By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE: There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.
As the first order of business back in January, the Legislature approved an $18 million pay raise package including hiking the salaries of the two leaders who filed the bill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst), by $45,000 from $97,547 to $142,547. The measure also hikes the pay of the Legislature’s two Republican leaders, Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Rep. Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) by $37,500 from $85,047 to $122,547. Another provision hikes the salaries of the governor and the other six constitutional officers by raises ranging from $30,048 to $47,083; and hikes the pay of the state’s judges and court clerks by $25,000.
The only part of the package that applies to all 200 legislators increased the annual general expense allowance for each member from $7,200 to $15,000 for members whose districts are within a 50-mile radius of the Statehouse and to $20,000 for districts located outside of that radius. Prior to this increase, the most recent increase in the general expense allowance was a hike from $3,600 to $7,200 in 2000.
According to the state treasurer’s office, the mileage from a legislator’s home to the Statehouse is calculated “using the standard of quickest route (time to destination).”
The expense allowance is used at the discretion of individual legislators to support a variety of costs including the renting of a district office, contributions to local civic groups and the printing and mailing of newsletters. Legislators are issued a 1099 from the state and are required to report the allowance as income but are not required to submit an accounting of how they spend it.
Beacon Hill Roll Call has obtained the list of how much each senator and representative is receiving as an expense allowance under this new system.
When each legislator received a flat $7,200 under the old system, the total spent was $1,440,000. Under this new system, the total spent will be $3,174,052. That’s an increase of $1,734,052.
Nine legislators decided against taking the raise and are still collecting only the original $7,200. Another 136 asked for and are receiving the raise from $7,200 to $15,000 while 53 legislators are receiving $20,000 because they said they live more than 50 miles from the Statehouse. One legislator decided to take $9,252. Another decided not to take an expense allowance.
The package also put an end to legislators collecting per diems which are travel, meals and lodging reimbursements collected by the legislators. The amount of the per diem varies and was based on the city or town in which a legislator resides and its distance from the Statehouse. In 2016, 103 or more than one-half of the state’s 200 legislators were paid per diems totaling $278,601.
Under current federal law, the same 53 legislators who live more than 50 miles from the Statehouse are eligible for a special federal tax break that has been criticized for years. A 1981 federal law allows them to write off a daily expense allowance when filing their federal income tax return. The complicated system determines a daily amount, ostensibly for meals, lodging and other expenses incurred in the course of their jobs, which can be deducted for every “legislative day.”
Under the Massachusetts Legislature’s system and schedule, every day of the year qualifies as a legislative day. The Legislature does not formally “prorogue” (end an annual session) until the next annual session begins. This allows these legislators to take the deduction for all 365 days regardless of whether the Legislature is meeting or not. Legislators do not even have to travel to the Statehouse to qualify for the daily deduction.
The amount of the deduction is based on the federal per diem for Massachusetts. It varies from year to year. The daily per diem for legislators for 2016 varied in different parts of the state and is seasonal. It ranges from $162 per day to $366 per day or between $59,130 and $133,590 annually.
The 53 legislators who took the $20,000 state expense allowance are eligible for this federal deduction because they said they live more than 50 miles from the Statehouse. Each legislator who takes advantage of this deduction will have paid, and continue to pay, little or no federal income tax on their legislative salaries for many years.
HOW MUCH EACH LOCAL LEGISLATOR WILL RECEIVE IN EXPENSE ALLOWANCE
Here is the amount of an expense allowance each legislator will receive annually.
Rep. Christine Barber $15,000 Rep. Mike Connolly $15,000 Rep. Denise Provost $15,000 Sen. Patricia Jehlen $15,000
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
NEW STATE SEAL AND MOTTO (H 2873) – The State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee’s public hearing included a proposal creating a special commission to examine the state seal and motto including those parts of it which have been controversial or misunderstood.
The commission would develop a revised version of the seal which currently includes a Native American holding a bow in one hand, an arrow in the other hand and a disembodied arm holding a sword above him. The motto is “By the sword we seek peace, but only under liberty.” The commission would determine “whether the seal and motto accurately reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the Commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality, and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”
Supporters of revisions said the current seal is politically insensitive and the bow and arrow depict violence. “I sincerely request that you consider our shared history and be cognizant of the genocidal accuracy of the symbolism that the seal in part portrays,” said John Peters, executive director of the Commission on Indian Affairs and a descendant of the Indians who met the Pilgrims in 1620.
Wompimeequin Wampatuck, chief of the tribal council of the Mattakeeset Tribe, said the sword-wielding arm is that of Captain Miles Standish, a pilgrim whose army killed many Native Americans in the 1600s. He testified that this antiquated image portrays Indians in a “surrender state.”
No one testified against the bill but in the past supporters of the current seal have said that it is a sacred symbol. They argue that the depiction is appropriate and note that arrow is pointing downward which is known as a Native American symbol signifying peace.
FLAGS AT HALF-MAST- Other legislation on the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight’s agenda included requiring that flags be flown at half-staff each September 11 in honor of the brave Americans who perished in the terrorist attack (S 1820); and flown from the day of death until the day of the funeral of any police officer, firefighter or other public safety employee killed in the line of duty (S 1817).
PROTECT TROPICAL RAIN FORESTS (H 1708) – Another proposal on the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight’s agenda would prohibit the state from purchasing wood grown in a tropical rain forest or products made up substantially of wood grown in a tropical rain forest except when a public necessity exists and no other alternative is available.
IMPOSE SALES TAX ON ITEMS BOUGHT ONLINE (H 1524) – The Revenue Committee held a public hearing on several bills including the controversial one that would require the state to prepare to collect the state’s 6.25 percent sales taxes on all items purchased online if and when the federal government authorizes states to mandate that Internet sellers collect sales taxes. The committee last year recommended approval of the same bill but it was sent to a study committee where it died.
Federal law currently only requires the sales tax to be collected by sellers who have a physical presence like a store or warehouse in the state. Amazon has had a presence in the Bay State since 2013 when it started Massachusetts residents the sales tax for its online sales.
Supporters of the tax say brick-and-mortar retailers in the state are losing millions of dollars in annual sales and the state is missing out on millions in tax revenue. They note many consumers are using brick-and-mortar retail stores as a showroom to look at items and then buy them on the Internet to get a lower price and save the sales tax.
Opponents say this is simply an unwarranted tax hike that will cost consumers millions of dollars. They note it would also discourage other online retailers from bringing a facility and jobs to Massachusetts.
GROUP THAT IS MONITORING TRUMP HOLDS FIRST MEETING – The 9-member Trump Administration Working Group that will provide guidance on how the Legislature should respond to the actions of the Trump Administration and help find possible legislative responses and solutions had its first meeting last week. The group, created by House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop), has a mission to determine the local consequences of Trump’s actions with the focus on economic stability, health care, higher education and the state’s most vulnerable residents. All nine members of the group are Democratic legislators. The group is co-chaired by Reps. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) and Ronald Mariano (D-Quincy).
At its first meeting, the group said it will be pushing hard for a bill that prohibits Bay State sheriffs from sending Massachusetts inmates out of state to help build President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has said for several months that he would like inmates from the Bristol County House of Correction to go down south and assist in the construction.
The group also plans to push for another bill that would prohibit state money being used to train local law enforcement or correction officers in immigration law.
FORFEIT PENSION IF CONVICTED OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY (H 22) – The Public Service Committee held a hearing on a bill that would take the pension away from any teacher who is convicted of possession of child pornography. The bill was filed in response to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that while this crime may be a sufficient reason to fire a teacher, it is not sufficient to warrant revocation of the teacher’s pension.
Current law provides that any public employee convicted of a crime “involving violation of the laws applicable to his office or position” forfeits his or her retirement allowance, and is entitled only to a return of his or her contributions without interest. The court, applying that current law, said that a conviction for the private possession of child pornography did not sufficiently “involve” the position of teacher to justify the teacher forfeiting the retirement allowance.
Supporters say that this loophole must be closed in order to assure that justice is done.
Opponents said the bill goes too far and wipes out a pension that the teacher has been funding for years
HANDS-FREE PHONES ONLY (S 1908) – The Transportation Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones for all drivers but allow them to use a hands-free cell phone with voice-activated dialing.
Supporters said that it is dangerous to dial and talk on the phone while driving. They argued that the bill would save lives, prevent serious injuries and make the roads safer for everyone.
Amendment opponents said that the amendment goes too far and is unnecessary government intrusion into people’s cars and rights. They noted that there are already many existing laws that prohibit all types of distracted driving.
RESTRICT IDLING CARS AND BUSES (S 1950) – Also on the Transportation Committee’s agenda was a bill that reduces from five minutes to three minutes the time drivers are allowed to idle their engines. Violators will be punished by a fine of up to $100 for the first offense and $500 for each additional offense.
Supporters say that idling an engine for only fifteen seconds uses more fuel than turning the engine off and restarting it. They argue that idling also increases maintenance costs because it leaves fuel residue that clogs fuel injectors. They note that the proposal would save millions of dollars in fuel costs for individuals and cities and town and would help protect the environment.
Opponents say that the bill goes too far. They argue that the current five-minute ban on idling all vehicles is sufficient and questioned the need approve a new law and to set up another layer of bureaucracy.
“This is the warning light. If we approve this, next month there will be another proposal. And next year there will be another proposal and before you know it we’ll be asked to open more casinos and we’ll be asked to do all sorts of things that will undermine the state’s control over these casinos.”
Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) on why he is opposed to a proposal that would allow alcohol to be served in casinos until 4 a.m. instead of the current 2 a.m.
“We are pleased to do business with a bank that notably shares that commitment in an unusually explicit and hands-on manner in its leadership, hiring, lending practices and philanthropy.”
Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby on his choice of Eastern Bank as the commission’s primary financial institution for casino revenues. He revealed that more than 40 percent of Eastern’s Board of Corporators is comprised of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. And more than 50 languages and dialects are spoken among Eastern’s 1,900 employees.
“The two most popular governors are Republicans in traditionally blue states: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Both governors have reputations as shrewd, bipartisan dealmakers who value results over party purity, and their constituents seem to appreciate that style.”
A Morning Consult poll showing that 75 percent of Massachusetts voters view the governor favorably.
“Massachusetts can’t boast of a world class economy if the Baker Administration keeps running a second-class transportation system. The governor needs to stop treating the people who depend on the T as second-class citizens.”
Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford criticizing Baker’s handling of the MBTA.
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 April 10-14, the House met for a total of 22 minutes and the Senate met for a total of one hour and 22 minutes.
Mon. April 10 House 11:03 a.m. to 11:18 a.m.
Senate 11:15 a.m. to 12:24 p.m.
Tues. April 11 No House session
No Senate session
Wed. April 12 No House session
No Senate session.
Thurs. April 13 House 11:01 a.m. to 11:08 a.m.
Senate 11:02 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.
Fri. April 14 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org