Monday, September 20, 2010

Charlie Baker, Moral Auditor

Salem office,  Department of Transitional Assistance

A few months ago, Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for Governor, proposed his “Baker’s Dozen” for cutting costs.  I’d read about it in Blue Mass Group when he first proposed these measures but initially I didn’t take them seriously;  candidates say things or are reported to say things all the time that turn out to have too little context to reasonably comment on.  Besides, most day to day political coverage is noise.

I reread the post on BMG that first caught my attention, Charlie Baker proposes new government bureaucracy to approve lifestyles

Charlie Baker’s Dozen ideas to eliminate government waste is still on his campaign’s website so I’m going to assume it is on his ongoing platform.

Point 8:

8. Conduct forensic financial analysis for benefits eligibility – Between $10M to $20M in savings
State agencies need to consider more than just tax returns when determining individuals’ eligibility for public benefits and services. A lifestyle analysis quantifies the living expenses of individuals - such as credit card bills, recreation activities, auto loans, grocery bills - and compares the expenses to known sources of income. If the money spent during the period analyzed exceeds the known funding sources, it is quite possible that there is another source of income. The state should conduct this analysis on a pilot basis for a few services – such as public defendants and public housing - before individuals are deemed eligible for the benefits.

Baker’s idea came from, amongst others, Dan Winslow, former legal counsel to former governor Mitt Romney in an article for Commonwealth Magazine.  Beyond Red and Blue wrote about this in 2008:

For state entitlement eligibility, a simple LAF checklist can consider discretionary spending such as whether persons or households seeking free or discounted state services own property, have credit cards, hold bank accounts, or own a new car, multiple cars or a boat. The checklist could also consider whether an individual purchases cable television, Internet service, or premium cell phone service and whether they buy airline tickets, possess illegal drugs, or smoke a pack of cigarettes daily.

On the face of it, Baker’s proposal seems to be just a financial audit, like the ones Social Security does on SSI recipients.  But Winslow’s association with the Romney administration makes me recall Eric Kriss’ infamous “Givers and Takers” speech of a few years back.

With that history I don’t think this provision is a financial audit.

It is a moral audit, and Baker wants to be our moral auditor.

Many, many people in the disability community, and outside it, get public housing, health insurance and food benefits.  There are people who may get any of the three without ever having set foot in a welfare or Social Security office.

There are working people who live in Pioneer Terrace, a much-maligned housing project near Salem State.

Many will be affected.  Charlie Baker, in his ads, brags about firing 5,000 state employees if he’s elected.  How many people would we need to staff his new moral auditing division?  How many of the 5,000 would need to seek public assistance?

David, of BMG, makes the point that “lifestyle analysis” requires expertise and not cheap at that, based on how the IRS goes after people with yachts.  I think he’s wrong on this point, though. 

The Baker administration, if elected, wouldn’t go to that length;  It would outsource the new agency to one of the Indian or Chinese shops to which most of our customer support calls end up.  The outsourcers would get a directive to flag as many people as possible for fraud for the cheapest possible price, working through their backlog as fast as they can, however they can.

Someone in public housing would get a thick envelope and a threatening letter, and a request to account for all the spending they made over the past five years, say, all in longhand with a 10 day filing deadline.  A representative would follow up with questions, all along the lines of:  “Why did you get that?”,  “Why do you need a computer—can’t you go to the library?”, “Why did your son pay for dinner out?”, “Why aren’t you getting a better job?”, “Why are you still in public housing?”

And then the eviction notice would come.  Maybe there’ll be an appeal process.  If it’s funded.

I think Winslow’s, and Baker’s mindsets are such that they would not stop at a merely fiscal audit, even if they might not say it out loud.  Certainly, Romney only disavowed Kriss because he made his own reputation look bad;  Romney hired him, as he did Baker and Winslow, and he damned well knew what they were all about.

It’s a “small government” nanny state and it will demean many people in the disability community.  Many of them already fear they are somewhat “less worthy” than an able-bodied person.

If we vote for Baker, we may be telling them, as well, that because they are often on the wrong end of the economic scale, they should not be allowed to manage their own lives either.

There will be the stories that come out with this, like the little old lady who gets audited (“But I voted Republican!”  “Oops, our bad!”)  or the disabled war veteran (“Say, son, you sound like you’re old enough to enlist.  Don’t you love your country?  Why aren’t you in the service?”  “Um, ah, err…”  I’d love to hear that one.)

But first, the dignity of the state’s disabled community will be degraded.  And a lot of money will be spent.  Baker won’t care, as long as he’s spending it.


Dan Winslow said...

It's not a moral audit by any stretch. The IRS estimates that about 12% of the national economy consists of the "underground economy"--people who neither declare any income nor pay any taxes. That number does not include the criminal economy, so the actual dollars of revenue lost to fraud are likely much higher than 12%. These cheats deprive truly needy persons, such as the disabled, from the full value of the social safety net. That's wrong. Rather than a system of social program spending that depends solely on self-reports of income, the Lifestyle Analysis cross-check can easily verify public data on RV and boat ownership, etc. If a person has new cars, a boat and a house worth $300K, they are not poor. Baker estimated savings in the tens of millions; I believe the actual savings would be significantly more and the much of the savings could be redirected to fully funding services for people truly in need.

David Moisan said...

Mr. Winslow, I have several thoughts that come to mind on your reply.

Consider this quote: " The checklist could also consider whether an individual purchases cable television, Internet service, or premium cell phone service and whether they buy airline tickets, possess illegal drugs, or smoke a pack of cigarettes daily."

That, is somewhat loaded. If your proposal is neutral and by the books, why include this? I had thought it a polite way of phrasing "welfare queen", which has been a trope for so long it doesn't even matter if it's true anymore.

Who is, in your opinion, "truly disabled". Assuming they pass your bar for the very large number of services that this proposal would cover, who are they? How do they live? What is the "right" way for one getting public assistance to live?

I only have what was quoted from you in the Beyond Red and Blue, since I have no access to your original article (Commonwealth Magazine may have first publishing rights, but is there not a place to put it on the Mass GOP site? Essays like yours aren't going to make money for your heirs after you die.)

But I don't get or don't connect the "underground economy" with your proposal. You must know that it is more properly called the "informal economy" since those of all walks of life are in it. Or are you going to tax yard sales? I don't see the connection.

I'm disappointed that you don't have any more insight than you had when this first came up on BMG.

And I'm not convinced it won't be a moral audit, even if you and Baker swear up and down on it, your base will insist on it, and the resources that are put to it, or the lack thereof, will insure it will be a defacto morals program.

MysticPen said...

TrichyIs waiting!!

Anonymous said...

Basically Dan wants everyone to get rid of anything of value and be unable to own a car, any thing that would make life easier, and liquidate ALL ownings before he considers you needy.. Not that most of us already make sharp choices on what has to be "done without" There may be a few with an underground economy but there are better ways to spot these trends other than completely tearing up any dignity and self-worth these people have left. Its especially painful when one has a chronic illness and your taking away the few things that make it tolerable. Oh because we are helping to pay for you to survive, you cant own anything..

Hes full of doody. Hes proposing the moral gestapo, not just the moral police

Heck im afraid of going against him and deciding that I should be audited.