By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ and representatives’ votes on roll calls from the week of April 2-6.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE CHANGES (H 4011)
House 148-5, Senate 37-0, approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a conference committee version of a bill making some major changes to the state’s criminal justice system including repealing mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenders, restricting the use of solitary confinement, allowing for the expungement of juvenile records, strengthening laws against fentanyl trafficking, raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to twelve and decriminalizing a first offense misdemeanor if the punishment is a fine or imprisonment for not more than six months.
Supporters said the bill is a balanced one that updates many laws and repeals some arcane laws while still protecting the public. They argued that the bill is a big step toward ending the vicious cycle of incarceration and crime.
“The … legislation makes reforms to all aspects of the criminal justice system, from the time a person first comes in contact with the criminal justice system through the time a person re-enters society,” said Rep. Claire Cronin (D-Easton). “These reforms will give people a second chance to rebuild their lives, while also preserving public safety.”
“The agreement we have reached today is about lifting people up instead of locking people up,” said Sen. Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont). “And it is about cutting the chains that hold people down when they are trying to get back on their feet. And it is about better protecting the public from drugs and violence.”
Opponents said that the bill goes too far and weakens the state’s criminal justice laws in many ways.
Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) said the lenient reforms in the bill are similar to those passed in Colorado which is now seeing a 50 percent increase in felony arrests which prosecutors say is a direct result of the reforms.
“In Massachusetts we are sending the wrong message at the wrong time,” Lyons said. “We are in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in my lifetime [yet] the bill … reduces penalties for drug crimes … It is important for the public to know that rather than pass a stand-alone bill to change fentanyl to a Class A substance and give law enforcement the tolls to shut down these murderers, the Democrats took no action, and allowed drug traffickers to overrun our communities in the last two years.”
Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton) said she couldn’t vote for a bill that reduces penalties for drug crimes and only gives drug dealers 3.5 years for distributing deadly fentanyl at a time when we have an epidemic.
“Massachusetts has the second highest rate in the country of deaths caused by fentanyl,” O’Connell said. “I believe that this legislation takes away tools from law enforcement and makes it harder for people to be prosecuted for dealing drugs and other crimes … We need stricter laws not free passes for criminals.”
(A Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it).
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Mike Connolly Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
$200 MILLION FOR LOCAL ROADS AND BRIDGES (H 4637)
House 145-0, approved and sent to the Senate a bill authorizing $200 million in one-time funding for the maintenance and repair of local roads and bridges in cities and towns across the state. The package is a bond bill under which the funding would be borrowed by the state through the sale of bonds.
Supporters said the $200 million would help cities and towns keep their roads and bridges safe and allow many vital municipal road projects to move forward.
No one voted against the bill but there are many legislators who say the $200 million is insufficient. Transportation Committee Co-chairman Rep. William Straus said there’s no question when it comes to the status of the roads and bridges of the commonwealth, the need is greater than our resources. “There are greater unmet needs, but the resources are finite in order to take care of municipal roads and bridges and those of the commonwealth, he said.
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill.)
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Mike Connolly Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes
TAX SHORT-TERM RENTALS (S 2381)
Senate 31-6, approved a bill that extends the state’s current 5.7 percent hotel and motel tax and the local option room occupancy tax to short-term rentals offered by Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO while leaving the regulation of these rentals including registration, licensing and inspections up to local cities and towns.
Estimates are that the state will reap $34.5 million from the new taxes and local communities which impose the optional local tax will receive some $25.5 million.
Supporters said the bill strikes a balance and levels the playing field between currently untaxed and unregulated short-term rentals and hotels and motels that are currently regulated and taxed.
“The short-term rental economy is the latest example of a rapidly growing, technology-driven industry that is changing the way business is run in the commonwealth,” said Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport). “In addition to leveling the playing field in the lodging industry, this legislation ensures each city and town maintains local control, and balances innovative opportunities for the community with the need to regulate and permit safe, secure, and reliable transient accommodations.”
Opponents said the bill is simply another example of an anti-business, unwarranted tax and overregulation by the state.
“[This] is an example of the government regulating the use of private properties,” said Sen. Dean Tran (R-Fitchburg). “It’s an opportunity to institute a new tax. It was very unfortunate that an amendment requesting 25 percent of the collection goes to funding our schools failed. Your right to rent a room in your home, short term, should not be subject to regulations adhered to by hotels, motels and other big entities.”
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
MORE LOCAL AID FOR CITIES AND TOWNS (S 2381)
Senate 14-22, rejected an amendment requiring that 50 percent of the estimated $34.5 million in additional state revenue generated from the short-term rental tax go to the state’s General Fund, 25 percent to education aid for cities and towns and 25 percent in unrestricted local aid to cities and towns.
Amendment supporters said this would ensure that 50 percent of this windfall goes to local communities that desperately need additional funds instead of 100 percent going to the state.
Amendment opponents said the bill already helps cities and towns by allowing them to add their own 6 percent tax to short-term rentals and to keep all the revenue it generates. They said estimates are that this will generate $25.5 million for local communities.
(A “Yes” vote is for the amendment. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes
21-DAY EXEMPTION (S 2381)
Senate 11-26, rejected an amendment that would exempt from the new tax people who rent out their unit for 21 or fewer days per year.
Amendment supporters said this will ensure that mom and pop operators who offer their place for rent just a few weekends per year are not lumped in with operations that are serious businesses that operate all year round.
Amendment opponents said the amendment waters down the bill which is designed to level the playing field, without exceptions, for hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and Airbnb.
(A “Yes” vote is for the 21-day exception. A “No” vote is against it.)
Sen. Patricia Jehlen No
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
SPILKA TO TAKE OVER SENATE PRESIDENCY IN JULY – Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) and current Senate President Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) have agreed, after behind the scenes negotiations, that Spilka will take over the Senate presidency the week of July 23. Spilka on March 22 announced that she had the necessary majority of votes from her colleagues to be elected Senate president. Just a few weeks ago, Chandler was going to serve as president until the new legislative session begins on January 2019. She never had any interest in serving beyond that.
Chandler was elected Senate president in December when former President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) resigned the position while the Senate Ethics Committee investigated sexual assault charges against Rosenberg’s husband, Bryon Hefner, whether Rosenberg violated any Senate rules and whether Hefner had any influence over the business of the Senate, as he has claimed to others. On March 29, Hefner was indicted on felony charges in connection with sexual assault, criminal lewdness and distributing nude photos without consent.
“Each of us also believes that a smooth, orderly transition between each of our tenures as Senate president is the only way to ensure the Senate’s uninterrupted work on behalf of the men, women and children of this commonwealth,” said Chandler and Spilka in a written statement. “As a result of this shared desire, our ongoing conversations with each other and a spirit of long-held mutual respect, we have agreed that the transition between our tenures will take place the week of July 23rd.”
“Chairwoman Spilka and I have been long-time friends and colleagues, and I am pleased to be handing the Senate over to a strong leader who will continue to lead us into the future,” said Chandler. “I look forward to working with her closely through the coming months, and into next session.”
“Senate President Chandler has served the Senate admirably in these challenging times,” said Spilka. “I look forward to continuing to benefit from her wise counsel throughout my presidency, as I have during the many years of our friendship.”
SYRIAN WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL (S 2019) – A bill before the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee would urge Congress to “seek appropriate action”, that will lead to the convening of a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal, so that the monsters who commit war crimes, and crimes against humanity, may be investigated, and brought to justice.
KOSHER FOOD (S 2388) – The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee held a hearing on legislation requiring any food establishments that have had their kosher certification revoked to post a sign on the front door or window stating, “Kosher Certification Revoked.”
Co-sponsor Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton) said she filed the bill because it was brought to her attention that Newton Prime Market in her district had lost its kosher certification but did not remove the kosher sign from its storefront.
“This is a consumer protection bill,” said Balser. “Just as one wants to make sure that a product that advertises itself as, for instance, gluten-free, really is gluten-free, so, too, consumers who purchase something labeled kosher, want to be sure that it really is kosher.”
BILLS SENT TO STUDY – Various committees shipped off several bills off to a “study committee.” Most measures that are sent to a study committee are never actually studied and are essentially defeated. Here are some of the bills that were sent to a study committee and will likely be refiled by their sponsors in 2019:
SAVE (S 39) – Requires all state agencies that are responsible for the issuance of public benefits or licensure to register for the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, (SAVE) system and to use it to verify whether applicants for a public benefit or license, whose documentation is not available or is questionable, are qualified for the benefit.
SAVE is a federal program operated by the Department of Homeland Security and provides government agencies with a tool to verify the immigration status of noncitizens and certain U.S. citizen applicants seeking benefits, and provides information to be used in the determination of eligibility for state and federal benefits.
MUST PICK UP WELFARE CHECK IN PERSON (S 71) – Requires that welfare recipients pick up every sixth check in person at their local welfare branch office. Under current law, recipients can have all their checks directly deposited to their bank.
SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND ADDICTION (S 302) – Requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Public Health to develop a model curriculum for Grades 4 to 12 designed to prevent substance abuse and addiction and address tobacco, alcohol, opiate and prescription drug diversion and abuse.
SIGN LANGUAGE (S 328) – Requires local schools to credit the course of American Sign Language toward satisfaction of a student’s foreign language requirements. Current law allows but does not require schools to give credit for this course.
“Scott Pruitt is once again ignoring his legal obligations under federal law and choosing the interests of the oil and gas industry and their lobbyists over the health of the American people and our environment. We will continue to work with our state and city partners to hold the agency accountable and protect public health and the environment from pollution and climate change.”
Attorney General Maura Healey following her joining a coalition of 15 attorneys general and the City of Chicago in filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator Scott Pruitt for ignoring the agency’s legal obligation to control methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and natural gas sector.
“If you had told me that over 90 percent of our students would pass MCAS and that we would have 13 consecutive years of improvement on SAT scores, or that our students would rank first in the nation in every category on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2005 and 2013 and that they would place at or near the top on gold-standard international math and science tests like Trends in International Math and Science Study, I would have thought you were unrealistically optimistic.”
Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, co-author of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act at a Statehouse event marking the 25th anniversary of the act.
“Fifty years ago today, the world lost one of the most articulate and impactful voices in the fight to end racism. While he was taken from this world too soon, Dr. King’s legacy lives on to make our country a better place.”
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
“I think the thing we should all keep in mind here is those folks have been working unbelievably hard to get to this point. There were a lot of people who didn’t think they’d be in a position to start accepting licenses on April 1 and they were, so kudos to them.”
Gov. Baker on giving credit to the Cannabis Control Commission’s staff on the smooth rollout of the application process for companies applying for licenses to open a marijuana retail store.
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 2-6, the House met for a total of ten hours and 49 minutes while the Senate met for a total of seven hours.
Mon. April 2 House 11:03 a.m. to 11:14 a.m.
Senate 11:08 a.m. to 11:34 a.m.
Tues. April 3 No House session
No Senate session
Wed. April 4 House 11:04 a.m. to 5:12 p.m.
Senate 11:00 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.
Thurs. April 5 House 11:03 a.m. to 3:33 p.m.
Senate 11:07 a.m. to 11:26 a.m.
Fri. April 6 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at email@example.com