In Praise of Negativity – and Democracy

At long last, it has come to this one, simple question:

Do we even want to do this anymore?

I’ve watched the norms of American democracy recede during my lifetime, no more so than over the past four years, and the past few days in particular. I’ve seen the erosion of democratic and republican norms that threaten the stability of everything this country has built over the course of the past 250 years. 

Among those ideals, embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is freedom of speech, which evolved into the long-revered American freedom of thought, which very necessarily involves differences from one another about our way of thinking.  We are granted, by right, the freedom to express our own opinion and, when the mood strikes, to levy harsh criticism of those who would govern us.

That is America.  Love it or leave it.

It is for this reason that I find the current pro-authoritarian, anti-contrarian, anti-intellectual, only-kindness-matters zeitgeist to be exactly the sort of HallmarkTV complete and utter BS that ought to be slapped silly.

It isn’t just your obligation to speak up in the face of government malfeasance, it is frankly unAmerican not to do so.  Even when we’re talking about our own friends and neighbors locally. Unpleasant as it may be, the same principles of accountability apply on our decidedly small stage as they do on larger ones.

Recently, lawyers for Jared and Ivanka Trump threatened to sue the center-right Lincoln Project over, correctly, running prominent advertisements tying the Wonder Couple to certain, cruel Trump administration policies that might subject their victims to death, but more importantly would subject other beautiful people to scorn amongst polite society.  Offended, the wealthy couple did what most wealthy couples do when offended.  They threatened to sue.

The Lincoln Project was having none of it.

Writing in response to the Beautiful Couple’s lawyers, the Lincoln Project lawyers noted that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, basic American democracy involves a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

The Lincoln Project further quoted U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (no snowflake) who wrote that “[t]he sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office.”

So, I ask you all – when you complain that local politics is too negative… when I call for accountability… when I levy the most professional criticism upon a public servant… are you American, or not?  Are you committed to the principles upon which this country was founded?  Or are you just here to wave a flag?  Because if it’s the latter, just go home, you sap.

The beef lately is that there is so much local criticism that it is actually producing change.  To which I say: good.  That’s the idea.

Recently, there was change in the Town Administrator’s office.  Good.  That’s how democracy works.  There was an election and the people elected made changes.  Since July, we secured a Fire Chief (which we didn’t have at the time we took action), a Fire Inspector (who was on his way out the door), stopped low-balling other fire inspector candidates, turned a Town Accountant vacancy that existed since March into a Town Finance Director position, and the Assistant Town Administrator position into a Communications Director position (saving you money in the long and short term).

Just tonight, we discovered certain healthcare reimbursement accounts were underfunded, and then discovered that our capital stabilization fund hadn’t been appropriately accounted for.  How did we discover this?  We made a change and brought in the right guy at the right time.  Wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Last month, some of us rightly questioned the idea of having a Fall Town Meeting indoors.  At the time the justification for the proposal was that Grafton was a “low risk” Covid community.  But, as critics pointed out, that was only true because we didn’t have things like large in-door gatherings.  The Town Moderator resigned in a huff and the narrative around town was that those who questioned him were just too gosh darn mean for questioning (questioning!) his decidedly bad idea. Three weeks later, look at the Covid numbers.  Did we make the right call?  Yes.  We did.  Is that good government?  Holy shit, yes.

Did all of this happen because we’re geniuses?  No! Of course not!  You wouldn’t trust most of us with a goddamn go-cart and a potato cannon.  We’re good because we’re on the ball and we’re on the ball because you demand it.

Never, ever stop demanding it.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe Blog is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

No, Illegal Immigrants Aren’t Why Your Local Taxes Are Rising

For the second time in a year, last night, Grafton’s state representative suggested that illegal immigration stood between this community and receiving adequate state aid for education.

Let me be clear: immigration has next to zero impact on that state’s ability to dole out municipal aid for schools. The real reason we’re not getting more in municipal aid is the courage – or lack thereof – of the very people who would prefer to blame the faceless poor with whom they are unacquainted.

As my reader’s know, Grafton presently is in the midst of a structural deficit that will likely see it propose its second operational override in six years, after not having needed an override in the first thirty-four years since proposition 2.5 was instituted in 1980.

This all leading casual observers and reasonable people everywhere to wonder: what gives? Why, now, are we proposing successive overrides when we went for years without needing a single one? Can’t we, you know, just get in a room and figure it out?

We’re in the predicament that we’re in because of the way we pay for things in Massachusetts. Time was, a municipality could reasonably rely on the state to throw in for its essential services, but that has been less true over the past two decades. Twenty years ago (before the cost of healthcare went through the roof), state aid to Grafton made up approximately twenty-five (25%) of the town’s budget. Today, that number is closer to twenty (20%) percent.

If Grafton had that extra five percent in its budget, that would be an additional $3.5 MILLION DOLLARS (cap lock very deliberate). So, why isn’t the state kicking in that additional five percent anymore? Why are we cutting municipal coupons to get by?

Mostly because the state is claiming that it simply no longer has the money to give municipalities. When our state representative, David Muradian, ran for office back in 2014, he did so claiming that Massachusetts did not have a revenue problem, but rather a spending problem. In other words, Grafton isn’t getting money because the state is spending your tax dollars on other unworthy things, not because it is having trouble collecting money to give to you.

When I asked the representative last night what state spending preventing the Commonwealth from re-committing to municipalities, he offered again, as he did a year earlier when I first asked the question, that the state spends billions on providing for illegal immigrants. And for that reason, the state has less money to give municipalities than it otherwise would.

Friends, this simply is not true. Whatever the reasons are that the state is afraid to raise revenue to help your town, it does not lie with the mysterious (frequently brown-skinned) other typically (although not exclusively) residing in the more “urban” parts of the state.

The canard upon which this lie is based is a study produced by a far right wing anti-immigration group inappropriately named FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), whose mission it is to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. This study has been debunked by none-other than the traditionally conservative CATO Institute (not exactly a bastion of communist/leftist thought).

FAIR’s report, upon which our representative ostensibly relies, calculates the cost of illegal immigration to be $116 billion annually, nationally. Local conservatives have, with some glee, run with the report, attempting to extrapolate from its dubious assumptions, what the cost of illegal immigration is to their individual state. But, according to CATO, “FAIR’s report reaches [its] conclusion by vastly overstating the costs of illegal immigration, undercounting the tax revenue they generate, inflating the number of illegal immigrants, counting millions of U.S. citizens as illegal immigrants, and by concocting a method of estimating the fiscal costs that is rejected by all economists who work on this subject.”

Holy smokes, that sounds bad! As in, not at all the sort of report an elected official should be relying on when he tells another elected official why his school kids have no money!

But wait, it gets worse. According to CATO, “Merely using the correct numbers when it comes to the actual size of the illegal immigrant population, the correct tax rates, and the effect of immigrants on property values lowers the net fiscal cost by 87 percent to 97 percent, down to $15.6 billion or $3.3 billion, respectively.”

I won’t get into debunking the entire report. CATO does a good job here. What you, dear voter, have to ask yourself is this: exactly how much of this crap are you going to tolerate? We’re all adults here. Can we have an honest conversation about our finances or not?

Well, here’s some straight talk: It’s true that the state doesn’t have a ton of money to give municipalities. But that is almost entirely due to a series of cuts to the state’s personal income tax adopted in the 1990s (when many of the readers of this blog were just kids), including: a cut from 5.95 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to wage and salary income;  a cut from 6.00 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to long-term capital gains income (the profits people make when they sell real estate, art, stocks and bonds, etc.); a cut from 12 percent to the current 5.05 percent in the tax rate applied to dividend and interest income (income derived from savings accounts, annual distributions from stocks or mutual funds, etc.); and a doubling of the personal exemption, the amount people can deduct from their taxable income, from $2,200 to $4,400 for single filers and from $4,400 to $8,800 for married couples.

In the current fiscal year (FY 2019), these four tax cuts together will deprive the Commonwealth of $4.15 billion in annual revenue.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, “this substantial decline in potential revenue collections has played a role in producing ongoing fiscal challenges for the Commonwealth — including severe shortfalls during economic downturns. In response to these chronic and acute budget shortfalls, state lawmakers have allowed inflation-adjusted funding to decline markedly in many program areas across the budget, such as local aid, public health, environment and recreation, and higher education.”

So, no. It’s not immigrants. It’s us. We want the things we want, but we want more of them and for less money. We have systematically, by design, invested less and less of our income in our infrastructure and services, and have received (shockingly) less in return. And worse, we’ve allowed those with the ability to pay escape it while scapegoating those who were least worthy of blame. And in a seriously racist way. Shame on us.


Let’s cut that shit out, shall we? And, like adults, demand better from ourselves and our leaders so that we can come up with some solutions to the problems that we’ve foisted on ourselves.

Not Hyperbole: Your future may depend on voting for Lisa Rice

Have you ever heard the Greek myth of Cassandra, Princess of Troy?  Legend has it that the pulchritudinous princess was blessed, or burdened depending on your point of view, with the gift of foresight.  She could see the future.  But as with all Greek myth, this gift came with a catch: no one would believe her when she warned them of what was to come.

And so here we are, in October of 2019, in much the same place we were in October of 2013 – facing down an $800,000 budget shortfall this coming year that will grow to well over seven figures the year following, and double in size by the following year if we maintain our present spending.  When I ran for Select Board in 2016, I warned of this eventuality, giving name to our structural deficit. 

For my trouble, I was laughed out of every room I brought it up in by the usual cast of characters who think being from Grafton is, in and of itself, an achievement.  The same crew who thinks that they solved a problem by passing an override.  The same crowd who is running the same candidates for office over and over again, excoriating new people and publicly longing for the good old days of acid-washed jeans and vintage Madonna. The same crowd who can’t help but take shots at me whenever, and however, they can.

And so I, Cassandra of Grafton, ask you – haven’t you seen enough from these guys yet?

If you have, do yourself a favor and vote for Lisa Rice on Tuesday.

Why? Well, first of all, I like the people who do the work. I have an enormous bias for people who show up, put in the time, think critically and are outspoken in favor of their ideals. Everyone else comes in second to me behind those people, fair or unfair. Lisa is one of those people.

Lisa is one of a few people in town who I know knows what she is talking about. Who has done the work. Who asks the hard questions. Who isn’t afraid to be “unpopular”. Who is unafraid of criticism, and who will be unafraid to stand up to me or anyone else on the Select Board in the coming year, which may well prove to be the most difficult since 2014, in service of her ideals. When Lisa calls, I pick up the phone. When she has thoughts, I listen. Because I know she has put in the time over the years to understand the intricacies of town finance, that she’s an honest broker, and that she’s going to work hard to see this all through.

We’re just months away from our next operational override proposal, having spent down our 2014 override money.  The committee that I proposed three and a half years ago to address the structural deficit is just now getting started because our former Selectmen and their supporters (and candidates) said we didn’t need another committee.  That crew excoriated me for wanting accurate budget projections a year ago that didn’t include unrealistic new growth numbers.  The updated, more accurate projections that we have now confirm the structural deficit I warned about hitting us this spring.  And still, efforts at reform are met with opposition every step of the way.

To be clear: I’m no fiscal conservative (good for you if you are).  I just want to make investments in this town and have everyone be on the same page about it.  I’m a publicly educated liberal who owes everything he has to the investments that his neighbors made in him.  I want to keep those investments going for my kids and their kids on down the line.  And the more we fib to people about how we got where we are, the less likely they’ll be to pony up when asked again.  Fear and cynicism are the enemy, and we become the architects of our own demise when we’re less than candid about where we are financially.

So, it’s important that in Tuesday’s election, which could well set a “voting block” for the upcoming budget discussion, that we’re on the same page moving forward.  At stake:  nothing less than the immediate financial fate of an exurban town of 20,000 people with a limited commercial base. A town with over 3,000 school kids who look to us for their futures. A town responsible with its money, and living on a razor’s edge financially. A town that will not reap the benefits of state education reform. A town in desperate need of leaders who will take this all very seriously.

In that light, there are a couple of issues that I want to address: First, I’ve heard from multiple people who have sent along multiple screen shots from various emails and text messages that Donna Stock supporters firmly believe that she will curtail adult use marijuana sales in Grafton, and presumably forego the revenue that comes with it. Donna denies that this is her position.

While I find it hard to believe that this is Donna’s position, whether it is or not is almost beside the point.  A fair number of people seem to think that it’s her position, and she’s done nothing much to dissuade anyone from that notion, including failing to address my own public question to her on this from a couple of weeks ago when I first heard that she planned on somehow curtailing marijuana sales.  Were it me I would vociferously deny any policy position that i did not endorse, even if it cost me votes.

To be clear: adult use marijuana isn’t going anywhere, no matter who you elect.  I’m pretty sure both Lisa Rice and Donna Stock know this.  So, let’s take that issue off of the table, shall we.

Second, we have a structural deficit.  It requires that we pay municipal employees competitively, and 80% of our budget is salaries.  What policies, if any, should we put in place to make sure that the structural deficit does not continue?  Will we continue to treat the town side budget as a completely separate animal from the school side budget?  Will we focus on artificial percentage allotments to each as we have in the past?  Will we commit to best practices and hold the Town Administrator accountable? 

We missed an enormous opportunity in 2014 after we passed the override.  We could have, and should have, initiated a task force to figure out how to avoid being in the same position just six years later.  But we didn’t.  We told everyone we “solved” the problem.  We absolutely did not.  We put the school committee on an island, denied that we had a fiscal problem, and then told them to go negotiate with their union who heard loud and clear that Grafton was a-okay financially. What a clown show.

Will we do that again?  Will we continue to chastise elected officials who question budget numbers while alienating the Finance and School Committees?  I guess we’ll see.  Just last meeting, I floated the idea of meeting with the School Committee and Finance Committee to discuss these issues, and got resistance from one of my peers about meeting with FinComm. My critics on the Select Board, past and present, hate and fear criticism and change.  In that order. So, this should be interesting.

There will be an override proposal in 2020.  There will be adult use marijuana sales in Grafton in 2020.  Fighting against adult use marijuana sales would deny our town money to fund services, like schools.  Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. Vote accordingly.

Vote Lisa Rice.