Policy Conference Summaries

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Our Second Annual Policy Conference at Worcester State University featured experts, advocates and legislators discussing our shared prosperity agenda priorities in an opening plenary. Read summaries by our members of the day's panels:

Opening Plenary
Video: Senator Elizabeth Warren - Congressman Jim McGovern

Policy Sessions (Morning)
- Jobs - Education - Housing - Healthcare -

Action Sessions (Afternoon)
- Jobs - Education - Housing - Healthcare -

Candidates for Governor Forum

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Opening Plenary

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In the morning we heard from Congressman Jim McGovern about his efforts – and frustration – in fighting for his constituents amidst the dysfunction in Washington.  

(Watch Rep. McGovern's talk below)

Noah Berger of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center then demonstrated, in clear and concise terms, how unequal income distribution has become, nationwide and in Massachusetts, over the last 35 years. The facts are sobering, but important to know if we’re going to reverse these trends – in this case ignorance is not bliss.  

 Robert Fitzpatrick is an attorney and a member of the steering committee of Progressive Newton.

 

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Senator Elizabeth Warren's welcome remarks:

Congressman Jim McGovern's Plenary Address: 

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Morning Policy Sessions

Jobs

Marjorie Kelly, who recently published Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, discussed how experiments with new forms of ownership, like cooperatives and employee-owned businesses, point toward the possibility of a "generative economy... whose fundamental architecture tends to create beneficial rather than harmful outcomes."  Elyse Cherry, CEO of Boston Community Capital, discussed such strategies as investing in low-income entrepreneurs and individual development accounts.  Session participants engaged in a lively debate about the role of these strategies and approaches in addressing the larger problems of unemployment  and low-paying jobs in Massachusetts.

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Education

The morning policy session on Education focused on community colleges, an important component in Progressive Mass.’s goal of making college education freely available to all residents. The panel demonstrated that, despite Governor Patrick’s emphasis on community colleges, much work remains to be done. The three panelists were in general agreement on ways to help community college students succeed in meeting their goals, which, as Elizabeth Pauley of the The Boston Foundation noted, vary widely. Elizabeth Baylor of the Center for American Progress discussed practices from other states worth studying here and the importance of holding for-profit colleges – a growth sector – accountable. I was struck by Ira Rubenzahl, president of Springfield Technical Community College,, stating frankly that Massachusetts community colleges are doing the best they can, but don’t have the resources necessary to serve their students the way he’d like to – the way they need. He pointed out that state funding per student at community colleges is about three-fifths of per-student funding for state colleges, which in turn is about three-fifths of per-student funding for UMass.  This three-fifths ratio, reminiscent of the shameful three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, is all the more troubling because black and Latino students are disproportionately likely to start out at community colleges.

Robert Fitzpatrick is an attorney and a member of the steering committee of Progressive Newton.

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Housing

Housing economist Eric Belsky, of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, described the stark challenges facing Massachusetts residents seeking housing. Progressive Massachusetts has set a goal that no one pay over 30% of their income for housing, a common benchmark for assessing the burden of housing on families' budgets. Not only do many of the state's poor spend well over this 30% mark, but many spend over 50% of their income ("severe cost burden"), and the resulting reduction in spending for other critical necessities is significant. It was enlightening to learn that even many middle-income renters face these high cost burdens, and that low-income homeowners are facing similar challenges as renters, without any option for the subsidies often available to renters. Chrystal Kornegay, CEO of Urban Edge,, described the work her Jamaica Plain firm does to create affordable rental housing in the surrounding communities. They purchase underutilized buildings, and coordinate affordable housing subsidies in order to create housing affordable to working people with low incomes. Many of the fastest-growing job categories do not pay enough to afford market rate housing. One interesting tactic Urban Edge uses to assist their residents (who work full time) in affording housing is to help them collect other government services they may not realize they are eligible for. Some policy solutions described were both capital subsidies and rental subsidies, as well as more dense zoning for multi-family use. 

Andrew "Gumby" Breton is an economist, author, and leader of the Medford chapter of Progressive Massachusetts, Medford for Mass.

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Health Care

In the morning Healthcare session two presenters gave their unique perspectives on the healthcare system in Massachusetts.  Dr. Rachel Nardin - Chief of Neurology at Cambridge Health Alliance and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, gave a compelling argument for shifting Massachusetts’s healthcare towards a single payer system. She noted that the cost of the current system is unsustainable from the States budgetary standpoint, and that the cost to individuals makes the goal of insuring everyone, unattainable.  She also noted that although the recent healthcare reform has succeeded in providing more accessibility to healthcare, it leaves far too many people uninsured and underinsured.  The ideal system would be; universal, continuous, affordable, and provide proper care for patient needs. Richard Kirsch - Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: the Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States, spoke of the long fought battle to get National Healthcare in this country.  He sees a split in the ranks of those who support healthcare reform, placing at odds, those who want to build on the current system, and those who want to move to a single payer system. Although Single Payer may be the ultimate goal, he believes the Public Option, provided through the ACA, is the more realistic next step.  The problem with the Public Option may be implementation though.  The more variety in the system offerings, the more complicated it becomes to administer across the board.  Other items touched upon briefly included; the financially regressive nature of the current mandates, global payments for hospitals, paying doctors a set salary rather than fee for service, providing incentives for quality care, alternative care treatments, and the need to create health plans with specific health goals.

Stacie Shapiro lives in Needham Heights and is on the steering committee of Progressive Needham..

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Afternoon Action Session

Jobs

In the action session on jobs Senator Dan Wolf spoke passionately about reviving economic opportunity in Massachusetts and in the United States, laying out a four-part blueprint. He called out Democrats who fail to follow the party platform, saying that the Democratic Party must work for poor and working-class people, and stating – point blank – that being satisfied with the House minimum wage bill, which fails to index the wage to inflation and raises the minimum wage for tipped workers to only $3.75 per hour, should be disqualifying for a gubernatorial candidate seeking our support. Lew Finfer of MCAN, co-chair of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, stressed the the need for continued coordination between organizations working toward a more Progressive Massachusetts. He noted that the leading business lobbying groups in Massachusetts meet regularly to coordinate strategy; by doing likewise Raise Up Mass. has had considerable success. The key is to maintain that momentum for all the challenges we will face beyond November. The session reinforced for me the impression that Progressive Massachusetts is very much needed at this point in our history, and will play an important role in building a strong and sustained movement for economic justice.

Robert Fitzpatrick is an attorney and a member of the steering committee of Progressive Newton.

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Education

The afternoon Action Session on Education focused on our Shared Prosperity Agenda goal of free, publicly-funded higher education (community, vocational, or four-year college) within five years. Tom Sannicandro, State Representative and Chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, opened the session with some statistics about higher education in Massachusetts -- the only state with more private than public higher education institutions. He noted how the percentage of the budget which goes to higher education is going down, and how the current legislative goal is for 50% of the price of higher education should be from the school (including tuition costs), and 50% from the state. Colleen Avedikian, Vice President of PHENOM (the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) also spoke about the future of higher education in the Bay State including innovative approaches to college access. The two panelists concluded by fielding questions from the audience including college readiness, the Strike Debt campaign, and Pell Grants as a portion of college funding.

Shaina Kasper is from Somerville and is a Field Organizer for Progressive Massachusetts..

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Housing

This action forum was led by three speakers -  Sen. Jamie Eldridge, chair of the Joint Committee on Housing; Diane Sullivan, the Policy Director of Homes for Families; and Rachel Heller of CHAPA (Citizen's Housing And Planning Assoc.). They discussed policy successes and policy goals related to affordable housing in Massachusetts. Diane shared her personal account of navigating public housing programs, and how poor policy can waste taxpayer money and rob families of dignity. A missed $1000 rental payment resulted in nearly $50,000 of excessive state costs when her family was evicted and stayed in shelters and motels. Examples like hers illustrate how rental vouchers & subsidies can prevent waste while helping families and preserving dignity. She also described the recent victory to regain a significant portion of lost funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program(MRVP). Sen. Eldridge described some key bills in support of affordable housing: 1)zoning reform for more dense & affordable units, 2) the requirement of judicial review to protect owners from bank foreclosures, and 3) public housing authority reform to crack down on those authorities that might mistreat residents and mishandle funds. Heller, from CHAPA, described several policy initiatives they are promoting, including an increase in the MRVP budget, zoning requirements, various subsidies, and budgeting for several existing housing support programs. Participants in the audience also mentioned useful programs, including some from the Mass Alliance Against Predatory Lending

Andrew "Gumby" Breton is an economist, author, and leader of the Medford chapter of Progressive Massachusetts, Medford for Mass.

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Health Care

At our second health care session, Representative (soon to be Senator) Jason Lewis described the various state efforts to control costs and improve quality, highlighting public health efforts like the first-in-the-nation Prevention and Wellness Trust as well as payment and delivery system reforms recently signed into law. Virginia Ryan of Mass Care spoke about the need to pass single-payer legislation in Massachusetts and how essential it is that we move toward that system. And a Vietnam veteran Paul Caswell spoke at length about his personal experiences. In Vietnam, he had been shot and injured -- rushed to the MASH unit and saved. He asked us to question why it is that he could get that kind of quality care in a war zone, but individuals back at home could not receive any care because they are uninsured. He demanded that we see in our health care system the human face of what it means to be uninsured. 

Ari Fertig lives in Medford, is the Information and Marketing Coordinator at Health Care For All and helped start Progressive Massachusetts.

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Introducing the Gubernatorial Candidates

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If the opening hour laid out some of the (large) challenges we face, the closing hour showed one path to success. The four leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor all felt the need to answer the Progressive Massachusetts questionnaire, and to come to the conference to face hard questions about their responses. Slowly but surely – as evidenced by all of the people in attendance at the conference, and by our victories over the past year – we are organizing to hold the political leaders who seek our support accountable when they fail to advance our interests. This is how we get from where we are to the true Commonwealth we should, and will, be.

Robert Fitzpatrick is an attorney and a member of the steering committee of Progressive Newton.

VIDEO: CANDIDATES FOR GOVERNOR FORUM: CLICK HERE

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