Winter 2004

Winter 2004

Let towns have more power and regional planning may follow

In Massachusetts, the birthplace of town meeting, no civic value is more sacred than the idea of home rule. By the term “home rule,” people generally mean the right of every locality to control its own destiny. This appeal to local sovereignty is so strong that it is regularly invoked as the reason that solutions for problems that transcend municipal boundaries cannot be pursued. Why can’t more affordable housing be built, or water supplies regulated, or traffic congestion relieved? The answer always boils down to two words: home rule.

Yet here in the cradle of American democracy, self-determination is honored more in the breach than in the observance. After two years of examining the law–and the reality–of municipal control, we have concluded that home rule is more myth than fact in Massachusetts. What’s more, it’s a myth that hides where the true power lies, diverting attention from promising solutions to the region’s problems. Indeed, the true obstacle to regionalism in the Boston area, we have found, may not be too much home rule but too little.

Massachusetts got around to granting home rule to its cities and towns only in 1966. And it did so grudgingly. The Home Rule Amendment–Article 89 of the state Constitution–says that its purpose is to “grant and confirm to the people of every city and town the right of self-governance in local matters.” But it goes on to say that the right of self-governance does not extend to the power to regulate elections; to enact private or civil law; or to tax and borrow. In other words, home rule is alive and well–unless you think that holding an election, regulating local businesses, or determining the local budget are local matters.

Worse still, the Massachusetts Constitution empowers the Legislature to overrule any local decision on any matter at any time. As an official from Medfield put it: “[The] Legislature, by taking action, can preclude the local community from using the Home Rule Amendment to accomplish anything.” Many other states give their localities much more protection from state power than this. In some states localities are shielded from state legislative interference on local matters. California’s home rule provision, for example, enabled Los Angeles to establish public funding for local elections even though the state Legislature sought to prohibit it. It’s even more common for states to give their localities greater powers of initiative than Massachusetts does. Indeed, the exclusion of elections and revenue from home rule makes Massachusetts one of the most restrictive states in the nation in terms of home rule power.

Not even dog regulation is free of state interference.

Which is not to say that municipal officers have no powers. A Gloucester official pointed to one: pooper-scooper mandates. “That’s an area where municipalities have complete authority,” the official says. “But how important is that?” A Sherborn official suggests even dog regulation is not free of state interference. She says that the town could not address “dog complaints” without consulting with the state because it regulates penalties and hearings. In Topsfield, an official told us that the town did not change the fee for the local fair for fear it would be deemed an unauthorized tax. For many officials, the presumption is that a locality cannot act unless it has been expressly authorized to do so by the state.

Show them the money

Nowhere is the lack of local power more evident than in the area of municipal finance. Because of Proposition 2H, unfunded state mandates, and state limits on a locality’s ability to find alternative sources of income, most municipalities cannot decide how much to spend on services and then use that figure as the basis for tax rates.

This state control over local revenue and expenditures turns municipal budget calculations into an algebra equation that squeezes out local discretion. The only variables municipal authorities can use to adjust revenue and expenditures are the local services and programs that state regulations do not control. Much of a municipality’s actual fiscal power involves cutting locally initiated programs.

A town administrator from Reading discussed what he saw as a downward spiral. Without the ability to levy taxes or to find other ways to raise income, Reading raised property taxes up to the levy limit. Yet because the property tax rate is now higher than in areas around it, and because Reading lacks the authority to make rate adjustments, elderly residents, impacted by the property tax, have moved out, only to be replaced by families with kids. This increase in school-age children has led to an increase in educational services, which in turn has required more revenue to pay for these increased costs. The municipality can only react by cutting more services, trimming back on personnel, or, potentially, relying on its land use powers to limit new residents.

Land use planning–practically speaking, development control–is one area over which home rule is thought to be strongest. But even there, it’s not that strong. The American Planning Association recently listed Massachusetts as one of the states with the most outdated land use laws, and the Zoning Reform Working Group of its local chapter concluded: “Although technically a ‘home-rule’ state, the statutes that govern planning and land use regulation are so restrictive to local authority as to make home rule more an illusion than a reality in Massachusetts.”

The ways that state mandates inhibit local growth control are legion. The state prohibits localities from establishing maximum floor areas for houses (which might outlaw so-called McMansions); the state exempts its own use of land from local zoning, thereby inhibiting the planning process; the state grants developers vested rights to build under old zoning laws while new ones are being considered; and the state inhibits modification of existing zoning codes except on a two-thirds vote of the city council or town meeting. In all of these ways, state law threatens to prevent suburbs from acquiring the look and feel of the traditional New England towns, one of the region’s greatest assets.

Many people think that local control over education is an exception to this pattern. But, although it’s true that state law gives local residents control over education, it does so by fragmenting local power over schools. The reputation of their schools affects how municipalities develop. Yet while city and town governments are generally responsible for managing growth and economic development, state law gives school committees, rather than municipal officials, responsibility for management of the schools. Except in the city of Boston, these committees are not under the control of town or city government, which only have the ability to determine overall school department spending. It is important to recognize that, unlike municipal governments, school committees lack home rule as a constitutional matter. Quite the contrary: They are increasingly beholden to the state Board and Department of Education. We all know about MCAS, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

With little authority to take action on their own, localities must seek legislative permission for almost everything they want to do. More than half the state’s new statutes each year are responses to such “home rule petitions.” But that does not mean local officials always get what they ask for. Some speak of petitions that have been pending for more than five years. Others complain that their state representatives and senators, who shepherd these petitions through the Legislature, sometimes delay action for their own purposes or take the opportunity to extract favors. “It’s a God-awful process,” says one official, speaking for many.

Power to impede

Bereft of true authority over many matters, local officials have learned to make the most of the power they do have, especially to resist change and preserve the status quo. By making localities so subservient, the state has facilitated a kind of parochialism that frustrates cooperation between municipal neighbors.

Constraints on municipal revenue raising and expenditure make local officials averse to inter-local arrangements that might further diminish their power. They are equally reluctant to consider cooperative arrangements with other municipalities involving expenditures because of lingering fears that they may not come out ahead–or that voters will think a neighboring competitor has snookered them. So deep is this fear that some officials avoid cooperative efforts that would benefit their towns if the other municipality appears to get more out of the deal.

Or take the crisis in affordable housing. The statewide fair share housing mandate known as Chapter 40-B has certainly played an important role in overcoming local resistance to low- and moderate-income developments. And many localities have, in turn, done their best to undermine it. But, as designed, Chapter 40-B does little to give localities power to make their communities more socio-economically diverse.

For the first two decades of its life on the books, Chapter 40-B did not even count locally initiated affordable housing efforts toward the state mandate. Current provisions of state law erect legal obstacles to local efforts to preserve what affordable housing does exist within towns and cities. Others place significant limits on the ability of cities and towns to make developers set aside affordable units in new projects or pay into affordable housing trust funds. And, of course, the state limits on local fiscal control play a key role in making localities leery of young families likely to enroll their children in public schools.

So, if the lack of true home rule undermines the basis of trust and reciprocity necessary for crafting solutions to regional problems, granting local officials greater authority would not, by itself, give rise to regional cooperation. Indeed, more local autonomy might just generate more local parochialism.

Besides, the state has a legitimate and necessary role to play in regional issues. Many of the problems that communities face arise from actions taken by their neighbors. The state has to help resolve such conflicts. But now, the parochial mindset of many local actors often makes the state shy away from taking them on.

Still, rather than mandating regionalism from above, or coercing localities by tying funding to greater regional cooperation, the state could promote regionalism by responding to the widespread sentiment that the state has unduly limited home rule. The state can enhance local power–and relax existing limitations on it–as a carrot to induce greater regionalism.

The possibilities are numerous. Virtually every municipal official we interviewed emphasized the lack of local power over fiscal matters. In response, the state could grant a group of localities a limited power to impose a sales tax as long as they agree to share the new revenue. Alternatively, the state could reimburse localities for the lost revenue generated by state-owned, tax-exempt property as long as the municipalities collectively submitted to the state a plan detailing where such new state properties should be located.

The state can enhance local power as a carrot for greater regionalism.

The state could also increase municipal authority to offer tax abatements to encourage development on condition that the locality agrees to share a portion of the revenue generated with neighboring communities. The recent proposal by the state-appointed Chapter 40-B Task Force to provide communities increased state aid in return for making progress toward their Chapter 40-B housing requirements is very much in the spirit of what we have in mind.

Similar ideas could be used to enhance local land use power that would not involve fiddling with the revenue structure. One noteworthy example is the state’s insistence that developers be allowed to operate under existing zoning while the municipality considers changes. Since any move to alter its land use rules would presumably spur, in fire-sale fashion, just the kind of development local officials are hoping to discourage, this state requirement serves as a powerful disincentive against rethinking development guidelines. The state could encourage regional growth management by relaxing this rule for cities and towns that enter into regional land use planning agreements.

It would be easier still to foster collective action among the region’s towns and cities on issues such as transportation that, unlike revenue collection and land use planning, everyone agrees require regional solutions. Currently, localities have no authority to make the transportation decisions that affect their future development. That power now resides in the state Executive Office of Transportation and Construction, MassHighway, and other state-controlled agencies. Several towns noted that their own efforts to establish bus routes among neighboring suburbs were thwarted by the MBTA. Even the metropolitan planning organization for the Boston area, established to advise on the allocation of federal funding for highways and mass transit, has only seven of the region’s 101 cities and towns represented on the board, and they are outnumbered by state and federal officials. Giving all the region’s municipalities more influence on regional transportation policy could promote regionalism and increase home rule at the same time.

The mythology of home rule credits localities for power they don’t have.

These proposals would not fully address the problems facing Boston and other regions, nor would they restore home rule in the sense of wide local autonomy. But the mythology of home rule–which blames localities for exercising power they don’t really have–is impeding progress toward regionalism more than the reality is.

We need a new way of thinking about home rule, one that would empower cities and towns to work together to solve regional problems, not just go to the state with hat in hand–or dig in their heels against changes they have little power to control. If we listen closely to what local officials themselves are saying, we might discover that such an idea is closer than people think.

David J. Barron and Gerald E. Frug are professors at Harvard Law School, where Rick T. Su is a third-year law student. The full study on which this article is based, Dispelling the Myth of Home Rule, is being published by the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Where the odds favor single men, the Bay States mysterious budget a looming shortage of dentists, homeowners who stay put, a business-climate report card, whos buckling up

Where the odds favor single men, the Bay States mysterious budget a looming shortage of dentists, homeowners who stay put, a business-climate report card, whos buckling up

Temptation island?

Single women who like the odds to be in their favor might consider moving to Nantucket. According to the Web site ePodunk.com, the island is the only county in New England that has more single men than single women, with 105 available guys for every 100 detached dolls. (Essex County, Vt., comes the closest to equilibrium among the New England states, with 99 single men to every 100 single women.) But on the mainland, guys have the edge. Barnstable County is tied with Bristol County, RI, for the most lopsided population in the region, with just 74 single men for every 100 single women. Men would seem to have it made in Hampshire and Norfolk counties as well, where for every 100 single women there are only 75 single men.

The miscellaneous miracle

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (www.nasbo.org), the Bay State is relatively generous in funding public assistance programs but frugal when it comes to prisons and public schools. In analyzing state expenditures for fiscal 2002, NASBO ranked Massachusetts 46th in the percentage of funds going to higher education (4.3 percent, compared with 11.2 percent nationwide); 41st in spending on corrections (2.2 percent vs. 3.6 percent), in part because the Bay State excludes all of juvenile corrections and part of county jails from its spending report; and 40th in spending on elementary and secondary education (17.9 percent vs. 21.6 percent), which is still principally supported by local property taxes.

But the Bay State made the top 10 in two categories. It ranks second to California in the percentage of funds spent on public assistance (4.8 percent vs. 2.1 percent nationwide). And adding to the air of mystery that often surrounds the budget process here, Massachusetts ranks fifth in the percentage of spending going to “other” functions–that is, what’s left over after spending for Medicaid, transportation, and all the categories mentioned above. Massachusetts devotes 43.6 percent of its budget to these miscellaneous programs, compared with a national average of 32.6 percent. Oregon is tops in “other” spending (almost exactly 50 percent of the budget), while Wyoming reports no expenditures outside the major categories.

From fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2002, state expenditures in Massachusetts rose by 3.1 percent, which puts the Commonwealth in 41st place in terms of spending growth. When NASBO compared fiscal 2002 to state budgets for fiscal 2003, the Bay State fell to 46th in the rate of increase, with expenditures set to drop by 0.7 percent. The national average was an increase of 4.8 percent.

You’ll miss them when they’re gone

There’s decay in the dental profession, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (www.ncsl.org). Using data from the American Dental Association, the group warns that “the number of dentists in every state will severely decline in the next two decades because most are near retirement and too few are entering the profession.” As of 1999, about 69 percent of the nation’s dentists were older than 45, and many of them were cutting back their work hours in anticipation of retirement.

The study shows that the dental future was marginally brighter in Massachusetts, where 64 percent of dentists were older than 45; only California, Delaware, and New York had dental corps as youthful. The problem was worst in Maine, where 78 percent of the dentists were long in the tooth.

These old homebodies

Americans are becoming more mobile, but in Massachusetts plenty of people prefer to stay put. According to 2000 Census figures, 13.4 percent of households in the Bay State have occupied the same home for at least 30 years–which puts us in a tie for third place with neighboring Connecticut, behind Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Among Massachusetts communities, the compact town of Avon has the most stable population, with 37 percent of its 1,705 families living in the same home since 1969. Following closely behind are Everett, Adams, and Somerville. While those communities also have among the oldest housing supplies in the state (most of the homes and apartments were built before 1940), Avon has relatively modern housing stock. Only 31 percent of its residential units were built before 1940, compared with 35 percent statewide. It appears that Avon attracted a large number of families in the years between World War II and Watergate who bought new homes and grew old in them. But perhaps the words “upward” and “mobility” really do go together: This town of long-term residents placed 346th among the state’s 351 communities in the growth of median household income during the 1990s.

As for the towns with the lowest percentages of long-term residents, it’s no surprise that most are on Cape Cod or the South Shore. Only 106, or 2.4 percent, of Mashpee’s 5,256 households were there before 1970. The runners-up in this category are Brewster, Carver, and Sandwich.

Breathe our air, but stay off our bridges

Last fall Massachusetts was one of only three states to get straight As in an annual survey by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (www.cfed.org), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that monitors business climate and quality-of-life issues. The Bay State took top scores in the general areas of Performance (which includes employment, poverty and crime rates, and the cleanliness of the environment), Business Vitality, and Development Capacity. Only Minnesota and Virginia scored as well; Mississippi and West Virginia were at the bottom of the scale.

The Bay State scored particularly well in “resource efficiency” (thanks to recycling programs and reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals) and “protecting the health of its young citizens” (thanks to low rates of infant mortality and teenage pregnancy). But Massachusetts did pick up some demerits in income distribution, housing and energy costs, and the amount of private lending to small businesses.

Perhaps indicating that Massachusetts is better at building things than maintaining them, the state ranked first in venture capital investments and second in initial public offerings, but 49th in the state of its bridges.

Truckers refuse to buckle under

A record 62 percent of all vehicle occupants in Massachusetts used seat belts in June 2003, according to figures recently released by the Governor’s Highway Safety Bureau. That’s up from 51 percent in 2002, but still nothing to crow about compared with the national average of 79 percent. The bureau’s figures are based on an observation of 47,179 motor vehicles during the month of June.

Women, as drivers (73 percent) and as front-seat passengers (69 percent), were much more likely to buckle up than were male drivers (58 percent) or front-seat passengers (51 percent). And “senior” drivers (72 percent) were more cautious than teens behind the wheel (58 percent). Seat belts were most widely used in the Pioneer Valley and central Massachusetts regions, and most often ignored in the southeastern part of the state.

A majority of drivers and front-seat passengers in pick-up trucks were still riding without a net, but the lowest rates of seat-belt use were among operators and riders in commercial vehicles.

Counterpoint

In recent months, a growing number of public officials here in the Commonwealth and across the country have proposed schemes for city and state governments to import prescription drugs from Canada. While I am pleased that policy-makers are seeking ways to cut prescription drug costs for seniors and the uninsured, the importation of drugs from Canada is bad public policy. It is illegal, unsafe, and short-sighted.

The Food and Drug Administration has clearly stated that the agency cannot safeguard citizens who obtain prescription medications from outside the United States. This is why the FDA has said it is illegal to import prescription drugs from all foreign countries. In fact, the ban was enacted in 1987 because Congress determined that imported drugs “are a health and safety risk to American consumers.”

The US Secretary of Health and Human Services has the legal authority to permit importation, a power reaffirmed in the recent Medicare reform agreement, provided that the department certifies that patient safety will not be compromised. Secretaries from both Democratic and Republican administrations have refused to allow importation because they cannot guarantee the safety of re-imported drugs.

The FDA position has not changed and, until it does, any city that knowingly encourages employees to purchase medication outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA is breaking the law, putting its citizens at risk, and exposing municipal government to great liability. Even the author of a study commissioned by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich favoring the importation of drugs admits that the liability is “extremely high.” Not feeling it safe to pursue importation plans on their own, Illinois officials have asked the FDA to find ways for them to import safely and legally.

Furthermore, these proposals are bad public health policy. Importation undermines the relationship between a patient and his or her doctor and pharmacist. In order for a Canadian pharmacy to fill a prescription, it must be rewritten by a Canadian doctor who has never examined the patient. In Massachusetts, that would be a violation of the state’s Controlled Substance Act.

Community pharmacists are responsible for educating patients about their medication and the condition for which it is prescribed, completely reviewing the patient’s medication history, monitoring drug therapy over time, screening for adverse drug effects, and ensuring that patients take their medication correctly. Any policy that threatens to fragment or reduce these critical components of pharmaceutical care will endanger the health of patients.

When patients obtain their medications from Internet sites and storefronts, they give up a vital link in the health care chain and often give up their rights. Many companies that facilitate Canadian drug imports require customers to sign away their legal rights in the case of any medication-related problems. If this process is so safe, why do these companies require a waiver? No American pharmacy washes its hands of liability; pharmacists here are accountable to the courts, the law, and their patients.

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has a 180-year tradition of preparing its students to become registered pharmacists and respected health care professionals. Since pharmacy is one of this country’s most heavily regulated industries, a fundamental part of their education and training is unwavering compliance with the laws and regulations governing pharmacy practice. Students are taught to respect a system established in this country over 100 years ago to protect consumers and assure patients that the medications they receive are safe and effective. How do I explain to students that they must adhere to the laws, while these importation schemes, Internet sites, and storefront operations are free to flaunt the law and undermine our drug distribution system?

Proponents have said that these efforts are not intended to hurt pharmacists or their patients but are instead a tactic to pressure the pharmaceutical industry. I agree that the price disparity between the US and many foreign countries is problematic. There is clearly a need to bring about more rational pharmaceutical pricing and to end a system that forces American consumers to subsidize drug development for the world. However, I am strongly opposed to compromising the current system of pharmaceutical care and risking the health of patients to achieve short-term gain.

And what gain? The Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission, a state agency responsible for the health coverage of 135,000 public employees and $187 million in prescription drug expenditures, has studied the feasibility of importation and determined that the savings would not outweigh the risks and potential liability. The city of Springfield says it could save millions, but only with nearly 100 percent participation–very unlikely given that most people prefer to continue using their local pharmacy.

There are alternatives. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences currently operates MassMedLine, a free hotline (866-633-1617) that provides help for patients who have trouble paying for prescription drugs. Created several years ago by the Legislature, this program currently services over 13,000 citizens from around the Commonwealth. In the past year, MassMedLine obtained more than $7 million in relief for thousands of individuals by referring them to existing programs, discount cards, pharmaceutical industry programs, and, in many cases, by simply recommending more affordable generic drugs. All of MassMedLine’s efforts are legal, use in-state resources, and are proven effective in providing prescription drug cost relief.

The Division of Medical Assistance has determined that the savings from generic drugs exceed 80 percent, on average, roughly the same as that claimed by importation proposals. Many of the most popular generics are not available by Internet or mail order.

With the nation’s attention focused on the new Medicare legislation, the impact of rising prescription drug costs on seniors and those who cannot afford medication is a critical issue. While I applaud political leaders for addressing the issue, I am frustrated that importing foreign drugs is the only solution being considered to address these complex problems.

Buying drugs from unlicensed Internet and foreign pharmacy storefronts is a bad idea. Buying drugs outside the legal authority of the FDA is a worse idea. Encouraging a system that circumvents the patient’s relationship with their community pharmacist is downright dangerous.

Dennis Lyons, RPh, is executive director of the Center for Continuing Professional Development at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Argument

Can we talk honestly for a minute? Prescription drug prices are exorbitant. Drug companies defend their high prices–in particular, for the brand-name drugs they advertise incessantly on our televisions –by talking about the need to pay for developing and bringing new life-saving drugs to market. Unfortunately, these medications will not help if elderly and sick patients cannot afford to buy them.

Attempts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs always run into potent (and well-funded) opposition from drug companies. They denounce smart strategies like Maine’s plan to use the state’s purchasing power through Medicaid to negotiate better prices for the uninsured, the working poor, and others who have no means to pay for their prescriptions. What are their grounds for opposing the Maine plan? They say it violates the sanctity of our country’s most revered document, the Constitution, by interfering with free trade between the states. And when states come together to negotiate purchases for state employees and Medicaid recipients in bulk, drug companies pull out their big guns, calling policy-makers socialists, or worse yet, advocates for price controls.

These arguments are shrill, and they aren’t proving persuasive in the court of public opinion. But they hold sway in legislatures and governors’ offices, where drug companies’ access translates into bad policy for working people who foot the bill–first as prescription drug consumers, and a second time as taxpayers who support state subsidy programs.

In the absence of government action to obtain lower drug prices, consumers are taking matters into their own hands–and feet–by heading to countries like Canada, where prescription medications are cheaper and where they can save up to 80 percent of the cost. In doing so, they are exercising the most basic strategy of a free-market economy–shopping around for a better price. Reimporting prescription drugs from Canada–these medications are largely manufactured in the United States, but over the border they are sold for less–is one sure way to obtain medicine at an affordable price.

The drug companies don’t like this strategy either, especially now that state and local governments are showing interest in pursuing it as well. Former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano led the way, buying Canadian drugs for city employees and retirees. The governor of New Hampshire has followed suit and states such as Illinois, Minnesota, and Vermont are poised to jump on the bus, too, as are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Tom Menino. In opposing these reimportation plans, the drug companies fret oh-so-publicly about patient safety–and then threaten to limit their exports to Canada to restrict supply.

Let’s be honest, this is all about money…lots of money. The Kaiser Family Foundation studied the nation’s Fortune 500 companies last year and found that drug companies were the most profitable. While all other companies averaged 3 percent profit as a share of revenue, the profit for drug companies was a whopping 17 percent.

It’s one way for consumers to win the free market game.

Total drug expenditures by the US government and private citizens skyrocketed from $78.9 billion in 1997 to $154.5 billion in 2001. To be fair to Big Pharma, not all of these revenues went into the pockets of the drug companies as profit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 47 percent of this increase in expenditures can be attributed to a simple trend: More prescriptions are being written. In addition, just over 27 percent of the increase resulted from patients changing over to newer, higher-priced drugs for existing ailments. Genuine advances in the medications that are available are making real improvements in the quality of lives of Americans–at least, those Americans who can afford them.

But we’re also spending more because of a barrage of drug advertising for those purple and pink pills that make you feel better. A recent study by Harvard and MIT researchers showed that direct-to-consumer advertising over the past five years has increased the use of expensive, brand-name drugs. This study found that advertising alone accounted for a $2.6 billion increase in brand-name drug sales in the year 2000.

However, the figure from Kaiser that boggles the mind is that 26 percent of the additional $75.6 billion spent in 2001 on prescription drugs is solely attributable to price increases for the same drugs. Indeed, prices for the most popular drugs for senior citizens rose at 3H times the rate of inflation. This incredible burden is borne in part by government subsidy programs (i.e., taxpayer dollars) and in part by individuals who are paying more of their disposable income on drug expenses (consumer dollars).

It may seem quaint in a laissez-faire era to question why –given that existing drugs have no additional costs for research or production–drug companies would jack up their prices so high. The reason is obvious: They raise prices on sick and elderly people at 3H times the rate of inflation because the not-so-free market in the United States allows them to do so.

Pharmaceutical companies use their money, through lobbying and influence, to boost their profits. In the 2000 election cycle, prescription drug companies spent $262 million on lobbying, campaign contributions, and issue ads, an amount that shattered previous records. And it paid off in the $400 billion Medicare drug benefit passed by Congress. Unbelievably, this bill actually prohibits the federal government from using its purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. As a result, taxpayers will be subsidizing the high prices charged for prescription medications. Moreover, a provision that would have allowed consumers to legally purchase drugs from Canada and Europe was dropped from the bill.

Buying drugs in Canada is laissez-faire at its best–and presently one of the only ways that consumers can beat Big Pharma at its own “free market” game. While not a solution to the macroeconomic dilemma, it is a logical–and in many cases, life-saving–microeconomic response to inflated drug prices. Patients who buy their medicines from Canada are using the free market to their benefit.

Government should help them, not stop them. As more and more consumers turn to Canada for their prescriptions, it is our responsibility as leaders to make sure they are doing so safely. I have filed a bill to set up a statewide Office of Pharmaceutical Information that would give consumers the information they need to purchase imported prescription drugs in a safe manner. The office would provide information to consumers about cheaper generic alternatives to costly brand-name drugs, but also offer advice on procuring drugs from reputable and licensed Canadian pharmacies.

The passage of the drug benefit under Medicare refused to deal with one of today’s most pressing public policy dilemmas: the escalating cost of prescription drugs. Indeed, it actually forbids the government from using its market power to negotiate–as any private company does–the best price possible for taxpayers. The federal government may be willing to run up huge deficits in order to keep the drug companies happy, but consumers who cannot afford to pay high prices will continue to look for ways to obtain affordable drugs. Likewise, state and local governments need to find ways to reduce their own drug spending as well as offer their citizens drug coverage they can afford, and reimporting drugs from Canada can help them do so.

The Canadian prescription may be a Band-Aid for the drug-cost problem, but Band-Aids are needed to stop the bleeding. And if enough consumers and governments make use of it, maybe the pharmaceutical industry, and its protectors in Washington, DC, will be open to a real cure.

Jarrett T. Barrios is a Democratic state senator from Cambridge.

Tim Cahill targets pols pensions

INTRO TEXT

Nobody likes getting fired. Well, almost nobody. For long-time state workers, getting the heave-ho or having their position eliminated can be a pension bonanza under a controversial provision of the state retirement laws.

Nearly two years ago, CommonWealth reported that the granting of so-called Section 10 “termination pensions” appears to be rife with abuse (“Pension liabilities,” CW, Spring 2002). A review of more than 1,000 such pensions granted since 1990 revealed a number of top-level state officials who had been granted the benefits despite having left state service voluntarily. And fully one-third of the early pensions had been granted to state workers who had passed the qualifying 20-year mark by less than a year. In 10 percent of all cases, workers cashed in within a month of their 20th anniversary, raising doubts as to whether workers were actually being terminated or were timing their own departures to qualify for this partial payment (one-third of their previous salary) to tide them over until they turn 55 and become eligible for regular pension benefits.

Since the CommonWealth report, there has been little movement on Beacon Hill to rein in these termination pensions. Then-Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, whose office oversaw the state retirement board, told CommonWealth at the time she would call for a state commission to consider a complete overhaul of the law. “Everything’s on the table,” she said. But no such commission was formed before O’Brien left office a year ago, following her failed run for governor.

Now, O’Brien’s successor, Treasurer Timothy Cahill, is vowing to take up the cause. He says he has established a “working group” in his office to examine the entire pension system, including Section 10, and recommend reforms. Section 10 benefits, says Cahill, “should not be seen as a golden parachute.”

“It’s become a rich subsidy for political figures.”

But that is, in fact, what they have become for many state workers. The termination provision was established in the early 1950s, apparently to protect mid- and low-level career civil servants from sudden changes in the political winds on Beacon Hill. But it has become a cash cow for many who have worked their way into high state positions, including former state legislators and top-ranking political appointees, providing generous benefits to some who have left state government well before retirement age and gone on to lucrative private-sector positions while they pocket a check from the state every month.

“If the original rationale, to the extent there was one, was to protect lower-level career employees from the vagaries of politics, it’s now become a rich subsidy for high-level political figures,” says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

And the use of Section 10 by top-level political appointees has by no means drawn to a halt. For instance, Robert Durand, a former state senator, applied last January for termination pension benefits, after incoming Gov. Mitt Romney decided not to retain him as secretary of environmental affairs. Durand, 50, who has since started his own consulting business, now receives a state pension of $43,229 per year.

Meanwhile, legislators continue to cash in by tapping an ambiguous provision of state law that, as it has been interpreted, grants lawmakers a privilege not available to any other state employee–the right, in essence, to fire themselves, and collect a termination pension as a result. The Section 10 statute says that the benefits are available to any lawmaker who “fails of nomination or re-election.” The state retirement board and the Public Employee Retirement Administration, an oversight agency that provides advisory opinions to state and local boards, have read that language to mean that legislators who choose not to seek re-election are eligible for termination pensions, as well as those who are voted out of office. Two state representatives who, after 10 terms in office, left the Legislature on their own last year, Paul Caron of Springfield and Christopher Hodgkins of Lee, are now collecting “termination” pensions of about $20,000 per year.

Cahill says the lawmaker perk is one that has to be changed. “It bothers me because termination means termination,” says Cahill. “Quitting or leaving is not being terminated.” A broader question asked by Cahill is whether termination benefits should be available at all to those who have opted to pursue high-profile positions in state government, whether elected or appointed, that make no pretense of promising job security.

“The law was originally passed to protect the lower-level person from being hurt by the political changes that happen up here on Beacon Hill,” says Cahill. “I think it’s been twisted to help the higher-up people, to benefit those who choose to move up knowing they might only be there a few years.”

Cahill understands that lawmakers may not be eager to trim back benefits they might one day cash in on. But he vows not to let that stop him from making the case for pension reform. “We’re not going to accept that this is way things are done because that’s the way they’ve always been done,” says Cahill.

The state considers carrots for smart growth

The state considers carrots for smart growth

With Massachusetts home prices continuing to soar, the housing crisis has begun to sound like the old Mark Twain saw about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything.

ALISON WILLIAMS
Smart-growth housing in Manchester-by-the Sea.

Hoping to match deeds to words, the Romney administration and an independent task force of housing, business, and academic leaders are pushing separate plans for enticing communities to accept both more modest-priced housing and “smart growth” alternatives to land-gobbling sprawl. Whether either plan can pass muster, fiscally or politically, remains very much an open question.

The more ambitious of the two schemes was unveiled in November by an ad hoc group of leaders from business, labor, and housing organizations. The Commonwealth Housing Task Force proposed a rich set of incentives to coax communities into approving “zoning overlay districts” that would allow dense development near town centers and public transit stations, reserving 20 percent of units in larger-scale projects for low- and moderate-income residents.

Towns would get bonuses for dense development.

The plan proposes to pay communities an upfront “bonus” of $2,000 for each apartment and $3,000 for each single-family home allowed under new overlay district zoning. What’s more, responding to the single biggest complaint from suburban officials about new housing, the task force calls for the state to underwrite 100 percent of the school costs of children living in any new housing unit built in the designated area.

The task force report projects that 33,000 new housing units could be built in overlay districts over 10 years if the incentives are approved by the Legislature. The task force also calls for a near doubling of state housing program funds to help pay for the affordable units, and also recommends that communities that approve overlay districts receive priority in state spending on roads, parks, sewers, and other improvements.

Barry Bluestone, a Northeastern University economist and co-author of the task force report, concedes that many previous housing studies–including some he has been involved with–have come up short on solutions to the region’s housing shortage. “This is the first one that explicitly tries to put in place concrete proposals about what to do about it,” says Bluestone.

Concrete or not, the proposals still have to be paid for. “I don’t know where the money is going to come from,” says state Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Housing Committee.

The total price tag of the plan is roughly $1 billion over 10 years, but the task force claims that $300 million of that cost will be offset by additional income and sales taxes associated with the new construction, along with job growth made possible once high housing costs no longer impede business expansion. The report suggests that the sale of surplus state-owned property could generate a further $400 million for the housing plan.

These assumptions have prompted even one of the state’s leading affordable housing advocates to question the plan’s realism. “This is a plan without revenue,” says Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. He’s particularly skeptical of counting on economic spinoffs to finance housing development. “None of those ways [of funding programs] have been accepted by the Legislature in the 20 years I’ve been working on housing issues,” he says.

Callahan also chafes at the notion of funneling state funds to wealthy suburbs that have, until now, resisted the call to build more affordable housing. “All of a sudden they get religion on the issue and you’re going to give [them] cash bonuses?” he says.

Doug Foy, the Romney administration’s development czar, welcomes the task force’s call for town-center and transit-oriented density, but he’s also dubious about its dollars-and-cents assumptions, especially regarding surplus state lands. “The notion that you’re going to be able to liquidate those lands and turn such gains into giant cash bonuses is, I think, just unrealistic,” says Foy. “Virtually every town is hoping they’re going to be turned into parkland or a wildlife refuge.”

At the same time, Foy suggests that the plan’s costly school-cost subsidy may be unnecessary. “In many cases, it appears, it’s a myth” that the kids brought to town by new housing bust local budgets, says Foy. According to a draft analysis by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance obtained by CommonWealth, the incremental revenue coming to communities from single-family homes built in 2000 actually exceeded, on average, incremental school costs by $1,592 per house. Of the 215 communities studied, 170 gained more revenue than they needed to cover additional school costs, while 45 municipalities were net losers on the housing deal.

But Foy’s view that school costs are no reason for localities to resist moderate-priced housing may be tinged with wishful thinking as well. The net gain that towns enjoyed from new housing may well be the result of the very practices the state hopes to end: restrictive zoning that limits construction to expensive, super-sized homes on large lots. For dense development of modest-priced, family housing –more kids, lower valuations–the fiscal equation may not be so favorable.

Still, Foy thinks that housing development can be boosted and directed toward town centers and transit stops without a huge infusion of state funding. Foy’s office is working on a plan that would earmark a portion of the state’s annual $1.2 billion in capital spending–perhaps 10 percent –to be awarded on a priority basis to communities that agree to smart-growth housing and development goals.

“If there was more money in the hopper for us to use, it would be that much easier,” says Foy. But “I’m convinced we can get all or at least a bit of what the task force is calling for using existing tools.”

This, too, is a variant on a familiar theme. Efforts by the Cellucci administration as well as a bid last year by Romney to have a portion of local aid to cities and towns earmarked to reward communities that permit new housing construction have all been shot down by lawmakers.

State Rep. Kevin Honan, co-chairman of the Housing Committee, likens the challenge of solving the state’s housing crisis to the education reform effort of a decade ago, which made school funding the state’s budget priority for seven years. “The business community played a major role in that, so I am delighted to see the business community coming to the table on housing,” says Honan, citing the participation of leaders from area banks and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in the Commonwealth Housing Task Force. But if solving the housing crisis means big bucks for municipal incentives, the Brighton Democrat predicts “an uphill battle.”

David Bartley takes some parting shots

David Bartley takes some parting shots

INTRO TEXT

David Bartley is rarely at a loss for words, and this cool autumn afternoon is no exception, as he spins tales from a lifetime of public service and blurts out pointed opinion, reveling in the role of cantankerous contrarian.

The president of Holyoke Community College is in classic form as he drives toward Boston for what seems like the millionth time. Bartley figures he’s spent four years of his life on the Massachusetts Turnpike–a significant chunk of time for someone who is still shy of 70. But after 40 years of state service, including 28 at the helm of the western Massachusetts campus and more than 12 in the state House of Representatives, including six in its top position, Bartley doesn’t expect to be making the two-hour trip from Holyoke to Boston too often in the future. And now the man known in Holyoke as “Mr. President,” but still referred to in Boston as “Mr. Speaker,” is heading to the Hub to finalize some paperwork for his retirement, effective January 1.

LEFT: COURTESY OF DAVID BARTLEY, RIGHT: PAUL SHOUL
David Bartley then, as House Speaker, and now,
as outgoing president of Holyoke Community College.

Reflecting on his rise to Beacon Hill power more than 30 years ago, Bartley laughs when asked if he owed his speakership to Richard Nixon. “There’s no question about it,” he says. “Richard Nixon was one of the best things that happened to Democrats in Massachusetts.”

When Republican state Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned in January 1969 to become Nixon’s undersecretary of state, a joint session of the Legislature convened and chose then-House Speaker Robert Quinn to succeed him. The move suddenly put Bartley, then the majority leader, in the pole position for the Speaker’s post. The dominoes were tumbling much faster than he had anticipated.

“I had been thinking that my hour probably would be in 1974 when Bob Quinn ran for statewide office,” says Bartley. “But you take what you can get.”

Later that night, the House elected the 32-year-old Bartley to succeed him in the Speaker’s chair. Bartley was not the youngest speaker ever elected, but he still holds the title of the youngest Democrat to lead the House. “I was three years younger than Tip,” he says, referring to Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., who in 1949 became the first Democrat to wield the gavel in the lower branch.

With Holyoke’s Maurice Donahue presiding over the state Senate, Bartley’s rise marked a rare Beacon Hill moment when the leaders of the Legislature’s two branches hailed from the same community. Donahue, who was 17 years Bartley’s senior, “was almost a second father to me,” says Bartley, whose own father died when he was 13. “We were great friends. And it was a fantastic time for both of us.”

“In my book, legislators are totally underpaid.”

And a good time for Holyoke, too. “We helped the community as much as we could,” says Bartley. “Hospital reimbursements got done quicker for the hospitals. Money for the city of Holyoke got back.” He recalls with pride how former Holyoke mayor Bill Taupier “used to say that the best thing that ever happened to the city was the two of us down there.”

To this day, Bartley remains a proud defender of those who enter the political fray, especially much-maligned lawmakers. “The bottom line, [in] my book, is legislators are totally and ridiculously underpaid,” he says. “If I had my druthers I would double their salary immediately. When a Boston city councilor makes more than a state legislator, that’s ridiculous.”

As for criticism that chairmen of the Legislature’s ethics committees are often chosen not for their teeth, but for lack of them, Bartley says, “Oh, I think that’s newspaper hogwash. I think that the ethical standards of elected officials–they sure as hell are a lot better than businessmen. Just look at what’s happened over the past couple of years.”

Bartley doesn’t care much for the idea of shrines devoted to political figures like him, but the gymnasium at Holyoke Community College does bear his name. “Earlier in my career I was captain of the UMass basketball team,” he says. “That’s when white midgets could play basketball.”

Bartley says he and Donahue didn’t overstep their authority by doing “special favors” for Holyoke. But one joint effort to help out a hometown institution remains near and dear to his heart, although it actually took place before Bartley became Speaker. “When I was majority leader and Maurice the Senate president, the Holyoke Community College burned to the ground,” he says. The school needed a new site, “and we clearly helped in buying the land and we helped in getting the place built up again.”

Did that have anything to do with his eventual elevation to the college’s presidency? Bartley shakes his head. “If you asked me” back then if he might one day serve as president of Holyoke Community College, he says, “I would’ve laughed at you.”

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.

Commonwealth Forum ponders middle-class debt crisis

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about federal and state governments spending beyond their means, but many middle-class American households are also awash in red ink. At the Commonwealth Forum “Going for Broke: Middle Class Families on the Financial Edge,” held on December 5 at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston, panelists discussed the reasons and remedies for the growing problem of household debt. Robert Keough, editor of CommonWealth, moderated the forum.

Elizabeth Warren, author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (see “Doubling down,” CW, Fall 2003), said the idea that Americans are spending too much money on things like “cappuccinos and $200 tennis shoes” is a myth. “Families have cut much of their consumption to the bone,” said Warren, a law professor at Harvard University. She noted that the rising costs of necessities such as a home, health insurance, transportation to work, and day care leave families with almost nothing to cut back when times are bad. Warren also charged credit-card companies with taking advantage of families in tenuous financial situations. “We have deregulated the credit industry and set them loose,” she said. “It has become far more profitable to lend to people at the margins.”

Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University and author of Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess, echoed Warren’s theme of American families struggling to stay in the middle class. Since the 1970s, he noted, “There has been an explosion of income distribution at the top, none in the middle, and a loss at the bottom.” But Frank argued that changed spending habits are also to blame for the growing number of families in debt. “More spending on top,” he said, “has an influence on people’s spending needs in the middle,” adding that “what you feel you need depends on what other people have.”

Frederick Breimyer, a regional economist at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said that he didn’t want to judge the spending decisions of middle-class families. But he voiced concerns that today’s wage earners “are probably unprepared for their own retirement.”

Bringing the discussion to the political arena, MIT historian Meg Jacobs, author of the forthcoming Pocketbook Politics in the 20th Century United States, said that “moral condemnation” of consumer spending and borrowing has always been present in the United States, but what is absent today is the idea that “an increase in the buying power of the masses…is essential to promoting capitalism and democracy.” She pointed to the “stagnation of wages [and] the decline of the labor movement” as factors pushing middle-class families into debt.

Keough asked the panelists for ways to bring relief to the middle class. “We’ve got to get back to usury laws,” responded Warren. Noting as well that many families spend more than they can afford on housing in order to move into highly rated school districts, she added, “We must address the sense that public schools have failed us…[and] decouple zip codes from educational opportunity.”

Frank said he opposed a cap on interest rates but did feel that credit companies should be required to provide better disclosure to consumers. He also called for a more progressive federal income tax, saying that it is “the one lever we have” to address income inequality.

Breimyer was less convinced relief was necessary. “There was more angst about the future at the end of the 1970s” than there is today, he noted. “I am not caught up in the sense that this is a point of crisis.”

Before the panel discussion, Boston filmmaker Tim Wright presented segments from a documentary-in-progress on the “culture of debt.”

 

Popping the Question

Popping the Question

One almost certain consequence of Goodridge, et al v. Department of Public Health, the decision by the Supreme Judicial Court last November to allow gay marriage, will be an increase in Massachusetts tourism; imagine the number of weddings in Provincetown next summer! But the national implications of the state court’s actions, for politics and society, are more difficult to predict.

ELIZABETH ROCK

America has witnessed something close to a revolution in its attitudes toward homosexuality over the past half century. Not that long ago, gays, especially those who worked in sensitive jobs, could be blackmailed because of their sexual orientation. Both physical violence and verbal abuse toward them was common. Homosexuality was treated by many as either willful or sinful, requiring, in either case, stern countermeasures. And those were the attitudes of the people willing to talk about the subject; large numbers of Americans preferred instead to pretend that homosexuality did not exist and certainly would never discuss it in polite company.

Even in the late 1990s, when I was interviewing Americans all around the country for my book One Nation After All, people who were otherwise reluctant to pass moral judgment on the beliefs or behaviors of others seemed to put homosexuality in a different category. It was as if, confronted on all sides by the demands for greater personal freedom, they wanted to draw the line somewhere. The issue of homosexuality, touching as it does on matters involving love, sex, family, and God, was where they drew it. Americans generally do not know or care what happens to tariffs, but they have strong opinions about families and what makes them strong.

Today, by contrast, gay characters are featured on prime-time television; prominent politicians (of both parties) are either gay themselves or have gay children they make a point of expressing pride toward; and a right to privacy in one’s own bedroom, even if what takes place in that bedroom is gay sex, is generally respected. In June 2003, the US Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, ruled that states could not criminalize gay sexuality through laws against sodomy, and although a backlash to the decision was predicted, none ever developed.

The Massachusetts ruling may be a very different story. Americans make a sharp distinction between what takes place in private and what happens in public. Though nominally a vow of commitment between two people, marriage is among the most public of acts, legalized by government, celebrated by friends, and (at least for many people) sanctified by religion. As much as Americans support the right to privacy, they balk at giving homosexuals full equality for an act as public as marriage, even when conducted as a civil ceremony outside of church. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the Massachusetts decision found that 59 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage; among evangelical Protestants, 80 percent were against the idea. Gay marriage is not an idea whose time has come, at least not yet.

The disjunction between the Massachusetts high court’s embrace of gay marriage and the country’s ambivalence (if not hostility) toward it makes the issue unavoidable fodder for the upcoming presidential election. It is frequently said by inside-the-beltway commentators that Karl Rove was disappointed at the low turnout among evangelicals in 2000 and hopes to see more of them at the polls for George W. Bush the next time around. Not being inclined to turn down free gifts, the Republicans are unlikely to pass up the opportunity provided by our SJC to rally their religious base. Still, President Bush has to watch out for a backlash, should his attitude be perceived as intolerant. That is why the president is likely to avoid language that smacks of discrimination, instead giving symbolic backing to a constitutional amendment defending heterosexual marriage (symbolic because the possibility of any such amendment ever being ratified on the necessary state-by-state basis is so remote). But this will not stop other partisans from using the Goodridge decision as evidence of the need to re-elect a Republican president who will name conservative judges to the bench. (The fact that no president appoints judges to the supreme courts of the states will no doubt be overlooked.)

The Massachusetts decision also gives the GOP an opportunity to make inroads into two key minority groups. African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, tend to be conservative on the issue of homosexuality and frequently object to gay activists using the language of civil rights to advance their cause. Latino voters are not only predominantly Catholic but more likely than white Catholics to support the church’s teachings on sexuality, including opposition to gay marriage.

What is more, the Republicans will be able to run not only against gay marriage but against Massachusetts. Unlike the rest of the country, half of Bay State residents support gay marriage, according to polls conducted by The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald shortly after the decision, and a portion of the rest are not sure. Gay marriage is simply not as unpopular in the Commonwealth as it is in the rest of the country, and we are unlikely to join in any backlash that may develop elsewhere. As the Democrats assemble in Boston in July to nominate their candidate, Republicans will remind voters around the country of Massachusetts’s (well-deserved) reputation for liberalism. It will surely be pointed out that our state, at this time of increasingly Republican hegemony, has an entirely Democratic congressional delegation, one of whose members, moreover, is the most openly gay politician in Washington. We were the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972 (the District of Columbia joined us), a fact that will surely be cited to indicate how tenuous is our relationship to the God-fearing Americans who live in the rest of the country. Republican ideologue Ann Coulter likes to call liberals treasonous. Surely she will find appropriately ugly words to slander residents of America’s most left-leaning state.

Finally, the Republicans may benefit simply because their position will be the simpler one to understand. Nearly all the Democrats in the race have said that they oppose gay marriage but support civil unions. In the context of a debate with a Republican who says he is against both, Democrats will appear equivocal, tailoring their stance to focus groups. For Republicans, gay marriage is a “red meat” issue. For Democrats, it is a study in ambiguity.

Yet the Republicans will not hold all the cards on this issue. It is important to remember that the Massachusetts case was decided by a state court interpreting a state constitution. In theory, the “full faith and credit” clause of the US Constitution guarantees that an action in one state will be recognized by all the others. But under the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996, no state would be forced to accept a gay marriage that took place in Massachusetts (unless, of course, the Defense of Marriage Act were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court). As of now–even as of the May deadline set by the SJC–Massachusetts law is not national law. Since it is they who usually argue for giving states leeway to make their own rules and set their own standards, Republicans will be violating their own philosophy if they rattle their swords against Massachusetts, as Democrats will be glad to point out.

In denouncing gay marriage, moreover, Republicans will also find themselves arguing against marriage–an odd position for a conservative party. Republican-leaning columnist David Brooks of The New York Times has made a powerful conservative argument on behalf of gay marriage. Surely at least one Democrat–perhaps Richard Gephardt, who has spoken movingly about his gay daughter–can take the hint and speak in favor of expanding a social institution that discourages promiscuity, offers protection against sexually transmitted disease, encourages love and compassion, is committed to wealth sharing, and creates a stable environment for raising children. That, of course, will take a certain amount of political courage, but it will also demonstrate qualities of leadership that voters tend to admire.

These tactical considerations are rooted in public attitudes, which continue to change.

Finally, the issue of gay rights contains an undercurrent of anti-governmental sentiment that appeals to libertarians in both parties. Defenders of Roe v. Wade rarely defend abortion per se; they argue that government should not come between a woman and her doctor. Along similar lines, defenders of the Goodridge decision can point out that just as government should not decide which industries will flourish and which will die, it should not dictate what kinds of marriages will be permitted to succeed and what kinds must fail. Gay rights and gun rights do not resonate with the same constituents, but both possess the same underlying logic. Whether or not this is a good thing is another question entirely.

These tactical considerations are all rooted in public attitudes, which are continuing to change. For that reason, the ramifications of gay marriage, in politics and society, go far beyond the 2004 election. The issue that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has put in play will go a long way toward determining whether America’s culture war has a future.

Before this decision, evidence existed that the culture war was coming to an end. On affirmative action, the US Supreme Court found a compromise last year that essentially removed race as a divisive issue in American society. And the passage of a law banning “partial birth abortion” transformed the conservative side in the culture war from losers to winners, thereby undermining its claim that the United States is plunging headlong toward moral decadence. With two of the major battles of the culture war concluded, there seemed every likelihood that the 2004 presidential campaign would be devoted to issues like national security and the economy.

That may still be the case. If gay marriage either peters out as an issue or develops in such a way that its political benefits are neutralized, the issue of gay marriage–however important it may be to gays on the one side and conservative religious believers on the other–could wind up losing traction.

Americans may someday come to feel about gay mar-riage as they now do about interracial marriage, which is that while it is an exception to the norm and can occasionally cause a head to turn, it is also nobody’s business but the people involved. The United States has for some time been moving away from its Puritan and censorious past, and this would be one more step in the direction of a society that values personal freedom more than it does adherence to older conceptions of morality, including those that originate in religious teachings.

Should that occur, the implications could be more profound than the choice of the next US president. It would mean that the culture war is really over.

Some of the issues that once defined its passions, such as abortion, will shift in the direction of marginal restric-tions on the right to choose. Others, such as affirmative action, will find a compromise in the middle. On the issue of homosexuality, the shift would be to the left, since people who hold the strong religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin will have to give way to respect for individual rights.

And if the culture war does come to an end in such a way–with each side winning a bit and also losing a bit–Americans might find themselves actually looking for politicians who unite them rather than divide them.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Moving In-or Moving On?

Moving In-or Moving On?

Teny Gross has never felt better about his work with urban youth. As executive director of the two-year-old Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, Gross is building on a decade of outreach work on the streets of Boston, where he was one of the unsung heroes of the city’s successful campaign to quell juvenile crime in the late 1990s. But now he’s plying his urban peacekeeping trade 50 miles away, across the Rhode Island border.

Twice driven out of apartments because the property had been sold and feeling cramped in the one-bedroom unit he was renting for $1,200 a month, the 37-year-old native of Israel packed up and left with his wife and their newborn son two years ago. Landing in a neighborhood of modest homes on the south side of Providence, he was able to buy a simple but attractive three-bedroom Victorian single-family for $105,000, about one-third the price of similar homes in his old Boston neighborhood.

Providence Mayor David Cicilline is glad to have had the ex-Bostonian set up shop in his on-the-rise but still-troubled city. “He has had an incredibly powerful and important impact on the city,” says Cicilline.

But Providence’s gain is Boston’s loss, and Gross admits to being a reluctant Rhode Islander. “I really loved Boston in a very deep way,” he says. “I knew all the neighborhoods. I knew it like the back of my hand.” But his wife, Julia Clinker, 35, a documentary photographer, was the voice of realism, he says, as they looked ahead, dreaming of a home they could own and raise a growing family in. “She said, ‘Teny, it won’t happen here,'” recalls Gross.

The monthly mortgage payment on their new home in Providence is $400 less than they were paying in rent for their small apartment in Dorchester. They are 10 minutes from Clinker’s father, a minister in neighboring Cranston, and still only two hours from her mother, who lives in western Massachusetts. With a backyard vegetable garden that yielded a bounty of fresh produce last summer and the 435-acre Roger Williams Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, just two blocks away, “I totally feel like a Rockefeller,” Gross has to admit.

Julia Clinker and Teny Gross, with son
John, found a better deal in Providence.

Gross and Clinker aren’t the only Massachusetts residents to find the grass greener on the other side of the state line. Over the past five years, the Bay State has suffered a net loss of more than 5,000 residents to the Ocean State. It’s part of a migration pattern that has sent thousands of residents over Massachusetts’s borders into Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine over the past dozen years. Many of these Massachusetts expatriates are young people, in their 20s and 30s, college educated, their ties to Greater Boston unraveled by the high cost of living here. Among those getting swept away are teachers, social workers, and employees of nonprofit agencies, the kind of people who do not command high-flying salaries but play vital roles in civic life.

That fact, while troubling, doesn’t in and of itself make Massachusetts a loser. There are other contests underway. With an economy increasingly driven by growth and innovation in knowledge-based sectors such as information technology and biomedical research, the Bay State is also waging a high-stakes battle with a handful of states like California, Colorado, North Carolina, and New York for the high-priced talent needed to fuel the technology-focused industries they have all pegged their futures on.

The state’s challenge in attracting and retaining educated young workers has drawn attention recently from business and civic leaders. In October, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and The Boston Foundation released a report sounding the alarm over the loss of graduates from area colleges, half of whom said they were leaving the territory after receiving their degrees. “If the trend continues, it will have serious implications for Greater Boston’s knowledge-based economy,” warned the Chamber report. That same week, however, the Boston Redevelopment Authority released a report that drew precisely the opposite conclusion. The BRA study, titled Boston’s Dynamic Workforce, pointed out that Boston is teeming with young people, second only to Austin, Texas, in the concentration of young adults as a percentage of its population–a finding that would come as no surprise to anyone who rides the MBTA’s Green Line at rush hour.

The loss of residents has accelerated in the past five year.

The disposition of the region’s twenty- and thirtysomethings is unquestionably important to the state’s future. With the fourth lowest rate of labor-force growth of any state during the 1990s, Massachusetts needs to hold on to as many young workers as it can, particularly those with higher skills. But the dueling reports, which seemed to disagree on whether the news on that front was grim or rosy, may have done more to cloud than to clarify the issue.

The mixed messages even came in for a bit of ridicule in the pages of theBoston Herald. Columnist Tom Keane mocked the Chamber’s warning of “a new crisis in Boston,” pointing out that losing half of the region’s college graduates doesn’t seem so bad if one considers that roughly 80 percent of Greater Boston college students come here from other areas. A Herald editorial piled on two days later, charging the Chamber and the Boston Foundation with joining forces to “mutually hyperventilate” over a problem that doesn’t exist.

In fact, Keane may have sneered his way to the real challenge facing Massachusetts. Dismissing both studies for a “demographically-driven, MTV-ish feel,” Keane concluded by setting his demographic sights a bit higher, or at least older: “Young adults eventually grow into older adults. Knowing that the city will care as much about them when they’re over 35 might be the best reason for those who are under 35 to stick around.” As attractive and fun-filled as the Boston area may be for the footloose crowd fresh out of college, it is becoming an increasingly difficult place for those in their 20s to envision a future as they reach 30 and beyond.

Hot pursuit

From beaches to mountains, high-quality public education to rich cultural offerings, lilac blossoms to autumn leaves, Massachusetts offers a lifestyle that many residents seem to cherish. That was the finding of The Pursuit of Happiness, a report issued last May by MassINC, based on an in-depth survey of 1,000 Bay State residents. But the largely positive picture was disturbed by some dissonance. Most noteworthy was the finding that one-quarter of all state residents would leave the state if they had the opportunity, a figure that rose to fully one-third among those who had moved to Massachusetts within the past 10 years, including the state’s younger, non-native college graduates. The state’s high cost of living, led by stratospheric housing prices, was a major factor cited by the would-be movers for their restlessness.

Another MassINC study, released in December, documented the movement underway. Looking exclusively at domestic migration patterns (i.e., not counting foreign immigrants), Mass.Migration reveals that Massachusetts has lost a substantial number of residents to other New England states–a net loss of 79,031 residents over the past 12 years. Those leaving for neighboring states tend to be young, Massachusetts-born, well educated, and married with children. New Hampshire has been, by far, the most popular destination, with a net gain of 78,201 former Massachusetts residents during the period 1990 to 2002. The loss of residents to nearby states has accelerated over the past five years; particularly striking is a recently developing exodus to Rhode Island, from which Massachusetts had been gaining residents in the early ’90s.

The MassINC report also tracked movement between Massachusetts and seven direct competitors in the hunt for knowledge-economy talent. Here, the Bay State fared better. Massachusetts actually experienced a net gain of 14,428 residents from seven economic-competitor states over the period, but with substantial regional variation. The more distant competitors–California, Colorado, Minnesota, and North Carolina–gained more residents than they gave up to Massachusetts, but the Bay State’s loss was offset by larger gains from nearby competitors Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

These bragging rights, while significant, were not sufficient to drown out the overall finding: In every year over the 12-year period–which included the economic boom of the 1990s–Massachusetts lost more residents than it gained, with a net loss of 213,191 domestic residents.

“Even during the most robust period of economic growth the state has experienced in recent memory, we were still unable to retain more people than we lost,” says Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute and a co-author of the MassINC report. “If these flows varied with the business cycle, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, when growth returns, so will these people.’ That’s not really what the data suggest.”

Brain gains

If high-skilled knowledge-economy workers are the quarry in the labor-force hunt, David Schultz qualifies as a prize catch. The 27-year-old Long Island native came to Boston eight years ago to attend Boston University, from which he received a degree in biomedical engineering. With the region booming in businesses that make use of his specialty in bioinformatics–the use of technology and computers to analyze genomic data–it was an easy call for Schultz to stick around and begin his career here. After spending three years as a programmer for Astra Pharmaceuticals in Waltham, he’s now working in the Cambridge office of IDBS, a United Kingdom-based company that develops data management software for biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

David Schultz: no “sticker shock”
for a migrant from New York.

Schultz fits the bill of the highly paid knowledge worker that has made Boston–like Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, and Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina–a leader in attracting highly educated, younger college graduates–that is, a “brain gain” center, in the parlance of a Washington Post article describing US cities that seem to be riding the crest of the New Economy wave.

During his first year out of college, Schultz shared an apartment with a friend in Norwood, about 15 miles south of Boston. That was “miserable,” he says. “I had never been to the Massachusetts suburbs, and I got my first taste of them and I wasn’t thrilled.” Preferring the culture and pace of city life, Schultz spent more than a year looking for a place to settle. Last August he found a two-bedroom condominium in Cambridge. Purchase price: $360,000.

“People who aren’t from around here get sticker shock when they see how much it costs to live here, but they generally aren’t coming from a major city,” says Schultz. “I don’t think someone coming from New York or San Francisco would be that shocked to see what it costs.”

Although he voices some reservations about Boston–Schultz says he would jump at the right opportunity to return to New York–he could very well end up here for the long haul, he says. Contemplating a return to school for an MBA, with an eye toward an eventual entrepreneurial turn, Schultz says Boston is unquestionably one of the places to be. Pointing to the pharmaceutical giant Novartis locating its worldwide research headquarters in Cambridge and new Merck research labs going up in Boston, Schultz says, “That’s very encouraging for people in the biotech industry in Massachusetts. That’s a reason to stay.”

Medical practice

Whether Ruchi Gupta and Tarun Jain will find reason enough to stay remains to be seen. The young physicians met while completing residencies at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. They came to Boston in the summer of 2001 in order to pursue specialty fellowships at Harvard-affiliated hospitals: Gupta, 31, in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, and Jain, 33, in reproductive endocrinology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Gupta, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., spent several months in Boston on a research internship after college, “and fell in love with the city,” she says. “I felt it was the greatest place on earth,” she adds, citing everything from the museum and theater life to the rich mix of people she met here.

Ruchi Gupta says Boston is great,
but Cincinnati is more sensible.

As to Boston’s allure for someone going into medicine, it is almost without parallel. “It’s a great place to train,” says Gupta. “It’s Harvard, and people want to be here.”

But staying here is another matter, she says. “Once you’re done training, the competition is incredible, and the pay is not all that great compared to other places,” says Gupta. “I’m not so smitten with it anymore. I still enjoy it, but I don’t know if it’s the right place to stay and live.” Now figuring in their calculations is a son, Rohan, who will turn 2 in April. And that means planning for the future. “You’re starting to have kids, and having to pay the prices here and having to find jobs here,” says Gupta, her voice trailing off.

The young physicians considered buying a place, but decided to pass when the 900-square-foot condos they were looking at in Brookline within quick reach of their hospital posts, where they work 60- to 70-hour weeks, were going for $500,000. They pay nearly $2,500 a month in rent for a roomy two-bedroom apartment in a modern building on Beacon Street in Brookline, and say they wouldn’t trade the location. But with each of them earning a typical fellowship salary of between $40,000 and $50,000, and paying for rent and child care, they’re not putting much money away.

Both want to pursue careers that combine academic research with clinical practice when their fellowships end in June, and where better to do so than Boston, a place that’s often touted as the medical research capital of the world? Gupta and Jain are certainly looking at opportunities here, but the stresses and costs of life in Massachusetts have them exploring other options as well. “We’re looking at Cincinnati,” says Gupta, and not just because it would be close to her family in Louisville. “You can get around, there’s not all that traffic, and you wonder if it’s not better at this point in your life,” she says. “Here we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are, and we still can’t afford a house in Boston.”

Gupta’s is a story that’s all too familiar to Ellen Zane, the longtime network president of Partners HealthCare System, who was named recently as the new chief executive of Tufts-New England Medical Center. “We’re really seeing this slow drip, drip of talent either not wanting to come here or to remain here,” says Zane. “It’s very clearly cost of living in general, cost of housing, specifically,” as well as malpractice insurance rates, she adds.

On one level, training here only to take that talent elsewhere is the natural order of things. After all, we can no more expect every graduate churned out of a Boston-area college or university to remain in this area than Michiganders should expect to see every car coming off a Detroit assembly line motoring around their state. Higher education is an export industry in Massachusetts, pulling in dollars as students from around the country and, increasingly, from around the world come here for college and advanced study. The brainpower honed here is a national, if not international, resource. That we get as much the pick of the litter as we do is a stroke of luck, as much as it is an intrinsic advantage. As more regions come to see their future tied to promoting knowledge-based industries, Massachusetts and other states that came early to the technology ball will have good reason to worry about that dance floor getting more crowded. And good reason to take one wistful comment from Ruchi Gupta seriously.

“We made so many friends when we came here, and so many of them have left,” says Gupta. “It’s just a place where people come and go.”

Go north, young family

While we fret about whether high-tech engineers opt for Austin over Boston, or whether medical superstars who train here will ultimately settle here, another story is playing out that involves lots of people who don’t carry the credentials that have business and civic leaders panting. They are teachers, middle-level managers, and sales representatives, and they’re finding that the soil on which many of them grew up has become an increasingly difficult place to put down roots as adults and raise a family.

“We’re definitely city-type people,” says Lisa Atkins, 31, a graphic designer who, after getting married, settled in a Belmont apartment with her husband, DJ, in 1997. But when they decided in 1999 that they wanted a house, not a condo, they gave up their Belmont apartment for a small three-bedroom home in Wakefield, which they paid $229,000 for. Two years ago, with one child and another on the way, they decided they needed more room.

DJ grew up in Chelmsford, and they went house hunting in communities near his hometown–Westford and Tyngsborough were on their radar–but found themselves priced out of what they wanted. They landed just over the line in Pelham, NH, in a 2,600-square-foot, four-bedroom colonial for which they paid $370,000. “We had no intentions of moving to New Hampshire,” says Lisa Atkins. “But we wanted a big house, we wanted a lot of land, and that pushed us up to Pelham.” DJ’s commute to his job in Andover with a company that installs commercial security systems is exactly the same as it was when they lived in Wakefield, 20 minutes. And Lisa has launched her own graphic design business, working three days a week out of the home office she’s set up in their fourth bedroom.

If the Atkins family find themselves in New Hampshire by surprise, Paul Granada has been moving north all his life. Born in South Boston, he and his family fled the turmoil of school busing in the 1970s for Medford, where they lived in a public housing development. He attended the University of Massachusetts­Lowell, where he got a degree in industrial management. He’s been an account manager with Electronic Data Systems, with an office in Waltham, for six years. Granada and his wife, Nancy, both 36, spent two years looking for a house to buy, but to no avail. “We tried desperately to find a home in Massachusetts,” says Grenada. “We just couldn’t do it.”

Two and a half years ago, they bought a three-bedroom raised ranch in Merrimack, NH, a town of 25,000 just north of Nashua. The Grenadas paid $225,000–$100,000 less, Paul Grenada figures, than they would have paid for a comparable home in the Massachusetts towns where they began their house hunt. Though Paul is still employed in Massachusetts, he has set up a home office to save him the long commute whenever he can. And his frequent trips to see client companies, which are scattered along the eastern seaboard, are a breeze thanks to nearby Manchester Airport.

If Paul still has one foot in the Massachusetts economy, Nancy Grenada has cut her ties to the Bay State completely. Laid off from a Cambridge dot-com firm in 2001, she now works as a marketing manager at Daniel Webster College in Nashua. There may be a steady flow of commuters streaming over the border each morning from New Hampshire, but Nancy Grenada’s shift to a job in the Granite State is more representative of those who have migrated from Massachusetts since 1990, three-quarters of whom not only live, but also work, in New Hampshire.

Two families that recently bought houses on their street both came from Massachusetts, but Paul Grenada knows he’s hardly a pioneer. “I’m not trying to blaze a path to New Hampshire,” he says. “It’s been well blazed before.”

Digging in, bailing out?

The road to New Hampshire or Rhode Island, or out of the region altogether, is one that more and more well-educated young people, and especially young families, in Greater Boston may be forced onto. Curtis Ogden came to Boston in 1998 from Ithaca, NY, and dove into the life of the city. He worked for a local nonprofit agency, Teen Empowerment, as a coordinator of youth activities at English High School, in Jamaica Plain. The 34-year-old Michigan native met his wife, Emily Howard, 31, in Boston, and both of them recently completed master’s degree programs at Harvard, Ogden in theological studies from the Divinity School, and Howard from the Graduate School of Education.

Ogden now works for Building Excellent Schools, a 10-year-old Boston nonprofit that promotes the development of charter schools, while Emily, shifting career gears, is working at a local produce and farm store, with thoughts of possibly opening a similar business of her own. But as they contemplate the future from the Newton apartment they now rent, with an eye toward starting a family and buying their first home, the couple are having a hard time seeing how that might happen anywhere near where they are now.

“We want a place to call our own, and to really dig into a community,” says Ogden. But the only way that seems feasible, he says, is to head toward the hinterlands, perhaps to some place like Milford, a fast-growing town in the southeast corner of Worcester County, where friends of theirs recently bought a house. Leaving the state altogether, says Ogden, could end up being more attractive than being forced to settle so far from the city that drew them here to begin with.

“It’s certainly not what I bargained for,” says Ogden. “There’s a lot to be said [for] the Boston area, but more and more people I talk to in their later 20s and early 30s who want to pursue teaching or work in nonprofit organizations feel they’ve become second-class citizens. For 10-plus years I’ve been hearing about the disappearing middle class, and now I feel like I’m living it.”

What are the implications of Ogden’s story, or that of Lisa and DJ Atkins in Pelham, NH, or Teny Gross and Julia Clinker, once vital threads of the region’s social fabric who now count themselves as Rhode Islanders? “It could be some evidence of the hollowing out of the economic ladder in Massachusetts,” says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts­Amherst. The Massachusetts migrants to neighboring states, he says, are “the kind of households that made up the middle of the income distribution in the age when the income distribution was a bell-shaped curve.”

Though fully immersed in their new life in Providence, Teny Gross and Julia Clinker still have ties in Boston and enjoy their proximity to the city they called home for 11 years. For Lisa and DJ Atkins, small-town life just across the Massachusetts border seems to offer the best of both worlds. If she can avoid rush-hour traffic, Lisa says, it’s an easy 45-minute drive into downtown Boston, where she recently took her daughters for a day at the New England Aquarium.

It’s possible that these population shifts just represent another cycle in a population churn that has remade the face of Greater Boston countless times over the years, a chapter worth chronicling, perhaps, but not a sky-is-falling trend to be fought. Indeed, some portion of the demographic flow of young people into and out of the state, and especially Greater Boston, is attributable to the 20-year boom Massachusetts has been in, periodic dips in the business cycle notwithstanding. Still, the rising tide created by the hyper-competitive, knowledge-based economy of today, rather than lifting all boats, seems instead to be reconfiguring the fleet, making way for sleek sloops by forcing many sturdy, reliable vessels into dry dock.

For now, perhaps, Massachusetts can content itself with being one of the winners in the cutting-edge economy of the 21st century. Whether it can stay in the winner’s circle, however, may depend on finding a way to preserve–or create anew–a way for people who were born to, or who chose, the Bay State to keep it as their home. Otherwise, more and more of those who start out trying to make a life here may come to view the region the way summertime tourists do: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t be able to live here.