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The New Moneyvores: College ID-Debit Cards; Anti-Casino and Clean Elections Questions Fail to Make Ballot; Holyoke Charter: Stand-Off at City Council Kills Chances of November Ballot Question

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Anti-Casino and Clean Elections Questions Fail to Make Ballot; Minimum Wage and Sales Tax Questions Advance

Activists involved in a number of important issues were disappointed last week when Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that ballot questions supporting their causes could not appear on the 2014 state ballot.

Coakley ruled on the constitutionality of 33 ballot initiative petitions, certifying 28—some of which would require Constitutional amendments—to move to the next stage of the arduous process of getting a question before voters.

“Our decisions do not reflect any opinion on the merits or values of the petitions, but simply that the constitutional requirements were met,” the AG said in a press release.

The five petitions rejected by Coakley included a call for a Constitutional amendment in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, stating that “Corporations are not people, money is not speech;” a proposed law that would make casino gaming illegal in Massachusetts; and another that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (A number of bills pending at the Statehouse would also require such labeling, including one filed by state Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat.)

The AG also rejected two questions backed by fathers’ rights groups, one that would grant defendants in abuse complaints the right to a jury trial and another that calls for the presumption of shared custody in child custody cases.

The questions greenlighted by Coakley address a number of high-profile issues, among them laws that would allow Massachusetts workers the right to earned paid sick time and that would increase the minimum wage. (State lawmakers are also considering bills that would raise the minimum wage and extend paid sick days to certain groups of workers this session.)

Also making the cut: a call, backed by the nurses’ union, to set a limit on the nurse-patient ratio in Mass. hospitals; one that would expand the state’s bottle bill to cover more containers, such as water and juice bottles; and an act that would prohibit the use by commercial fishermen of equipment “that is known to historically cause the entanglement of any whale or sea turtle.”

Coakley also certified a question that would repeal the state sales tax on computer software services, passed earlier this year, and another that would reduce Massachusetts’ sales tax from the current 6.25 percent to 5 percent.

Proponents of questions that passed muster with the AG’s office still have a lot of work ahead of them. They must now collect the signatures of 68,911 registered voters by Dec. 4. If they meet that threshold, their question will go to the state Legislature, which will have until May 7 to enact the proposal. If lawmakers don’t act by that date, proponents will have to collect another 11,485 signatures by July in order to get the question on the November 2014 ballot.

Backers of proposed amendments to the state Constitution face a different process. While they also must gather 68,911 signatures by December, from there, an amendment would need to be approved by 25 percent of the Legislature in this and the next legislative session. If an amendment meets those requirements, it would appear on the 2016 ballot.•


Holyoke Charter: Stand-Off at City Council Kills Chances of November Ballot Question

Advocates of revamping Holyoke city government say they’re not giving up the fight, despite the failure of an eleventh-hour effort to get the issue before city voters this fall.

The group had hoped to get two questions on the November ballot: one that would extend the mayoral term from two years to four and another that would shrink Holyoke’s City Council from 15 members to 11 by eliminating four at-large seats. In both cases, the changes would take effect in 2015.

The two proposals first came up during an earlier, and ultimately unsuccessful, charter reform campaign in the city. That effort, which also involved other, more sweeping changes, was rejected by voters in 2011.

Initially, charter reform backers considered trying to put a full charter reform question on the ballot again this fall. Ultimately, however, they abandoned that plan in favor of a more modest campaign focusing on some key changes that would modernize the city government, said Rory Casey, a member of the group Holyoke Charter YES. Those reforms include the longer mayoral term and smaller City Council.

Last month, at the Council’s sole August meeting, at-large Councilor Aaron Vega sponsored two orders to put the questions on the November ballot. (Vega also serves as a state representative; Casey is his legislative aide.) But the matters never came to a vote; instead, Council President Kevin Jourdain, an opponent of the 2011 charter reform effort, ruled both items out of order before any debate could take place.

Jourdain had not responded to an interview request from the Advocate at deadline. According to a report by the Springfield Republican’s Mike Plaisance, Jourdain ruled the items out of order “because he said state law prohibits the City Council from taking votes that affect the Council’s term of office or the composition of the City Council.”

City Solicitor Heather Egan subsequently issued an opinion contradicting Jourdain’s ruling. While it was true that the Council cannot make unilateral changes to its composition, Egan wrote, that’s not what the disputed orders would have done; rather, they would have asked the state Legislature to put the matter on the ballot.

Jourdain, in the Republican article, disputed that claim, noting that the orders on the Council agenda that evening did not mention the Legislature but called for the City Council to place the questions on the ballot.

Egan’s favorable ruling offers small comfort to the would-be reformers. Without winning approval at the Council’s Aug. 6 meeting, the only way they could make the November ballot now would be through a special act of the Legislature—something, all agree, that’s not going to happen. Instead, it appears, the earliest the questions could come before voters would be next November. And even then, Casey said, that, too, could be a challenge; because 2014 is a state, not a municipal election year, the Legislature would have to pass a special act to put a local question on the ballot.

Casey criticized Jourdain for shutting down debate on the questions at the Council’s August meeting, suggesting his goal was simply to kill the matter. (As for his boss, Vega, Casey offered this succinct response: “He’s not happy.”)

The charter-reform group, Casey said, is working within the rules to advance its cause: “We’re not trying to force anything down anyone’s throat.”

Cutting the number of councilors would make the City Council a more effective body and shift the balance of power between at-large and ward councilors, Casey argued. Right now, eight councilors are elected at-large and seven by ward; reducing the number of at-large councilors “would give neighborhood races more weight” and make the race for at-large seats more competitive, he said.

Extending the mayoral term, meanwhile, would allow the mayor “more time to really lead, to really govern, to try to take a plan and put it in place and move it forward,” Casey said. “If you’re in a never-ending election cycle, what’s going to motivate you?”

There’s already a trend toward longer mayoral terms, he added; Springfield and Northampton recently moved to four-year terms, and Agawam residents will vote on a similar proposal in November.• —MT


The New Moneyvores: College ID-Debit Cards

Determined to get their hands into the pockets of students—but no longer riding the crest of the student loan business—the larger banks and financial services are now the engines of a growing industry that offers combination college ID and debit cards. The Campus Debit Card Trap, a recent study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group, details the pitfalls of the use of these cards, and offers colleges and students tips about how to avoid them (http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/campus-debit-card-trap).

Around the country, some 9 million students—42 percent of all students at institutions of higher learning—use combination ID-bank cards. Wells Fargo alone provides such cards to 2 million students at 43 institutions. Other major players in the ID-debit card game are Higher One, US Bank and Sallie Mae.

Among the problems PIRG has identified with combined ID-debit cards:

•The cards convey the impression that a certain lender is endorsed by the college. That, together with the convenience of using what is also a required ID card, creates an overwhelming likelihood that the student will use the card, thus pre-empting his/her ability to choose a bank. That’s especially important because many people stick with the bank they use in college for years after graduation.

•In many cases, the use of the card carries fees. These include not only overdraft fees or check bounce fees if the user attempts to load the card with a bad check, but even balance inquiry fees, swipe fees, inactivity fees or fees for the use of ATMs outside the specified network.Eighty percent of Higher One’s profits from its college card programs come from fees, the report says. In some cases, the money on the card is even linked to the student’s financial aid account, so that money from that account may be drawn down to pay card fees instead of tuition.

•The contracts between colleges and banks sometimes come with payments to the colleges that are not disclosed to cardholders. Such payments, or in-kind gifts, amount to real or apparent conflict of interest. In 2008, according to the report, TCF Bank paid the University of Minnesota $40 million for a student card contract terminating in 2030. Such deals raise questions about whether the school chose the lender that offered its students the best terms, or simply sold its card rights to the highest bidder.

Combination ID-debit cards are not yet widely used in Massachusetts, but a few colleges in the eastern part of the state have teamed up with Sovereign Bank, owned by the Spanish bank Santander, to offer them. In the Valley, UMass Amherst, Amherst College and Mount Holyoke have campus-generated college ID cards that can be used as debit cards for purchases on campus; the UMass and Mount Holyoke cards can also be used at a limited number of businesses off campus. The UMass, Amherst College and Mount Holyoke cards do not carry the usual debit card fees; the 1.5 percent card transaction fee paid by merchants participating in the Mount Holyoke card program goes to the college under the Give Something Back program, and the fact is stated on the website that carries instructions about how to obtain the card.•

 

Walk for Suicide Prevention, Survivor Healing

It’s not many of us who don’t have a relative, friend or friend of a friend who has committed suicide. It’s estimated that for every person who kills himself or herself, an average of six other people are seriously affected. Survivors of their loved ones’ suicides may need serious, long-term mental health help to recover emotionally.

On September 29, suicide survivors and others will join the Springfield Out of the Darkness Community Walk to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The walk is open to people from the four western counties of Massachusetts and from northern Connecticut. The proceeds will go for research, advocacy, prevention initiatives and other activities aimed at reducing the number of suicides and helping survivors to heal.

The walk starts from the MassMutual Center at 1277 Main Street in Springfield. Participants will register beginning at 8:30 a.m. The three-mile walk along the Springfield riverfront will begin at 10:45. Some 2,000 are expected; “It’s survivors, it’s a little bit of everybody, students, older people, middle-aged people, a great diverse constituency that walks,” AFSP Western Mass. coordinator Cheryl Ronzoni told the Advocate. “So many people know someone.”

On the program will be food, music, inspirational stories and the viewing of memorial quilts. Walkers are invited to bring their children and even pets. Among the sponsors of the event are Nowak Funeral Home, Renew Calm, Berkshire County Suicide Prevention Coalition, Pioneer Valley Suicide Prevention Coalition and Health New England.

In 2010, 600 people committed suicide in Massachusetts, including 30 teenagers, according to statistics provided by the AFSP. Of the teenagers, two were from Hampshire County—one was South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself after being cyberbullied by local children—one was from Berkshire County, and three were from Hampden County (there were none from Franklin County). The overwhelming majority of teenagers who killed themselves here in 2010—22—were white; two were black, three were Asian and three were Hispanic.• —SK


Voter Access: Crossing the Tofu Curtain

Aron Goldman knows as well as anyone about the metaphorical “tofu curtain” that divides the upper and lower Valley; he lives in Hampshire County but works in Hampden County, as executive director of the Springfield Institute, a think tank focused on urban issues.

As Goldman put it in a recent press release, “In the northern half of the Pioneer Valley, people tend to know more about Darfur or Gaza than they do about Springfield or Holyoke. To the south, the isolation is palpable.”

But there are plenty of opportunities to bridge that divide, he maintains—and that will be a major focus of a talk he’ll give at the Sept. 19 meeting of the League of Women Voters of Amherst, which is open to the public. Goldman will speak on “Voter Access: Making Democracy a Reality in the Pioneer Valley.”

Voter access has been a key issue for the Springfield Institute, which in recent elections has observed polling places in Springfield, reporting errors and bad practices that have left some would-be voters in poor and minority neighborhoods unable to cast ballots. The SI has also examined race-based disparities in voter turnout rates, and advocates against voter suppression laws and for policies that would make voting more accessible.

At the League of Women Voters meeting, Goldman will talk about that work and about how voter access problems in Hampden County connect to the larger debate on the state and federal level. “I’m going to … focus on providing some facts about voting patterns by geography and demography and talk about some of the best strategies for increasing participation and decreasing participation disparities,” he told the Advocate. “There are lots of cool things that can be done.”

Many of them, he added, are quite simple, such as allowing Election Day registration and making it easier for people to figure out where they’re supposed to vote. In poor neighborhoods, he said, “It’s so common that people want to vote and they go across the street to the polling place and find out they’re not on the list, and they’re supposed to go across the city to where they used to live. … [T]hey get bounced around and they can’t afford to take the time off of work.

“This doesn’t happen in more affluent communities where the population is less transient and there are fewer renters,” Goldman said. But when he goes to the polls in poor communities, he said, he sees groups of “problem voters” clustered around a single poll worker who perhaps doesn’t even have the simple technology—a laptop, a smartphone—that would let him or her check people’s voting status and location quickly and easily.

“You look at those clumps of problem voters at any polling place, you don’t see a lot of white voters,” Goldman said. “That’s the kind of stuff I want to talk about—rather than the popular assumption that some people are too lazy to bother and go vote.”

Voting disparities aren’t the only issues Goldman would like to see taken on by the entire Valley; plenty of important issues, from the environment to the potential effects of a casino, could be addressed most effectively by a Valley-wide effort.

“I have a lot of good, trusting relationships on both sides of the tofu curtain. But that shuttle diplomacy is not good enough. I’m convinced that there are dramatic opportunities for collaboration given all the different assets and liabilities in each part of the Valley,” he said.

“I sense from my friends in Amherst that there’s a sort of a hunger for regional solidarity and a feeling that what’s good for the region is good for everybody,” Goldman said. “Likewise, my friends and colleagues in Springfield and Holyoke are constantly looking for opportunities to raise awareness about their causes and the state of things in their own communities.”

That could mean candidates and activists from Hampden County traveling to the upper Valley to talk about their vision and plans, and maybe do some fundraising. Or, he said, “that could mean folks [from the upper Valley] spending more time in Springfield and Holyoke—sort of walk the walk a little bit more, and build relationships and trust.”

There are also opportunities for Valley colleges to be involved in meaningful community work, he noted; students from Amherst College’s Center for Community Engagement, for instance, worked with the Springfield Institute on a voting analysis project in Holyoke. The more that people from across the Valley can collaborate, the more effective their work will be, Goldman said.

Goldman will speak on “Voter Access: Making Democracy a Reality in the Pioneer Valley” on Thursday, Sept. 19, in the Woodbury Room at Jones Library, 43 Amity St. in Amherst. The free public meeting begins with refreshments at 6:30 p.m.; Goldman will speak at 7, followed by a question-and-answer period.• —MT

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