Bill Relative to Holocaust Victims’ Insurance Relief Pending on Beacon Hill

By Maysie Childs
BU News Service

During World War II, millions of people lost their property and lives. Today, victims of the Nazi regime still struggle to reclaim insurance for what they lost as a result of that injustice.

A bill pending in the Massachusetts Legislature would require insurance companies with records showing Holocaust victims and their surviving family members’ insurance policies to disclose all information so that questions of unfair treatment are eliminated.

According to a member of Massachusetts Sen. Cynthia Creem’s staff, Richard Powell, this bill has been filed for at least four legislative sessions. California and Florida have attempted to enact a similar bill.

“I don’t know of anyone who would be opposed to this bill,” says Powell. “The average person would see it as a matter of equity.”

Survivors want insurance companies with any records to show proof of their insurance. The proposed bill would require those insurance companies to set up a registry of all information from victims as a matter of public record, thus allowing claims to move forward.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of greater Boston works with an independent organization that helps start lobbies for the issues they support. Emily Reichmann, manager of the Holocaust program at the JCRC, has continually supported the bill but notes that it has not gone beyond the committee stages.

“It was brought to our attention that unfortunately there are survivors living in poverty in the area,” says Reichmann. “Having to go though the Holocaust and then living below the poverty line is just a huge injustice.”

Reichmann said the JCRC feels it is important to provide Holocaust victims with some sort of financial relief through insurance because their role as an organization is to support all survivor issues.

Some survivors and their family members have been battling to settle misguided or unpaid claims from insurance companies for over 50 years.

The International Jewish community is negotiating with responsible insurance companies through the International Commission on Holocaust Ea Insurance Claims. However, to start protecting all Massachusetts’s victims and encourage action on a global scale, this chapter is deemed essential by the JCRC.

“We would really like to see the bill passed, but it has been an uphill battle,” says Powell. “I mean, we would at least like to bring attention to the matter. That is just as important.”

The bill would not cost anything to the state, but insurance companies would have to create a registry, which will no doubt be time-consuming and tedious work.

The proposed bill says that if insurance companies file false claims, it will result in civil penalty and suspension of their license to practice.

“Insurance companies do not want to deal with these individual claims on a state-by-state basis,” says Powell, “They would rather have this matter addressed on a federal level.”

OPINION: Just Say No to a Boston Olympics

Boston traffic. July 2009. (Photo: Flickr/nvinacco)
Boston traffic. July 2009. (Photo: Flickr/nvinacco)

By Jamie Bologna
BU News Service

As the world turns its gaze to the Sochi Olympic games, some in Massachusetts are already looking to twenty twenty four.

Last year the State Senate appointed a commission to see if Boston should make a bid to host the summer games. And a private group lead by a local construction mogul is also making the push for a Boston Olympics.

Plenty of folks have already lined up to support it — Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Former Boston Police commissioner Ed Davis, and Former Governor Mitt Romney.

Last year, then-Mayor Tom Menino called plans to bring the Olympics to Boston “far- fetched.” Let’s hope current mayor Marty Walsh isn’t quick to jump on the Olympic bandwagon either.

As politicians talk about how great the Olympics can be for a city, let’s consider some of the costs.

According to the Boston Globe’s Shira Springer, the Olympics cost London 15 billion dollars for its 2012 games, more than three times its proposed budget. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off its debt from the 1976 games. The Russian games happening right now have cost an estimated 50 billion—with a b—dollars.

Besides, where would we fit an Olympic stadium? Are we ready to tear down whole sections of our historic city? Will it be right to house Olympic athletes in smelly dorm rooms at BU, Harvard, and Tufts?

According to the British government, almost 700 thousand people visited the London area for their Olympics. That’s 50 thousand more than the population of the whole city of Boston.

Can you imagine the traffic and slowdowns on Storrow Drive, 93, the Mass Pike, and the Red Line?

This is the city infamous for the Big Dig. This is the city that shut down for weeks around the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Look, I love Boston. It is the hub of the region, a center of learning, health care, sports, and innovation.

And I love the idea of Boston being showcased on the world stage. I just think an event of Olympic proportions might shine an equally large spotlight on our fair city, illuminating not just the good but all the blemishes and scars as well.

It’s for all these reasons that I think we should pass the Olympic torch to another American metropolis.

Walsh and Connolly to vie for Mayor of Boston

By Ashley Davis
BU News Service

ROXBURY–City Councilor John R. Connolly secured a place in the November Boston mayoral election Tuesday night after tallying the second-most votes in the preliminary Boston municipal elections.

“I have never been more thankful to be in second place in my life,” Connolly said, addressing his campaign party’s reception Tuesday at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury.

Connolly will oppose state representative Martin Walsh.

The November election will name the successor to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who will retire following 20 years in office.

Connolly took the stage in Roxbury as final votes were tallied–fitting to his campaign platform–to the chorus of Jackson Five’s “ABC 123.” Connolly’s focus on education reform is one of the most emphasized pieces of his mayoral campaign.

“I’m running for mayor because I know that together we can transform our schools so that every child receives a high-quality education,” Connolly said at the reception. “And together we can build safe and healthy neighborhoods–and ensure that everyone has access to great jobs.”

Connolly’s connections to education were emphasized throughout the night through references to both his previous employment as a public-school teacher and also the number of campaign supporters who are parents with school-age children in the Boston area.

Yet not all of Connolly’s supporters are singularly focused on his dedication to education reform. Some, like Sherry Dong of Jamaica Plain, were drawn to working with the Connolly campaign for the overall progressive attitude that they feel he would bring to the office.

“I’ve known [Connolly] since he was on the council and I’ve seen how open and representative he is of the whole city,” Dong said. “So, to me, it’s the balance that he represents and the vision and new ideas that he brings.”

Dong said that moving forward Connolly’s campaign has a clear differentiation from Walsh, which should aid decisions for undecided voters.

“I think the two candidates are very different,” Dong said. “It will make a clear choice for people.”

Dong echoed Connolly’s reception address remarks that the campaign has busy weeks ahead, amping up the campaign to attract voters like Luis Groz of Boston who did not go out to vote tonight.

Groz plans to vote November 5 but did not visit the polling stations Tuesday. He said he felt that many were waiting to vote after the pool of 12 candidates had been narrowed in Tuesday’s preliminary.

Others, like James Peterson of Roxbury, who voted for Charlotte Golar Richie, will need to be swayed from other preliminary candidates.

Peterson, who is concerned with crime and safety, said it was straightforward for him what a candidate would need to do to earn his vote: “I need people more involved in the community.”

Connolly, rallying supporters to build momentum, will continue his campaign tomorrow.

Obama’s LIHEAP Request Gets Cold Shoulder From New England Legislators

Broken furnace photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user James Lee.
Broken furnace photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user James Lee.

By Edward Donga
BU News Service

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s latest request for funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – LIHEAP – is again meeting with the cold shoulder from legislators representing the cold weather region of New England.

Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, released Wednesday, requests $2.97 billion for LIHEAP for the year beginning Oct. 1. That’s a slight decrease from the $3 billion that Obama requested for the current 2013 fiscal year, and is approximately $500 million below the nearly $3.5 billion that Congress approved for this year.

Coincidentally, Obama’s 2014 budget proposal – released more than two months behind schedule, in large part due to last December’s “fiscal cliff showdown” – came on the same day that the National Fuel Funds Network had declared as “LIHEAP Action Day.” As Obama’s budget was being released, more than 100 representatives of the network — a coalition of non-profit groups, government agencies and utilities – were descending on Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of increased LIHEAP funding.

“I am deeply disappointed by President Obama’s proposed cuts to LIHEAP,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a frequent ally of the president’s, said in a statement Wednesday. “If enacted, they would have serious consequences for New Hampshire’s most vulnerable citizens who struggle with home energy costs.”

Added Shaheen, “I understand and support efforts to reduce the deficit, but given the economic climate and the rising cost of oil, cutting this critical source of assistance is the wrong way to move forward.”

During a budget briefing Wednesday, Department of Health and Human Services officials released figures conceding that New England states would see significant drops in LIHEAP assistance under Obama’s 2014 budget proposal.

Connecticut would drop from an estimated $80.4 million in the current fiscal year to just over $66 million in fiscal 2014. The comparable declines from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014 for other New England states would be: Maine, from $38.8 million to $31.2 million; Massachusetts, from $141 million to $112.9 million; New Hampshire, from $26.2 million to $20.9 million; Rhode Island, from $25.4 million to $20.7 million; and Vermont, from $19.7 million to $15.7 million.

A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the two Republicans in the New England congressional delegation, said Collins is working with a Democratic colleague, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to increase LIHEAP funding when Congress considers annual appropriations for fiscal 2014.

In a letter sent to the president last December, prior to the end of the last Congress, 40 senators requested that funding for LIHEAP in fiscal 2014 budget be set at no less than $4.7 billion, close to the program’s high water mark in fiscal year 2010 – when $5.1 billion was approved by Congress.

Besides Collins, Reed and Shaheen, the signers of the December letter who continue to serve in the current Congress include Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Patrick Leahy and. Bernard Sanders, both D-Vt.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

“As supporters of the LIHEAP program we are very cognizant of the challenges that our discretionary budgets faces in FY14,” the senators wrote to Obama. “However, we are deeply concerned that funding for the program has declined 32 percent in recent years…at the same time the number of households eligible for the program continues to exceed those receiving assistance.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who was sworn into office in January, added in a statement Wednesday: “Anyone who has lived through a cold New England winter knows how important it is to keep our homes heated. Families in Massachusetts rely on LIHEAP for assistance with basic energy bills, and I am committed to supporting and strengthening the LIHEAP program.”

While primarily targeted at cold-weather states, LIHEAP provides aid to assist low-income families in the Sun Belt deal with cooling costs during the summer. To be eligible for assistance, a family’s income must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of a given state’s median income.

Debate Rages Over Minimum Wage Bid

Image: President Barack Obama Official Photo

BOSTON – President Barack Obama’s call to raise the federal minimum wage, combined with a proposed Massachusetts bill to raise the state minimum wage has spurred a debate among legislators and business groups over the impact of such increases.

“If you boost the income of people who are poorly paid, it will have a positive effect on the economy, because it will increase consumer purchasing power, which benefits small businesses,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said in a phone interview.

Eldridge has signed on to a bill filed by Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, that would raise the minimum wage from $8 per hour to $11 per hour over the next three years. The last time Massachusetts raised the state minimum wage was in 2008 when it went from $7.50 per hour to $8 per hour.

Eldridge said a higher minimum wage could allow workers to pay for their basic needs out of pocket, without relying on government programs, such as subsidized housing or food stamps.

“It’s troubling that people are working very hard, but because they’re not earning a living wage, they need to depend on the government even more,” he said.

Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, who also backs the bill, said one of the most difficult issues is determining where the minimum wage should be set.

“The minimum wage should be a living wage; it should not be a wage that makes you rich,” said Barrett. “It should enable you to get by if you work hard.”

An annual minimum-wage salary in Massachusetts is about $16,000. Seven other states have higher minimum wages than Massachusetts, including Connecticut, with a minimum wage of $8.25 per hour and Vermont, at $8.60 per hour, Washington state has the highest minimum wage at $9.19 per hour.

In the State of the Union address last week, Obama said he wants to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour. This would put Massachusetts’ minimum wage at $9.10 per hour, requires the state minimum to be 10 cents above the federal rate.

Business and retail organizations are opposed to raising the minimum wage, because it would raise the cost of business, making it more difficult for small businesses to employ staff.

“If we raise minimum wage, we will create real problems for workers and small businesses who are trying to serve their customers,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “If customers aren’t spending more, we aren’t employing people.”

Hurst said the state’s top priority should be job creation instead of higher wages. In December, Middlesex County’s unemployment rate was 5.1 percent, compared to 7.8 percent at the national level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For cities and towns near the state border, such as Lowell, higher wages could put businesses at a disadvantage with companies in New Hampshire, which has a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“The mandates public officials put on the backs of small businesses affect competition out of state,” Hurst said. “It’s putting at a great advantage, our competition.”

However, Robert Forrant, a University of Massachusetts Lowell history professor who specializes in labor studies, said there is little evidence that incremental minimum wage increases will negatively impact the job market.

“Places that employ people at minimum wage still need a workforce, because they are not the kind of jobs that you can eliminate through technology; they are still labor-intensive,” Forrant said.

Michael Carter, a UMass Lowell economics professor, said economists are divided on whether the minimum wage spurs or constricts business, but he feels the minimum wage allows businesses to pick from a better- quality applicant pool.

“If you have higher minimum wage, it raises the bar in terms of what people consider to be fair, just, and reasonable, which is necessary to attract qualified workers,” Carter said.

Three Bills Aim to Bar “Fracking”

Image: As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to vote on gun control legislation in the coming weeks, one of Capitol Hill’s key players on the issue – Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. – already has staked out some positions in the debate. But he is awaiting more information before he makes up his mind on several key questions.

by Cole Chapman

BOSTON —Although Massachusetts is not known for petroleum exploration, two bills have been filed in the Legislature to pre-emptively ban hydraulic fracturing – a natural gas extraction process better known as “fracking.”

Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, and Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, have co-sponsored one bill that would bar the exploitation of shale located deep beneath the ground for natural gas production.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sean Garballey, D–Arlington, has two bills filed regarding fracking. One, filed last year, would require disclosures about what chemicals are being used in the fracking process while the other is a ban similar to Provost’s.

Even though there is little interest in what geologists believe are meager pickings for petroleum in the state, and state regulation now bars the fracking process, both lawmakers are in earnest about their proposals.

“I’d love her support and she certainly has my support for her legislation but basically I think we all agree on the issue which is to protect the public health of our constituents,” said Garballey.

Fracking has become a polarizing topic over the past decade. The American Petroleum Institute touts it as a “game-changer” while environmentalist groups such as Environment Massachusetts say fracking would contaminate drinking water, dry up water reserves, and even cause minor earthquakes.

Anika James, a field associate for Environment Massachusetts, considers fracking a threat to the Connecticut River, the Mohawk Trail, the Quabbin Reservoir, “and our most picturesque farms and forests.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a highly pressurized liquid mixture of water and chemicals into underground shale layers to release natural gas deposits.

According to the Petroleum Institute, fracking has already produced a surplus of natural gas in the U.S., generated $62 billion in government revenue and created 1.7 million jobs in 2012.

But the debate over jobs and revenue versus the environment is largely a conceptual one in Massachusetts, which only has one potential source of petroleum in an area known as the Hartford Basin.

Springfield sits within the borders of the basin, which extends 34 miles north out of Connecticut. The basin is about 15 miles wide where it crosses the Massachusetts border before thinning out to a close near the northern part of the state.

Fracking became an issue in Massachusetts when the U. S. Geological Survey released a two-page study in June assessing five underground shale areas along the East Coast. The study also identified a series of other basins, including the one in Massachusetts, which were not assessed because of a lack of information.

Nation’s Dairy Farmers Lose Safety Net With Expiration Of Farm Bill

By Joel Senick

BU News Service

WASHINGTON —When legislation governing the nation’s farm programs, passed in 2008, expired at the end of September, almost three-quarters of its provisions – notably food stamps and federal crop insurance – stayed intact, since they largely involve mandatory programs for which Congress extended funding through the current 2013 fiscal year.

But dairy farmers found themselves without a safety net.

Since Oct. 1, dairy farmers in Massachusetts and across the country have been without the Milk Income Loss Contract – MILC – program, a subsidy that compensated dairy farmers when milk prices dropped below a set level. The program expired along with the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, commonly referred to as the farm bill.

Due to disagreements between the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-dominated House, Congress failed to pass new legislation before adjourning in September for the fall election campaign, leaving the task to the current “lame duck” session.

If a farm bill fails to pass before the 112th Congress adjourns for good at the end of this month, legislators should draft a short-term fix for dairy producers, declared U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.

“We got a figure out a way to make sure our dairy farmers don’t get the short end of the stick,” said Mr. McGovern. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New England office, the Bay State had 13,000 milk cows, which produced 220 million pounds of milk annually.

“Honestly, I don’t know how the process is going to proceed, I don’t think anybody does,” said Mr. McGovern added in an interview. “It remains to be seen where the farm bill fits in terms of the priorities of the Republican leadership here in the House. Up to this point they haven’t wanted to talk about it.”

Currently, there are slightly fewer than 200 dairy farmers in Massachusetts and most of them participated in the MILC program, said John Devine, a program specialist with the Massachusetts Farm Service Agency – a branch of the USDA. Dairy farmers rely on government aid because the price of milk can swing greatly.

In fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30, the Massachusetts Farm Service Agency allocated $1.1 million in MILC subsidies to dairy farmers in the state. The amount made up 16 percent of the agency’s total agricultural disbursements for the year, according to Mr. Devine.

Milk prices have risen since last summer: In October, milk sold for $21.10 per hundredweight (approximately 12 gallons), up from $16.20 in May. However, the price of feed, such as corn and soybeans, also has risen this year due to one of the worst droughts in decades in key Midwest farming states.

Even with the high price of milk, the MILC program was needed this year to help New England farms offset their losses, said Alan Everett, chairman of the dairy committee of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of farms in the Bay State.

“Right now, the milk pricing seems to be wide fluctuations,” said Mr. Everett. “We have a good year then we have a fair year, then we have a couple bad years. It’s not very regular.”

Mr. Everett and his wife, Terry, own Hemingway Hill Farm in Williamsburg, just west of Amherst. He said their farm received upwards to $700 a month from the MILC program in the months before the program expired.

“For dairy farmers it’s really not so great right now because we have to buy those inputs for the cows,” said Mr. Everett, referring to feed. He tends to around 30 dairy cows on his farm at any given time, and has been producing milk since 1981.

“In the Midwest where they can grow their own grains, it’s not so bad for them,” Mr. Everett explained. “In Massachusetts and New England, there are a lot of us farmers who aren’t growing our own grains and we’re hurting.”

In July, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, which sought to tackle the uncertainty of milk prices with a new regimen designed to replace the MILC program. Under the Senate provision, farmers would be able buy into an insurance program that would cover farmers if their milk production cost rose to $4 or more above the sale price per hundredweight. Another provision would require participants in the program to cut production by 2 to 3 percent when there is an oversupply of milk that causes prices to drop.

“It’s an attempt to try to bring supply and demand more into line,” said Everett, who suggested that such a system could bring greater stability to the price of milk.

The bill also extended the MILC program until June 30, 2013, providing for a transition period for farmers before they decide on whether to buy into the new insurance program.

But the U.S. House has yet to take up its version of the farm bill; in that chamber, the legislation has been stuck between conservatives who want greater cuts in a number of agricultural programs, and liberals who object to large cuts in the food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A version of the farm bill that cleared the House Agriculture Committee last summer contains the same insurance-based milk program that passed in the full Senate. However, the House committee legislation does not include an extension of the current MILC program. Instead, farmers would retroactively receive MILC payments until the new program is implemented.

If some form of dairy legislation does not pass Congress before the end of the year, the country would revert back to agriculture policy from the 1940s, called parity pricing. This would require the government to purchase milk above market rates, driving up its price, Mr. Everett noted.

“I think there will be a bad backlash if they don’t” pass a new farm bill, Mr. Everett said, pointing out that “people get upset when the price of milk goes up in the store.”

He added with a chuckle, “I don’t, but it doesn’t make me very popular.”

VIDEO: Another Kennedy in Congress

MASSACHUSETTS – Democrat Joe Kennedy the Third will be filling the Congressional seat left vacant by the retiring Barney Frank.

The young Kennedy won a decisive victory over Republican challenger Sean Bielat. BU News Service’s Mike Neff took a look at the race for the Fourth District.

VIDEO: Tierney Wins

MASSACHUSETTS – Incumbent John Tierney is the winner of a Congressional race shadowed by scandal. The margin of victory – just a few thousand votes between the Democrat and Republican challenger Richard Tisei.

Tisei’s campaign officials say they will be looking more closely at voter returns. BU News Service reporter Alex Orr has the story of Tierney’s rocky road back to Washington.