By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.
Beacon Hill Roll Call reports on the delay in approving the measure that prohibits drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media. Current state law only bans texting while driving, a threshold that police say is difficult to prove and enforce.
BAN HAND-HELD CELL PHONES (H 3149 and S 2216)
A bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media is still tied up in a conference committee that has spent more than three months trying to hammer out a compromise version of the measure. The House 152-0 approved its version of the bill on May 15. The Senate approved a different version on June 6.
A conference committee was appointed by House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) on June 10. The committee is charged with hammering out a compromise version of the bill to which a majority of the committee agrees. The compromise measure is then sent to the House and Senate for consideration and like all conference committee reports in recent Massachusetts legislative history, except one, is approved by both branches and then sent to the governor for his signature, amendment or veto.
The members of the conference committee are Reps. Bill Straus (D-Mattapoisett); Joe Wagner (D-Chicopee); and Tim Whelan (R-Brewster);and Sens. Joseph Boncore (D-Winthrop); William Brownsberger (D-Belmont); and Dean Tran (R-Fitchburg).
Use of a hand-held phone would be permitted in some emergencies but the definition of emergencies differs in each version.
Violators in both versions would be fined $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. Under the House version, a violation would not count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator. The Senate version counts a third and subsequent offense as a surchargeable one. In addition, the Senate version would require second-time offenders to complete a program selected by the registrar of motor vehicles that “encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving.”
Another key difference in the bills is how police officers would track and collect demographic data when they pull drivers over. The data is mainly collected to uncover any bias or discrimination. The House version would require police officers to track only stops that end in a citation issued to a driver. The Senate version calls for tracking of all stops regardless of outcome. Some observers say the question of who would analyze the data is one of the issue holding up the conference committee.
“Every day hands-free legislation is further delayed puts us all at risk, said Rich Levitan, CEO of TextLess Live More, the chief organization advocating for the bill. “Given the distracted driving epidemic on our roads, we fear it’s only a matter of time before another life is lost in the commonwealth. It is beyond time for Chairs Boncore and Straus to resolve final language issues and get this legislation on Gov. Baker’s desk this month. Further delay is unconscionable.”
Beacon Hill Roll Call asked all six members of the conference committee, the Senate president, the House speaker and a few other legislators to comment on the delay and explain the reason for it. Only three of them answered. And none offered any new information or insight.
“This bill continues to be a top priority of the Massachusetts State Senate, and I am hopeful that it will be completed soon,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland).
“The Senate’s commitment to safer roadways, for motorists and pedestrians alike, is steadfast,” said conference committee member Boncore. “The Senate has passed this bill in previous sessions, and I look forward to continue collaborating with my House colleagues to ensure it becomes law.”
“I’ve been filing this bill since 2004 and it is difficult to come to grips with the number of lives we could have saved if we had acted with decisive action from the start,” said Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), the chief proponent of the bill in the Senate. “During that time we’ve built the consensus that driving while distracted is dangerous, it is not a harmless habit that we should tolerate. My bill passed in the Senate the previous two sessions only to die in the House and I’m very disappointed that an agreement has not been reached this session. The sooner we pass this legislation the sooner we begin to prevent the death, injury and damage that distracted driving causes.”
Supporters of the bill say it 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.
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) when the House debated the bill in May. “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.” Durant is one of the two members of the House who voted against the measure.
Here is how local legislators voted on the bill. (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
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
GENDER X (H 3664) – The State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee held a hearing on a proposal that would allow Bay Staters to choose the gender-neutral designation “X” in lieu of “male” or “female” on state identifying documents including birth certificates, marriage licenses, driver’s licenses, learner’s permit, identification cards and liquor purchase identification cards. The Senate approved a similar proposal in April. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow a gender-neutral option on driver’s licenses.
“Being non-binary is a real and valid gender identity,” testified 25-year-old Ryley Copans who is planning to get married. “We want to be recognized as we are.”
“It’s bad practice and contrary to our security and our values to expect Massachusetts residents to pretend to be someone else or to lie about who they are when they seek state identification and licenses,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mindy Domb (D-Amherst). “Forcing individuals to choose from two options, when we know that for some it will not represent who they are, sanctions dishonesty, promotes stigma and keeps our neighbors invisible. When we take away the opportunity to be our authentic selves, we take away our humanity.”
“If you look at your Massachusetts driver’s license, it lists ‘sex,’ not ‘gender,’” said Massachusetts Family Institute President Andrew Beckwith. “The concept of ‘gender identity’ is based on internal feelings, but sex is binary (male or female) and grounded in biology. And we believe that a state ID should reflect that objective fact.”
“Many Massachusetts residents who do not identify as exclusively male or female are currently forced to carry documents that do not accurately reflect their identity,” said Chris Erchull, a staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). “As residents in more and more states are obtaining identification documents with a gender-neutral “X” marker, it is imperative that the Massachusetts House votes to pass this legislation now, not only because Massachusetts should be a leader in LGBTQ equality, but also to eliminate barriers for people who wish to relocate here from other states.”
The Catholic Action League called the proposed law “a deranged idea, recklessly embraced without regard for societal harm or unpredictable consequences.” Catholic Action League Executive Director C. J. Doyle testified, “Science, reason, common sense, natural law and millennia of human experience all tell us that there are only two biological sexes. The very concept of gender identity is artificial, subjective and potentially open-ended.”
PAID FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE TAX – Beginning in January of 2021, most workers in Massachusetts will be eligible to get up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. The program will be funded by taxes paid by employees, employers and the self-employed beginning October 1. The 0.63 percent payroll tax was supposed to be effective July 1 to fund the estimated $1 billion paid family and medical leave program that was signed into law last year. Business and advocacy groups raised concerns about their ability to prepare for the for the new tax by July 1 and the Legislature moved the date to October 1.
The Paid Family and Medical Leave Program is overseen by the Department of Family and Medical Leave. According to the department’s website, the program “provides temporary income replacement to eligible workers who are welcoming a new child into their family, are struck by a serious illness or injury, need to take care of an ill or ailing relative and for certain military considerations.”
The Department of Revenue advises you to get more information on this new tax if you are a business with at least one Massachusetts employee; a business that retains independent contractors; an employee or contractor in Massachusetts; or a sole proprietor or member of an LLC and live in Massachusetts. For more information, go to https://www.mass.gov/orgs/department-of-family-and-medical-leave
REPEAL “ESTATE/DEATH” TAX (S 1731) – Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth) has filed a proposal that would repeal Massachusetts’ estate tax, also known as the death tax — a tax on the value of a decedent’s estate before distribution to any beneficiary. Most Republicans are against the tax and coined the name death tax to imply that the government taxes you even after you die. Most Democrats support the tax and call it an estate tax to imply that this tax is only paid by the wealthy.
The first $1 million is exempt from this tax and the tax on anything over $1 million is a graduated one that according to the Department of Revenue’s website ranges from .8 percent to 16 percent.
Repeal supporters said this regressive tax is unfair and noted that Massachusetts is losing many residents, who move to Florida and other states where this tax does not exist.
Repeal opponents said the tax is a fair one and argued the state cannot afford the revenue loss.
“Massachusetts is one of only 14 states that have adopted an estate tax on top of the federal estate tax,” O’Connor said. “While the threshold for an individual at the federal level is $11.4 million, in Massachusetts it is just $1 million. With real estate assessment values rapidly increasing in the commonwealth, more and more families are being affected by this. I don’t want families that have lived here for decades to have to consider moving elsewhere because of an outdated tax law.”
“I’m against repeal because it would make our tax system less progressive and less adequate,” said Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville). “The estate tax is one of our most progressive: only the top 2 to 3 percent of estates, those with over $1 million in assets after deductions, and not including those where the spouse inherits, pay the estate tax, and it’s a graduated tax. Estates of $1 million pay 0.8 percent. We can’t afford to lose the $350 million to $450 million a year the estate tax brings in. We need to repair and improve our transportation, to give all our children an adequate education, and to pay enough to attract and keep child care and elder care workers into important and fast-growing jobs.”
“As one of only a dozen states in the nation still imposing an estate tax on the heirs of its deceased citizens, not even indexed for inflation since it was imposed in 2001, only Massachusetts and Oregon trigger its imposition at just $1 million of lifetime assets,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, which provided testimony to the committee. “Only Massachusetts reaches back and taxes on the first cent when that million dollar threshold is crossed. Long ago Benjamin Franklin noted, ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,'” Ford added. “The Massachusetts Legislature in its insatiable pursuit of revenue, pushes that certainty to the limits, and beyond.”
DEFAULT ON STUDENT LOANS (H 3620) – A bill before the Judiciary Committee would repeal a current law passed in 1990, which created professional licensure consequences for anyone who defaults on their student loan. Under existing law, the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority and the American Student Assistance can request that a borrower’s state-issued professional or occupational certificate, registration, or license be suspended, revoked or cancelled for default on educational loans made or administered by either group.
The bill’s sponsor Rep. Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster) did not respond to repeated requests by Beacon Hill Roll Call to comment on her bill.
“Building a better T means meeting our customers’ needs, whether it’s through the five-year, $8 billion Capital Investment Plan, or customer-facing changes like the $10 weekend fare. We are pleased by the demand for the weekend fare and look forward to serving these customers on the weekend.”
—MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak announcing the sale of 584,000 new weekend tickets since its introduction in May 2018. This special fare allows for unlimited travel across all lines and zones for an entire weekend on a single $10 ticket.
“Many people already know the environmental benefits green buildings bring to our communities and our world, but few understand the economic benefits of this investment. Zero energy buildings can be constructed or retrofitted for minimal upfront costs, if any, and owners can start making money off of their investment sooner than they expect. Our hope is that this report demonstrates that owning, operating, and living in a zero-energy building is within reach for many of us here in Massachusetts.”
—Meredith Elbaum, Executive Director of U.S. Green Building Council Massachusetts Chapter on its new report that she says dispels the myth that zero energy buildings are too expensive.
“I couldn’t, looking around in this place, I really couldn’t figure out where you would ever put a whiteboard. And I’ve got stacks of stuff that, you know, only I really understand what’s in it or what it means. This is not a room where stacks of stuff would work.”
—Gov. Charlie Baker telling WGBH Radio that he does not work day-to-day in the traditional governor’s office but rather out of a less formal office in the governor’s suite. Baker does use the official governor’s office for things like bill signings, formal meetings and photo ops.
“I was shocked to find out that there is a closed Twitter group for people who use your carpool lane where they tweet at each other and say, ‘There’s no cops, it’s OK for single cars to use it.’ And we think as much as 80 or 90 percent of the traffic is actually just individual people in cars and it’s not functioning as a carpool lane.”
— Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack speaking to municipal officials at a Local Government Advisory Commission meeting.
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 September 9-13, the House met for a total of 26 minutes while the Senate met for a total of one hour and 25 minutes.
Mon. Sept. 9 House 11:02 a.m. to 11:19 a.m.
Senate 11:01 a.m. to 11:18 a.m.
Tues. Sept. 10 No House session
No Senate session.
Wed. Sept. 11 No House session
No Senate session
Thurs. Sept. 12 House 11:02 a.m. to 11:11 a.m.
Senate 11:10 a.m. to 12:18 p.m.
Fri. Sept. 13 No House session
No Senate session
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at email@example.com