By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ vote on the only roll call from the week of May 13-17. There were no roll calls in the Senate last week.
BAN HAND-HELD CELL PHONES (H 3149)
House 152-2, approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media. The measure allows drivers to use only a hands-free phone but allows the driver to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate the hands-free mode feature. Use of a hand-held phone would be permitted in emergencies including if the vehicle was disabled; medical attention or assistance was required; police, fire or other emergency services were necessary for someone’s personal safety; or a disabled vehicle or an accident was present on a roadway.
Violators would be fined $100 for a first offense,$250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. The violation would not count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator.
If the law is approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, police officers would only issue warnings to violators instead of fines until December 31, 2019. The Senate will debate a similar bill on June 6 and supporters are confident that it will be approved by the Senate. Gov. Baker is on record in favor of a ban which was part of a road safety bill he filed in January.
Supporters say that the bill would save lives and prevent accidents. They note that the measure does not ban cellphone use but simply requires the use of hands-free ones. They pointed to accidents, deaths and injuries involving handheld cellphones.
“I am pleased that this bill passed the House and I am cautiously optimistic that the Senate will give its approval and the governor will sign it into law,” said Rep. John Barrett (D-North Adams). “Too many lives have been lost in recent years by distracted drivers.”
“The Senate is ready to finally deliver this to the governor’s desk so that we can end the needless destruction and loss of life on our roadways,” said Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) in a statement to the State House News Service. Montigny who has filed the bill for 15 years will take the lead in getting the measure approved in the Senate. Similar legislation has been approved by the Senate in the 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 sessions and the 2017-2018 sessions but never made it to the governor’s desk.
Some opponents say that the restriction is another example of government intrusion into people’s cars and lives. Others note that there are already laws on the books prohibiting driving while distracted.
“Studies on the effectiveness of hands-free vs. handheld cellphone operation of a motor vehicle are inconclusive at best,” said Rep. Peter Durant (R-Spencer), one of the two members who voted against the measure. “The real culprit in distracted driving is texting, which was already banned in 2010 but are still at staggeringly high levels. This bill doesn’t solve the problem of distracted driving and we could have used the money spent in this bill to provide better public awareness of the dangers and consequences of texting and driving.”
The other member who voted against the measure was Rep. David DeCoste (R-Norwell). DeCoste did not respond to repeated attempts by Beacon Hill Roll Call asking why he voted against the bill.
“With widespread cellphone use, a traffic hazard has exploded on the roads of t commonwealth and frankly around the country over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett) House chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “This legislation makes clear that drivers must keep their hands and eyes on the road and not on cellphones. Cellphone use while driving is a threat to safety not only to the driver but also to others that share the roads with those who choose to use a cellphone while driving. With the passage of this important legislation, I’m hopeful all motorists will focus on driving safely without cellphone distractions.”
“I thought of my constituent Katie Brannelly who had a beautiful life dedicated in service to others,” said Rep.John Rogers (D-Norwood). “She studied child psychology, held three jobs, made the dean’s list and just three weeks prior to her graduation, before fulfilling her promise of going out and changing this world that needed her help with troubled youth, she was struck by a driver who never saw her.”
“I hope and I pray that when this bill becomes law it will cause all of us to stop, to think, and to focus behind the wheel, and prevent families and communities from enduring future tragic loss of life,” concluded Rogers.
(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
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
OPIOID OVERDOSES KILLED 2,033 PEOPLE IN MASSACHUSETTS in 2018 – According to the Department of Public Health (DPH), there were a total of 2,033 confirmed or suspected opioid overdoses in Massachusetts 2018, the last full year recorded. The DPH said fentanyl was present in 89 percent of the 2018 deaths where a toxicology screen took place.
In the fourth quarter of 2018, in deaths where a toxicology screen took place, the percentages of various substances found in the screen include: heroin or likely heroin — 32 percent; cocaine — 39 percent; and benzodiazepines — 40 percent.
“The presence of amphetamines has been increasing since 2017 to approximately 9 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018,” according the DPH’s study. “Since 2014, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths has been decreasing while the presence of fentanyl and cocaine is still trending upward. The presence of prescription drugs in overdose cases decreased from 2014 through 2016 and has remained stable since then.”
“While we remain encouraged that opioid-related overdose deaths have declined over the last two years, the epidemic continues to present very real challenges across Massachusetts that are made worse by the presence of fentanyl, cocaine and amphetamines,” Gov. Baker said in a statement.
TEACH DOCTORS ABOUT EATING DISORDERS (H 250) – The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee held a hearing on a measure that would require all doctors and physician assistants to complete a one-hour online course on the early recognition of eating disorders. The proposal also prohibits a hospital from granting or renewing professional privileges to work at the hospital to a physician or physician assistant who has not completed the training.
“I am very pleased with this bill,” said sponsor Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich). “Eating disorders are more common than the public eye can see, which is why I believe this is a matter that should be taken seriously by our community physicians to assure safety for our citizens.”
AG CAN FILE CIVIL SUIT FOR WAGE VIOLATIONS (H 1610) – The Labor and Workforce Development Committee heard testimony at a hearing on a bill that would allow the attorney general to file a civil suit for injunctive relief, damages or lost wages and benefits for an employee and for the employee to receive triple damages if the suit is successful. Currently, the attorney general can only give either a civil citation or file a criminal complaint.
Supporters said the bill would give the attorney general and workers the power to hold accountable employers who commit wage theft or look the other way when it is going on. Wage theft is the practice of not paying employees what they’re owed.
Sen. Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington), said that rates of substance use disorder are higher among construction workers. “Exacerbate that by not getting paid, exacerbate that by working for subcontractors who don’t pay benefits to their employees … exacerbate that when people underpay you or don’t classify you correctly,” said Friedman. “So, we’re asking them to do a job, to build all of our buildings and our schools and we’re asking them to come to work every day, but we’re not going to ensure that they get paid, and that is just fundamentally, deeply unfair.”
Opponents said the bill contributes to the anti-business reputation of the Bay State. They said allowing triple damages goes too far and takes away all discretion from judges despite the circumstances of the case.
THE BAY STATE REMAINS IN 8TH PLACE IN NEW U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT RANKING OF BEST STATES – Massachusetts, ranked number 1 in 2017, plummeted to number 8 in 2018 and held steady in 8th place for 2019.
The Bay State rankings include #1 in Education, #2 in Health Care, #4 in Crimes and Corrections, #7 in the economy and near the bottom of the list at #44 in infrastructure.
“Today, the fields of education and health services employ the most people in Massachusetts,” said the report. “Another top industry is manufacturing, especially computer and electronic products. Massachusetts’ technology sector has flourished in recent years and is among the most concentrated in the nation.”
$1,500 TAX CREDIT FOR FAMILY CAREGIVERS (S 702) – The Health Care Financing Committee heard testimony on a bill giving up to a $1,500 tax credit to reimburse a family member who spends his or her own money to care for an ailing relative. Expenses covered include the improvement or alteration to the caregiver’s primary residence to accommodate the relative, equipment that is necessary to assist the relative in carrying out one or more activities of daily living, the hiring of a home care aide or personal care attendant, respite care, adult day health, transportation, legal and financial services and assistive technology.
The family caregiver claiming the credit must be over age 18 and have a Massachusetts adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 for an individual and less than $150,000 for a couple.
Supporters say this will save some money for caregivers. They note that Massachusetts has more than 800,000 unpaid family caregivers who are helping an aging parent or other loved one to live independently in their own homes. They argue that many of these caregivers have a regular full or part-time job and are overwhelmed by their caregiver duties. They note that a study from 2015 concluded that in Massachusetts, family caregivers provided 786 million hours of unpaid care valued at an estimated $11.6 billion annually.
“This would go a long way in helping them, would enable more of our seniors and those with disabilities to remain at home where they want to be when they want to age with dignity in the community, keep them out of more restrictive care, which as you know is much more expensive,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester). “Even though it will cost the state some money for the credit, it actually, overall, could be a cost saver for us.”
SMOKING CESSATION PROGRAMS FOR MASSHEALTH RECIPIENTS (H 1129, S 704) – The Health Care Financing Committee’s agenda also included a hearing on proposals requiring the state to cover the expenses of programs for smoking and tobacco use cessation treatment and information by people on MassHealth—the state’s Medicaid program that provides health care for low-income and disabled persons.
Rep. Christine Barber (D-Somerville), House sponsor of the proposal said she wants to expand the commonwealth’s commitment to assisting people to stop smoking. “Right now, health plans under MassHealth provide tobacco cessation coverage, but we want to put this requirement into law to make sure it continues,” said Barber. “In addition, the bill would add behavioral health counselors and dentists, providers who see a lot of patients who use tobacco, as people who can provide cessation services. With the rapid increase in tobacco use through vaping and other products, I want to ensure that Massachusetts supports people who want to quit.”
“Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and illness in the commonwealth and is responsible for more than $4 billion in healthcare costs annually,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate sponsor of the proposal. “It is vital that we provide comprehensive cessation benefits through all insurance plans, so that tobacco users can get help quitting. This legislation will strengthen existing MassHealth tobacco cessation benefits.”
CHILD CARE FOR CANDIDATES FOR PUBLIC OFFICE (639) – The Elections Laws Committee held a hearing on a bill allowing a candidate for public office to use campaign funds for child care while the candidate is campaigning on his or her own behalf or attending events directly related to his or her campaign. The House gave initial approval to the proposal in the 2017-2018 session, but the bill died in the committee on Bills in Third Reading.
Under current law, candidates are prohibited from using campaign funds for their personal use. The state’s Office of Campaign and Finance has classified childcare while performing campaign duties as a personal expense rather than a campaign expense.
“If we believe representation matters in public office, then we need to break down barriers to entry for underrepresented groups,” said Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge), co-sponsor of the measure. “That’s why I’m proud to be working with Sen. Jehlen, Rep. Meschino, and several other colleagues to make childcare an allowable campaign expense, a concept that was recently adopted by the Federal Election Commission for candidates on the federal level.”
“We should strive for more socio-economic, gender and inter-generational diversity across elected offices in Massachusetts,” said co-sponsor Rep. Joan Meschino (D-Hull). “This bill provides an important mechanism to encourage more representative candidate pools by building equity into our election system.”
“It’s a long time before we’re going to start talking about that.”
Gov. Baker when asked by the State House News Service whether he has a position on the measure that would impose an additional 4 percent income tax, in addition to the current flat 5.1 percent one, on taxpayers’ earnings of more than $1 million.
“Central Boston Elder Services celebrates our older residents and recognizes the enormous value of their life experiences. We are so proud of them and treasure their ability to share the insights and occurrences of their many years, to describe how times have changed and to share their often-unique cultural experiences.”
Michael Vance, CEO of Central Boston Elder Services, at a Statehouse ceremony honoring 15 living seniors who are 100 years old or more.
“There is the threshold question here of whether we want to do sports gaming in Massachusetts. I think it’s important before we rush into a decision of what a legalization would look like that we answer that threshold question of whether we want it.”
Sen. Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies at a State House News Forum on sports betting.
“It is a fundamental responsibility of government to keep our communities safe. Recent tragedies have demonstrated the tremendous damage that can result when our criminal justice system fails to identify and detain dangerous people charged with serious crimes. The alarming frequency of these events confirms that the commonwealth needs to do a better job of holding, until trial, defendants who pose a continuing danger to others.”
Gov. Baker testifying before the Judiciary Committee on a bill that would make it easier for police and the court system to detain defendants.
“This bill is a step backwards. It is unnecessary. Prosecutors have the tools they need now to move for dangerousness against people who are indeed dangerous. Give the reform bill that you passed last year a chance to work. This is not the time to make a change.”
Randy Gioia, the deputy chief counsel of the Public Defender Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, expressing his concern that the Baker bill would lead to more people being locked up before trial and staying locked up for longer periods of time.
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 13-17, the House met for a total of ten hours and four minutes while the Senate met for a total of 20 minutes.
Mon. May 13 House 11:03 a.m. to 12:32 p.m.
Senate 11:00 a.m. to 11:06 a.m.
Tues. May 14 No House session
No Senate session
Wed. May 15 House 11:04 a.m. to 7:31 p.m.
No Senate session
Thurs. May 16 House 11:00 a.m. to 11:08 a.m.
Senate 11:03 a.m. to 11:17 a.m.
Fri. May 17 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org