By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week. Beacon Hill Roll Call has obtained the 2015 official list from the state treasurer's office of the "per diem" travel, meals and lodging reimbursements collected by the Legislature's 39 state senators from January 1, 2015 through Sept. 1, 2015. The list reveals that senators collected a total of $27,751.
Under state law, per diems are paid by the state to senators "for each day for travel from his place of residence to the Statehouse and return therefrom, while in the performance of his official duties, upon certification to the state treasurer that he was present at the Statehouse." These reimbursements are given to senators above and beyond their regular salaries.
The amount of the per diem varies and is based on the city or town in which a senator resides and its distance from the Statehouse. The Legislature in 2000 approved a law doubling these per diems to the current amounts. The payments range from $10 per day for senators who reside in the Greater Boston area to $90 per day for some Western Massachusetts lawmakers and $100 per day for those in Nantucket. Senators who are from areas that are a long distance from Boston's Statehouse most often collect the highest total of annual per diems.
Some supporters of the per diems say the system is fair and note the rising costs of travel, food and lodging. They argue many legislators spend a lot of money on travel to Boston and some spend the night in Boston following late sessions.
Some opponents argue most private sector and state workers are not paid additional money for commuting. They say the very idea of paying any per diem is outrageous when thousands of workers have lost their jobs and homes and funding for important programs has been cut. Others say the per diem is especially inappropriate given the 3-cent-per-gallon hike in the state's gas tax that the Legislature approved in July 2013.
The 2015 statistics indicate that 12 of the state's 39 senators have received reimbursements ranging from $390 to $6,390, while 27 senators have so far chosen not to apply for any money. State law does not establish a deadline that senators must meet in order to collect the per diems.
The senator who received the most per diem money in 2015 is Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) who received $6,390.
The other four senators who received the most are Sens. Donald Humason (R-Westfield), $3,564; Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), $2,880; Daniel Wolf (D-Harwich), $2,640; and James Welch (D-Springfield), $2,574.
SENATORS' 2015 PER DIEMS
The dollar figure next to the senator's name represents the total amount of per diem money the state paid him or her in 2015. The number in parentheses represents the number of days the senator certified he or she was at the Statehouse during that same period. Senators who have not requested any per diems have "0 days" listed. That is not meant to imply that these senators didn't attend any sessions but rather that they chose not to request any per diems.
Sen. Eileen Donoghue, $0 (0 days); Sen. James Eldridge, $0 (0 days); Sen. Jennifer Flanagan $1,116 (31 days)
ALSO ON BEACON HILL
ANOTHER STEP FOR POSSIBLE 2016 BALLOT QUESTIONS -- Attorney General Maura Healey certified 22 possible ballot questions for the November 2016 election as meeting constitutional and legal requirements. A total of 20 proposed laws and two constitutional amendments passed muster. The next step is for supporters to gather 64,750 voter signatures by December 2, 2015. The proposal would then be sent to the Legislature and if not approved by May 3, 2016, proponents must gather another 10,792 signatures by July 6, 2016, in order for the question to appear on the 2016 ballot.
Proposals for laws include legalizing, licensing, regulating and taxing marijuana and allowing adults over 21 to grow it for their personal use and the use by others over 21; allowing the state to open up to 12 new Charter Schools annually; allowing a second slot gambling parlor with 1,250 slot machines; exempting the sale of cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco from the state's sales tax because they are already subject to an excise tax; and requiring fast food restaurants and retail stores to pay employees one to four hours of additional pay if the company changes a worker's schedule within two weeks of the shift.
Several proposed laws were ruled invalid for a variety of reasons. These included prohibiting any state, local or government entities from working with any Jewish, Armenian or Ukrainian Holocaust Denial Groups, and legalizing the use of fireworks. A proposal requiring companies to give female employees eight weeks of maternity leave, including two of those weeks with pay, was withdrawn by its sponsors.
The procedure for getting proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot is different than the one for getting a proposed law on the ballot. Sponsors must still gather 64,750 voter signatures by December 2, 2015. The proposal then goes before the Legislature and goes on the 2018 ballot only if approved by 25 percent (50 members) of the 2015-2016 Legislature and the 2017-2018 Legislature.
The two proposed constitutional amendments would prohibit the public funding of abortions and impose an additional 4 percent income tax, in addition to the current 5.15 percent tax, on earnings of more than $1 million.
Several proposed amendments were declared as unconstitutional including one that declares that corporations are not people and do not have the same rights as individuals and that money is not free speech and may be regulated. That proposal was in response to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, which allows corporations to donate an unlimited amount of money to Super PACs that are formed to support or oppose candidates.
In the 2014 election, 33 proposals were submitted, with only four ultimately collecting sufficient signatures to make it to the ballot. Only two of those were approved by voters and are law today.
A complete list and summary of the petitions approved or rejected can be found online at www.mass.gov/ago/government-resources/initiatives-and-other-ballot-questions/current-petitions-filed.html
REGULATE UBER AND LYFT -- Four bills regulating controversial car sharing services like Uber and Lyft will be the only subject of a hearing by the Financial Services Committee in the Gardner Auditorium at the Statehouse at 11 a.m. on Sept. 15. The companies use a smartphone application to receive ride requests.
The proposals include giving the Department of Public Utilities the power to certify and regulate these services; requiring background, driving record and Sex Offender Registry checks and fingerprint samples on all drivers; and requiring that vehicles used by these companies be registered in Massachusetts. Representatives of Uber and Lyft companies will be at the hearing to defend these services. Opponents, led by the taxi industry, are pushing for either a complete ban of the services or subjecting these companies to the same regulations and standards that currently apply to taxis.
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP) PURCHASES (H 3419) -- The Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture will hold a public hearing on Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. at the Westport Grange (931 Main Rd Westport, MA 02790). One of the proposals on the agenda is a bill that would match and give any SNAP (formerly the Food Stamps Program) recipient the amount of money, up to $20 per week, which he or she spends at a farmers' market. The intent is for the recipient to use the money to purchase additional items at the farmers' market. The program will be paid for through a new state fund which will receive both private and public funding.
Supporters say this will provide a healthy food alternative to families that receive SNAP benefits while supporting the local economy by encouraging recipients to shop at their local farmer's market.
Opponents say it is not necessary to set up an entire new bureaucracy to increase funding to SNAP recipients and questioned whether the increase should even be made. They note that no one has presented how much this program will cost the taxpayers and say there is no system in place to ensure the money is spent at local farmers' markets.
AGRICULTURE REGULATIONS (H 712) -- Also on the same committee's agenda that day is a bill that would require that any local Board of Health regulations impacting agriculture be approved by the local Agricultural Commissions.
Supporters say inappropriate Board of Health regulations often act as a major impediment to the growth and sustainability of agriculture in Massachusetts. They argue that these boards have wide authority and often create untenable requirements.
"The Commonwealth has again let the citizens down and needs to get into the business of doing what we were supposed to do when this ballot question originally passed."
Gov. Charlie Baker on the state's delay in opening medical marijuana dispensaries. The ballot question was approved in 2012 but to date only one has opened.
"Nearly 80 percent of parents gave (the virtual school) TEC Connections Academy (TECCA) an 'A' or 'B' grade, whereas ... ratings ... show that traditional public schools received only 67 percent 'A' or 'B' grades from parents."
A statement from TECCA Massachusetts' newest statewide, tuition-free, virtual public school for students in grades K-12.
"Mortgage lenders filed 1,044 petitions to foreclose in July, a 49 percent increase over the 702 filed in July 2014."
From the Warren Group's recent report on the state's foreclosure crisis. The Boston-based Warren Group is the publisher of Banker & Tradesman and compiles New England real estate data.
"It is unnecessary and irresponsible for manufacturers to make recreational or toy imitation firearms which by sight cannot be differentiated from a real gun. The negligence of these manufacturers is putting lives at risk."
Rep. Dan Cullinane (D-Dorchester) on his proposed legislation to prohibit the sale of replica guns unless manufacturers produce them with non-removable orange markings visible from all sides.
"For too long, predatory for-profit schools, supported by taxpayer dollars, have enriched themselves while loading up students with unaffordable debt. Students deserve better. If a school breaks the law -- they must be held accountable. We want to help get these students the relief they deserve."
Attorney General Maura Healey calling on the U.S. Department of Education to help students in Massachusetts get rid of the unsustainable loan payments students incurred by attending now-defunct for-profit schools.
HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK'S SESSION? During the week of Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, the House met for a total of one hour and 29 minutes while the Senate met for a total of one hour and 22 minutes.