, and also spells out exactly how “citizens will have more input.”  That way, we can have a full and open public debate about what those public purposes ought to be.

Eminent domain is among the government’s most intrusive powers.  It can be used very well and very successfully; it can also be used very badly.  Proceed with caution.

Hobson's Dichomoty and Beating around the Bush.

Concise, and to the point. There is Jim Webb. - promoted by Bob_Neer

Let me be blunt.  I’m not Ready for Hillary and I have decided that I do not want Elizabeth Warren out of the senate.  Is it possible for us to look at other possibilities?  Any viable suggestions?  Anyone?  Bueller?

When George H. Bush took office, unemployment was 5.4%%.  When he left it was 7.3%.

When George W. Bush took office, unemployment was 4.2%%.  When he left it was 7.8%.

Now Jeb Bush wants to run for president?







Housing needs a market solution

In an otherwise highly laudatory column about Governor Deval Patrick’s economic record in the Globe, Shirley Leung gets this quote from Michael Widmer:

“[Recent governors] all have made efforts trying to remove some regulatory barriers,” Widmer said, but “we remain a very heavily regulated state. Nobody is talking about repealing environment regulations. It’s having it done in a way that is less labyrinthian.”

With regard to housing, there’s an economic problem here, and a gigantic social justice problem: There just isn’t anywhere near enough housing for the middle class in Massachusetts. In a state where the economy is doing quite well in most places, by rights we ought to be able to accommodate a significant influx of people.

But we’re not. We’re losing middle class people whom we ought to keep and squeezing hard the ones who don’t leave. Matt Yglesias says straight-up “Housing affordability is Blue America’s greatest failing”, and the problem is zoning:

This comes about primarily because coastal areas have adopted excessively strict zoning rules. There is not enough semi-dense mid-rise construction in the affluent suburbs of San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, etc. Secondarily, there are too many restrictions on the creation of new, big apartment towers in the very most expensive parts of coastal cities.

Ed Glaeser has been saying this for ages. Paul Krugman, too. There are 351 separate, highly idiosyncratic zoning regulations for housing development in the Commonwealth. And 40B building is not going to make a dent in the housing market in a way that actually affect the middle class; the state simply can’t pull off that kind of scale.

To put Widmer’s and the others’ concerns together: We need clearer and simpler regulations for where you may, and where you may not build. Where you may, build up to the sky. Where there are wetlands or yes, even aesthetic considerations, you may not. Here people, there nature.

There are significant political risks: Homeowners are perfectly happy to have their property values rise. But if they have to find another place within Massachusetts, their gains are simply plowed back into the next house. It makes it more attractive to leave the state for someplace cheaper (and warmer) — pocketing the difference in real estate values.

Access to affordable housing is also part of the solution. We can also increase transit options so that places that do have relatively affordable housing (Brockton, South Coast) have access to jobs in the places that have them. But of course, without an increase in actual supply, this has the tendency to raise housing prices.

This is an opportunity for a wonky, reform-minded, free-market oriented Governor who’s not afraid to take on some knotty problems. If Charlie Baker wants to be that guy, here’s his opportunity.

Our Towns Are Not War Zones: Police Militarization in MA

Great info. - promoted by david

The debate on police militarization, rumbling for years, has been thrust into the national spotlight after protests in Ferguson, Missouri were met with heavily armed and armored police forces acting more like combatants than peacekeepers. This approach to policing is made possible by the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which distributes surplus military equipment for free to police departments who request it and simply pay the cost of shipping. 1033 was quietly conducted for over two decades before becoming the subject of scrutiny, but now the Department of Defense has released a huge trove of data on transfers to local departments.

Thankfully, the Marshall Project has organized this data into a simple tool that displays the transfers for each local jurisdiction across the United States. Looking through the Massachusetts data, most police departments involved in the program received a few hundred or few thousand dollars worth of equipment, typically rifles and pistols. Many others received high-dollar items with peaceful uses, such as dump trucks, utility trucks, and snow plows. But buried among these innocuous transfers are some incredibly concerning items that simply don’t belong in a local police department.

One of the most widely criticized excesses of 1033 is its distribution of MRAPs, or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and Massachusetts received its fair share. Designed to withstand gunfire and explosions, these heavily armored vehicles weigh about 18 tons. They don’t come with gun emplacements as standard, but they do look like they’ve been plucked right out of a battlefield. They’ have been known to damage roads and their intimidating appearance feeds public fears and flies in the face of community policing. Police departments in Haverhill (population 60,967), New Bedford (pop. 95,072), and Rehoboth (pop. 11,608, just east of Providence) have all recently acquired MRAPs, worth between $658,000 and $689,000.

Why Warren won't run

This morning we heard Elizabeth Warren’s definitive non-denial denial that she would ever run for President:

Would you tell these independent groups, “Give it up!” You’re just never going to run.

I told them, “I’m not running for president.”

You’re putting that in the present tense, though. Are you never going to run?

I am not running for president.

You’re not putting a “never” on that.

I am not running for president. You want me to put an exclamation point at the end?

OK, so that’s a maybe someday. With an exclamation point.

But I don’t think she’s going to run. Not in 2016, and I think probably never.

  1. Too human. Think about the kinds of people who run for president. Typically there’s a relentless, robotic, teflon temperament, which has a lot more to do with ego than any visceral, deeply felt desire to do something for actual people.  It’s more the grand sense that whatever the matter, I’m the one that should be at the center of it all. George W. Bush was perfect at that. Obama absolutely possesses those qualities. Clinton, definitely. But honestly, I don’t think Warren particularly relished her run against Scott Brown. She seemed stressed and incoherent at times. Brown even agreed to limits on outside spending and then wasted his time on the stupid Cherokee attacks. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that election was kind of a joke –  in a geographically small state, pitting a woman who is a hero to many against a guy who is a barn coat to many. But she didn’t win in a laugher.It’s her compassion and anger, her very emotional volatility, that makes her compelling. She’s the opposite of robotic. That’s why we like her. But that’s why she’s unlike anyone who’s been at all successful in running for President.  Maybe she’s got the hang of it and has an appetite for the big fight. But at the very least, it wasn’t definitively proven in 2012.
  2. Age. She’s 65. Young enough for a couple of terms in the Senate. Not that young to be running for President. Hillary is 67, but has already demonstrated mind-boggling, hot-pepper-fueled physical stamina.
  3. Johnny-One-Note. Warren basically has one riff, and it’s an awesome one: The game is rigged on behalf of the big banks and the wealthy against the little guy. It’s undeniably true, and it fits the Zeitgeist, it’s wide and deep and has huge explanatory power. But particularly when it comes to foreign policy, I wonder if this frame is going to fit. She would have to answer all manner of questions in topic areas we’ve never heard her in.
  4. Risking influence. Sometimes power is greater when held in reserve. Right now she’s a movement hero. If she came at Hillary, she’d be up against a lot of party apparatus and jes’ folks who truly are “Ready for Hillary”, who have a lot invested in her personal success. Going from increasingly powerful Senator and voice of a movement to “losing primary candidate” is definitely a step down. I think that’s because it’s assumed that anyone running for President has sold his/her soul for ambition’s sake.

  5. Doesn’t need to. Beyond party ID, the personal qualities of the President are arguably less important than the political Zeitgeist and set of assumptions that surrounded their election. It’s not even the controversial stuff; it’s the movement of certain ideas into the non-controversial realm, like (increasingly) gay marriage. As said above, Warren is in a much better position to get her message out, without compromising very much at all. She’s shown that she’s perfectly happy to embarrass her own party and call out its uselessness. And hey look: Wall Street fave Cory Booker is now shocked, shocked! that derivatives gambling is going on in this establishment.When Hillary runs, she’s going to know where her bread is buttered. Warren’s buttering that bread right now.

Now, I don’t know anything anyone else doesn’t know. I could probably write another list as to why she’s perfect, and as I say, maybe she’s changed. But I like how she’s using the current gig, and I hope we see more Dem senators follow her lead. 2016 could be pretty good even without her at the top of the ticket.

Save money, help the world, help BMG

What could be better? It’s all possible if you own your own home and sign up for a free energy audit from Next Step Living. The service is paid by a surcharge on energy bills across the state. A trained service engineer will come to your home, replace inefficient light bulbs with new LED and CFL bulbs for free (you can keep your old bulbs), and make recommendations about how you can increase the energy efficiency of your home and save money. There is no charge, and no obligation. You can use Next Step to do additional work, or use someone else, or do nothing.

BMG will get a $25 referral free for each audit, which is great and will help to support the website, but the real reason to do this is to help improve your home’s energy efficiency. More on Next Step Living from their website:

Next Step Living® is the groundbreaking company on a mission to make it easy, affordable and rewarding for homeowners to implement energy-saving solutions.

Founded in Boston in 2008, the company is unique in offering a whole-home approach that helps homeowners:

Save energy and money
Reduce their carbon footprint
Live more comfortably
Information Resource and Service Provider.

A one-stop resource for informed advice, expert workmanship and guidance about available incentives and rebates, Next Step Living partners with more than 400 municipalities, civic organizations and leading corporations to deliver energy-efficient and environmentally friendly solutions. Those solutions include:

Home energy evaluations
Weatherization work (air sealing and insulation)
Roofing and windows
Heating and cooling (ductless mini splits, HVAC systems)
Solar panel installation

Named to the Inc. 500 list of fast-growing companies, the 2014 Global Cleantech 100 and recognized by the New England Clean Energy Council as an employer of the year, Next Step Living has more than 800 employees in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where early in 2013 we opened our second office. Next Step Living is also an A-Rated BBB Accredited Business.

I believe there are other companies that provide similar services in the Commonwealth. If you have had good experiences with them, please feel free to say so in the comments.

Click here to schedule an appointment. Give it a try. I did, and was very pleased.

The Long Island bridge clusterf&@k

UPDATED – see below

Did it seem strange to you that a bridge that obviously had been deteriorating for years had to be shut down with no warning, such that residents on the island had to be rushed off so fast that they weren’t even given time to collect their belongings?  After all, bridges don’t become unsafe overnight.  And, since the closure was a long time coming, how strange that the bridge was closed with no evident plan in place for what to do once that happened.  And how awful that, since there was no plan, the people who relied on the services available on Long Island have been left basically stranded, “as hundreds of men and women have been sleeping on cots and floor mats in improvised shelters since the island was abruptly evacuated Oct. 8.”

Yesterday’s Globe had a long, must-read story on why things went as badly as they did with the bridge.  It’s more or less what you’d expect: a bad combination of temporary fixes, poor planning, poor communication, and near panic when the decision to close the bridge was actually made, all combined with everything coming to a head under a new Mayor whose team wasn’t fully on top of things yet.

And yet, it seems impossible not to chalk this up as a failure in the early going of Marty Walsh’s term as Mayor of Boston.  It’s not like the closure happened a week after he took office.  It happened in October, ten months in.  Even though the problem had been brewing for years, that should have been enough time to take stock of an obviously problematic situation before it became a crisis.  And the problem has been magnified by the administration’s decision to abandon its initial plan to build a shelter on city-owned land on Frontage Road due to local opposition, as well as “concerns that a shelter on Frontage Road would interfere with a proposal by the family of Robert Kraft to build a soccer stadium.”  Instead, the city will move forward with … a plan that has not yet been disclosed.  Advocates are understandably upset.

“I’m appalled and disappointed that it has already taken this long,” said Michael Kane, executive director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants and a member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee. “The governor and mayor should be treating this as the emergency that it has been since day one.”

Karen LaFrazia, executive director of the St. Francis House, where 25 women from Long Island are sleeping on cots in their atrium and dining room, said she hopes the new location means the homeless will live in better conditions soon.

She noted the city will soon be struggling to cope with its annual winter surge, when more beds are needed.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “I don’t see a plan to deal with this.”

Today’s Download from MassINC (email, no link) has the following accurate, if brutal, summary of the situation by Michael Jonas:

It was bad enough that the city’s homeless shelter on Long Island was shuttered on several hours notice, with 450 beds suddenly yanked from the city inventory of places for those with no place to call home.

The task of replacing those beds with either temporary or permanent shelter housing elsewhere is exposing an inconvenient truth, one all the more glaring at this season of giving and help for those less fortunate: No one wants these people….

Talk of relocating 200 shelter beds to the former Radius Hospital in Roxbury was scrapped in the face of neighborhood opposition. Then the city said it was also abandoning talk of building temporary shelter space on city-owned land on Frontage Road in the South End. One South End neighborhood leader told the Globe the neighborhood is becoming a “dumping ground for Boston’s homeless.”

Roxbury residents, too, said they weren’t interested in being the solution to the shelter problem. Even the neighborhood’s uber liberal state senator, Sonia Chang-Diaz, got in on the action, saying the proposed site was “too close to schools and playground.”

It’s hard to blame Roxbury residents, who rightly recognize that such a facility is not going to land anytime soon in Beacon Hill or the Back Bay, or in leafy West Roxbury or the high-end side of Jamaica Plain. But it also begins to make the city’s homeless population seem less like fellow humans who have fallen on hard times and more like the barge loaded with 3,000 tons of garbage that famously spent five months at sea in 1987 after being turned away by six states and three countries.

The Walsh administration now says it has a new site in mind, which it will announce later this week. City officials are keeping the location under wraps for now, though.

It’s hard to blame them.

I don’t know what the best solution is.  I do know that something has to be done … and soon, because it is getting very cold.  And I agree with Michael Kane, quoted above, who said that “the governor and mayor should be treating this as the emergency that it has been since day one.”

UPDATE: The city has announced the proposed location for the new shelter:

The city in the next few weeks will begin building a new shelter in Boston’s Newmarket area for the hundreds of homeless displaced from Long Island, Mayor Martin J. Walsh told reporters on Monday.

The squat, brick building at 112 Southhampton St. will require significant upgrades, as it currently lacks showers and may require a host of other renovations to prepare it for more than 450 people who relied on the refuge on Boston Harbor. The Long Island Shelter was closed in October after the city abruptly condemned the bridge that connects it with the mainland.

Walsh told reporters in his City Hall office that he expects about 100 homeless people to be able to move into the space in mid-January.

“This is going to be fast-tracked,” he said….

He said the city is consulting neighbors but he does not expect that there will be a significant backlash, given that the building is located in an industrial area with no residential buildings.

We’ll see.  At least things are moving forward.

Joke Revue: "Cheney to Lead Torture-Pride March"


Cheney to Lead Torture-Pride March

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on Sunday, former Vice-President Dick Cheney told host Chuck Todd that he was “sick and tired of Americans being ashamed of our beautiful legacy of torture” and that he was organizing the first “National Torture-Pride March” to take place in Washington in January.

“This is a chance for all of us torturers to say, ‘Look at us, this is who we are,’” Cheney, who will be the Grand Marshall of the parade, said. …

“We’ll be there to say, ‘We’re torturers and we’re damn proud of it—join us,’” Cheney said.

Cheney Calls for International Ban on Torture Reports

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Former Vice-President Dick Cheney on Tuesday called upon the nations of the world to “once and for all ban the despicable and heinous practice of publishing torture reports.”

“Like many Americans, I was shocked and disgusted by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s publication of a torture report today,” Cheney said in a prepared statement. “The transparency and honesty found in this report represent a gross violation of our nation’s values.”

“The publication of torture reports is a crime against all of us,” he added. “Not just those of us who have tortured in the past, but every one of us who might want to torture in the future.” …