Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some lighter moments at the Statehouse

My first year as a state representative is coming to a close and I find myself reflecting back on a few of the funnier things that happened during my rookie year.

I learned a lot about how the McCormack Building garage attendants regard the intellect of freshman legislators. Pulling up to the garage on the day of our swearing in, I was asked my name. The gentleman found me on the list, radioed some codes to his fellow attendants and opened the garage door. I proceeded in and at every turn and ramp there was another walkie-talkie armed attendant pointing me in the proper direction. The final attendant literally ran to my parking slot while I followed and he staged my turn into the space much like a ramp agent guiding an airplane to a gate.

At first I thought all of this ado was a reflection of the attendants' respect for legislators. That turned out to be a fleeting thought. No, the real reason for this masterfully coordinated exercise was quite the opposite. For years, these people have had to deal with elected officials who didn't have the sense to find the right parking spot and out of that frustration they developed this crack system to prevent wasting the attendants' time and to get the legislators to the Statehouse on time. (The exercise was repeated when we were asked to take our seats in the chamber.)

After the budget sessions ended in April, various committees started holding hearings to plow through the 6,000 some odd bills that had been filed for this legislative session. I arrived on time for the first hearing of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs and pulled out my agenda along with copies of the bills. The hearing was gaveled to a start and about twenty minutes into it I came to realize that my state of confusion was not because of my newbee status, rather because the Elder Affairs Committee was meeting in the room next door.

During the summer I scheduled a tour of the Statehouse with the curator of collections, Susan Greendyke. I wanted to become a better tour guide and I’m always interested in historical anecdotes, how things got their names, etc. At the end of the three-hour tour, we were standing outside the General Hooker Entrance on Beacon Street. Ms. Greendyke lamented that she had been petitioning to get the name of the entrance changed for 25 years, preferring South Entrance to the somewhat scandalous moniker. Legend has it that General Hooker indeed had a bevy of female followers who were known as Hooker’s Ladies, shortened later to hookers.

A formal session of the House of Representatives is an interesting thing to watch, and even more interesting to take part in. One element of the sessions is the obligatory party politics. This drives me batty more than anything else we deal with on Beacon Hill. At times, the minority party pushes an amendment that we know won't pass but that makes a philosophical point and gets the majority party to go on record with their nay votes. Whenever one of these votes comes up, all of the Republicans light up their green "yea" vote lights and all of the Democrats light up their red "nay" vote lights. Since the parties are shown together on the vote tally board, there are 33 green lights in a row and 127 red lights in a row.

At a recent, long session, the minority leader jumped up at exactly 6 p.m. moving to take a dinner break until 7 p.m. A motion of this type allows for no debate, only a vote. The house clerk called for the vote and the 33 green Republican lights came on, almost in unison. About half of the 127 red lights were lit when the speaker's green light was illuminated. Mass confusion ensued as a bunch of the red lights starting changing to green only to be followed by the speaker's light switching to red which caused a second flurry of green lights changing to red. In the end, the dinner break was summarily voted down on partisan lines.

I can imagine a legislator being criticized on the campaign trail for being against dinner before being for dinner before being against dinner.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life after the U.S. Postal Service

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section VIII – The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises… 7) to establish post offices and post roads.

The USPS has been in the headlines again lamenting a $5.1 billion lost for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011 on revenues of $65.7 billion. Are we bracing for yet another bail out?

Irrespective of the spin generated by the American Postal Workers Union (click here to read it), two fundamental problems have created the five-year streak of multi-billion dollar losses:

1) Competition with online services and private sector package delivery companies.

2) Cost of retiree benefits.

Competition

There is no question that first class letters have been hit hard by email. Though only representing about 3% of total revenue, letters from household to household have become a rarity and will continue to go the way of Buicks and hair salon “permanents” as our oldest generation moves on to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

Online services by banks, credit card companies, investment houses, the federal government, etc., have had a more dramatic effect. Fewer and fewer people receive their monthly statements in the mail. The Social Security Administration has replaced those monthly kisses in the mail with direct deposit.

The effect of these changes is that a greater percentage of what shows up in your mailbox is junk mail (aka advertising). On an average day, I immediately throw out all of the mail I recover from my PO box. Once in awhile, I open an envelope, quickly peruse the contents, and then throw it out.

This begs the question: Just how much (in terms of billions of dollars a year) should the taxpayers subsidize the USPS for delivering advertisements from private sector companies? Does this not represent an indirect transfer of taxpayer money to companies that offer low interest rate, guaranteed acceptance credit cards? Or to the Mitt Romney for President campaign?

On the package delivery front, UPS, FedEx and others offer strong competition featuring better websites, tracking tools, and on-time deliveries. It is an excellent example of how competition in a free market can lead to better service at a reasonable price.

Retiree Benefits

This is the 480,000 pound gorilla in the room. Although funding for the current retirees and survivors is in place ($42.5 billion), Congress has smartly required the USPS to fund future retirement benefits with contributions of about $2.5 billion per year. The American Postal Workers Union argues that this funding should be waived in order to shore up current operations. One might argue that this is a short-sighted view.

There are about 560,000 active employees of the USPS, the second-largest employer in the private sector behind Walmart, if you concede that the USPS is a private sector employer. It doesn’t receive any taxpayer money (yet), but Congress does allow it to borrow up to $15 billion per year.

At 480,000 strong, retirees of the USPS and their survivors almost equal the number of active employees. Promises of making changes to the retirement benefits system without affecting any current or retired employees are likely to be empty. That is, of course, unless taxpayers come to the rescue.

All of this stacks up to a shrinking number of employees (already down by 121,000 since 2007) and a tipping point of more people drawing on retiree benefits than the number of people contributing to the system. Click here to read how the USPS proposes to manage this issue.

Life after the postal service

I don’t know if it will ever come to it, but I started thinking about how I would manage my affairs without the USPS. What would take its place? Does anything need to take its place?

All of our bill payments and statements are handled online. Investment statements and transactions—all online. As a CPA, we send client organizers in the mail, but my software system has an online organizer feature. I send thank you cards to my campaign contributors, but could hand deliver most of them.

My guess is that competition for what’s left of the first class mail would result in UPS and FedEx creating a Buck-An-Envelope service that would deliver up to 8 ounces or so (about 8 sheets of paper) for $1. Though more than twice as much as First Class rates of today, I would use it because my need would be infrequent.

How would you manage without the USPS? Can you imagine that becoming a reality?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Town of Sandwich special town meeting is Monday

Zoning bylaws are a perfect example of where the devil is in the details. Spend a little time looking over the warrant this weekend and come prepared to debate and vote on these important changes on Monday night, 7pm at Sandwich High School.

There are several other interesting articles queued up for Monday's spectacle of democracy in action. Click here to view the entire warrant.


November 7, 2011 – Special Town Meeting
Index of Warrant Articles

1. Increase FY’12 School Department Appropriation to Match Ch. 70 Appropriation
2. Appropriation for SEIC
3. Appropriation for Unemployment Account – Transfer from Group Health 
Insurance Account
4. Beach Account Transfer: Oak Crest Cove Parking Lot Drainage Improvements
5. CPA Appropriation: Restoration & Protection of Historic Town Records
6. CPA Appropriation: Town Neck Beach Management Plan & Old Harbor Inlet 
Stabilization Project Permitting
7. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of 3 Tarantino Parcels
8. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of Schmonsees Parcel
9. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of Falcione Parcel
10. Authorization to Grant Easement on Town SSVC Land off Quaker Meetinghouse 
Road
11. Authorization to Accept Easement off Tarragon Drive
12. Zoning By-laws: Change BL-1 & BL-2 References to B1 & B2
13. Zoning By-laws: Section 2600
14. Zoning By-laws: Section 3510
15. Zoning By-laws: Sections 4500 – 4505, 2600, and 2540
16. Zoning By-laws: Section 3100, 3130, and 3120
17. Zoning By-laws: Article VI–A, Sections 6000 – 6625
18. Zoning By-laws: Definitions Section