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Opponents: Casino Fight Far From Over; Unlike Neighbors, UMass Still an In-State School; Strip Search Case Progresses; and more

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Michael Mathis image from MGM's public filing for community host agreement with city of Springfield

Opponents: Casino Fight Far From Over

Michael Kogut’s side didn’t win in last week’s casino referendum in Springfield. But as he reflected on the results the next day, he was still feeling pretty good.

On July 16, Springfield voters approved a host-community agreement between the city and MGM, which wants to build a casino in the South End, by a margin to 58 to 42 percent. That approval was necessary for MGM’s plan to move forward in the company’s bid for the sole casino license to be awarded in Western Mass. Voters in West Springfield and Palmer still have to vote on proposals in their communities. From there, the state Gaming Commission will choose the ultimate winner. That selection could take place next spring.

While MGM was celebrating its victory in Springfield, Kogut, founder of the grassroots Citizens Against Casino Gaming, suggested that the victory wasn’t quite as sweet at the company—or the Sarno administration, which has aggressively promoted the plan—might have hoped, given the amount of money MGM invested in its high-profile public relations campaign. “Spending $12 million and only getting 13,000 votes out of 23,000—I don’t think that’s a good margin,” he said.

Citizens Against Casino Gaming, by contrast, raised a mere $2,100: $100 from Kogut and the remainder split evenly between the Episcopal diocese and Dr. Mark Mullan, a fellow CACG leader. Kogut also harvested about $2,500 in in-kind contributions for lawn signs, bumper stickers and other campaign materials.

Even with that staggering financial imbalance, Kogut noted, 42 percent of voters came out to express their opposition to the casino. “We’re going to continue to build that coalition and have our voice heard before the Gaming Commission,” he said. Momentum was building in the weeks before the election, he added, pointing to the increasing involvement of residents and pastors from the city’s Hispanic community, for instance.

The Gaming Commission has indicated that it will welcome continuing public input. It also will take into account the margin of victory in casino referenda, Stephen Crosby, the commission’s chair, told the Springfield Republican the day before the Springfield vote.

“If there is overwhelming support versus a 2 percent victory support, the more popular support there is, that is clearly a stronger proposal,” he said. “[It] would mean there is greater public support, and in the big picture that is a factor. It’s not going to be as significant as jobs and economic development, or revenue, or the amount of money invested in the product, but it will be a factor we will look at. And all other things being equal, the intensity of the support or the intensity of the opposition in the host community and in surrounding communities is of some significance.”•

 

Unlike Neighbors, UMass Still an In-State School

For years, UMass officials have announced a strategy to boost funding: draw in more out-of state students, who pay more to attend (the most recent figure is $27,974 a year for tuition and fees, as opposed to $13,258 for Massachusetts residents).

But the university and the Legislature acknowledged that there was a mission issue, since Massachusetts residents pay taxes to support affordable education for their children, not necessarily the nation’s and the world’s.

So UMass has deliberately not followed in the footsteps of the University of Vermont, where 65 percent of the student body is from out of state, according to College XPress, and the out-of-staters pay more than $35,000.

In another neighboring state, 40 percent of the student body at the University of New Hampshire don’t come from the land of Live Free or Die. UMass would still have a long way to go to reach that figure.

“Out of state students subsidize in-state students,” state senator Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, chairman of a Massachusetts Senate task force on public higher education, said in 2010. “But we do think you have to find that delicate balance so you’re not denying qualified in-state students seats that are going to out-of-state [applicants].”

Meanwhile, out-of-state students are hardly overwhelming the Amherst campus, though UMass is succeeding in drawing more applications from outside the commonwealth.

In 2005, in-state undergraduate applications to UMass-Amherst totalled 13,172, while 7,035 came from out of state. In 2012, there were 18,920 from in the state, but the number of out-of-state applications as compared to the number in 2005 had more than doubled, to 15,406, according to figures from the UMass-Amherst Office of Institutional Research.

Meanwhile, in 2008, for the first time—though the difference had never been great—the acceptance rate for out-of-state applicants was higher than for in-state applicants. That year, 60 percent of in-state applicants were accepted, while 66 percent of out-of-state applicants were accepted.

But the number of out-of-state students actually enrolling in UMass is growing at a much slower rate than the number of out-of-state applications. In 2006, roughly 16 percent of the student body came from out of state. Last year, the figure was a little over 20 percent.•

 

North Quabbin Co-op to Get Storefront

If you’re searching for success stories in a tough economy, the coop sector is often a good place to look. At the moment, good news comes from the North Quabbin Community Co-op, which just got $23,500 to do a feasibility study on moving to a more visible location—a storefront— in downtown Orange.

The money came from a Rural Business Enterprise Grant of $21,500 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $2,000 from a regional venture capital fund, Common Capital, based in Holyoke. Common Capital’s client list also includes Greenfield Solar Array, River Valley Market (Northampton), Museum Facsimiles (Pittsfield), Spring Meadow Association of Responsible Tenants (Springfield) and many others.

Besides the two grants, the co-op has gotten an anonymous gift of $10,000 for the project, and the Garlic and Arts Festival has chipped in $5,000.
The new store will be at least 1,500 square feet and will have a paid worker. The co-op’s board of directors hopes to have it open by the end of this year.

The co-op serves the North Quabbin area and offers produce and other products from more than two dozen area farms and vendors, including Blue Ox Farm and Windyfields Farm in Orange, Apex Orchards in Shelburne, Farm and Field Landworks in Petersham, Smith Country Cheese in Winchendon, Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, Mother’s Laundering Soap in Erving and Katalyst Kombucha in Greenfield.• —SK

 

Markey Exits the House with Chemical Safety Victory

It’s been a particularly glaring inconsistency in public health policy: while a number of states, including Massachusetts, have outlawed the use of BPA—bisphenol A, a chemical used in some plastics that’s been linked to reproductive problems, cancer, diabetes and other health issues—in baby bottles, it remained legal for the chemical to be used in the linings of baby formula cans.

In other words, while the law might ensure that the chemical’s not in your baby’s bottle, there’s been no corresponding legal guarantee that it won’t be in the formula she drinks from that bottle.

But that’s now changing, thanks to a recent decision by the federal Food and Drug Administration that effectively bans the chemical’s use in formula cans. The new regulation could be regarded as a formality; formula manufacturers have stopped using BPA in containers, presumably in response to pressure from concerned consumers. (Similarly, large manufacturers have stopped using the chemical in other children’s products, such as sippy cups.)

The industry’s decision to stop using BPA in formula containers was, in fact, the basis for the FDA’s decision, which noted that its ruling sprang not from safety concerns, but rather from the fact that U.S. formula companies have “abandoned” the use of the chemical. Indeed, the ruling goes so far as to state that BPA remains considered safe for use in food packaging and manufacturing, although it notes that the FDA is in the midst of a study “actively assessing the safety of BPA.”

The new formula regulation came in response to lobbying by Massachusetts’ newest senator, Ed Markey. During his time in the House, Markey pushed several chemical safety laws, including ones aimed at eliminating BPA in food packaging. In 2012, he petitioned the FDA to ban the chemical in bottles, supplying evidence that the four major formula makers who account for the entire U.S. market no longer use BPA in their can linings.

In a press statement, Markey called the ruling “a major victory for America’s families,” but said more needs to be done to have BPA banned from all food packaging, a policy he’s pushed for several years as sponsor of the Ban Poisonous Additives Act.

While progress has been made in children’s product safety, that larger effort has met with considerable resistance from business interests. “[S]ome other industries are ignoring consumer concerns and continue to poison our food supply with this dangerous chemical by including it in other food and beverage packaging, including most canned goods,” Markey said in his statement.  

Connecticut has taken the strongest stand against BPA, in 2011 becoming the first state to ban its use in all food and beverage containers.

Elizabeth Saunders, director of Clean Water Massachusetts, also cheered the FDA’s ruling on formula containers, while calling for an expansion of that ban. “We’re still having BPA in other food containers,” she noted; indeed, Americans are so commonly exposed to the chemical that researchers have found it in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

“What we really need is a comprehensive system that addresses all chemicals and not just one at a time,” Saunders said.

That’s the goal of Massachusetts’ Act for Healthy Families and Businesses, which CWA and other health and environmental groups have been pushing for years. The bill calls for a system to evaluate the safety of individual chemicals and find safer alternatives for harmful ones where feasible. The program would be paid for by a fee imposed on manufacturers, and would provide technical and financial assistance to help companies make the switch.

On the federal level, lawmakers are considering the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which aims to modernize outdated laws governing chemical use in consumer products. That bill has too many problems, Saunders said; for instance, it doesn’t address the issue of safer alternatives to harmful chemicals, and it could override strong chemical safety laws on the state level, such as Massachusetts’ mercury law.

Still, she added, it’s heartening to see both Democrats and Republicans supporting the effort. “The fact that it is a bipartisan intention to regulate chemicals is a huge step forward that has not been taken before,” Saunders said.

Markey, who was sworn into the Senate last week, has vowed to bring his fight against BPA to his new office. “With viable alternatives available for BPA, I urge all companies to abandon the use of this toxic chemical, and I will continue my work in the Senate to ensure our entire food supply is free from this damaging chemical,” he said.• —MT

 

SNAP and Farmers’ Markets

If people using SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) want to buy fresh produce at farmers’ markets, either the markets or the farmers who sell their crops at them have to have debit card machines to process the benefit cards.

But of the 8,000 farmers’ markets across the country, slightly fewer than half have the machines, in spite of a push by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—backed by a $4 million appropriation last year—to help the markets get them.

There has been dramatic growth in the number of markets using the machines over the past five years. During that time, the number of markets that can process SNAP cards has risen from 750 to 3,824.

But the government wants to see still more low-income people gain access to food that’s nutritious rather than merely filling. That goal is even more important now that one out of seven Americans uses SNAP. A difficulty with using the machines to accommodate SNAP recipients, or other purchasers, is that farmers’ markets are usually staffed by volunteers, and using the machines involves extra time and effort in the form of paperwork and accounting.

In May, the USDA began offering funding for the machines to farmers as well as farmers’ markets, and in the two intervening months, 330 farmers and farmers’ markets have taken advantage of the program.

Massachusetts and the Valley have been ahead of the curve on the issue; in the Valley, 29 farmers’ markets, including four winter markets, have the machines and make their offerings available to SNAP recipients, Phil Korman of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) told the Advocate.• —SK

 

Strip Search Case Progresses

Last week the federal appeals court in Boston refused to overturn the opinion of a lower court that a case involving strip searches at the women’s correctional center in Chicopee could go forward as a class action suit. The plaintiffs claim that male officers at the jail videotaped women prisoners in the nude as they were being searched, that jail policy allowed them to do so, and that being videoed by men as they exposed intimate parts of the body was degrading for the women (“A Compromised Position,” February 16, 2012; “Prison Strip-Search Lawsuit Proceeds as Class Action,” June 4, 2013).

The defendants—Hampden County sheriff Michael Ashe and Patricia Murphy, who is in charge of the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center—had asked the appeals court to review a decision by Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court in Springfield that around 178 women, including the two named plaintiffs, Debra Baggett and April Marlboro, could be certified as a class to bring the suit. The appeals court has declined to review Ponsor’s decision of May 23.

According to the original complaint, “With four or more officers present, the inmate must take off all her clothes and perform a series of actions: she must lean forward, lift her arms, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands...An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search.”

From spring, 2008 until fall, 2010 the videotapings were done by male officers in 71 percent of cases, the plaintiff’s attorney says. Since 2011, when complaints surfaced, only 2 percent of the videotapings have been done by men. Discovery in the case is expected to continue until the end of the year.• —SK

 

Mass. Dems Oppose Keystone

 

Massachusetts Democrats passed a resolution at their recent state party convention opposing the Keystone pipeline.

The resolution, sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, calls on President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to “protect the health and welfare of the people of the United States and deny the permits necessary to build the Keystone XL pipeline.”

The Obama administration has yet to announce a final position on the controversial project, which would move crude oil from Canada and the northern U.S. to Texas refineries. Environmentalists have been pressing the president to reject the plan; this spring, a group of high-level political donors sent a public letter to Obama saying doing so would indicate a sincere commitment to addressing climate change.

“Yours is the last presidency in which it is possible for America to choose a responsible path forward for itself, before climate disruption becomes unmanageably dangerous,” they wrote. “This decision more than any other will signal your direction, your commitment, your resolve. It is the biggest, most explicit statement you will make in this historic moment, the moment when America turns from denial to solutions—or fails to.”

The PDA-sponsored resolution referenced a quote from newly sworn-in Sen. Ed Markey, a Keystone opponent: “The planet has a fever.” (The project was a key issue in the recent Senate election, setting Markey not just against his Republican opponent, Gabriel Gomez, but also against his rival in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a one-time Keystone backer who switched his position during the race.)

The resolution goes on to say that the oil brought by the pipeline would “release devastating amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the heating of planet earth” and that the project would “make it possible to dramatically increase exploitation of the tar sands and endanger precious natural resources.”

Keystone supporters—among them, Gomez, who called himself a “Green Republican” on the campaign trail—say it would ease the country’s dependence on foreign oil and create thousands of jobs.• —MT

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