Entries by Steve Poftak

Supply and Demand — Is it really a law or just an opinion?

The Commonwealth is funding an innovative program to replace our current strain of cranberries with higher producing vines. This makes perfect sense because just a few years ago, the Federal government had to bail out the industry to the tune of $50 million because of a glut of cranberries on the market. See, government interference in markets makes us more efficient.

No more fat to cut

Watching the Sox-Yankees game last night (the local feed on NESN, not the national feed on ESPN), taxpayers were treated to not one, not two, but three sets of advertisements from state agencies. The Commonwealth Connector (the universal health coverage people) had a series of ads. Makes some sense — they want to get the word out to folks, given the individual mandate. Then an ad for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. I always find these in-state ads odd — I’m already here, aren’t I? Finally, the billboard behind home plate kept showing “www.masstech.org“, which I learn this morning is the website for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. And that’s where I absolutely object. Why does a state economic […]

Go Newton Go

A year ago, Pioneer released a report that put the cost of local pension fund underperformance at $1.6 billion over the past 10 years. We recommended folding all underperforming funds into the state pension fund. Some people appeared to notice, the Governor has put forward a less muscular version of this reform in his Municipal Partnership Act. Now Newton is jumping on board, with plans to roll the assets of its pension fund into the state system. We estimate that Newton has left $20 million on the table, in underperformance, over the last ten years. In the Globe article on Newton’s move, there are two quotes from officials in other cities defending their current practices: “Recently they’ve done very well,” […]

More budget minutiae

A close reading of the Outside Sections in the Senate Ways and Means budget provides a few more nuggets: Possible Pension Shenanigans: Pioneer is well-versed on the gaming of the state pension system, so our finely tuned antennae go up whenever suspicious language involving the pension fund goes into legislation. The specificity of the following clause makes us extremely curious: including individuals formerly in the service of the division of employment security whose compensation for that service was paid in full from a grant from the federal government, and for the cost of medical examinations in connection therewith, We are hopeful that an enterprising journalist can determine the precise identity of the individual named above. $20 Million Set-Aside for Hospital […]

And then there were two

The Senate Ways and Means Budget contains a provision (scroll down to section 48) allowing two of the twelve public skating rinks in Greater Boston to be put out for long-term leases. That’s down from the twelve that the Governor’s budget (to his credit) allowed, but up from the zero allowed in the House budget. We looked at the effect of long-term leasing on the public skating rinks outside of Greater Boston and what did we find? – Increased Availability: Rinks operated under competitive contracting are now available an average of 43 weeks per year in fiscal year 2005, versus 34 weeks per year under the previous management system in fiscal year 1991. – Continued Affordability: The average hourly cost […]

A Troubling Pattern Emerging?

Friday’s Globe has two articles on recent actions by the Governor — a view on his $1B biotech initiative and news of a $3.6 million bailout for the dairy industry. The biotech story discusses how this funding will help start-up companies through the ‘valley of death’ when financing is scarce. Having had a ringside seat to the internet bubble’s expansion and eventual collapse, I’d suggest that the valley of death has some utility and the notion that the government understands the science and market well enough to determine who should make it through strikes me as highly unlikely. The dairy farmer bailout is more direct. Dispensing with the typical niceties of concealing subsidies in tax credits or rebates, the bailout […]

Feeding the Lions

Bill Weld used to say that unless you feed the lions (i.e. the press), they will feed on you. The first 100 days of the Patrick administration were a case study in that lesson (see drapes, Cadillac, etc.). However, they seem to have hit their stride recently, putting on major announcements which (whether you liked the ideas or not) managed to dominate the news cycle. First, it was the light bulbs/environmental announcement, then the $1b biotech initiative, and finally the anti-crime initiative. The anti-crime announcement was also a bit of creative political jujitsu. The Governor’s budget had not funded the program, yet he was able to take political credit for backfilling this ‘oversight’ through a supplemental budget.

How much does a kid cost?

Just below the surface of most land-use/housing debates is the cost of educating children. A lot of towns effectively zone out many types of affordable housing because they don’t believe they will receive property tax benefits high enough to educate the children who would live there. The UMass Donahue Institute takes a stab at answering this question based on actual cases from a number of metro Boston communities. I’d crudely summarize their findings as a matter of cost allocation methodology. You have three choices: Marginal Cost of New Housing — attempts to determine what new expenditures were required by the town for the new housing units. Very easy to determine for most services (e.g. did the police respond to any […]

Try, try, and try again

No one else seems to have noticed, but the Governor’s supplemental budget, filed on Thursday has this little nugget hidden all the way down in Section 23: Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the chief justice for administration and management may transfer among any items of appropriation within the trial court. The chief justice shall provide written notification to the house and senate committees on ways and means of any such transfers of funds within 30 days of the transfer. Pioneer has long supported this management reform, among many, many others. It was in the Governor’s House 1 budget but had not been heard from since.

More kids = More school expenditures, right?

Seems like a reasonable idea, and the basis for Chapter 70 Education aid, as well as the implicit justification for many towns in their zoning practices. However, a recent study by the notorious right-wingers at the UMass Donahue Institute found something very different in their recent study on the impact of affordable housing on school costs: Our analysis showed that school teaching staff levels and overall expenditures increased independently of changes in enrollment. From 1999 to 2004, school enrollments statewide were essentially flat, with 0.2 percent total growth, while the employment of full time equivalent (FTE) teaching staff increased by eight percent. Despite very limited growth in enrollment, total school expenditures grew by 28.6 percent statewide from 1999 to 2004. […]

Cold Fusion with Common Household Items

Our Governor has recently made some very public pronouncements on coming reform to education funding. At a meeting of the Mass Association of School Committees and a public rally on the Boston Common, he committed to reforming the process. The folks over at Blue Mass Group have been paying attention: Gov. Patrick’s gonna have to get new shirts, ’cause he’s got something big up his sleeve when it comes to education funding. It’s funny — when I was talking with Sen. Jehlen last week I mentioned that Patrick was making noises about a major shift in funding, presumably requiring more revenue. She shrugged — she had no more idea what he was actually proposing than anyone of us. So it’s […]

Today Pioneer, Tomorrow….

Former Pioneer summer intern Brady Cassis starred as a quarterfinalist on College Jeopardy this week (top row, to the right). For the truly dedicated, a YouTube feed of the event is available (see below). Warning — its from a group of Stanford students supporting another contestant, not our dear Brady.

Unemployment Insurance — Why You Should Care

The irascible Jon Keller gets it exactly right in a recent post on his blog — unemployment insurance reform is “crucial part of restoring job growth” in the state. In our recent study on the cost of doing business in Massachusetts, we found that Massachusetts’ UI costs were significantly higher than many of our competitor states — New Hampshire is 72% lower, New York (!!) is 49% lower, North Carolina is 27% lower, and Texas is 59% lower. Yesterday’s hearing (sub. reg.) at the State House appeared to have focussed on efforts to make unemployment benefits marginally more difficult to access. Pioneer will have a policy brief later this month, analyzing the issue. We’ll examine the issue of benefits eligibility, […]

Which way to a greater Boston region?

The indispensable Amy Dain reports from the provinces: Today the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) released its recommendations for the future growth of the region. Its goals for increased housing choice are right on. Implementation will be no easy task, though. A recent report from Pioneer and Rappaport Institutes has shown that the current system of housing regulation does not allow for many needed types of housing to be built. To learn more about your community’s regulations, look here. The MAPC plan calls for new apartments, townhouses, and condos near town centers, as well as more modest single-family houses for people who either cannot afford or do not need McMansions. The plan estimates that over half of the new moderately […]

Strategic Planning? We don’t need no stinkin’ planning.

Our friend and Pioneer Board Member, Professor Joe Giglio has a new book on transportation — Driving Questions: Developing A National Transportation Vision, following up on his December 2005 release, Mobility. Professor Giglio’s new book seeks to rise above the hurly-burly of the transportation debate (which he, quite correctly we might add, views as overly focused on tactical matters) and restart the conversation on a strategic level. He begins by asking the following four questions: · What should the nation’s transportation system look like in the future? · What options do we have for transforming the existing system to match this vision? · What resources are available to implement these options? · How do we measure our success in making […]

Yummm, 10:16 Lunch…….

The Globe Magazine has a fascinating piece on the extended school day experiment being conducted at 10 schools around the state.  It seems like such a common-sense good idea that we can only assume it will be discarded very soon. The most gripping piece of information, to this reader, was an accompanying graphic (that unhelpfully does not show up on-line) that details the change in the average school day. Before, students started the day 7:25 AM, ate lunch at 10:16 AM, and were dismissed at 1:30 PM. Plus, the sample schedule displayed allows for daily math, science, and english classes, but little else. The new schedule has the same start time and lunch time (which is still ridiculous), but adds […]

Out of the Mouths of Grad Students

Today’s Globe has two interesting articles (one unintentionally so) on our state college system. A front page article talks about growing demand from the UMASS-Boston Student Senate to build dorms, and a Derrick Jackson op-ed is a predictable call for more funding. But at the very, very end of the op-ed, a lengthy quote from a student highlights one of our major problems as a system (and one of the reasons that funding is such an issue): It feels like the flagships like Amherst are treating students more and more as consumers, trying harder to attract wealthier out-of-state students with sushi nights, lobster nights, and flat-screened TVs in lounges than figuring out how to help students who are the most […]

Wacky Pension Hijinks, Pt. 2?

This morning’s Globe raises some interesting questions about the recent dismissal of a legislative aide. The individual in question was fired 11 days after she had reached her twentieth year of service. The key verb is ‘fired’ (as opposed to ‘quit’). By being fired after reaching the magic 20 years of service, Section 10 of Chapter 32 is triggered, allowing employees to begin collecting their full pension before the age of 55. And curiously enough, a large percentage of those unlucky enough to be fired in this manner get fired almost immediately after reaching the 20 year mark. According to Commonwealth Magazine, one-third of the 1,100 ‘Section 10’ pensions granted since 1990 were to employees who had passed the 20 […]

Wacky Pension-Related Hijinks

Or maybe not so wacky. The estimable adamg over at Universal Hub points out this interesting nugget in today’s Herald: A veteran Boston police officer is expected to resign from the force after pleading guilty yesterday to charges he shot a fellow cop during an off-duty argument about whether he was too drunk to drive…he also indicated in court that he would turn in his badge after 27 years of service…entitling him to a city pension. [emphasis added] Pensions have been on our mind for the past year. We’ve taken a long hard look at the cost of various loopholes and the expense of underperformance at many local pension funds. We have not, however, done anything to close the loophole […]

Psst… the Speaker may be trying to tell you something.

First, Speaker DiMasi went to a Greater Boston Chamber breakfast and poured cold water on Governor Patrick’s ‘loophole closure/business tax hike‘, choosing the very venue where Patrick made one of the initial announcements about the plan. Next, the House budget amendments came out. Legislators found time to suggest the frivolous (like the much beloved Winter Moth study amendment) and the serious (eliminating the EQA by reinserting similar language from the Governor’s budget). However, precisely none of the Representatives attempted to reinsert the ‘loophole closure/business tax hikes’. A commission is being appointed to review the tax code (with an eye on business taxation), consisting of appointees of the Governor, Senate President, and House Speaker? Speaker DiMasi’s apppointees? Associated Industries of Massachusetts […]

A Plea For Slightly Less Integrated Transportation Planning

The Herald’s has done a fine job pointing out one of the dumb things we do as a state — provide massive subsidies for little-used local airports that have no relevance to the transportation needs of the state.  Check out pg. 17 of this chart just to see how little usage many of these airports get. Many of these airports are home to a handful of privately-owned planes and certainly provide a service for those people, but the Herald correctly asks why the vast majority of commercial air travelers should be taxed to pay for it. The Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission is the state agency charged with the task of maintaining these smaller airports. And they have no compunction about these […]

What a Difference 100 Days Makes……

Remember the early days: “We strongly believe that good governance means taking the best ideas from the best people, no matter what their Party.” Ehh, maybe not so much anymore: [The Governor’s informal group of advisors] agreed on a major priority: to crack the whip on the administration’s lagging efforts to replace Republican-appointed government managers with a team loyal to Patrick. Hey, he’s the Governor, he gets to pick his own team. But his major priority? Not sure that’s what the Administration needs to focus on right now.

School Choice in Boston

A brilliant author has crafted a masterwork on school choice, entitled School Choice That Works For Boston in this week’s Dorchester Reporter. Oh, that was me, wasn’t it? I’ve been interested in this issue from a policy and a personal perspective for awhile. The lottery system for Boston’s district public schools has long been a source of controversy. It was so complex (and flawed) that it spawned a series of analyses by economists from Harvard, MIT, BC, and Columbia. They are not for the faint of heart but you can find them here, here, here, here, and here. A blue ribbon panel came in and made some fixes, as well as generating a lot of feedback and data. But the […]

Be Careful What You Wish For: Participatory Democracy Dept.

The relaunch of devalpatrick.com was accompanied by great fanfare, with high hopes for energizing the netroots and building coalitions on-line. But as of today, the top issue on the site is a ‘fathers’ rights’ proposal. And among the top 15 issues on the site are 3 anti-gay marriage entries, an income tax rollback proposal, a contract proposal for corrections officers, a call for eliminating gun control, a request to expand use of off-road vehicles in state parks, and a ‘9-11 was a hoax perpetrated by conservatives’ entry. I’m guessing this is not what they had in mind.


Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Or a lot dramatic, but interesting nevertheless. Paul Levy and Charlie Baker Jr. are two of the state’s healthcare leaders. And each is blogging. Charlie just started his, and Paul has been going for awhile (and writing very interesting stuff). They have a back and forth on healthcare cost drivers on Charlie’s blog that is fascinating. I won’t summarize it here, but they get into the issue of cost transparency and how Massachusetts’ current healthcare reform may play a role in cost control.

Budget Minutiae – Part 2 of a 700 part series

More interesting fun with amendments and earmarks — What if your favorite non-profit isn’t getting the state funding it so richly deserves? Hire a lobbyist (type “International Institute” into here). Get three amendments to the House budget for $150,000, $100,000, and $163,642 . Not a bad days work, eh? No judgment from this corner on the merits of the particular non-profit. But who is better placed to determine the level of need and the most effective means of meeting that need — the staff at Mental Health, Social Services, and Workforce Development or these legislators? And a question — if you codify a transaction between a private provider and a state agency into law — What leverage does the state […]

Crime in Urban Areas – Perception and Reality

At Pioneer’s February conference on Revitalizing Middle Cities (where we released this paper), we had the opportunity to hear from the Police Commissioner and Economic Development Director for Springfield. Dave Panagore, Springfield’s Economic Development Director, noted that the police force (and public safety) were the most important components of economic development. Ed Flynn, the Police Commissioner, explained his approach to policing that goes beyond just reviewing crime data and seeks to find out how citizens perceive the level of crime in their neighborhoods. The importance of this issue is highlighted in the crime statistics for the city of Boston. This data compares the crime rate over the first few months of this year, against the same period last year. With […]

Budget Minutiae – Part 1 of a 700 part series

Spring in Massachusetts! Ahh, the joys… Opening Day, bulbs blooming, and, of course, budget season. House Ways and Means filed last week and amendments are due to be debated next week. The power and specificity of these amendments are little noticed and that’s unfortunate. Governor Patrick ran on a platform of minimizing earmarks to save money ($100 million in first year savings, if his now-very-hard-to-find press release is to be believed.). And to his credit, his budget did cut back on earmarks and rolled up a number of line items. However, the amendment season is now upon us and we’ll see how many earmarks make it back into the budget. A few of my favorites: Your town needs a new […]