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THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ votes on two roll calls from the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 4. There were no roll calls in the House last week.

The House and Senate officially convened the 2008 legislative session. Much of the activity was ceremonial but the Senate wasted no time in also getting down to some business.

Both Senate roll calls are on proposed amendments to a bill, approved by the Senate on a voice vote without a roll call, making Massachusetts the 11th state to become a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The pact is aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The Bay State joins Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in capping the total carbon dioxide emissions from each state’s electric power generators from 2009 through 2014 and then requiring a 2.5 percent reduction each year over the next four years.

The measure requires power plants to buy credits that would allow them to emit carbon dioxide. Participating states would hold a regional auction at which the plants could buy credits. Plants that emit carbon dioxide without the appropriate credits would be fined. Plants that produce less carbon dioxide than expected are allowed to sell their leftover credits to dirtier plants that exhaust their credits. Revenue generated from the sale of credits could be used for energy conservation and efficiency projects, mitigation of any resulting electricity rate hikes and to offset any property tax revenue losses suffered by cities and towns in which plants are located. Communities that host these plants could see property tax losses because property taxes are partially based on the profits of the plants. Gov. Patrick’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs would ultimately determine how the funds are spent.

Patrick had already used his executive authority to sign onto the pact a year ago. The bill codifies the state’s membership into state law and also establishes specific rules and regulations. Supporters said that making the membership a part of state law would prevent future governors from withdrawing from the pact. They noted that the pact would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Opponents said that the move would raise energy costs that would then be passed along to consumers and also put Massachusetts power plants at a competitive disadvantage. Former governor Romney considered joining the pact. He later expressed concern that the move would increase energy costs and opted not to join.

Give 25 percent of funds to cities and towns (S 2456)

Senate 7-25, rejected a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative amendment mandating that 25 percent of the proceeds from the auction of the gas emissions credits be given as local aid to cities and towns. The bill, without the amendment, gives the authority solely to the Patrick administration to determine how the funds are distributed. Amendment supporters said that power companies would be passing their increased costs of purchasing the credits along to cities and towns that purchase electricity from them. They noted that the 25 percent guarantee would be a form of additional local aid that would reimburse struggling communities for these increased costs. Amendment opponents said that the amendment allows the Legislature to micro-manage these funds and noted that it is best left up to the Patrick administration to decide where the funds would be best spent. They noted that the administration would still have the option to earmark some of these funds for cities and towns. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment requiring that 25 percent of the auction proceeds be given as local aid to cities and towns. A “no” vote is against the requirement.)

Sen. Antonioni, Yes; Sen. Panagiotakos, No; Sen. Resor, No.

$150 million cap (S 2456)

Senate 5-27, rejected an amendment temporarily suspending the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative if the power companies’ cost of purchasing the emissions credits exceeds $150 million per year. The state would rejoin the pact when the costs are no longer projected to exceed the $150 million ceiling. Amendment supporters said that the cost of purchasing the emission credits is unknown and could be steep. They argued that the power companies would be passing along the increased costs to consumers and argued that the $150 million cap would protect consumers and ensure a balance between helping the environment and protecting consumers from excessive price hikes. Amendment opponents said that the proposed $150 million cap is premature. They argued that the Legislature should monitor the costs and only consider imposing a cap if the costs begin to spiral out of control. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment temporarily suspending the state’s participation in the pact if the power companies’ cost of purchasing the emissions credits exceeds $150 million per year. A “no” vote is against the cap).

Sen. Antonioni, No; Sen. Panagiotakos, No; Sen. Resor, No.

ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL

Senate sessions now on the Internet — The Senate last week joined the House and began broadcasting its formal sessions on the Legislature’s Web site. The broadcasts include closed captioning for the hearing impaired. The House has already been broadcasting its sessions since January 2007. Both branches’ sessions can be accessed at www.masslegislature.tv.

Reduce cigarette fires — A new law requiring that cigarettes sold in Massachusetts be designed to self-extinguish if left unattended took effect at the beginning of the year. Supporters say that smoking materials are the leading cause of fatal fires in the nation. They noted that each year across the nation, 1,000 people are killed and 300 critically injured as a result of cigarette-induced fires. The measure was approved in July 2006 by the Legislature and signed by former governor Romney. It gave tobacco companies 17 months to comply with the new law.

Automatic tax relief is here — Sufficient economic growth under the terms of a 2002 law will result in a tax cut for millions of Bay State taxpayers in 2008. The cut will come from a rise in personal income tax exemptions and will save individual taxpayers $14.57 and joint filers $29.15. The 2008 exemptions will rise from $4,125 to $4,400 for individual filers and from $8,250 to $8,800 for joint filers.

The increased exemptions do not need the approval of the Legislature. They are part of a system devised by the Legislature when it approved a $1 billion tax hike package in 2002. The package reduced personal exemptions from $4,400 to $3,300 for single filers and from $8,800 to $6,600 for joint filers. A “triggering” provision provided that the single personal exemption would be raised by $275 and the joint personal exemption by $550 per year for each year of economic growth above 2.5 percent until those exemptions return to $4,400 and $8,800 respectively. It took four years of these reductions, beginning in 2005, and now the exemptions are at the level that they were at prior to the 2002 tax hike.

The tax hike package also set the long-term capital gains tax at 5.3 percent and froze the income tax rate at its current rate of 5.3 percent instead of allowing it to drop to 5 percent in January 2003 — a reduction that was approved by voters in 2000. The 2002 law also provides that now that the personal exemptions are fully restored, the income tax and capital gains tax will both be reduced by one-half of one percent each year that the state’s economic growth is at least 2.5 percent until each tax is reduced to 5 percent. If 2008 economic growth meets the threshold, both taxes would be reduced from 5.3 percent to 5.25 percent in 2009. If the growth continues each year after that, both taxes could be reduced to 5 percent by 2014.

Child abuse and neglect (H 4352) — The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Patrick legislation bringing Massachusetts into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The bill allows the Department of Social Services (DSS) to keep information on unsubstantiated reports of child abuse and neglect to assist in future risk and safety assessments of children and families. It also allows DSS to release this information to another state’s child welfare agency to assist that state in determining whether to approve a prospective foster or adoptive parent. Supporters said that the bill would help in the war against child abuse and neglect and noted that Massachusetts would face a loss of federal funds for child welfare if the law is not approved.

Minimum wage hike — The state’s minimum wage increased from $7.50 per hour to $8 per hour effective Jan. 1. The Legislature in 2006 approved a bill raising the hourly wage from $6.75 to $7.50 beginning in 2007 and then to $8 in 2008. The hike was vetoed by former governor Romney. The Legislature easily overrode the veto.

Wine auctions (S 2405) — The House and Senate approved and sent to Gov. Patrick a bill extending until 2013 the current law allowing charitable groups to obtain a one-day license for wine auctions and tastings. The law would have expired on Dec. 31 if this bill was not passed. Supporters said that nonprofit groups depend on these events to raise funds.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

“We heard Secretary Galvin and these other eggheads from these analytical schools talk about the fact we may lose a congressman. We’re losing a congressman, Madame President, because our population growth is not there any longer.” — Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) in a speech on the Senate floor referring to Secretary of State William Galvin’s recent comments that the state may lose a congressional seat following the 2010 census.

“Most marijuana users, except for their use of marijuana, are otherwise law-abiding, productive, responsible citizens. It is statistically probable that many of you tried marijuana in the past. We did.” — Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition founder Steven Epstein in November, addressing legislators on the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee. He was testifying in favor of a proposed law that would replace the criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana with a new system of civil penalties enforced by issuing citations. The coalition included a copy of its testimony last week in a letter urging Gov. Patrick to support the legislation.

HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? During the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 4, the House met for a total of three hours and 33 minutes while the Senate met for a total of three hours and 40 minutes.

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com.

Copyright © 2008 Beacon Hill Roll Call. All rights reserved.

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