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House 3-147 rejected a bill that would require churches, synagogues and other nonprofit religious organizations to file an annual financial report with the attorney general’s office. The Senate in November approved a similar bill by a 33-4 vote.

Current law exempts religious organizations from this requirement but mandates that some 30,000 other nonsecular, nonprofit organizations file the report. The proposal also requires all secular and nonsecular organizations to disclose their real estate assets. Current law does not require any of these organizations to list real estate holdings.

Supporters said that these disclosures would inform donors how their money is spent and remove the shroud of secrecy around religious organizations. They argued that this lack of accountability aided the Catholic Church in covering up the sexual abuse of children by allowing it to secretly sell property and use the funds as hush money to pay off victims of sexual abuse. Some noted that the state makes these religious organizations tax exempt and in return should receive financial information about them.

Opponents said that the bill is clearly an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. They argued that the proposal is a misguided and unnecessary anti-Catholic measure aimed solely at the Catholic Church. Some noted that the attorney general currently has the authority to investigate any financial abuses by these religious organizations.

Sen. Robert Antonioni –Yes; Sen. Steven Panagiotakos — Yes; Sen. Pamela Resor — Yes; Rep. James Eldridge — No; Rep. Robert Hargraves — No.

Ask Supreme Judicial Court for Opinion (S 1074)

House 44-107 rejected a motion to ask the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) whether the religious financial disclosure bill is constitutional.

Supporters of asking for an opinion said that there seems to be sufficient doubt about the constitutionality of the measure. They argued that it is the obligation of the House to seek the court’s opinion prior to taking action.

Some opponents of asking for an opinion said that the House should not go running to the court each time that someone raises doubts about legislation. Others said that the move is a delaying tactic and urged the House to have the courage to vote on the bill itself.

Rep. James Eldridge — No; Rep. Robert Hargraves — No.

Also up on Beacon Hill

Romney’s budget (H 1): Gov. Mitt Romney fired the first shot last week in the long battle over the state budget for fiscal year 2007 that begins on July 1. Romney proposed a $25.19 billion budget — a 5.3 percent increase over last year’s spending package. He said that the spending increase would be paid for by growth in tax revenues.

Highlights of the spending plan include reducing the state’s income tax from 5.3 to 5 percent over a two-year period; a $164 million increase in Chapter 70 school aid to local communities along with major changes in the formula for distributing some of the funds and a $197.9 million hike in other categories of local aid.

Ban loud noise in cars (H 1995): The House rejected a bill prohibiting drivers from operating a radio or any sound amplification system that can be heard outside their vehicle from a distance of more than 50 feet.

Mass Turnpike noise (H 2066): The House rejected legislation requiring the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to establish and implement by Jan. 1, 2007 a plan for noise abatement in residential and recreational areas adjacent to the turnpike.

Taj Mahal and Ben Franklin (S 2262): The Senate approved and sent to the House a bill designating legendary musician Taj Mahal as the state’s official blues artist. The two-time Grammy winner was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks and grew up in Springfield. The House admitted a late-filed measure designating Ben Franklin as the state’s official inventor.

Increase veterans’ benefits: The Veterans Affairs Committee and the Revenue Committee endorsed legislation increasing property tax relief for veterans. The measure raises from $250 to $400 the basic property tax abatement for qualified veterans. It also hikes the abatement from $425 to $750 for partially disabled veterans and from $950 to $1500 for those who are totally disabled. Another provision allows communities to temporarily suspend the property tax of an active duty member of the National Guard or Reserves and waive all interest and penalties if the tax is paid within six months of the soldier’s return to inactive duty.

Other consumer bills: Other bills heard by the Consumer Protection Committee include imposing strict regulations on advertisements and solicitations for time-shares (H 3192); requiring stores that advertise “after rebate prices” to provide the rebate at the time of the sale (H 4492); giving civil immunity to employers who “in good faith” disclose information about a former employee’s job performance to a prospective employer (H 3729); requiring all pawnshop owners to enter into a statewide database any item purchased by the shop and to scan into the database a driver’s license or other photo ID card of anyone who attempts to sell an item to the shop (H 4441).

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com. Copyright © 2006 Beacon Hill Roll Call. All Rights Reserved.