By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ and representatives’ votes on roll calls from the week of February 1-5.
RAINY DAY FUND (S 61)
House 43-109, Senate 6-31, rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature in order to spend money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which was established for use in the event of an economic downturn. The Fund may only be used to offset revenue shortfalls or federal funding reductions, or when events threaten the health, safety, or welfare of citizens. Currently, only a majority vote is required to authorize spending from the Fund.
Supporters said that the two-thirds requirement would ensure that the money is used only when absolutely necessary. They noted that the higher hurdle would make it difficult to raid the Fund unless there is a real emergency and overwhelming legislative support.
Opponents said a two-thirds requirement is too strict, pointing out that it is difficult to get a two-thirds vote on any kind of proposal. They noted that it only takes a majority vote to deposit money into the Fund and they argued that the same standard should apply to withdraw it.
(A “Yes” vote is for the two-thirds requirement. A “No” vote is against the two-thirds requirement.)
Rep. Christine Barber No Rep. Denise Provost No Rep. Timothy Toomey No Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
NON-LEGISLATIVE REDISTRICTING COMMISSION (H 567)
House 34-119, Senate 9-28, rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the Legislature to establish a permanent seven-member redistricting commission with the responsibility to redraw legislative and congressional districts in Massachusetts every ten years. Under the amendment, the proposed commission would submit its recommendations to the Legislature, which would vote them up or down. Currently, the Legislature itself draws the districts.
The amendment would establish specific rules for the commission, among them requirements that the new districts be compact and contiguous, and that they would not be redrawn for the purpose of diluting the voting strength of a racial minority, political party or any individual candidate. The commission also would be required to attempt to follow other guidelines, including the prohibition of dividing any city or town into more than one district.
The proposed commission would include a dean or professor of law, political science or government from a Massachusetts college, appointed by the governor; a retired judge, appointed by the attorney general; and an expert in civil rights law, appointed by the secretary of state. The other four members would be chosen by the above three members from a list of candidates nominated by the House Speaker, House Minority Leader, Senate President and Senate Minority Leader.
Supporters of the proposed commission said the Legislature has abused its redistricting power and often gerrymandered districts to protect incumbents. They said this antiquated, partisan system allows the majority party to control the process and permits “legislators to choose their voters.” They noted that the idea of an independent commission has been endorsed in the past by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and former Govs. Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick.
Opponents of the commission said elected members of the Legislature, who are accountable to the voters, should be responsible for the important job of redistricting. They said the task should not be undertaken by an appointed commission with unknown members who would not have direct accountability. They cited studies showing that these so-called “independent” redistricting commissions are no more or less independent than commissions established by Legislatures.
(A “Yes” vote is for requiring the Legislature to establish a non-legislative redistricting commission. A “No” vote is against requiring it.)
Rep. Christine Barber No Rep. Denise Provost No Rep. Timothy Toomey No Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
CAMPAIGN FINANCE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT (H 3985)
House 119-34, approved resolutions urging the state’s U.S. Congressional delegation to approve a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment allowing the Congress and the states to establish systems of public campaign financing and to impose reasonable limitations on private campaign contributions and Super Political Action Committees (PACs). Super PACS are created to help candidates and are often run by the candidate’s former staffers or associates who use the PAC to fund negative ads against the candidate’s opponents. A candidate’s own committee’s contributions are limited by federal law but super PACs can legally accept unlimited donations.
The resolutions are in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which the court ruled the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting corporations, unions and individuals from donating unlimited funds to Super PACS.
Resolution supporters said the decision has led to corporations and wealthy individuals contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to Super PACs and having an undue influence on elections that is drowning out the voices of everyday Americans.
Opponents said they support the idea about doing something to overturn the court ruling but prefer an alternative set of resolutions that are broader in scope and include the influence of corporations, unions, political action committees and super PACS on the political process. They argued that the original resolutions focus only on private campaign contributions and Super PACs. All representatives who voted against these resolutions later voted in favor of the alternative resolutions.
(A “Yes” vote is for the resolutions. A “No” vote is against them and in favor of the alternative resolutions.)
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes Rep. Timothy Toomey Yes
PUBLIC RECORDS (S 2120)
Senate 35-0, approved legislation designed to ensure that the state and local municipalities comply in a timely way with requests for public records. The measure would also reduce costs to people making the requests.
Provisions include requiring each state agency and municipality to appoint at least one public records access officer to serve as the point of contact for all public records requests; reducing to 5 cents per page per page the maximum amount that state agencies and municipalities can charge for production of any records (currently, such costs can be as much as 50 cents per page); prohibiting any agency or municipality from charging for records if it does not provide the record within 15 days of the request or does not respond to the requestor within ten days; requiring state agencies and encouraging municipalities to post online many commonly-requested public records; and allowing courts to award attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs when access to public records is wrongly denied.
Supporters said this is the first update to the state’s public records laws in 40 years and noted that it would make state and local government more transparent. They argued it is not acceptable for the members of the news media or for ordinary citizens to face unreasonable delays and high costs to gain access to information that is supposed to be public. They argued that the bill balances access to public records with protection for local municipalities from unreasonable procedures and unfunded mandates.
The House has approved a different version of the measure. The Senate version now goes to the House for consideration.
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Didn’t Vote
OPEN CHECKBOOK (S 2120)
Senate 10-26, rejected an amendment to add data to the state’s Open Checkbook website, which was launched in 2011 to give citizens more information about expenditure of their tax dollars. The amendment would require the website to include the cost of all state contracts and invoices over $500,000.
Amendment supporters said this would simply expand what is required to be included on the website and make government even more transparent.
Amendment opponents said the amendment is well-intentioned but is outside of the scope of the public records law bill being debated and is unrelated to it.
The website can be accessed at http://opencheckbook.itd.state.ma.us/analytics/saw.dll?Dashboard
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Didn’t Vote
RULING OF CHAIR ON POSTING OF GAS TAX (S 2120)
Senate 31-5, upheld the ruling of Senate President Stan Rosenberg that a proposed amendment requiring that every gasoline station pump include a sign displaying the itemization of all taxes included in the price of motor fuel was beyond the scope of the public records law bill being debated and could not be considered. Stations now typically post the price per gallon of fuel with the vague and general phrase “includes all taxes.”
Supporters of Rosenberg’s ruling said requiring a private enterprise like a gas station to post information has nothing to do with the accessibility and transparency of public state records.
Opponents of the ruling said a governmental requirement for gas stations to post information on taxes imposed by the state and paid by its citizens is certainly related to the bill and to transparency.
(A “Yes” vote is in favor of the ruling. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Didn’t Vote
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
$13.7 MILLION IN PUBLIC ASSISTANCE FRAUD EXPOSED – State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report identifying a record $13.7 million in public assistance benefits fraud in Fiscal Year 2015, a 44 percent increase over the previous year’s record of $9.5 million. “At a time when government and families are tightening their belts, our work to investigate fraud strengthens the fabric of our social safety net, ensuring these programs are available for the most vulnerable individuals and families in the Commonwealth,” said Bump. “By strengthening the integrity of these programs, we’re also providing Massachusetts residents with confidence that their tax dollars are being used effectively.”
Bump clarified that the increased findings of fraud do not necessarily indicate more fraud in these programs, but are reflective of greater effectiveness by the agency in identifying fraudulent behavior.
MORE TAXES ON MILLIONAIRES (H 3933) – A Constitutional Convention did not act on a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to impose an additional 4 percent income tax, in addition to the current 5.10 percent tax, on taxpayers’ earnings of more than $1 million. The amendment would require that the new revenue go to fund quality public education, affordable public colleges and universities, and the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges and public transportation. Opponents said that the earmarking of the funds for specific projects is illegal and, as a result, all the new funds would flow into the General Fund without any restriction on spending.
The proposal could eventually go on the 2018 ballot if approved by 25 percent (50 members) of the 2016 Legislature and the 2017-2018 Legislature. The convention has adjourned until April 6.
PUBLIC SAFETY LEGISLATION – The Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a hearing on several bills last week including:
MENTAL ILLNESS AND AUTISM – Requires the training of police officers in the proper way to interact with persons with mental illness (S 1244) and autism (S 1264.)
MUST WEAR BODY CAMERAS (S 1257) – Requires every police officer to carry a body camera in plain view.
MUST RECORD USE OF TASER (S 2130) – Requires all Tasers or other electroshock weapons to be equipped with a device that automatically records the audio on the scene when a police officer uses the weapon. The bill has a local-option provision; it would be effective within a city or town only if the municipality chose to implement it.
POLICE CHASES (S 1261) – Imposes a 2.5-year prison sentence and/or up to $10,000 fine on any driver who flees and ignores a police officer’s order or signal to stop his or her vehicle.
SAFETY OF NURSES AND OTHERS (S 1313) – Requires all health care facilities to conduct annual risk assessments to determine all factors that may put any employees at risk of workplace assaults and homicide. Based on the findings, each facility would be required to develop and implement a program to minimize the danger of workplace violence to employees, including appropriate employee training and a system for the ongoing reporting and monitoring of incidents and situations involving violence or the risk of violence.
COPS’ LANGUAGE (H 2182) – Prohibits police, correctional officers, court officers and other law enforcement personnel from using racial slurs, profanity or language that “casts a negative reflection toward an individual’s race, color ethnic origin, religion, economic status or any other category of negative stereotyping.” The bill provides that any violation of this prohibition would constitute grounds for dismissal of the officer.
“The online [voter] registration figures have been phenomenal, with about 26,000 registering in the first three days of … [last] week.”
Secretary of State William Galvin.
“There are thousands in Massachusetts that need compassionate, cost-effective mental health treatment at facilities such as Taunton State Hospital but instead fall through the cracks. We must not forget them.”
Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) at the opening of Taunton State Hospital’s first state inpatient service to provide comprehensive treatment for women with addictions who had previously been committed to MCI Framingham.
“Thank you to the Senate champions of good government for paving the way to greater government transparency with this strong bill.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, on Senate passage of the bill that would overhaul the state’s public records law.
“A hospital should be a place where patients go to heal and nurses and other health care professionals are able to provide care in a safe environment. Unfortunately, hospitals are growing increasingly violent for both employees and patients. I have six colleagues who will never return to work because of the trauma they experienced in just my workplace alone.”
Massachusetts Nurses Association Vice President Karen Coughlin, on legislation that would require hospitals to develop and implement programs to minimize the danger of workplace violence to employees.
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature’s job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.
During the week of February 1-5, the House met for a total of five hours and six minutes and the Senate met for a total of six hours and 36 minutes.
Mon. February 1 House 11:02 a.m. to 11:21 a.m.
Senate 11:08 a.m. to 11:27 a.m.
Tues. February 2 No House session
No Senate session
Wed. February 3 House 11:01 a.m. to 3:31 p.m.
Senate 1:03 p.m. to 2:44 p.m.
Thurs. February 4 House 11:05 a.m. to 11:22 a.m.
Senate 11:06 a.m. to 3:42 p.m.
Fri. February 5 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at email@example.com