Staff Writer

TOWNSEND -- Twenty-five percent of the minority party of the Great and General Court convened another session of a Hardship Listening Tour in North Middlesex Regional High School Monday night as part of a statewide Republican outreach to gather voter concerns.

Reps. Elizabeth Poirier (14th Bristol District), Brad Jones (20th Middlesex), Robert Hargraves (1st Middlesex) and F. Jay Barrows (1st Bristol) received a litany of complaints ranging from gasoline taxes to pension and insurance reform.

In turn, they encouraged activism from voters in contacting the Governor and House speaker, emphasizing the need for involvement to help erase the 160-to-16 Democratic-Republican split in the House and 40-to-5 imbalance in the Senate.

"Quite frankly, we 16 are very well informed about issues, and the minority leadership and staff is adept at finding holes (in legislation)," Poirier said. "A lot of the majority have no idea why things are voted on (any particular) day, and hopefully the press will pick that up."

As a group, the legislators called for downsizing government waste before clamoring for more taxes.

The proposed microchip in vehicle inspection stickers drew objection from the audience.

"Those behind the chip were against the Patriot Act," Hargraves said, "It's a dichotomy. I don't think it will happen."

Barrows sees "a complete disconnect with bureaucracy,' and said the "geniuses" behind the chip idea don't realize insurance cost is based on mileage driven.


Asked how minority representatives, particularly from districts far removed from Boston, are treated, Jones said, "The jury is still out" and spoke about 1 p.m. starts of business and the difficulty getting copies of bills before they are voted. "The public needs to be mindful. People don't know the rules or how a bill becomes law," he said. "I'm not ready to say the new boss (House Speaker Robert DeLeo) is better than the old."

Scott Butcher, of Pepperell, detailed some of the "tragic cuts" his town is facing. "The arrogance we see from Beacon Hill regarding living beyond our means and the waste is unbelievable," he said, drawing agreement.

Barrows said, "The state has done a better job at draining money than you."

Jones agreed, given the $500 to $600 million left in state reserves from the $2.8 billion in the bank when Gov. Mitt Romney left office.

Service station/convenience store owner Gary Archer, of Ayer, said that if the 60.9 percent increase in gas taxes are enacted, they would be the highest in the United States. Meanwhile, gas prices in neighboring New Hampshire would be 22 cents less.

"This encourages leaving Massachusetts," he said.

Poirier agreed, describing the gas tax as a "stimulus for bordering states."

A Lunenburg resident said taxing gasoline strikes at suburban and rural residents, not urbanites who don't drive much, making them inherently unfair. Urban dwellers use the MBTA but the suburbanites subsidize it, he said.

The minority party's opinion is that every small savings eventually adds up to considerable effect, the legislators said.

"A lot of people in there don't know what the hell they're talking about," Hargraves said. "They don't know people will go across the border (to buy gas and cigarettes). You'll see the minority present but (the other) seats are empty."

A small example of failure to contain cost, Barrows said, is the Senate's umbrella transportation agency plan that fails to contain health care language. It was sold as a one-cent increase yet the MBTA has an $800 million capital debt.

"The Governor said we should roll into a group insurance plan like the state plan, but the way it's written, 70 percent of unions need to agree," he said.

The Governor's proposed Serve Program where state workers volunteer their services one day per month in a public entity is "commendable," Poirier said, except it means they'll be replaced with "time-and-a-half workers" on those days.

"One worker said it's a good plan because she can get her job done in four days then go volunteer. I say if the job can be done in four days, why pay for the fifth?" Poirier said.

Jones pointed to an estimated $30 million wasted per year when health care medication changes are ordered and the unused old medications thrown away. 

Then too, he said, the 2.5 cent portion of the 23.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax that's supposed to go into an underground storage fund generates about $80 million each year yet only $30 million is spent for its intended purpose.

Ayer Selectman Cornelius Sullivan said health insurance costs are strangling towns. If Ayer could participate in the same insurance plan as legislators, which allows deductibles to be changed without union agreement, Ayer could save $100,000.

Jones and Poirier said it is a universal problem and legislation has been filed. Hargraves noted that union pressure is "extreme." Barrows said the Governor's first proposal to require 70 percent union agreement went nowhere. That was changed to 50 percent and "no one touched it."

"We also need to keep the promises we made (during more generous times) and people stayed on," Barrows continued. "Going forward maybe if you go to work for the MBTA you can't retire at 42. The unions are at the (talking) table but none of us are (allowed)."

Legislative pension reform is on a "front burner," Hargraves said. It's true that if a legislator serves for one day, he or she gets a full year of pension, and pensioners receive 80 percent of the value of their plan even if they get another job.

"That's killing us," he said.

As is the requirement for prevailing wages with use of grant monies, Barrow said.

"Pension reform is clearly the low-hanging fruit of the type we should go after," Jones said.

The four Republicans agree that change in union rules is very necessary for economic recovery. In that regard, a collapse of General Motors could lead to constructive rebuilding, they feel. At the same time, the "opposition" is heavily aligned with unions.

Asked how citizens can be assured incoming federal stimulus dollars will be spent wisely by honest people, Poirier said, "One of my colleagues would spend it through another program (but) we haven't seen the end of the story."

Jones said Jeff Simon is the "stimulus czar" and there is an oversight committee but "it's very confusing. There is concern about government spillage. Let us know when you see something you think is wrong."

The legislators cautioned recipients of stimulus money to be very careful in using it to establish new programs because it is a two-year shot, then it ends.

"There are so many buckets of money we're all trying to get a handle on it," Jones said. "For each answer there are two questions. The legislature has very little control over what goes through the Governor's office. It's very much a work-in-progress. The bill wasn't in print when it was passed."

Jones said that with 16 votes needed for a roll call, all 16 minority party representatives must show up on the floor whenever voting is to be done.

"There is no room for error. The opposition loves to make caucus decisions behind the scenes and do as little as possible in public without roll calls," he said.

Stumping for more Republicans, Jones said, "It will take time. Any increase in number carries a big message. One party government does not produce results either way. The GOP was that and it paid a big price. We need to be more confrontational and aggressive. We don't have to be anti-government, we need to be for smarter government."

Poirier agreed. "An 80-80 split would be fabulous but we'd be thrilled to have 20 next election," she said.

"Good government is everyone's responsibility. Kids need to see their parents vote. We have apathy. We need good candidates, people who are unafraid to put their neck on the line. I urge any of you with desire and skills to please come forward," she said.

""It's better for more of us if there were more of us. Don't put people back in office just because they are already there," Poirier said.