Sunday, June 24, 2012

27 cents a gallon to cross the bridge?

The opening of Market Basket in Bourne at the Sagamore Bridge brings a smile to my face. Competition is good.

While people drive in circles looking for a parking spot at Market Basket, there are plenty of open spaces at Stop & Shop. Of course there is the attraction of a brand new store that always draws a crowd, but the pricing differential between the two chains is well known by those who frequent the Market Basket in New Bedford and other towns.

This disparity in pricing has been even more exaggerated in the Towns of Bourne and Sandwich, where Stop & Shop has enjoyed a veritable monopoly since they scarfed up the old Grand Unions on Clay Pond Road, closing it, and Quaker Meetinghouse Road, refurbishing it.

The gig's up. Now is the time for all good competitors to come to the aid of their customers.

On a similar note, there is a magical price increase for gasoline and diesel when crossing the bridges onto Cape Cod. I drive a diesel car to the Statehouse and last Thursday I noticed a sign at the Irving station at Route 6A and the Connector Road in Sagamore advertising diesel at $3.919/gallon.

I crossed the bridge and stopped at the Sorenti Brothers Shell station, where the price was $3.649/gallon, a 27-cent difference. Filling a 20-gallon tank would generate a difference equal to buying lunch at the new McDonald's next to the Sorenti station.

Though I don't think that 27-cents per gallon, a 7% difference, is tantamount to price gouging, I do think that we can discourage is kind of profiteering by driving past the more expensive station until they get the message.

As a consumer, you can put yourself in the driver's seat by driving by noncompetitive businesses of all types.

Next step: How to get the attention of monopoly, regulated utilities...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

VALOR Act and Post 9/11 GI Bill are keys to transitioning from military to civilian life

Governor Deval Patrick signed the VALOR Act into law on May 31, 2012. Some of the provisions of this law are:

1) Provides greater access to financial assistance for veteran-owned small businesses;

2) Affords greater opportunities for service-disabled veterans to participate in public projects;

3) Makes it easier for children of military personnel to transfer between school districts and states;

4) Expands support by the Massachusetts Military Family Relief Fund to Gold Star Families, including uncapping the property tax exemption in year six and beyond (was $2,500);

5) Calls for Board of Higher Education to develop policies that consider a student's military occupation, training, coursework and experience for academic credit;

6) Allows for military training to be used for qualifying for trade and professional certifications;

7) Allows towns to adopt up to a $1,000 real estate tax abatement for veterans who provide volunteer services to their towns.

Veterans looking to continue their education should become familiar with the Post 9/11 GI Bill and other GI bills that focus on various aspects of higher education and skills training. A veteran with 36 months active duty or with a disability discharge can take advantage of 100%-paid tuition and fees at state universities.

Resources

VALOR Act press release: http://www.mass.gov/governor/pressoffice/pressreleases/2012/2012531-governor-signs-valor-act.html

VALOR Act: http://www.randyhuntcpa.com/podcasts/Bill_S02269_VALOR_Act_2012.pdf

GI Bill: http://www.gibill.va.gov/

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VOW to Hire Heroes Act 2011: http://www.benefits.va.gov/VOW/

Massachusetts Veterans Assistance: http://www.massvetsadvisor.org/

Randy Hunt, State Representative / randy.hunt@mahouse.gov
Susann Koelsch, Legislative Aide / susann.koelsch@mahouse.gov

District Office
297 Quaker Meeting House Road
East Sandwich, MA 02537
(508) 888-2158

Friday, June 15, 2012

Plastic grocery bag ban contemplated

In a never ending effort to modify our behavior in the name of saving the environment, there is an effort afoot to ban single-use plastic grocery bags. Arguments for doing this:

1) Hawaii and several California cities did it, including Los Angeles. At the same time, to encourage multiple-use grocery bags, the L.A. city council voted to put a 10-cent fee on each paper bag you use. See: http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2012/0524/Los-Angeles-to-become-largest-US-city-banning-plastic-bags

2) The bags foul the environment and not biodegradable, although there are some biodegradable formulations being tested.

3) Birds and sea creatures ingest them, resulting in millions of deaths.

Vote in our poll on this issue at the right.

Here is the form letter that legislators are receiving on this issue:
Single-use plastic bags represent one of the greatest environmental
catastrophes of our generation. It is estimated that 60-80% of all
debris in the ocean is land-based plastic. Plastics take hundreds of
years to break down at sea and most types never truly biodegrade. 
Plastic bags are so aerodynamic that even when properly disposed of,
they can still blow away and become litter. They easily escape from
garbage trucks, landfills, boats, and often average consumers' hands.
Not only a visible eyesore, plastic bags are dangerous to wildlife.
They are often mistaken for food by marine mammals and seabirds. The
United Nations estimates that plastic bags kill 1 billion animals per
year. These animals suffer a painful death as the plastic wraps around
their intestines or they choke to death. 
I urge you to support the Plastic Bag Ban, S.353/H.1990. This important
bill would ban the distribution of plastic checkout bags in larger
stores. 
Laws of this type have been enacted around the world and on every
continent, including Nantucket (over 20 years ago, the first in the
United States), San Francisco, Westport, Connecticut, Edmonds,
Washington, Los Angeles County, CA, Brownsville, Texas; Bethel, Alaska,
North Carolina's Outerbanks Region, Portland, Oregon; Seattle,
Washington, San Jose, California, 30 rural villages in Alaska, and many
cities throughout Canada.  Countries that have banned or restricted
them include: China,  Israel, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Hong Kong,
Taiwan, Singapore, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Thailand,
several states in India, three states and territories of Australia,
Paris, Mexico City, Rajasthan (India), Sikkim (India), Taiwan,
Singapore, Bangladesh, Malawi, Germany, Sweden, Paris, Mexico City, and
three states/territories of Australia.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bottle bill goes to study, again...

The "updated bottle bill" has been making the rounds on Beacon Hill for at least a dozen years. It has broad support and generally polls favorably; certainly my own polling shows that between 55 and 60% of the 5th Barnstable District voters favor it. No doubt this would be a higher number if we polled our students under age 18.

The primary function of the updated bottle bill is to include water and juice bottles in the bottle deposit system. Five cents deposit, five cents refunded upon bringing the bottle to a redemption machine or center.

Many believe that the deposit constitutes an additional burden on residents of the state. Arguments have been waged on whether or not the deposit is a tax because the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, pledged not to increase taxes or fees during this two-year legislative session. I would argue that it is not a tax, however, the governor included $20 million in his fiscal year 2013 budget for unclaimed deposits related to the proposed updated bottle bill. That fostered opinions about the deposit not being a tax or fee but rather a gimmick, which the speaker also ruled out for this session.

Irrespective of where you come down on this issue, the realities of politics in the Statehouse settled into Hearing Room A-2 this morning at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, of which I'm a member. The updated bottle bill (actually a collection of several senate and house bills) was scheduled for a vote. The options were to put it to a further study ("yes" vote) or to let it die in committee ("no" vote). There was no option to vote the bottle bill out of committee favorably, a step that queues a bill up for a potential appearance on the house and senate floors.

Voting "yes" would keep the flame under the bottle bill, at least for the chance that there would be an effort made to study it in the context of bringing out a more comprehensive recycling bill next session. Voting "no" would kill it in its tracks, but could also be construed as a vote "for" the bottle bill. That's how tangled up things get here under the gold dome.

I voted to commit the bill to study, and articulated my position:

1) Every recyclable item should be recycled if practicable.

2) I practice what I preach.

3) The Town of Sandwich adopted pay-as-you-throw (PAYT), a program that has increased recycling by more than 50% and saved the town around $400,000 in its first year of implementation.

4) The current and proposed bottle bills create an additional stream of recyclable bottles that can be dealt with by a PAYT program or other recycling initiatives for less cost. That is, sending deposit bottles through a redemption process instead of straight to a recycler is a waste of time, fuel, and administrative expense.

5) The attractive part of the updated bottle bill is the fact that litter contains relatively few deposit bottles, and when it does, someone is likely to pick them up. Of course, bottle scavengers won't be picking up Dunkin' Donuts cups or McDonald's bags. We need a better way to solve the litter problem on a bigger scope.

6) I'd like to see a statewide effort to address recycling and litter awareness.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sandwich super's case isn't over until it's over

January 11, 2012: It appears that the appeals court consisting of a three-judge panel is seeing eye-to-eye with our former superintendent's counsel. See the article in the Cape Cod Times at: http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120111/NEWS/201110341/-1/NEWS11

Will Mary Ellen Johnson win her appeal, returning the case back to Barnstable Superior Court for a second look?

UPDATE on June 8, 2012: Yes. The appeals court agreed that the superintendent's contract was valid and that ADA Stack's letter was an opinion, holding no legal weight.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Health care payment reform bill includes important accommodations for small businesses

As I am apt to do when the Massachusetts House of Representatives votes on a controversial bill (see my commentary on the casino bill as an example: http://randyhuntcpa.blogspot.com/2011/10/casino-gaming-bill-will-pass-but-at.html), I like to provide insight into my reasons for my yea or nay vote.

Yesterday, the House passed H.4127, "An Act improving the quality of health care and reducing costs through increased transparency, efficiency and innovation" (that's a mouthful) on a 148 to 7 vote. The seven nay votes were from freshmen Republicans who are opposed to any expansion of government bureaucracy and skeptical of the claims of cost containment by the bill proponents.

I share these concerns. It gives me heartburn imagining what the proposed Division of Health Care Cost and Equality is going to look like in ten years. Regarding cost containment, even the crafters of this bill predict only the softening of the steep incline that health care costs have been on for the past decade (or more).

Here's the reality for anyone who is a state representative in Massachusetts, irrespective of party. We all knew that H.4127 and a number of the 275 amendments were going to pass yesterday. The Speaker of the House does not bring a major bill to the floor that might not pass.

For the Democrats, a vote against the bill would be political suicide, so no one expected any majority party members to fall out of line.

For the Republicans, we had a choice, the same choice we are faced with everyday on Beacon Hill as the party outnumbered 127 to 33: Go hard line, making this vote a stand for conservative principles, or work with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to improve a bill that makes sweeping changes to our health care economy.

I chose the latter. As a pragmatic person, knowing that the bill was going to pass come hell or high water, I worked with a number of representatives to make important changes that will benefit small businesses across the commonwealth. Those people are Representatives Walsh (D) of Lynn, Forry (D) of Boston, Jones (R) of North Reading, Peterson (R) of Grafton, Kafka (D) of Stoughton, Keenan (D) of Salem, Peake (D) of Provincetown, Toomey (D) of Cambridge, Hogan (D) of Stow, Atkins (D) of Concord, Benson (D) of Lunenburg, McMurtry (D) of Dedham, DiNatale (D) of Fitchburg, Calter (D) of Kingston, Fox (D) of Boston, Coppinger (D) of Boston, Dykema (D) of Holliston, OConnell (R) of Taunton, DEmilia (R) of Bridgewater, Levy (R) of Marlborough, and Turner (D) of Dennis.

The amendment we crafted, which passed unanimously, does three important things for small businesses relative to the Fair Share Contribution (FSC) calculation. (If you don't know what this is, there is information at http://www.mass.gov/lwd/unemployment-insur/fair-share-contribution-fsc/. In a nutshell, companies with more than ten full-time-equivalent (FTE) employees must have at least 25% of their employees participating in their health insurance plan or show that their employees have turned down the offer of employer-provided health insurance subsidized by the company at a minimum of 33%.)

1)    Employees who have qualified health insurance coverage through a spouse, parent, veterans plan, Medicare, Medicaid or a plan or plans due to a disability or retirement shall not be included in the numerator or denominator for purposes of determining whether an employer is a contributing employer.

2)    The definition of a seasonal employee is changed to include seasonal employees of businesses that do not close down for a period of time each year. These seasonal employees are also excluded from the Fair Share Contribution calculation.

3)    The Fair Share Contribution threshold is increased from 10 FTE employees to 20 FTE employees.

These three changes will provide huge relief for businesses that have been hammered by the FSC auditors and pay an inordinate amount of the fines assessed. The problem has always been that the 10-employee threshold was unrealistic. My amendment called for a 50-employee threshold, which coincides with the national Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), but every step forward in politics is a compromise.

We also fought valiantly for a more affordable "mandate lite" health insurance plan that could be offered for 25% less than the "Cadillac" plans that currently mandated, but lost the vote along party lines.

The next step is to fight to ensure that the small business amendment stays in the language of the compromise bill to be released by the conference committee after they meet to reconcile the senate and house versions of the act.

I made a pledge to fight for our small businesses when I campaigned for the state rep seat in 2010 and I am following through on that promise.

============================================================

The following is the official press release offered to representatives by the speaker's office.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                           
June 5, 2012                                                                                     
           
House Passes Bill to Cut Health Care Costs

(BOSTON) –State Representative [Rep name] joined [his/her] colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives today in passing legislation that addresses the unsustainable cost of health care while allowing the health care industry to continue to provide world-class quality care.

This legislation seeks to reduce health care costs while allowing our world renowned health care system to thrive. It provides for several areas: Division of Health Care Cost and Equality, transparency, Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMH), Accountable Care Organizations (ACO), alternative payment methodologies, consumer protection, Health Information Technology (HIT), health care cost growth targets, price variation, smart tiering, medical malpractice reform, workforce development, Medicaid, and administrative simplification.

“I hear frequently from businesses and consumers about the burden high health care costs put on them. Now we can provide relief. Just as Massachusetts leads the way in establishing health coverage for its residents, it will now lead the nation in finding a responsible way to curb health costs thanks to the tireless work of Chairman Walsh and the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. “This legislation, years in the making, makes measured changes to our health care system, creates the opportunity for Massachusetts to create and attract jobs, and, most importantly, considers the basic needs of patients and providers in all corners of this state.”

“I applaud Speaker DeLeo and Chairman Walsh for their bold vision in tackling the skyrocketing cost of health care that is crippling state and local budgets, prohibiting businesses from reinvesting in their workforces, and unduly burdening the Commonwealth’s working families,” said House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano. “When we passed first-in-the nation health care reform in 2006, giving residents of the Commonwealth unprecedented access to care, this second phase of health care reform was always on the horizon. While we made great strides with small business cost containment legislation in 2010, the market has not moved fast enough to curb the rising costs of health care for consumers. This bill builds on the progress the health care industry has made and goes further by addressing the urgent fiscal needs of our community hospitals, providing them with an essential lifeline.”

“Massachusetts has the best health care system in the nation, but we also lead in medical spending,” said Chairman Steven Walsh.  “Health insurance premiums for a family average over $15,000 annually and mean lower wages, and less money for mortgages, rent, car payments, food, and tuition. This legislation focuses on increasing efficiency, eliminating waste, and curbing costs, all while enhancing the quality of care that our patients receive. We will not only save money for Massachusetts citizens, but we will save our health care system over $160 billion in the next fifteen years.”

The legislation provides patients’ tools to make informed health care decisions. Under this legislation, consumers will gain access to detailed comparative price and quality information; they will also gain important information from providers about services and payment.

The bill promotes health information technology and the use of electronic health records that will bring efficiencies and cost savings. The implementation of a fully interoperable health information exchange by 2017 will allow for secure electronic exchange of health records amongst providers.

This legislation provides further support to patients by allowing patients and providers to voluntarily join an ACO and ensuring that the ACO providers will be responsible for helping patients make decisions on their health care needs, including long-term care and supports like home care, nursing home care, and palliative care.

This bill also seeks to reduce miscommunication and fragmented care by establishing patient-centered medical homes, providing a patient with a single point of coordination for all their health care needs. This bill also provides consumers with new protections, giving patients the right to appeal medical decisions made by their ACO doctors and giving patients the right to receive a second opinion from any provider.

This bill reduces medical spending by setting a target for health care spending to grow less rapidly than the gross state product and allowing consumers to spend out-of-pocket, or through supplemental insurance, for any service or procedure they deem appropriate.

In these tough economic times, this legislation also helps our local hospitals, many of which are struggling to stay afloat. This bill requires high-cost providers to show quality or unique service to justify their higher prices and creates a one-time assessment on payers and providers with more than $1 billion in reserves to protect our community hospitals through a Distressed Hospital Fund. Community hospitals may apply for a competitive grant from this Fund, allowing them to thrive over the next 36 months before anticipated savings from the reform allow them to flourish on their own.

Under the bill, a number of functions will fall under the Division of Health Care Cost and Quality, which, like the existing Group Insurance Commission, will operate as an independent agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Other provisions of the bill include:
·        The adoption of alternative payment methodologies such as global and bundled payments for acute and chronic conditions as the industry transitions away from the fee-for-service reimbursement system that promotes quantity rather than quality;
·        The creation of a smart tiering system that makes services that are often unaffordable for some patients more accessible for patients by allowing payers to tier by service rather than facility and allowing patients to pay reasonable cost-sharing for more expensive unique services;
·        The implementation of the University of Michigan Health System’s Disclosure, Apology and Offer program, which resulted in a decrease of litigation costs and a reduction of malpractice claims;
·        The further development of a well-trained health care workforce through training, placement, and career ladder service programs, loan forgiveness grants for primary care providers, and residency funding in primary care settings;
·        The improvement of the operation of the Medicaid program; and
·         The simplification of administrative procedures in health care settings.

###

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why didn't I participate?

Guest article by Jim Pierce, Sandwich selectman

NOTE: Vote in our poll at the right regarding voter participation.

When I realized how strong a force, or non-force, apathy was, I started looking at my own past. I lived in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for four years, Bedford, Massachusetts for eight years, Lewiston, New York for seven years, Letchworth, UK for four years, Hokessin, Delaware for four years, Raleigh, North Carolina for ten years, and back in Sandwich from 2002 to 2009. Not once over those 44 years did I participate in a purely local election. I had a good excuse in Letchworth: I wasn't a citizen.

The surface excuse I used to rationalize non-participation in all the other cases was family and career didn't leave me time. But does that argument hold water? How much time would it have taken to become familiar with local government? Now we get to the crux of the problem. The time required depends on whether local government was trying to make it easy for me to understand or not. I don't know whether those other towns were reaching out or not. I suspect not. I can tell you that until recently Sandwich has made little or no effort to reach out to non-participants.


Why do I say, until recently? What do voters need to know to contribute? They need to know what the issues are. They need to know how the system works. They need to know who the candidates are. They need to know where the candidates stand on the issues. Today any voter can pick up a copy of the Town Meeting Warrant or go to the Town web site and read the Selectmen's Long Range Plan in about 15 minutes. They will then have a functional knowledge of the issues. They can also go to Town Hall, the Town Hall Annex, or the Town web site and view a copy of a four page brochure, "How the Town of Sandwich is Governed." If they spend a half an hour with that, they will have a functional knowledge of how the system works.


Our local newspapers do a decent job on candidate profiles come election time. However, they might do a better job at eliciting where those candidates stand on critical issues. The questions in newspaper interviews and on candidate night are generally "soft balls." We also don't make very good use of Sandwich Community Television, various blogs and other social media. If we choose to do so, we can make it easy for the voters to know the issues, the system, the candidates, and where the candidates stand on the issues. Or, we can continue to keep the voters in the fog and hope to move forward by playing to the few who do show up.


I remain hung up on the Thomas Jefferson quote. "The success of democracy depends on the participation of an educated and informed electorate." In Sandwich the electorate is well educated. My theory, which may be dead wrong, is that they would participate if we made it easy for them to become informed. Can we use 21st century information technology to revitalize the 17th century New England Open Town Meeting? Before we toss the baby out with the bath water, we should at least try.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is Elizabeth Warren getting exasperated?

Have you noticed how put out Elizabeth Warren has become having to field question after question about her supposed Native American heritage? Her neck muscles tense up. She shakes her head incessantly.

Here's one of many clips of Warren reacting to questions about her heritage, which I might remind everyone is a bed that she made for herself.


Warren's breathless demonstration of her exasperation inspired me to write a song, sung to the melody of Desperado.

Exasperado

Exasperado, why don't you stop with your spinning?
You've been denying the hard facts for so long now
Oh, your a rich one
I know that your occupiers
Don't care that your high cheek bones
Can hurt you somehow

Don't you draw the line of heritage
Unless you're sure it's truthful
You know the genealogy is quite suspect

Now it seems to me some falsehoods
Have been laid upon your table
But you only want the truth to go away

Exasperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no traction
Your spin and your actions, they're drivin' you down
And winning, oh winning well, that's just some people talkin'
Your reason for running for the senate is done.