Monday, April 30, 2012

Town of Sandwich political sign policy

It must be either 1) difficult to obtain a copy of this policy, or 2) difficult for candidates to read a two-page document. (Really, guys and gals, it's only one page without the giant Town of Sandwich letterhead and logo.)

Get your copy here.

A few observations about this policy:

1) There are many places where it's difficult to get a sign ten feet off the pavement, although my house is not one of them. Sometimes, the state road crews will pluck signs along Routes 6A and 130 that are within their right-of-way, which is 25 feet from the center of the road. My suggestion is to do your best to comply with this rule.

2) Only three locations on town property are allowed for political sign placement (other than at the polling locations on election day). They are a) on the corner of Cotuit Road and Quaker Meeting House Road across the street from the liquor store (where the public safety building is being proposed), b) at the island where Route 6A and Old Main Street meet (across from the fish hatchery), and c) at the grassy area adjacent to the DPW entrance. In each of these three areas, only one sign per candidate is allowed. Did I mention that in each of these three areas, only one sign per candidate is allowed?

3) Every other town-owned parcel is not available for political signs nor is any state property. You know that island at the intersection of Quaker Meeting House Road and Route 6A? The one with the flashing red light?

4) There is a "gentlemen's agreement" that we wait until 30 days prior to an election to erect signs. The policy allows for 60 days, convenient for statewide and countywide races for which there is a primary and a general election. The reality is that 30 days is plenty of time for us to get used to the signs and stop "seeing" them. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that erecting a sign on private property would be upheld by the Supreme Court no matter when it's displayed. Something in the U.S. Constitution about that, as I recall.

Here's my takeaway on this: If a candidate for select board, school committee, planning committee, or any other elected position is unable or unwilling to follow this straight forward policy, then that person doesn't deserve my vote. No discipline on the easy stuff means no discipline on the complicated stuff.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

EBT card reforms pass the House, some Democrats apoplectic

For two years in a row, Wednesday night's eleventh hour during "budget week" produced a splitting headache for Massachusetts House Democrats.

Last year, the House voted to give municipalities control of their health insurance plans' co-pays and deductibles without the need to collectively bargain any changes. Unions were there in strength all week long during the budget negotiations and had the gallery packed at 11:30 pm. A threatening email from the AFL-CIO had been sent earlier in the week making it clear that going against the unions would be detrimental to politicians' careers. See the email and my response to it here.

In a split vote among Democrats, a majority was established in favor of the insurance reforms before the Republican caucus of 32 logged its votes, all supportive of the measure. The choice for Democrats was the possibility of losing their union support (meaning that there could be primary challengers in 2012 offered up by the unions) or losing favor with the Speaker of the House and potentially derailing their Statehouse ambitions.

This year, the Wednesday Night Fights were about electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards and the unending news stories about the latest Fraud of the Week. These cards have replaced welfare payments by check as well as food stamps. The accounts are loaded with the appropriate amount of money each month, depending on the beneficiary's situation, which is to be used for the necessities of life.

To set the stage for the debate, you should know that Shaunna O'Connell, freshman Republican representative from Taunton (the one who beat James Fagan after his unfortunate tirade on the House floor promising to rip apart child rape victims at trial if Jessica's Law was passed), sponsored a bill last year to create a commission to study the problem of EBT card fraud and abuse. The commission completed its work last month, essentially declaring that system is pretty good as is. The loophole in how these cards work is that they can be used at ATMs, thereby circumventing any restriction of use placed upon them. Undaunted, O'Connell filed a budget amendment to force reasonable restrictions onto EBT card use, including closing the ATM loophole.

The other key component to this debate is a dynamic that operates at the Statehouse on every issue, as I alluded to earlier. That is, there is potential retribution for any Democrat who votes counter to the Speaker. There are times when a contrarian vote is allowed, such as when a representative is vulnerable in his/her election and needs to vote in line with the district's constituents, but advanced approval of these votes is encouraged.

On a side note, I always thought that representatives were supposed to represent their constituents. I understand that issues of conviction, such a one's position on the death penalty, could be an exception to this rule, but voting against having the state collect its outstanding debts rather than writing them off seems nonsensical to me. Yes, this was voted down yesterday because the Speaker was a nay vote. Trust me, if the Speaker's light had been green (a yea vote), the measure would have passed. Many opinions seem to be informed solely by the color of a light on the tote board.

The debate on EBT card reform started at about 11:15 pm, coincident with the distribution of a "further amendment" that replaced O'Connell's amendment in its entirety. We all have been critical of the U.S. Congress releasing bills without sufficient time for the representatives to read them prior to a vote. In this case, the further amendment was literally being distributed while people were at the podium debating its merits. A court officer was positioned to prevent legislators from walking in front of the representative speaking at the podium.

Two of the speakers, both Democrats against the further amendment, actually made a point of the fact that this legislation was sprung on the members at the eleventh hour (quite literally) and that it references a ten-page list in eight-point font of licensed professional occupations in the Massachusetts General Laws. How could anyone in this chamber read all of that?

The answer, of course, is that given zero time to do so, not even Evelyn Wood would have a shot at accomplishing this feat. It is interesting for me to watch Democrats pointing out obvious breaches of common sense, only to be rebuked by their own leadership.

One freshman Democratic representative from Boston spoke in favor of the further amendment, pointing out that paying for drugs, alcohol and pornography with EBT cards only perpetuates behavior that is destructive to the family unit. I like that guy.

A veteran Democrat railed at the further amendment saying that it was not at all about getting at the fraud and abuse in our welfare system, but rather it was a thinly veiled attack on the underclass, saying that "this amendment is not pro-taxpayer. This amendment is anti-poor person."

When the question was called, there were 122 votes for the further amendment and 33 against. The issue is far from being resolved, however. The Senate is likely to take out some of the more onerous parts of the bill, like banning the purchase of cosmetics with EBT cards, if they decide to include EBT reform in their version of the fiscal year 2013 budget at all. With respect to the governor, no doubt he will veto this outside section if it is close in form to what was passed last night.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Forty years’ worth of driving tips

I remember my fifteenth birthday clearer than any I’ve had, including last year’s, although that’s not unusual since I can no longer remember what I had for breakfast. The other day, I wished a couple of parting tax clients to “have a good weekend.” It was Monday.

There it was, sitting by the garage. A brand new candy apple blue 1972 Honda CL100. I had owned a mini-bike for a few years, but this was my first street legal ride.

Several days later, I passed my written driver’s test and headed outside the Department of Motor Vehicles for my road test. The state trooper followed behind with my dad riding shotgun. Through the bullhorn mounted in the grill of the police car, I listened to instructions to turn right, turn left, stop quickly, etc.

We finished road test and I was handed my temporary license. In those days, the real license was produced and shipped from a central location, probably a prison somewhere.

Since that day nearly forty years ago I’ve been compiling a list of driving tips that I follow religiously and, so far, have kept me out of any serious crashes.

My only crash was in Mexico when an 18-wheeler cut me off on a left turn at an intersection, rolling over the right front quarter of my Dodge Intrepid. Not my fault, although in Mexico they haul everyone to jail while they sort out who’s telling the truth (or who bolsters their story with the most cash).

As it turns out, the list is quite short, but I invite my friends to add to the list with their own jewels of wisdom.

1)    Pay attention. I love driving and I can’t imagine what could be more important than paying attention to your driving, especially while you’re driving. I see people climb into their SUVs after loading their groceries and the first thing they do is place a cell phone call. Like talking on the phone is the main thing you do between points A and B.

2)    Pay attention when you’re first in line at a traffic light. Okay, for those who consider it unreasonable to pay attention at all times while driving, at least pay attention for the minute or two when you’re in front of the line at a red light. Is that too much to ask?

3)    You can’t drive through the car in front of you. When you’re merging onto another road and someone is stopped in front of you attempting the same feat, don’t even bother turning to look for oncoming traffic until the car in front of you is gone. I was witness to my father committing this error before I got my Honda. He thought he saw the lady in front of us take off, immediately he turned to look for oncoming traffic, and hit the gas. He traveled six feet before realizing that the lady had only moved up to get a better view. A $1,000 mistake.

4)    Difference in speed kills. Don’t merge onto a highway going 40 mph slower than everyone else. And if you are one of those people who comes to a complete stop before entering Route 6 at Exit 2 (just using a “for example”), please turn in your drivers license as soon as possible and start taking public transportation.

5)    It’s illegal to use the left lane of a multiple lane road for anything except to pass other cars and make a left turn. If you’re one of those people who plant themselves in the left lane on Route 3 (again, just a “for example”) at 60 mph in order to prove a point, read this summary of “keep right” laws (and die).

6)    Use your blinkers. I always wonder why someone would pay $60,000 for a Mercedes that doesn’t have turn signals. And, yes, I am aware that using your blinker is a sign of weakness on the Southeast Expressway. The appropriate compromise is to blink once or twice at the time you make your move. That’s not asking permission; it’s saying “I hope you notice that I’m cutting you off.”

7)    Back out of a parking space only as far as you need to. If you have backed out far enough to clear the cars next to you, stop backing up. Seriously. You haven’t hit anything yet so count your blessings and put the transmission in drive. Continuing to back up until another car stops you is expensive.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cape Wind will save electricity ratepayers $7.2 billion over 25 years. Not!!

Charles River Associates has updated a 2010 analysis, now claiming that the Cape Wind project will save ratepayers $7.2 billion over 25 years. That’s several billion more than promised by the 2010 study. You know what they say… A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we’re talking real money.

I will explain the concept behind this calculation in very broad strokes because this is an issue that quickly gets into the “weeds.”

Distributors of electricity purchase the energy from generators using two methods:

1) Contracting for X amount of electricity at certain prices. These are called power purchase agreements (PPAs).

2) Purchasing electricity on the spot market. Prices are bid by generators every day for the next day’s supply. Our market is managed by ISO New England, a nonprofit regional transmission organization. ISO stands for independent system operator.

The Charles River study focuses on the effect of Cape Wind's energy on the daily spot market. Each day, ISO NE takes bids for the next day's estimated requirement of electricity. These bids are entered into a "bid stack" which is ordered by cost of fuel. The daily bids are laid in on top of the electricity contracted by PPAs because the contracts create an obligation to purchase a certain amount of electricity each day.

A typical bid stack will have energy from PPAs, then renewables (since their fuel cost is zero), then coal, natural gas and oil. ISO NE then draws a line across the bid stack equal to the amount of electricity estimated to be consumed the following day. Those generators above the line--the highest priced bids--are told not to run. A good example of this is the GenOn Canal Plant in Sandwich, an oil-fired generation facility that rarely runs because of its high cost of fuel.

Those generators whose bids are accepted are told to run and receive payment equal to the highest accepted bid. That's a separate issue, but an interesting one. For example, a coal powered generator with fuel cost well below the maximum bid doesn't sell electricity at the price it bids, rather at the price of the generator that barely made the cut.

The study by Charles River calculated the cost of bids that would be pushed above the cutoff due to Cape Wind occupying space in the bid stack along with other PPAs and as a spot market generator with zero fuel cost. Their number is $7.2 billion over a 25-year period.

Let's assume that oil powered generators are the ones being pushed out of competition with fuel prices in the range of 15 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost of Cape Wind's contract at 17.5 cents per kilowatt hour ranging up to 31.5 cents by the end of the PPA term more than offsets the savings of pushing oil-produced electricity above the cutoff in the bid stack.

Charles River added up the cost of electricity displaced from the bid stack and did not net the additional cost of wind-generated power. The study also speculates on cost of fossil fuels into the future, assuming the passage of a carbon tax and a significant rise in the price of natural gas. With those assumptions, they predict that renewables will be competitive with fossil fuel prices down the road. My only comment is that there is no carbon tax under discussion in Washington since the attempt to push one through while ObamaCare was capturing most of the headlines and new technologies in drilling for natural gas promise to hold prices down for decades.

It is important to note that there are environmental benefits from energy generation that does not directly produce greenhouse gases. The discussion does go beyond the economics and I agree that it should, but claiming $7.2 billion in savings will accrue because of the Cape Wind project is simply not credible.