By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ and representatives’ votes on roll calls from the week of May 23-27.
PUBLIC RECORDS (H 4333)
House 154-0, Senate 40-0, approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker 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.
The legislation requires 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; limits to $25 per hour the fees municipalities and state agencies can charge for time spent responding to requests; allows municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the right to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs; enables courts to award attorneys’ fees when government agencies wrongly deny access to public records; and requires agencies and municipalities to make documents available in electronic form.
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.
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill.)
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes Rep. Timothy Toomey Yes Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
$39.5 BILLION FISCAL 2017 BUDGET (S 7)
Senate 38-0, approved and sent to the House a $39.5 billion fiscal 2017 budget.
Supporters said the budget is a fiscally responsible and balanced one that makes vital investments in the state while continuing fiscal responsibility and not raising taxes.
All but one of the Senate roll calls are on the Senate debate on the budget. Most of the more than 1,110 amendments filed never came to a roll call vote and were simply approved or rejected on voice votes without debate.
The Senate also approved 193 amendments and rejected 246 amendments on two quick voice votes without a roll call. Those amendments were “bundled” into two packages and approved or rejected all at once. Senate President Stan Rosenberg led the approval and rejection of the bundled amendments with a simple: “All those in favor say ‘aye,’ those opposed say ‘no.’ The amendments are approved (or rejected.) Senators don’t actually vote yes or no and in fact don’t say a word. The outcome was determined earlier behind closed doors.
The House has approved a different version of the budget. A House-Senate conference committee will hammer out a compromise version.
(A “Yes” vote is for the budget.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
TRIPLE DAMAGES (S 7)
Senate 7-31, rejected an amendment that would allow judges not to impose triple damages in wage violations cases. Current law requires the judge to order triple damages.
Amendment supporters said mandating triple damages without exceptions takes away all discretion from judges despite the circumstances of the case. They argued that the law should be flexible because employers who make an honest error should not be required to pay triple damages.
Amendment opponents said that triple damages should automatically be awarded in order to discourage employers from holding back wages. They said this will send a message to other employers who are thinking about cheating their workers.
(A “Yes” vote is for giving a judge discretion. A “No” vote is against discretion and favors the automatic triple damages.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
EXEMPT FARMERS’ MARKETS FROM PROPERTY TAXES (S 7)
Senate 10-28, rejected an amendment that would exempt from the local property tax the land on which farmers’ markets are held.
Amendment supporters said these markets are good for the state’s agriculture industry and the economy and the land should not be taxed.
Amendment opponents said this is a solution in search of a problem. They argued that this tax exemption would apply to only a handful of landowners because most farmers’ markets are leasing the land and don’t own it.
(A “Yes” vote is for the exemption. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
HOLD PUBLIC HEARING ON ALL BILLS THAT RAISE TAXES AND FEES (S 7)
Senate 6-32, rejected an amendment that would require the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees to host six joint public hearings in different parts of the state before the Legislature acts on any bill that raises taxes or fees.
Amendment supporters said the public should have the opportunity to weigh in on tax hikes that will come out of their pockets.
Amendment opponents said it is impractical for the Ways and Means Committees to hold six hearings on the hundreds of tax-related bills that are filed each year. They noted that these bills are often the subject of public hearings in front of other committees before they ever reach Ways and Means.
(A “Yes” vote is for requiring the hearings. A “No” vote is against requiring them.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
USE SURPLUS FOR LOCAL AID TO CITIES AND TOWNS (S 7)
Senate 6-32, rejected an amendment that would require one-half of any surplus state tax revenue left on June 30, 2016, to be distributed to cities and towns as unrestricted additional local aid. The amendment would cap the amount at $50 million.
Amendment supporters said this would ensure that the Legislature does not squander any budget surplus. They argued that struggling cities and towns deserve this surplus money.
Amendment opponents said it is fiscally irresponsible to guarantee surplus revenue to cities and towns before replenishing the state’s Rainy Day Fund. They noted that the existing budget already includes an increase in local aid and cautioned that the amendment could damage the state’s bond rating and increase borrowing costs.
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment requiring that up to $50 million go to local aid. A “No” vote is against the amendment.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
LIMIT PAY RAISE FOR PENSION FUND DIRECTOR (S 7)
Senate 8-30, rejected an amendment allowing the executive director of the state’s Pension Reserves Investment Trust (PRIT) fund to receive a pay hike only if the fund is in “positive financial condition” and the raise is unanimously approved by the board of directors. The executive director invests and manages the pension reserve assets of the Massachusetts State Employees’ and Teachers’ Retirement Systems.
Amendment supporters said the director should not get a raise if the fund has lost value under his or her watch.
Amendment opponents said that a few years ago retirement systems across the nation lost an average of 30 percent of their value, but PRIT only lost 24 percent. They noted that it would be reasonable to give a small raise for losing less than many other states.
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
PROHIBIT DIFFERENT RATES BASED ON GENDER (S 7)
Senate 32-6, approved an amendment prohibiting all insurance companies from charging different rates for disability insurance on the basis of gender. Current law prohibits insurance companies from charging different rates on the basis of race or religion.
Amendment supporters said it is time to wipe out current law that violates civil rights and gender equality by allowing some disability insurance companies to discriminate against women by charging them higher premiums and/or paying out lower benefits. They noted that women are charged an average of 23 percent more than men to purchase disability insurance.
Amendment opponents said that this is not an equal rights issue but simply a consumer one based on the fact that women generally live longer than men. Some called this a national issue that should be addressed at the federal level.
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment prohibiting all insurance companies from charging different rates on the basis of gender. A “No” vote is against the amendment).
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
BAN PLASTIC GROCERY BAGS (S 7)
Senate 29-9, approved an amendment that would ban the use of single-use carryout plastic bags in any retail store with more than 3,000 square feet of space or with three Massachusetts locations owned by the same entity. Under the legislation, any bags supplied by the store would have to be reusable or made of recycled paper and sold for at least 10 cents each.
Supporters said these bags litter our streets and waterways and often kill marine animals who ingest them. They argued that more than 350 billion plastic bags are used every year in the United States and only about five percent are recycled.
Opponents said this is another unnecessary “tax” that forces consumers to buy their bags. They argued that public education has already resulted in widespread use of reusable bags without the state imposing a ban on plastic bags. They noted these plastic bags are often reused by consumers for cleaning up after their pets and to line wastebaskets.
(A “Yes” vote is for the ban. A “No” vote is against the ban.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
PAID FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE – The Committee on Labor and Workforce Development has approved a proposal that would allow workers in Massachusetts to take paid leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, or to care for a new child. The proposal prohibits employer retaliation against workers who take time off under these conditions.
Under the proposal, employees would be eligible for up to 12 weeks to care for a family member or new child, and up to 26 weeks for an employee’s own serious illness or injury. Benefits would be funded through employer and employee premium contributions to a new Family and Employment Security Trust Fund or to private insurance plans.
YELLOW DOT PROGRAM (H 3045) – The Health Care Financing Committee has recommended passage of a bill that would create the Yellow Dot Program to assist first responders at the scene of a car accident. The voluntary program would allow participants to affix a decal with a yellow dot to the rear window on the driver’s side of the vehicle. The dot would alert first responders to look in the glove compartment and locate a yellow dot folder, compiled by the participant, that includes his or her medical information.
BAN “JUNK FOOD” IN VENDING MACHINES (H 3988) – The Health Care Financing Committee has recommended passage of a bill requiring vending machines in state-owned buildings to only serve food and beverage items that comply with the nutritional standards established by the state commissioner of Public Health.
INFORMATION ABOUT BREAST RECONSTRUCTION SURGERY (H 3699) – The Health Care Finance Committee has recommended passage of a bill requiring all facilities that provide mastectomy surgery, lymph node dissection or a lumpectomy to provide specific information to the patient in writing prior to the patient giving consent to the procedure. The information would include the advantages and disadvantages of various reconstructive options and the coverage of these surgeries under private and state-funded health insurance.
UMASS SAYS NO MORE FOSSIL FUEL INVESTMENTS – The University of Massachusetts announced it will become the first major public university to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels. The decision was made by the university’s Umass Foundation, a non-profit corporation that oversees the university’s estimated $770 million endowment.
“This action is consistent with the principals that have guided our university since its Land Grant inception and reflects our commitment to take on the environmental challenges that confront us all,” said Umass President Marty Meehan. “Important societal change often begins on college campuses and it often begins with students.”
“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable. With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts on legislation requiring that the state and local municipalities comply in a timely way with requests for public records.
“Due to a string of recent injuries, fires and explosions associated with hoverboards nationwide, the MBTA conducted an assessment of the devices and determined that they are a safety risk. As a result, they are banned from MBTA property.”
From An MBTA press release.
“Paid family and medical leave would allow workers to take time to take care of their health or the health of a loved one without fear of losing their job or the risk of financial ruin, and ensure that all parents can take time off to nurture and bond with their new children.”
Deb Fastino, Executive Director of the Coalition for Social Justice on legislation that would allow workers to take paid leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, or to care for a new child.
“This amendment really boils down to a simple question and that is: When determining what insurance premiums are paid, should two people who are the same age, have the same occupation, both of whom are non-smokers, the only difference is one is a man and the other is a woman, should those two people pay the same or different premiums for their insurance?”
Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) on an amendment prohibiting all insurance companies from charging different rates for disability insurance on the basis of gender.
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 May 23-27, the House met for a total of nine hours and 63 minutes and the Senate met for a total of 35 hours and 11 minutes.
Mon. May 23 House 11:04 a.m. to 11:11 a.m.
Senate 10:04 a.m. to 10:05 a.m.
Tues. May 24 No House session
Senate 9:59 a.m. to 9:58 p.m.
Wed. May 25 House 11:03 a.m. to 3:48 p.m.
Senate 10:01 a.m. to 8:12 p.m.
Thurs. May 26 House 11:00 a.m. to 4:11 p.m.
Senate 10:15 a.m. to 11:15 p.m.
Fri. May 27 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org