By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE: There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week. Both branches were busy as the 2012 session neared its end. The House and Senate, with only a handful of legislators in attendance, approved dozens of bills. Many were local measures affecting only one city or town but several were important pieces of legislation that if signed into law will have an effect statewide.
REDUCE FREE 411 CALLS (H 4228) -- The House approved and sent to the Senate a bill reducing from ten per month to five per month the number of free directory assistance calls that phone companies must provide to each business and residential customer on their landline phones. The measure leaves intact the current law providing unlimited 411 calls for the disabled, seniors over 65 and state and local governments.
Supporters said that as more and more consumers move away from traditional landline phones to cell phones and Internet phones, it becomes harder for traditional phone companies to pay for the existing infrastructure, including free 411 calls. They noted that even with the reduction to five, Massachusetts will still be requiring companies to provide one of the highest number of free directory assistance calls of any state in the nation.
SABBATICALS (H 4295) -- The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Patrick a bill reducing from seven years to six years the period of time a faculty member must work at a state university before being eligible for a sabbatical.
Supporters said this would make faculty sabbatical qualifications at state universities consistent with those used by private colleges.
NEW SYMBOL AND FEWER NUMBERS AND LETTERS ON LICENSE PLATES (H 4369) -- The House and Senate have approved slightly different versions of legislation that would require all Massachusetts license plates to feature a symbol, like a star, diamond or heart, along with numbers and letters. This system would replace the current system, which has six random letters and numbers.
Supporters said the new plates would make it easier for adults and children to remember license plate registrations and report them to law enforcement officials to track down vehicles used in child kidnappings and other crimes. They cited studies showing both children and adults have trouble recalling the current plates that have six letters. Current specialty, low number or vanity plates would be exempt from the new requirement because they are already easily recognizable.
VIRTUAL SCHOOLS (S 2467) -- The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Patrick a bill regulating "virtual schools" in Massachusetts. Virtual schools allow students to "attend" an online-only public school. All teaching and assignments are done online through a variety of communication and study methods including e-mail, web conferencing, Skype, Facebook, texting and telephone. These virtual schools are aimed at creating an alternative education option with an individualized approach for students in unique situations including those who are physical disabled, seriously ill, gifted and talented or bullied. Massachusetts currently has only one virtual school, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in Greenfield. It has 450 students and includes kindergarten through eighth grade.
Students in these schools would be required to meet the same performance standards and testing requirements as those in other public schools. Other provisions cap the per-pupil tuition paid by a school district to send a student to a virtual school at $5,000, limits to ten the number of these schools that may operate at any one time and caps the total number of virtual school students at 2 percent of the state's public school population, or approximately 19,000 students.
MAKE ANTIFREEZE TASTE BITTER (S 88) -- The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Patrick a proposal expanding the current law requiring that any antifreeze in small retail containers that contains sweet-tasting ethylene glycol also include denatonium benzoate, a substance that makes the antifreeze taste bitter. The bill would expand the requirement to include the large 55-gallon drums that service stations use when servicing a vehicle.
Supporters said the sweet taste of antifreeze is a major reason for its fatal ingestion by young children, pets and wildlife. They noted that sweet-tasting antifreeze often leaks from consumers' cars after they get the fluid changed at a service station.
FLU SHOTS (H 3948) -- The House and Senate approved a bill requiring that in August and September all public schools and early education providers distribute to parents information about the benefits of a flu shot for children aged six to 18. This information would include the causes and symptoms of the disease, how it is spread, how to obtain additional information and the effectiveness and risks of the shots. Only final approval is needed in each branch prior to the measure going to the governor.
STUDENTS AND EPINEPHRINE (H 3959) -- The House and Senate approved a bill allowing students with life-threatening allergies to possess and self-administer epinephrine on school grounds. The measure would add epinephrine to the current list of medicines allowed to be carried and self-administered by students including prescription inhalers for asthma sufferers, enzyme supplements for students with cystic fibrosis and insulin for diabetics. Only final Senate approval is needed before the bill goes to the governor.
NATIONAL BACKGROUND CHECK ON TEACHERS (H 4307) -- The House approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would require national fingerprint-based background checks be part of a background check on all applicants for teaching positions and any other public or private school jobs who have direct contact with children. The measure would also apply to family child care, center-based child care and after-school programs. Currently the state is only required to conduct a statewide background check that covers crimes committed in Massachusetts. The measure would also require current teachers and other employees to be fingerprinted prior to the 2016-2017 school year.
INCREASE POWER OF TREE WARDENS (H 1839) -- The House gave initial approval to a measure expanding the powers of local tree wardens to enforce state and local laws prohibiting cutting or otherwise damaging public trees. A key provision raises the fines that can be imposed for damaging or destroying trees. Another provision establishes new education requirements a potential tree warden is required to fulfill prior to being appointed.
ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL
"THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW"- Friday, January 18 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for legislation to be filed for consideration during the 2013-2014 legislative session. Many late-filed bills are admitted to the Legislature following the deadline but vast majority of proposals are filed by January 18.
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that give citizens the "right of free petition"-- the power to propose their own legislation. A citizen's proposal must be filed in conjunction with his or her representative or senator or any other representative or senator. Sometimes a legislator will support the legislation and sponsor it along with the constituent. Other times, a legislator might disagree with the bill but will file it anyway as a courtesy. In those cases, the bill is listed as being filed "by request"-- indicating that he or she is doing so at the request of the constituent and does not necessarily support it. Citizens that are interested in filing legislation should contact their own or any other representative or senator.
Perhaps one of the most famous bills filed "by request" goes all the way back to 1969 when a constituent opposed to the Vietnam War asked Newton Democratic Rep. James Shea to file a bill prohibiting Massachusetts citizens from being forced to fight in an "undeclared war." The bill challenged the constitutionality of sending Bay State men to fight without a Congressional declaration of war. It was approved by the House and Senate and signed by then-Gov. Francis Sargent. The new law made national headlines.
To comply with the new law, Massachusetts initially filed a complaint in the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court declined to hear the case, which was later refiled in the U. S. District Court federal court and dismissed -- rejecting the state's argument that President Richard Nixon had usurped the war-making powers of Congress. In a tragic footnote, Rep. Shea committed suicide in the fall of the year the legislation passed.
Special "Check Your Website" edition.
On December 26, Beacon Hill Roll Call looked at the home pages of the non-state-funded, private campaign websites of the state's five constitutional officers. Treasurer Steve Grossman's site was the only one that seemed up to date. The others featured very old stories. The oldest was on Attorney General Martha Coakley's website featuring a June 11, 2011 story under the heading "Latest News."
Undated: "Please share a story of how you or someone you know has made a difference in their community or our country."
From Gov. Deval Patrick's website (www.devalpatrick.com ) soliciting stories for his book "Faith in the Dream," which was released on May 8, 2012.
Undated: "Celebrate Tim Murray's 15 Years of Public Service. December 13 at 6 p.m. Beechwood Hotel, 363 Plantation Street., Worcester. Suggested Contributions: $125, $250, $500."
From Lt. Governor Timothy Murray's website (www.timmurray.org )
Sept. 5, 2011: "Galvin Warns of Radicalized Debate in GOP (Presidential) Primary."
From Secretary of State William Galvin's website (www.billgalvin.org ) under the headline "Latest News."
June 11, 2011: "The Berkshire County Consumer Advocates Inc. office will close on July 1, (2011) but it will continue under the umbrella of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority."
From Attorney General Martha Coakley's website (www.marthacoakley.com ) under the headline "Latest News."
Dec. 26, 2012: "Officials wise to review state pension fund's gun investments. Boston Globe editorial, December 26, 2012."
From Treasurer Steve Grossman's website (www.stevegrossman.com ). His was the only site that seemed up-to-date.
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 Dec. 24-29, the House met for a total of eight hours and 31 minutes while the Senate met for a total of five hours and 52 minutes.
Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.