Bottle Bill Backers Press On
It’s understandable that even the most ardent supporters might be feeling a bit of bottle-bill fatigue; for more than a decade, environmental groups and other activists have been fighting to get the bill expanded but have run repeatedly into the brick wall of the Massachusetts Legislature and the powerful industry lobby that opposes the effort.
But now’s not the time to give up, exhorts Mark Eckstein of the Mass. Sierra Club. “It’s important that people take action and not be passive about it,” he said.
The Sierra Club, along with MassPIRG, the League of Women Voters and the Environmental League of Massachusetts, is collecting petition signatures to get a bottle bill expansion ballot question before voters in 2014. If approved by voters, it would add non-carbonated drinks, like juice, water, teas and sports drinks to the list of bottled drinks that carry a nickel deposit. (The current bottle bill covers soda, mineral water and beer bottles but not these drinks, whose popularity rose only after the law was passed in 1983.)
The proposed law also calls for the state to review and adjust for inflation the cost of the deposit as well as the handling fee paid to grocery stores and other redemption centers. (The latter fee is paid by bottlers, not the public.) Finally, it would re-establish the state’s Clean Environment Fund, which would use unclaimed deposits to support environmental efforts such as recycling programs and clean air and water campaigns. The Clean Environment Fund had been created by the state Legislature several years after the bottle bill was initially passed, but was dismantled in 2003 by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, who diverted the money to the state’s general fund.
Organizers have to collect 68,911 signatures in support of the ballot question; the petitions must be submitted to local election officials by late November and then to the Secretary of State by Dec. 4. (In fact, Eckstein said, they aim to collect about 100,000, to ensure they get enough valid signatures.) If they meet that threshold, the question would then go before state legislators—with the message, as Eckstein put it: “Look, there’s a demand for this. Can you please do your job?”—who would have until May 7 to enact the new law. If the Legislature doesn’t act on it by that date, supporters would need to collect an additional 11,485 signatures by July of 2014 to get the question on that November’s ballot.
“Hopefully it won’t have to go to the ballot,” Eckstein said. But for that to happen, state lawmakers will need to ignore fierce lobbying by—and generous campaign donations from—the bottling industry, which is no fan of the proposed expansion.
“It’s really up in the air,” Eckstein said. “I think it will probably depend on the action of the people, if they’re willing to be loud and vocal. Not just send an email, but take action,” such as making an old-fashioned phone call to their local legislators.
“People think it’s enough to sign the petition, [but] they have to do their part,” Eckstein said. “Now is not the time to give up, when we’re so close. That’s what the bottlers would love.”
For more information on the campaign and signature drive, go to http://www.massbottlebill.org.•
State Pension Program Undercapitalized
It’s not good news that the state has a sizable unfunded pension liability, according to a report issued this month by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. If the phrase “unfunded pension liability” sounds as dry as dead leaves, remember that in the Valley, the state is one of the very largest employers. Not only does it include workers at UMass, Westfield State, Holyoke, Greenfield and Springfield Technical community colleges, but the folks you deal with at the RMV, the unemployment offices, the state parks, the highway department and other state agencies, and the state police, sheriffs’ departments and jail staff.
So there’s an important correlation between the soundness of the state pension program and the longterm health of the Valley’s economy.
And the report groups municipal pension plans together with state plans, so the unfunded liability potentially threatens not only the classes of state workers listed above but also municipal employees.
According to the MTF, the unfunded pension liability, which is the difference between the amount in the state’s pension fund and the amount current and former state employees are eligible to be paid, grew by 600 percent between 2000 and 2012. Though the state put $15 billion into the fund, the unfunded liability rose from $3.5 billion to $21.6 billion during those years. That means that in 2000 the state pension plan was about 88 percent funded, but by 2012 it was only 66 percent funded.
This doesn’t exactly put Massachusetts in a class with Illinois, which has the worst-funded state pension system in the country and a liability of $96.8 billion, but it doesn’t bode well for the commonwealth. The danger of an underfunded state pension program is exacerbated by the fact that most work done for the state doesn’t earn a retirement benefit from the federal Social Security program.
According to the report, the state rmployee pension program is 74 percent funded, the teachers’ pension program is 61 percent funded, and the municipal pension program is 57 percent funded.
The study attributes the soaring unfunded liability to new laws that enhanced benefits and offered incentives for early retirement, and to the fund’s failure to earn the returns of 8 or 8.25 percent that its managers expected.
The situation is even worse when it comes to health benefit obligations. “With only $63 billion set aside, the state and municipalities have funded less than half—just 43 percent—of the $146 billion they need to pay for benefits already promised to current employees and retirees,” says the report.
Massachusetts is not alone with its unfunded pension liability; far from it. Last summer, a study by Pew Charitable Trusts said the states’ collective unfunded pension liability was around $750 billion. A more conservative study by State Pension Solutions, which used lower return-on-investment projections for pension plans, put the gap at $4.1 trillion.•
Westfield State Torn Apart Over Dobelle’s Spending
As students waited outside the room waving signs reading “Don’t Reward Greed,” the trustees of Westfield State University voted after a 10-hour meeting Oct. 16 to suspend President Evan S. Dobelle for 30 days, following a no-confidence vote against the president by university faculty and library staff.
One hundred thirty-eight faculty and staff said on October 16 that they had no confidence in Dobelle’s ability to lead the school effectively, 61 said they had confidence, and 16 did not vote.
The controversy now swirling around Dobelle involves extravagant spending on travel and amenities. Dobelle has said the upgrading of Westfield State’s status from state college to state university necessitated travel in order to open new sources of recruitment and funding. But that hardly accounts for $20,069 spent for staff and students to attend President Obama’s 2008 inaugural, including $7,500 for a buffet breakfast; $12,000 in bills from a hotel in Bangkok; $10,000 for a six-day stay in San Francisco for Dobelle and two WSU administrators; hotel bills exceeding $500 a night; and more (“Westfield Spending Spree,” September 17, 2013).
State Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland was so displeased with Dobelle’s inability to account for tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenditures that he has frozen $2 million that had been earmarked for a new science center at Westfield State. Now worse things may be in store for Dobelle personally, as the state Attorney General investigates his spending sprees; if he is found to have made false claims about his use of state funds, he may be liable for triple damages under the state’s False Claims Act.
And information from Boston Business Journal casts doubt on Dobelle’s claims about the usefulness of his junkets. According to BBJ, Westfield State raised the least money from donors and graduates of all Massachusetts’ nine state colleges last year. After Dobelle assumed the presidency of the school in 2007, BBJ reports, Westfield’s yearly receipts from donations shrank—from $875,000 in 2008 to $501,411 in 2012. None of the other state schools have posted declines in fundraising.
It’s not the first time Dobelle has faced charges of extravagant spending as president of a university. In 1991 he left the University of Hawaii in the midst of a similar controversy. On the other hand, it’s not the only time out-of-control spending has caused a president to be ejected from Westfield State. In 1988, President Irving Buchen resigned amid charges of falsifying financial filings for travel and other personal expenses.• —SK
Baystate Franklin Nurses Ready for Another Strike
Nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center have upped the ante in their on-going contract battle with hospital management, voting last week to authorize a three-day strike.
Contract negotiations between the nurses’ union and the hospital have been dragging on for about two years; one of the major sticking points is a proposal by management to change how nurses qualify for overtime pay. The nurses staged a 24-hour strike last October that drew considerable attention to the issue but did not lead to a resolution.
More recently, Town Meetings in a number of Franklin County communities passed non-binding resolutions, supported by the union, that expressed concern about changes in services at BFMC. While supporters of the resolutions said they were motivated by community concerns about access to healthcare, hospital officials called them a ploy by the union.
In an interview with the Advocate last spring, BFMC President Chuck Gijanto described the resolutions as “purely a tactic to get us to agree to the contract demands that we’ve indicated are not financially viable to us” by attempting to “shake the confidence in the hospital throughout the community.” (See “What Ails Them?”, May 21, 2013, http://www.valleyadvocate.com.)
After last week’s strike authorization vote, Gijanto told the Greenfield Recorder that the hospital can’t afford to change its position on overtime pay, adding that the nurses’ union was putting its own interests “ahead of the interests of our local hospital, our patients and our community.”
Union officials, meanwhile, insist that they don’t want to strike and would prefer to return to the negotiating table or bring in an arbitrator to resolve the dispute, which Baystate has refused to do.
At deadline, the union had announced no plans about when, or if, the nurses will strike. By law, they must give the hospital 10 days’ notice before a strike.• —MT
Are Mass. Voters Ready to Go Green?
Has the ugly partisan budget battle in Washington piqued interest in the alternative take offered by the Green Party?
We’ll find out on Election Day, when voters will have the opportunity to vote for Green candidates in a handful of races around the commonwealth.
In Holyoke, Rick Purcell—who in 2010 was the Green-Rainbow Party of Massachusetts’ candidate for lieutenant governor, on a ticket with gubernatorial nominee Jill Stein—is running for an at-large seat on the City Council. Purcell, a veteran who works at Baystate Medical Center, has a long record of working on environmental and social and economic justice issues and says he’s running because of his “commitment to helping all of his neighbors achieve a better quality of life in his struggling city.”
Several other Greens are running for City Council seats in their communities: Pittsfield’s Mark Miller, who previously ran for the state Legislature, Cambridge’s Elie Yarden and Boston’s Francisco White.
The highest-profile Green campaign is Joe Carvalho’s race to become mayor of Fall River. Like Purcell, Carvalho is a veteran and long-time community activist; his campaign focuses on economic development, public safety and education. While Carvalho made it through a crowded field of candidates in the September preliminary election, he has a tough fight ahead of him: he won just 14 percent of the preliminary vote, compared to incumbent Mayor William Flanagan’s 72 percent. (None of the other four candidates that day won more than 5 percent of the vote.)
The Green Party has been deeply critical of the budget impasse between Democrats and Republicans that led to the government shutdown, calling for the Affordable Care Act to be replaced with a single-payer “Medicare for All” model, as well as for deep cuts in military spending.• —MT