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Displaced Students Envision a New, Green School; McCutcheon Changed Mass. Campaign Finance Rules; Coalition Lobbies for Homeless Individuals; Sanders and Progressive Suitors


Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Jacquelyn Martin photo
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, speaks during a December 2012 news conference on Capitol Hill. Sanders said recently he'd consider running for president if no other progressive candidate steps up.

Displaced Students Envision a New, Green School

Students at Springfield’s St. Michael’s Academy know more about construction than any middle-schoolers ought to: after all, it’s been a topic of great concern to the school community since June of 2011, when a tornado badly damaged St. Michael’s and Cathedral High School, with which it shared space on Surrey Road in East Forest Park. Since then, St. Michael’s middle-school students have been housed with its elementary students on Eddywood Street, while Cathedral has been in temporary space in Wilbraham.

But that sour lemon of a tornado has yielded some welcomed lemonade for St. Michael’s: a group of eighth-graders at the school recently were named northeast regional winners in the national School of the Future Design Competition. The contest, organized by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International, asks middle-school students to go through a detailed process to design a model school, with a particular emphasis on energy conservation and other environmentally sound practices.

The Springfield team designed a combined middle- and high school to be located on the Surrey Road campus. (In a move that resonates of younger-sibling assertiveness, they gave it the name St. Michael’s Charter School of Athletics and Academics—not Cathedral.) Their green-oriented plans call for reuse of materials from the old building, a rooftop garden, and solar panels and wind turbines to generate electricity, as well as a geothermal heat pump. In October, they’ll present the plan at the national competition in Portland, Ore.

In March, the Springfield Diocese announced that Cathedral and St. Michael’s will be rebuilt on the Surrey Road campus, after it secured a $29 million settlement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (See “Cathedral High Community Sighs With Relief,” March 12, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com.) As the months passed after the tornado, many school families and alumni had been worried that the diocese might opt not to rebuild at the East Forest Park site.


McCutcheon Changed Mass. Campaign Finance Rules

Less than a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission that individual donors can contribute to as many political candidates as they wish, the state of Massachusetts followed suit by abolishing limits on the number of candidates to which an individual may donate.

“It’s not surprising that Massachusetts acted as it did,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “The Supreme Court’s ruling was clearly applicable to state law. It’s true that they could have held on to the limit for a little longer, until it was challenged in court, but that means that you have litigation costs with very little prospect of success.”

Besides Massachusetts, 11 other states, including Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York, have aggregate donation limits, and conservatives last week were vowing to sue the states that don’t overturn them.

Wilmot added that the Massachusetts Office of Campaign Finance is “looking at some other parts of the law which we think should probably stay. They’re looking at [contributions to] parties. It’s different from an aggregate individual limit because a party has a bunch of subdivisions. Currently there are state parties, committees of the party and ward committees of the party. They’re looking at the limit, which is $5,000 to a party and all its committees. We’ll see how that plays out.”

In its McCutcheon ruling, the Supreme Court let stand rules about how much an individual could contribute to any one candidate (the “base limit”); what it declared unconstitutional was the limit (the “aggregate limit”) on the number of candidates a donor could give to. Massachusetts is following suit by not changing the base limit on what a donor can give to a candidate—$500 per year—but the aggregate a donor used to be able to give to candidates ($12,500, which equals $500 each times 25 candidates) has been eliminated.

So does Massachusetts have “kingmaker” donors who will be ready and waiting to implement statewide agendas by using money to assemble whole slates of candidates?

“We do have a number of individuals who have come up against the aggregate limits. One was cited for violating that limit a number of years ago,” Wilmot said. But there have been no such citations within the last two election cycles in the commonwealth, as opposed to the federal election landscape, where very large donors like Sheldon Adelson openly influence even the choice of presidential candidates (“McCutcheon vs. FEC: Money Wins,” April 10, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com).

Some applauded the ripple effect of the controversial McCutcheon decision in Massachusetts. “Here comes the return of soft money,” conservative activist Rob Eno wrote on the Red Mass Group blog. “And it is a great thing for democracy in Massachusetts, where unions have an unfair advantage”—a reference to Massachusetts law prohibiting corporations from donating to candidates but allowing unions and PACs to contribute $500 per candidate.

In the wake of the McCutcheon ruling and the earlier Citizens United decision, which raised the amounts of money corporations and other groups could spend on “electioneering communications” through the media, a crucial problem in Massachusetts is that “our disclosure laws haven’t caught up,” Wilmot told the Advocate. Massachusetts representative Cory Atkins and senator Jamie Eldridge are working on legislation to help remedy that problem by requiring that the names of the top five (or fewer, if there are not five) contributors who pay for “electioneering communications” be listed on media ads or other material intended to influence an election.

Another part of that legislation would add a measure of transparency when there are last-minute influxes of money, such as the one that helped Scott Brown win the special election to replace U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy after Kennedy’s death. It would require that groups putting up $1,000 or more for “electioneering communications” within the last week of an election must report the identity of the donors within 48 hours.•

 

Coalition Lobbies for Homeless Individuals

Organizations that serve homeless people across the state, including the Springfield-based Friends of the Homeless, have banded together to lobby for an increase in state funding, hoping to win resources that will help them meet demand that already outstrips their financial capacity.

“We’ve clearly been underfunded for a long time, and we’re trying to make up the difference there,” said Bill Miller, executive director of Friends of the Homeless. “The balance of the programs, even the ones with the better unit rates, haven’t seen any increase in almost 15 years... And I think everyone can understand that the dollars that paid for services 15 years ago are not as valuable as those of today... Things cost more than they did then.”

The organizations, which have collectively adopted the name “Coalition for Homeless Individuals,” are seeking a $7 increase in what the Commonwealth contributes, at minimum, for each of the beds they provide—from $25 to $32, which would bring the minimum up the current statewide average. They’ve also proposed a cost-of-living adjustment for their services, which would raise the state’s budget for those services from $40,751,657 to $48,500,000.

Unlike homeless families, homeless individuals do not have a “Right to Shelter” under Massachusetts state law. Thus the organizations that serve them do not receive automatic funding increases to meet their needs.

“There’s just not as much motivation to necessarily increase funding to individuals [because of the required increases to family shelters], so we thought it made political sense to work together as a group, and ask together as a group,” said Miller. “Our goal, and really the goal of the people I know and am collaborating with across the state, is to help people move up and out of homelessness. The old style of a warehouse shelter is not what any of us are interested in... We look at shelter as much more than just a place to stay.”

“We [at Friends of the Homeless] have a 24-hour care model, so that people do have an overnight place to stay, they have three meals a day, they have showers and basic need services,” said Miller. “We also have a resource center.. where they can meet with housing search workers and other consultants that come in to work with them... [as well as] computer space and phone availability so that they can do their own work.”

State Sen. Gale Candaras (D-Wilbraham) appreciates the need for greater funding, and supports the coalition’s initiative.

“Friends of the Homeless has been providing shelter services, feeding station services, and other services for people. They’ve been doing it on a shoestring, struggling very hard to do it, and they’ve been doing a great job of it,” said Candaras. “But they certainly need more resources; they need to be able to meet the needs confronting them. A civilized society requires that we feed and shelter people that are homeless and on the street.”

The state legislature will consider the issue as part of planning the budget for the 2015 fiscal year, a process which begins on July 1st.•

 

As Sanders Considers a White House Run, Progressive Suitors Line Up

If Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders runs for president in 2016—and at this point, that’s a pretty big if—his would be a campaign dramatically different from the kind voters are used to.

Sanders, a democratic socialist who serves in the Senate as an Independent, has spoken of the need for a “political revolution” that would address long-neglected issues of social, economic and environmental justice.

But as untraditional as his campaign might be, Sanders is still aware of the necessity of certain political traditions—including testing the political waters in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. Like all candidates with White House aspirations, Sanders has been filling his calendar with events in New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first presidential primaries, including a town meeting at St. Anselm College last weekend and an upcoming visit with veterans.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, earlier this year had pushed a major veterans’ benefits package that includes healthcare and education programs, but it was blocked by Republicans.

Whether or not Sanders will, in fact, choose to run for president is not the only mystery surrounding the senator. It also remains to seen under what party’s banner he would campaign. While Sanders caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, he’s not shy about criticizing the party, including questioning whether presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is sufficiently committed to addressing pressing issues like the environment and economic inequality.

The Progressive Democrats of America agree with Sanders and are urging him to run for president as a Democrat. (See “Sanders for President?” March 26, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com.) The group has launched an online petition, at credomoblize.com, calling on Sanders to do just that; by the middle of last week, it was closing in on 8,000 signatures.

But the progressive Democrats aren’t the only ones eager to woo Sanders to their party: a rival petition, at change.org, calls on Sanders to run as a Green Party candidate, arguing that the political revolution he calls for “will not happen by tinkering within the two-party duopoly.”

The petition continues, “We progressives understand that the only way forward is to challenge the Democrats into changing, and that cannot be done if the Democrats know that progressives will vote Democrat regardless of Democrats’ repeated regressions and crimes. And it cannot be done without a party that is committed to radical change: the Green Party.” As of last Wednesday, that petition had 888 signatures.• —MT

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