Thursday, August 27, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy

I am deeply saddened by the passing of Sen. Kennedy yesterday. While it was not unexpected, it is a tragic and sad day for Massachusetts and the US Senate. My thoughts and prayers go to his family.

There has been much written about the senior Senator over the last few days and much more will be written. We will not realize the full impact of the loss nor will we realize the impact to Massachusetts until we start to look at the things Ted used to do that will no longer happen. We have lost the most influential member of Congress and that will hurt. For many of us, we have also lost a friend and someone who cared deeply for the people of this state and for the people in need of a champion all over this country. People who are far more eloquent than I am will detail the accomplishments and career of the Senator over the next few weeks and months. I would just like to relate a few stories of my personal dealings with Ted Kennedy.

First, I have two treasured pictures of Ted Kennedy. The first is a picture of Ted and Vicki with my daughter Stephanie. I was taking the Senator on a tour of MassMoCA a number of years ago and my daughter (much younger then) came along. I wanted her to meet the Senator and told her he was one of the most powerful men in Washington. So I have a picture of them together at the museum. The other is the picture that was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times during the 2000 convention. It is a picture of Ted and Caroline together waving to the crowd. I sent to the Times for a few prints of this and asked Ted to autograph it for me. He wrote, “Dan, I am looking for you, Ted Kennedy.”

The Senator and the family were on vacation in the Berkshires and I received a phone call from Gene Dellea asking me to go to lunch with the Senator and a small group. I was seated across from Ted who was about three seats from his wife Vicki. As many know, Ted Kennedy waged a lifetime battle with weight (I can relate) and he sat there with a salad for lunch. As the meal ended and the waiter asked for dessert preferences, the Senator said he wanted coffee but told the person on his right that the chocolate cake with the chocolate sauce was good. As dessert went on, every time Vicki was looking the other way, Ted would scoop a big spoon of cake and sauce out and eat it. He would grin, so proud that he was sneaking dessert until Vicki turned to him and said, “Ted, you know you have chocolate sauce all over your shirt”! He looked down very dismayed until we all started laughing and he joined in with a loud laugh himself. He took his job seriously, but could laugh at himself, a disappearing trait in politics.

In the mid-nineties, I was on my way to Washington to speak to Congress about heating assistance and the federal transportation bill with a number of people from around the east coast. I asked a number of people, as I always do, whether I could do anything else while I was down there. I was told by a few members of the BRTA that the train in Pittsfield was in danger. Newt Gringrich was Speaker of the House and Dick Armey from Texas was the House Ways and Means Chair. The rumor was that they were closing Amtrak stations all over including Texas. So I called Ted Kennedy’s office and asked to speak to him about this when I was in Washington. I arrived at his office with a bunch of people to talk to him about fuel assistance and we sat around his office in a semi circle. Being the closest on the left of the seats, I was close enough to the Senator to see the 3x5 card in his hand. The only thing typed on it was, “Dan Bosley-Amtrak-Pittsfield”. As our meeting wound down, a staffer reminded the Senator that I had wanted to talk about Amtrak. Ted Kennedy said something to the effect that trains were important and Pittsfield was important and America was getting into training, training the Amtrak way! He then asked if anyone wanted to take a picture and my chance ended with pictures of our group. I remember thinking that this didn’t go as I expected. I was a little disappointed until the next morning. I was in again a large meeting in Washington. This time I was with the CEO for Amtrak looking for an update on the proposed transportation bill. All we got was a half hour lecture of how we should lobby Congress to give Amtrak a penny from the federal gas tax. However, as this meeting ended and we all were leaving, Amtrak CEO Downs asked if I were in the room. He asked me to hang back. We went into his office and he said that I didn’t have to worry about Pittsfield closing. He said he received a personal phone call from Sen. Kennedy at home last evening requesting that they leave the Pittsfield stop open. He said that we shouldn’t worry and that he was very happy to have had the chance to talk to the Senator about Amtrak’s request for more money. He thanked me for getting Ted to call him! He went on to ask if I knew just how influential the Senator was and that he was thrilled to be able to talk to the most powerful man in the Senate as their funding was being discussed. He said that if I needed anything else, just call him. I remember leaving thinking God Bless Kennedy for making the phone call and taking care of us.

The last story is about Ted Kennedy’s appearance at the Commencement ceremony at MCLA in May ’06. I brought a copy of his recent book, “America: Back on Track” so that he could sign it. While we were getting “robed up” for the ceremony, I brought the book over and asked him to sign it. He took the pen and signed the book, but then started to go over the book and mark what he considered to be the important parts. I remember thinking, “hey, he’s writing in my book”, but how cool is it to have a book with the parts that he thought were important pointed out?

I remember where I was when I learned of both Bobby and John Kennedy’s death. The passing of Ted Kennedy is more difficult for me. Perhaps this is because I am older and more aware of our mortality. Perhaps this is because I knew him personally. Either way, we are diminished by his death and have lost a very good friend to the citizens of Massachusetts as well as a good friend to, in Dylan’s words, “the luckless, the abandoned, and forsaked” all over the country. He will be missed.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Governor's visit

Governor Patrick spent a day last week in the North Berkshire Community. He was gracious, inquisitive, supportive of our efforts here, and brought money!! What more could one ask for?

I am quick to criticize our administration when I feel they are wrong and the flip side should be that I should be just as quick to praise them when I feel they are right in their efforts. I feel this is one area that we have forgotten. Governor Patrick had a good trip here and we should say thanks for that.

The Governor announced that we would be receiving approximately 1.6 million in the district. These were Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to North Adams and Adams as well as some housing money. This comes from a $40+ million pool of grants around the state. A few people have questioned how the state can afford this when we are running a deficit and have cut other programs. A few have suggested that if there is money, why spend part of it on a skating rink as opposed to education or health care? Good questions. The answer is two-fold. First, this is federal block grant money that goes to the states each year to enhance communities. If we don’t use it, it goes elsewhere in the system, so we may as well use money that is designated for communities. On the question of putting resources into the skating rink, this is money that goes to people in the community. The skating rink is used by many kids and adults in the North Berkshire Community. Government should enhance the lives of our people and this will be a little money that will go a long way to helping locals use this facility.

The Governor also visited local businesses and art galleries. He asked a lot of good questions. He passed through the Juvenile court and said hi to Alex Daugherty. He talked with people on the street and had coffee in Brew Ha Ha.

But the most endearing quality of our Governor shines through when talking with kids. At the skating rink, he made a point of talking with every child there. He encouraged them to use the rink and was very engaged. (He also traveled out on the ice with his street shoes on. I was worried given his bad hip that he would slip, but he handled himself well.) He took several pictures with the kids. The Governor was scheduled to go to an area park to see the ROPES course that is operated regionally by the police departments. Given the death of Eunice Shiver and his hurrying back to the wake on the Cape, his office cancelled his afternoon appearance. When the Governor left the skating rink, he told his driver to take him to the ROPES course. He wasn’t going to disappoint the kids and he had made a promise at the Fall Foliage Parade to visit this course. The kids were thrilled and he again spent time visiting, posing for pictures, and talking to the kids. Thanks Governor for some time well spent.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Getting Out of the Recession

President Barak Obama and many economic advisors have said that they believe that the worst of our economic times are behind us and that we should start to see signs of an economic turnaround. While there will be higher unemployment and struggles, the worst is behind us. Indeed, Wall Street has experienced the biggest one month growth in July in many months.

I think that the President is right when it comes to Wall Street. Growth is occurring. However, Wall Street no longer reflects the average family or consumer and that is one of the problems. They are not tied to fiscal reality for the average family.

There is a second problem that is different today than in past recessions. That is consumer spending and this is going to be a big problem moving forward. Most economic experts will tell you that consumer spending drives the economy. Growth only occurs when people consume and that consumption depends on confidence in the market. It also relies upon the confidence that one will remain working and not have a fear of losing their job. The suggestion that we are turning the corner on the recession is steeped in numbers from Wall Street and the dependence on a return of confidence as the market grows that will lead to more spending. There are a couple of problems with this.

First is that the job market has changed. I have often quoted a study by the Center for Work and Learning in Washington D.C. that was done in the nineties that states that the average person graduating from college in the year 2000 will have to changed or be retrained for their job up to seven times in their career due to technological changes in the work place. I would suggest that this total is low. We know that manufacturing has struggled in the US and even though it is still important, the skill sets required for these jobs have changed dramatically. I worked in the machine tool trades about twenty-five years ago when machinists used micrometers as the most technologically advanced tool. Today machines talk to one another by laser and computers spit out three dimensional models of parts before the machines are started. Skill sets have changed and continue to change. Bill Gates called the 2000’s the “Decade of Velocity”. He may have underestimated the speed of change. We know that fields of new technologies such as stem cell research, nanotechnology, green adaptations of new discoveries, defense work and IT to name a few weren’t even around for our parents generation, yet they dominate the job sets being created. So people are not as confident that they can keep their job as in past generations and we have a challenge in retraining people to keep up with new advances in technologies. All of this slows consumer confidence.

Second, we have witnessed several generations that have spent more money than they have and there is little credit left with which to spend regardless of consumer confidence. Think about it. We have spent the last few decades giving people multiple credit cards, easy payments, and things such as subprime mortgages all while blasting them with commercials about products that they need RIGHT NOW! Want an iphone? Get it. Cars on your own signature and if you can’t afford a home, we will give you one for next to nothing, oh and don’t sweat the balloon payment five years out.

This is irresponsible. But it has lead to a very high consumer debt level while we are saving less than many generations past. Even the federal government is getting with the program spending far more than they have saddling future generations with debt service (already the highest line item in the federal budget) that will make it harder to find expendable income. So, yes, consumer confidence and spending is important, but do we have any money left to spend?

Governor's Veto

My last post was concerning the $80 million supplemental budget that the House passed just prior to breaking for the summer. It was placed on the Governor’s desk and he has had ten days to sign, amend, or veto the bill. As this is a budget, the Governor may line item veto the sections he disagrees with.

Governor Patrick signed the bill this past week, vetoing $33 million in spending and keeping intact the $40 million for legal immigrant health care. He suggested that $40 million wasn’t enough for this item.

I agree with the Governor’s vetoes up to a point and had hoped he would veto the entire bill. I don’t believe that this level of spending is sustainable. That said, I am saddened that he had to veto food bank money as well as regional library elder health care line items. These are important to my district, but I could not see spending $80 million in order to spend $6 million or so on programs that I like. That is the math that gets us in trouble.

I am also troubled by the statement that $40 million is not enough for the legal immigrant’s health care program. I believe that legal immigrants should be treated just as native citizens or people who have moved here to Massachusetts from another state. They are treated as a separate category of health care spending because the federal government doesn’t split the cost of health care for immigrants. That means that we pay 100% instead of 50% for their health care. The administration’s statement, along with the original estimate of upwards to $120 million for this line item, indicates to me that the administration will be back for more money for this later on in the year and that doesn’t bode well.

It saddens me to have to vote against any worthwhile program in the budget, but we have to live within our means and we have to find more cost effective ways of doing things within our line items. Until we do, the budget just continues to grow.

I believe that next year’s budget will be even tougher. Cities and towns have exhausted their rainy day funds. Next year is an election year and that means that elected officials are not going to want to bring home ore bad news than is necessary. That limits flexibility. If we don’t start to control spending now, we are in for an even tougher time next year.