Walsh stands tall: now how about Boston 2030?

photo Boston Globe

photo Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has long seemed in thrall to the Boston 2024 Olympic bid, said at a press conference this morning that he refuses “to mortgage the future of the city away.” He added, “I will not sign a document that puts one penny of taxpayers’ money on the line for Olympics cost overruns,”  according to The Boston Business Journal.  According to other news reports, the U.S. Olympic Committee has been pressuring the Mayor to sign on to the requirement that the city backstop Olympic cost overruns, and to do so immediately. Walsh refused to be pressured.

Good for him. (Governor Charlie Baker has pledged to withhold his opinion until the results of an independent analysis are made public next month.   Walsh’s opposition, he said, was based only on financial considerations, not the event itself.  He was quoted as saying that he thinks “the opposition for the most part is about 10 people on Twitter,” and, of course, he’s wrong about that.  But at least his bottom line was clear. “This is about the taxpayers of Boston and what I have to do as mayor.”

Some analysts are predicting that this stance by the Mayor will be the death knell of the current Olympics bid.  If so, here’s a modest proposal.

Boston 2024, including some of the metropolitan area’s most powerful business leaders,  has routinely pitched bringing the 2024 summer Olympics here on the basis of what it can do to help the infrastructure,  create jobs and housing, and meet other community needs.  But they have been putting the cart before the horse, prioritizing Olympics-centered improvements before the city has a comprehensive strategic plan.

If Boston 2024 boosters are really serious about a long-term vision and strategy for greater Boston, why not join forces with Mayor Walsh in his nascent Boston 2030 planning?  If this wasn’t just marketing palaver, they could put their resources (including their unspent budget) and talent together with others in the city (including the No Boston Olympic supporters) to develop and implement a smart and integrated plan to upgrade housing, roads and bridges, public transit, education, creating jobs and more so that greater Boston can express its aspirations in a practical and achievable blueprint that can transform the city and meet the needs of all its people.  That would be a gold-medal-winning performance.

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Fox Olympics debate more heat than light

olympics debate 1A serious debate over the bid to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston was a good idea.  What took place Thursday night wasn’t. Promising a no-rules, informal format, the two moderators (the Boston Globe’s Sasha Pfeiffer and Fox 25’s Maria Stephanos) let the Boston 2024 supporters run roughshod over the opponents and the moderators themselves.  Five years ago, Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca (whose bid involvement predated the 2.0 reboot) ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, but he filibustered the one-hour debate, flogging his talking points, in the style of famous filibustering Senators Strom Thurmond or William Proxmire in their prime.

Aided by his sidekick Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee (a pivotal player in New York City’s failed attempt to get the Olympics) who exuded a Gotham-knows-best supercilious condescension, they nearly ran out the clock.

Every legitimate criticism raised by No Boston Olympics head Chris Dempsey (a former colleague of Pagliuca at Bain) was dismissed by Pagliuca as “hyperbolic.”  Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist, one of the most knowledgeable experts on Olympics finances, was repeatedly drowned out, not only by Pagliuca and Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee, but even occasionally by the moderators themselves.  And, when they finally got to substantive discussion of numbers, it was all cross-talk.  Dan Shaughnessy put it best: It was like listening to a debate on the science of Deflategate.

This could have been an opportunity to narrow the issues and help viewers sort out conflicting claims. For example, Pagliuca and Doctoroff kept insisting that the last three Olympics in the United States ran a surplus.  Dempsey and Zimbalist said that, since 1980, summer Olympics have had average cost overruns of 3 1/2 times original estimates. There are explanations for each position, which could have been reconciled. Instead, the whole data food fight recalled nothing less than the phrase popularized by Mark Twain, noting that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

If the proponents’ goal was time control, they won this round.  If it was to paint an irresistible bandwagon we should all want to jump on, they failed. Many unanswered questions remain. The day after the debate, Boston 2024 released its original bid, complete with material it had previously redacted. It raised still more questions about what was Mayor Marty Walsh thinking when he initially signed on with few, if any qualifications?

Fortunately, Governor Charlie Baker says he won’t take a position on the Olympics until next month when he sees the report of The Brattle Group, consultants he hired to provide an independent review.

Of particular consequence was the point raised by No Boston Olympics: Why was it okay for New York to put a cap on taxpayer liabilities for expenses, but not Boston? If Boston 2024 is so certain that its numbers are correct, and if its sketchily described insurance policies will really work, and the International Olympics Committee is truly committed to a more modest approach to hosting games, why should it not fight to get the IOC to drop its requirement that host government cover any shortfall?

Pagliuca says there’s no such thing as zero risk. He’s correct, but right now the risk seems to be off the chart in the other direction.

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Sal DiMasi doesn’t deserve death sentence

dimasiFormer Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi used his office to enrich himself to the tune of $65,000, securing a state contract for Cognos, which paid him on a monthly basis for his efforts. The third House Speaker in a row to be found guilty of crimes related to  office, DiMasi was convicted on seven out of nine corruption charges and sentenced to federal prison for eight years.  There is no doubt that prison was appropriate, though one could argue that eight years was excessive. But, as first reported by attorney Harvey Silverglate two 1/2 years ago in the Boston Phoenix, that eight years could well be a death sentence, one which we should all be protesting.

Federal Judge Mark Wolf, mindful that DiMasi at the time had a heart condition and his wife, Debbie,  was being treated for breast cancer, recommended to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) that DiMasi serve his sentence in Ayer, Mass. Instead, he was shipped off to Kentucky. WGBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan have provided a platform recently to Debbie DiMasi to explain the subsequent horrors to which her husband has been subjected in his nearly four years of incarceration.

When DiMasi discovered lumps in his neck, he asked repeatedly for medical attention. That took months to happen and still longer to get treatment for his now-confirmed malignancy.   In the meanwhile, the cancer metastasized to Stage IV tongue and lymph node cancer. Never a heavy man to begin with, he has lost 60 pounds and reportedly continues to deteriorate.  There is reason to believe that the Feds delayed giving him medical attention, shuttling him from one inaccessible prison to another, in order to wring testimony from him that might lead to other convictions.

Former Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis wrote persuasively in an editorial that the Bureau of Prison’s treatment of DiMasi was “far worse than waterboarding.”

So what should happen now? President Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders.  He said he did it because “America is a nation of second chances,” because their sentences (20 years to life) “didn’t fit the crime,” and they have behaved well while incarcerated. If DiMasi isn’t a case for commutation, the feds could move for “compassionate release,” for prisoners who have terminal illnesses and are not a threat to society.  For those who insist on believing there’s a reason to keep DiMasi behind bars (for longer than any other official corruption case in state history), at a minimum the Bureau of Prisons should move him to a facility in Massachusetts (the prison in Ayer, for example, which Judge Wolf recommended four years ago.)

There was a time when Sal DiMasi was the good guy. The story of his rise from a child in a cold water flat in the North End to an attorney, state rep and eventually to become the first Italian-American Speaker of the House was the American success story.  And he put his political skills to good use, fighting proposals to overturn gay marriage, thwarting the ill-considered push for casinos, and playing a pivotal role in developing the nation’s first universal health care law, the model for the Affordable Care Act.  Given that accomplishment, more than one observer has noted the irony of the Bureau of Prison’s denying him adequate health care and perhaps bringing him closer to death.

State reps, members of the Congressional delegation and other public officials seem to have been silent on the cause of moving DiMasi back to Massachusetts.  It appears that no one wants to be seen in the corner of a fellow politician found guilty of corruption. It seems unlikely, however, that an act of mercy at this point would be confused as guilt by association. If they don’t speak out now, they’ll owe him an apology when he is finally released, having served his term.  But that would be 2018, and it may well be too late.

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Donald Trump is a jerk

photo Washington Post

photo Washington Post

When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a hero in World War II, he said, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” But it wasn’t the Japanese sinking  of PT 109 that made JFK a hero; it was what he did to save his men after the sinking. The inimitable GOP buffoon candidate Donald Trump said of John McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured.”  Most of us have heard the continued fallout from that asinine remark.

McCain was a hero not because his plane was shot down over enemy territory but for how he comported himself afterward. He endured five years of unimaginable torture as a prisoner of war,  and refused his captors’ offer of an early release because he would not leave behind his squad of fellow prisoners. McCain suffers resulting physical limitations to this day. Donald Trump spared himself the possibility of that kind of nightmare by getting repeated student deferments and also getting a medical deferment due to a bone spur on his foot. I’m not aware that he ever volunteered for any other form of national service.

Finally some of the Donald’s fellow Republican Presidential candidates, many of whom had been cravenly silent when, with a broad brush,  he damned Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, saw their opening.  These GOP pols, of course, had taken a walk when 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record was swift-boated. Now they are aligning themselves with veterans, saying Trump is insulting their service and that he simply is not qualified to be President.  Shockingly perhaps, the Christian conservative crowd to whom he was speaking in Iowa applauded Trump’s remarks about McCain, though apparently they didn’t like his answers about God and forgiveness, taking communion, and his conduct during three marriages.

Trump is a godsend for the Democrats and those who are not interested in serious debate on the issues.  It’s not just that Hillary Clinton has a candidate whose hair draws more comments than her own hairstyle.  It’s that Trump’s high standing in the polls looks very bad for the GOP in a way that could help the Democrats to victory.  The Republican National Committee surely recognizes the problem he presents and has moved to distance itself from his most recent remarks.

And, if later on Trump were to decide to run as an independent, appealing to the angry, the disaffected, the haters of all stripes, that could also drain enough votes from the eventual Republican nominee to guarantee a Democratic win.

That said, his inclusion next month in the Fox debate among the poll-determined top ten GOP contenders would be a ratings winner for the network.  I’ll be watching; won’t you?

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Lesson for Bush in Dukakis

Jeb Bush head shotJeb Bush put his foot in it last week when explaining his aspirations for improving the economy.  His assertion that “people need to work longer hours” continues to prompt outrage. Even looking at it in context doesn’t help much – “My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours.”  Jeb Bush could have avoided all the ensuing brouhaha by embracing Mike Dukakis’ slogan when he was running against Jeb’s father for President in 1988: “good jobs at good wages.”

As it was, the former Florida governor had to backtrack and explain that, with nearly seven million people limited to part-time, they’re really struggling and deserve an opportunity to work more hours. But the damage was done. Red meat to the Democrats. Even Hillary Clinton, who has done her best not to engage in policy questions, was quick to weigh in, charting the stagnation of wages over time despite increases in productivity. Democrats and even some of Bush’s Republican opponents joined the effort to link Bush’s remark with Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark, dismissing nearly half the population as parasites who freeload their way through life.

Paul Krugman calls this “the laziness dogma,” and he says that Bush is merely representative of his party, which ideologically blames individuals for an unwillingness to step up to the plate and assume responsibility for their livelihood.  I’d like to think that Jeb Bush is more moderate than his fellow partisans and give him the benefit of the doubt that this incident was a huge verbal blunder, tin ear and all that. I’d like to assume he knows that well-paying blue collar jobs have gone away, that struggling parents are holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, that companies are transforming what once were fulltime jobs with benefits to part-time jobs without. I’d also like to see concrete plans from candidates on both sides of the aisle for strengthening the economy, generating fulltime jobs with upward opportunity, paying more than bare sustenance wages, providing affordable medical coverage, and, in short, expanding rather than shrinking the middle class.   For now, sadly, that seems too much to ask.

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Amazing week – how sweet it was

fireworks The July Fourth holiday heightens an appreciation of the remarkable events of last week, events that validate our forebears’ notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Who could have imagined that in a little more than a week, we saw the very real hope of confederate battle flags coming down in the Deep South, flags that for many symbolize oppression  and pain. The Supreme Court memorably affirmed the equal right of gay people nationwide to marry and enter into  loving family commitments. The Court upheld the  government’s commitment to provide health insurance for all Americans, health as an essential expression of life and equity.  Nor should we forget the highest Court’s decision allowing independent commissions to draw legislative district lines, an important means to level the playing field by loosening the ability of political parties to gerrymander electoral districts.

Who could forget President Obama’s stirring eulogy at the Charleston services for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, recommitting to equal rights among races.  In his early years, especially gleaned from his book Dream from my Father, the President was still trying to figure out who he was.  When he was elected President, on matters of race he was very careful not to offend, to reassure people he was the President of everyone. Often he disappointed some of his most ardent supporters. In last week’s eulogy, he found his voice.  He was comfortable in himself, part preacher, and, in weaving in policy matters, part politician.  His moving authenticity arose from deep within him, inspiring many, wowing them and  breathing 21st century vitality into the dreams of our country’s founders.

None of the gains made in recent days will be without challenges. We have already seen fires in half a dozen mostly black churches in the Deep South, some possibly by those who want to ennoble the days of slavery.  Opponents of Obamacare are pledged to disable that key social legislation at every step, including cutting funds for Medicaid. Supporters of ACA will have to push for adjustments to make the law work better.  Gay rights battles lie ahead as some individuals and groups raise legitimate objections on religious grounds, though no religious leader will be forced to marry gays if doing so violates religious tenets.  Disputes must also be resolved on whether florists and photographers must provide services at gay weddings if in contravention of their religious beliefs.

On a slightly different note, Wednesday the President announced steps to reopen an embassy in Havana.  Acknowledging continuing ideological differences with Cuba but asserting the failure of a half century’s political policies, he noted, “this is what change looks like.”  Opponents, including Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said they’d work to cut funds for the embassy and vowed that Congress would never agree to compromise with Cuba or even approve any ambassadorial nominee. Virtually every gain achieved over time will have to be cemented with difficulty.

But, my oh my, there has been a lot to be pleased about on this July 4th, 2015. We have seen history in the making, though in the grand sweep of history, there is rarely the final word – or a final victory.

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Is the nation’s “best” casino policy good enough?

slot machinesMassachusetts is officially a casino state. Yesterday at two p.m. a slots parlor opened to the public in Plainville.  Penn National reportedly spent $250 million to build and start up the facility, the first to bring Las Vegas to the Bay State.  It could bring between $86m and $100m a year in state revenues and have some 500 employees. And we are told there will be more bountiful benefits.

Yesterday, Gaming Commission Chair Steve Crosby outlined to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce why this state’s casino policy is the best in the country. It was a tightly controlled presentation .  Outgoing CEO Paul Guzzi took just one question from the audience, one that got lost in the praise the questioner lavished on Guzzi’s tenure at the helm of the GBCC.

In 2018,  MGM’s $800 million dream factory will open in Springfield, “the biggest ever construction project in Western Massachusetts,” Crosby said, noting it’s a mixed use development with housing, retail, a skating rink and many other amenities.   Also in 2018,  Wynn Resort’s $1.7 billion casino is slated to open in Everett (unless, of course, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wins against Steve Wynn in court).  It will be “the biggest single phase project in the history of Massachusetts,” Crosby said, and this “monster project” is expected to generate between $175 million and $205 million in annual revenue for the Commonwealth. Every month of delay, he said, costs Massachusetts between $15m and $18m. But there’s still the challenge of figuring out the longstanding traffic gridlock in Sullivan Square, no small feat.

And there’s more.  Before the commission are two more applications – one from New Bedford and one from Brockton – for a third casino, that in the third sector, expected to yield between $86m and $100m a year.  That’s the region, by the way, that the Wampanoag Indians may try to build a fourth, one which would not yield benefits for the state.  (The Wampanoags are awaiting a land trust decision in Taunton.)  No one knows whether they will get that determination, when it would occur and to what extent it would be tied up in court for years.)

Given that gambling is now part of the Massachusetts economy (yes, yes, with its concomitant restaurants, hotels and other amenities), Crosby sought to reassure his audience that ours is the best designed gambling law in the country.  The Commission is independent.  Local communities get to say no (look how well that worked in East Boston, which said no and now faces a casino neighbor in its own backyard, with the revenues accorded a surrounding community rather than a host community.)  Of course, the surrounding community can negotiate mitigation arrangements (ask Boston Mayor Marty Walsh how well that’s working with Steve Wynn.)  Other businesses  can seek mitigation if there are “unanticipated impacts.” But weren’t adverse impacts always anticipated?

State law makes a commitment to research the social problems that come with gambling, starting with creating a pre-casino data base on issues like problem gambling, traffic and more. And finally, there  will be between $15 million and $20 million a year to deal with problem gambling (an amount Crosby says is 25-35 percent of what is spent nationwide each year. The  Gaming Commission will partner with the Public Health Department to respond to problem gamblers.  This has always struck me as odd, the idea that you’d worsen a serious social problem but it’s okay because there’s money in the kitty to treat it. Plus, one need look no further than the law directing tobacco tax revenues to anti-smoking campaigns to know how, if state funds are tight, those supposedly dedicated funds can and will be diverted elsewhere.

There remains a concern that legalizing casino gambling will cannibalize the state lottery, jeopardizing local aid.  Crosby acknowledges there could be a drop in lottery participation of perhaps as much as four percent, but, given the plan to commit $85m-$120m in casino revenues for local aid annually, he says the net impact on cities and towns will be a positive one.

Crosby is an accomplished public servant. He is definitely committed to transparency and fairness. But he himself noted that casino gambling is one of the most complicated (and controversial) public policy projects in the history of the Commonwealth.  He is certain that, with all the moving parts and significant initiatives, we are a veritable petri dish for figuring things out. This is not necessarily reassuring.  Notwithstanding the anticipated problems and unanticipated consequences, Crosby believes casinos will be a transformational success for Massachusetts.  I wouldn’t bet on it.

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