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THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ votes on 11 roll calls from the week of April 28-May 2. There were no important roll calls in the Senate last week. All House roll calls are from debate on the House version of an estimated $28.2 billion plus fiscal 2009 budget.

$28.2 billion fiscal 2009 budget (H 4700)

House 130-19 and 136-19, voted strictly along party lines, approved and sent to the Senate an estimated $28.2 billion fiscal 2009 state budget. The price tag grew by an estimated $200 million during five days of debate. Several controversial amendments were debated on the House floor but most of the work was done behind the scenes. Individual representatives filed dozens of amendments on the same general subject matters including local aid, social services and public safety. They were then invited to “subject meetings” at which they pitched their amendments to Democratic leaders who drafted “consolidated amendments” that were brought to the House floor for consideration. All of these consolidated amendments were easily approved with most of the opposition coming from Republicans who argued that the amendments were too costly. House Democrats successfully defeated several Republican efforts to reduce taxes including one to create a tax amnesty program and another to establish a sales tax holiday that would exempt consumers from the sales tax for two days in August. Democrats also easily defeated a Republican proposal to give another $200 million in local aid to cities and towns. Supporters said that the budget is a fiscally responsible and balanced one that increases local aid and education aid and funds important programs. They argued that members of both parties had an opportunity to have input into the process. Opponents said that the budget is fiscally irresponsible and unbalanced and questioned where the money would come from to fund it. They argued that that the budget does not offer any tax relief, includes wasteful spending, too much money for “pork” projects in favored legislators’ districts and insufficient local aid. (A “yes” vote is for the budget. A “no” vote is against the budget).

Rep. Eldridge, Yes/Yes; Rep. Hargraves, No/No.

Delay and essentially kill $200 million in additional local aid (H 4700)

House 138-21, voted mostly along party lines and approved a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would delay and essentially kill a Republican-sponsored proposal requiring 50 percent of any surplus state tax revenue, up to $200 million, to be distributed to cities and towns as additional local aid. The delaying amendment prohibits the GOP proposal from taking effect until a separate piece of legislation that is similar to the proposal, has been filed and approved by the House and Senate through the regular legislative process including public hearings. Two Democrats voted with GOP legislators against the delaying amendment. Supporters of the delay said that the $200 million proposal is a fiscally irresponsible one that would tie the hands of the Legislature and not allow it any flexibility in the future to decide the best and most responsible way to spend any surplus. They argued that the decision would be made in the future — if and when there is actually a surplus. Some noted that the state substantially increased local aid this year and last year to help make up for decreased local aid over the prior three years. Opponents of the delay said that the Legislature cut Lottery Local Aid by $450 million over the past three years when the state’s financial situation was in question. They noted that eventually the state ended up with an estimated $1 billion surplus in each of those three years and diverted the money to the state’s Rainy Day Fund instead of giving it back to cities and towns. They argued that many communities have been forced to override Proposition Two and a Half and increase taxes or cut funds for their schools, police and firefighters because of this lost local aid. (A “yes” vote is for the delay. A “no” vote is against the delay).

Rep. Eldridge, Yes; Rep. Hargraves, No.

Exempt aviation repairs from sales tax (H 4700)

House 67-88, rejected an amendment that would maintain the current law that exempts airplane maintenance and parts from the state’s 5 percent sales tax. The House budget eliminates the current exemption. Amendment supporters said that abolishing the exemption would lead to small airline companies moving out of the state’s dozens of small airports to New Hampshire and other border states that still have the exemption. They noted that the exemption is a major incentive for small airlines to locate or remain in Massachusetts and hire or continue to employ many workers. Amendment opponents said that the exemption is currently costing the state $9 million which it cannot afford during this fiscal crisis. They argued that the exemption mostly benefits wealthy owners of small private planes and asked why this small group should be rewarded when automobile owners do not receive a similar exemption. (A “yes” vote is for the exemption. A “no” vote is against the exemption).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Sales tax holiday in August (H 4700)

House 20-134, voted mostly along party lines and rejected a Republican-sponsored amendment allowing consumers to buy most products that cost under $2,500 on Saturday, Aug. 9 and Sunday, Aug. 10 without paying the state’s 5 percent sales tax. Only one Democrat voted with GOP legislators in favor of the holiday. Amendment supporters said that the holiday would be a boon to retailers and consumers and noted that similar tax-free holidays over the past four years have saved shoppers millions of dollars and resulted in a substantial increase in retail sales for the two days. They argued that the state’s sales tax revenue loss would be offset by increased revenue from the meals and gas tax generated by shoppers. Some amendment opponents said that the holiday helps the big box stores more than small operations and actually generates little additional revenue for stores because consumers would buy the products even without the tax-free days. Others argued that establishing the holiday too far in advance would hurt sales over the next three months because consumers would delay big purchases until August. Some said that the Legislature should be looking at broader tax relief and not a tiny tax-free holiday while others argued that the Legislature should not vote for tax cuts when the money could be better spent on worthwhile programs. (A “yes” vote is for the tax-free holiday. A “no” vote is against the tax-free holiday).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Tax amnesty program (H 4700)

House 24-129, voted mostly along party lines and rejected a Republican-sponsored amendment creating a tax amnesty program that waives penalties for taxpayers who voluntarily file an overdue tax return or pay a delinquent tax liability within a two-month period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 3 of this year. The program does not waive the tax itself or the interest. Five Democrats voted with GOP legislators in favor of the amnesty. Amendment supporters said that a similar program in 2002 was a huge success that raised $173 million. They argued that implementing the program this year would generate millions of dollars in increased tax revenue that the state can use to balance the budget and fund important programs. Amendment opponents said that proponents have not presented an estimate of how much an amnesty program would bring in this year. They argued that frequent adoption of an amnesty program would be counterproductive and become something that is expected by taxpayers. (A “yes” vote is for the tax amnesty. A “no” vote is against the tax amnesty).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Study requiring some colleges to pay new excise taxes (H 4700)

House 136-18, voted mostly along party lines and approved an amendment that would impose an excise tax on private universities that have an endowment fund in excess of $1 billion. The tax would be 2.5 percent of the institution’s funds that exceed $1 billion. Current state law exempts nonprofit institutions, including universities and hospitals, from paying property taxes. The Democratic leadership, on a voice vote without a roll call, successfully added a section prohibiting the new tax from being implemented until the Department of Revenue produces a study on the economic impact of the new tax and issues a report. Only one Republican voted with the Democrats in favor of the amendment.

Some supporters of the study said that the tax might be a good idea. They said that the study would simply allow accurate estimates of the economic impact and noted that it is irresponsible to impose a new tax without knowing the consequences. Others said that they are simply opposed to this new tax and argued that these endowments are an important cushion for universities. They noted that they voted for the study as a way to defeat the new tax. Some said that many schools already pay their host communities millions of dollars under the voluntary Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program that encourages institutions to provide money to their host communities through a wide variety of ways ranging from outright cash payments to scholarships for local students. Opponents of the study said that the House should not have added the delaying amendment and instead should have voted on the tax itself. Some noted that they would support the tax while others indicated that they would have voted against it. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment that both provides and delays the new tax. A “no” vote is against the amendment).

Rep. Eldridge, Yes; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Exempt all gun safes from the state’s sales tax (H 4700)

House 59-94, rejected an amendment that would exempt all gun safes from the state’s 5 percent sales tax. Current law exempts only commercial gun safes that are used by businesses. Amendment supporters said that expanding the exemption to home safes would provide an incentive for gun owners to properly store their guns and keep them out of the hands of children. They argued that the exemption would cost only $1 million which is a worthwhile investment that would likely save some children’s lives. Amendment opponents did not offer any arguments. (A “yes” vote is for exemption. A “no” vote is against it).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Do not require prescription plan (H 4700)

House 29-128, rejected an amendment requiring the state to offer at least one health plan that does not include prescription coverage. The amendment was filed in response to a recent vote by the Connector Authority, the group that implements the state’s health care reform law, requiring that beginning in January 2009, a person have prescription coverage as part of his or her health insurance plan in order to satisfy the state’s requirement that all residents have health insurance coverage or face a financial penalty. Amendment supporters said that requiring the prescription coverage is putting health insurance out of the reach of many of the people that it was intended to help. They argued that it makes it too expensive for many self-employed people and others and results in their choosing not to purchase any health insurance and instead pay the financial penalty for not having it. Amendment opponents said that prescription coverage is an integral part of health insurance and should be a requirement. They argued that even if a person does not need the coverage now, he or she might eventually need it in the future. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment requiring the state to offer at least one health plan that does not include prescription coverage. A “no” vote is against the amendment requiring the state to offer at least one health plan that does not include prescription coverage).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Ban smoking and possession of tobacco for youths under age 18 (H 4700)

House 24-131, rejected an amendment prohibiting a minor under 18 from possessing or smoking cigarettes or any other tobacco product. Current law prohibits minors from buying tobacco products but does not prohibit them from possessing or smoking them. Current law also prohibits anyone, except parents, from giving tobacco products to their minor children. The bill repeals the parental exemption and prohibits anyone from giving tobacco to minors. The amendment also imposes 20 hours of community service and/or fines on minors who are caught with tobacco. Another provision allows police officers, school officials and local boards of health to confiscate any tobacco products possessed by minors. Amendment supporters said that it is ridiculous to prohibit minors from buying cigarettes but allow them to smoke them if they can obtain them illegally. They argued that it is time to get serious with the efforts to combat youth smoking. Some amendment opponents said that the ban goes too far and argued that there are better ways to combat youth smoking than criminalizing it. Others noted that the amendment is well-intentioned but objected to the provision that allows police officers and school officials to confiscate cigarettes from these minors. They argued that this may work well in rural and suburban communities but big city police officers have more important youth crime problems on their hands. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment prohibiting anyone under 18 from possessing or smoking cigarettes or any tobacco product. A “no” vote is against the ban).

Rep. Eldridge, No; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Study imposing property tax on telephone poles and wires (H 4700)

House 131-25, approved an amendment creating a commission to study and report by June on the possibility and effect of allowing cities and towns to impose local property taxes on above ground poles, wires and switching equipment owned by telecommunications company. Under current law, their poles and wires are exempt from local property taxes while electric companies and wireless companies are required to pay property taxes on poles and wires. The amendment would replace a proposal that would simply allow cities and towns to impose the tax, without requiring a study. The tax exemption was established in 1915 to offer an incentive to the phone company to bring telephone service to rural areas. Sponsors of the amendment said that imposing the tax would generate an estimated $77 million annually in property taxes. Some amendment supporters said that they support taxing the telecommunications companies but are agreeing to the study as a compromise in order to build a consensus. In fact, Rep. Carl Sciortino, D-Somerville, the sponsor of the original proposal allowing the taxation, was also the sponsor of the amendment replacing the tax with the study. Others said that they have not yet made up their minds on the tax but would prefer to get more information on its impact prior to voting on it. Some opponents of the study said that they simply favor the tax and argued that a study would delay its implementation or kill it. Others said that they oppose the tax and hope that the study will delay and eventually kill it. Some said that their position on the tax aside, they feel that this issue has been studied for years and prefer to have an up or down vote on the tax itself. The state Appellate Tax Board in March issued an order allowing the taxation of poles and wires of telecommunications companies. The order is being appealed and the Department of Revenue has ruled that communities are allowed to collect the property tax but are prohibited from spending it until the appeal is decided. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment replacing the tax with a study. A “no” vote is against the study).

Rep. Eldridge, Yes; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

Lower firearms fee (H 4700)

House 75-83, rejected an amendment that would reduce the firearms licensing fee from $100 to $40 and expand to six years the length of time for which the license is valid. Under current law, the license is valid for five or six years, depending on the birthday of the license holder. The state receives $75 of the current $100 fee while the local community gets $25. Under the new $40 fee, local communities would still receive the same $25 while the state’s share would be reduced to $15. Amendment supporters said that the fee was raised in 1998 in order to fund a new and more efficient system of licensing. They argued that the system is now in place and it is time to reduce the fee. Amendment opponents said that the state cannot afford the revenue loss. (A “yes” vote is for the amendment reducing the fee to $40. A “no” vote is against the reduction and favors the $100 fee).

Rep. Eldridge, Yes; Rep. Hargraves, Yes.

ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL

Emergency bathroom use (H 2121) — The House approved and sent to the Senate legislation requiring private businesses to allow use of their bathrooms by people who have written documentation from a doctor of a pressing medical condition including pregnancy, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Businesses that violate the proposed law would be subject to a $100 fine.

Commission on preventing falls (S 2331) — The Senate gave initial approval to legislation creating a Commission on Falls Prevention to study ways to reduce the number of falls of senior citizens and to review the effects of the falls on health care costs.

Automatic income tax cut possible for 2009 — Sufficient economic growth under the terms of a 2002 law might result in an automatic cut in the state’s income tax and capital gains tax for millions of Bay State taxpayers next year. The tax cuts do not need legislative approval but the Legislature does have the power to rescind them. The reductions are part of a system devised by the Legislature when it approved a $1 billion tax hike package in 2002.

The 2002 tax hike package substantially reduced personal exemptions and set the long-term capital gains tax at 5.3 percent. It also 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 a system under which growth in the state’s economy would eventually trigger restoration of the personal exemptions to their 2002 levels and a reduction in the income tax and capital gains tax to 5 percent. Sufficient economic growth has been realized over the past four years and the personal exemptions have now been restored to their 2002 levels. Reductions in the income tax and capital gains tax are next in line. 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.

Must have photo id to vote (H 638) — Backers of a proposal requiring voters to show a photo identification at their polling places in order to be allowed to vote was being pushed by its backers last week following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a similar Indiana law is constitutional. The Elections Laws Committee in early April recommended that the legislation be sent to a study committee where it would likely die. Sponsors of the bill are optimistic that the committee will now take a second look at the measure, endorse it and send it to full House and Senate for action.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

“Yesterday, on this very floor, I had a colleague approach me and personally threaten me. He began the conversation casually, and this will be about this budget amendment, and said that he was upset about something that I had said previously. He leveled his eyes at me and he said, ‘I’ve been in this building for a long time, Jen, and I wanted you to know that I could make things real difficult for you. I mean, Jen, I could really hurt you if I wanted to.’ Now that was the other night. I kept reflecting ” — Rep. Jennifer Callahan, D-Sutton, speaking on the House floor. She was interrupted by Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who banged the gavel and declared a recess.

“Mr. Speaker, we have a chance to tax the well-endowed.” — Rep. Angelo Scaccia, D-Boston, debating a proposal to impose a new excise tax on private universities that have an endowment fund in excess of $1 billion. Current law exempts these universities from paying property taxes to their local communities.

“Can anyone in this chamber tell me how much a child’s life is worth?” — Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton, urging support for his amendment that would exempt all gun safes from the state’s 5 percent sales tax in order to encourage people to safely store their guns and possibly save a child’s life. The amendment failed.

“As the members enter the chamber, the chair would once again remind members that it is against the rules to use cell phones in the chamber.” — Rep. Lida Harkins, D-Needham, filling in for House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and trying to maintain decorum in the House.

“We’ve had four quorum calls today. We’ve had breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we’ve done two amendments. I mean, this is like the Love Boat. We’re on a cruise ship. It’s terrific. We’ve met celebrities. We’ve had entertainment.” — House Republican Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, criticizing the slow speed and lack of action during House debate on the budget.

“The roll call machine will remain open for four years.” — Rep. Lida Harkins, D-Needham, filling in for House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi. Harkins had intended to say four minutes. When she realized her mistake, she came back to the podium and joked that she’d reduce it to two years.

“Lou, Lou, Lou.” — The chant of legislators on the House floor following the introduction of Rep. Louis Kafka, D-Sharon. Kafka was going to the podium to introduce and honor former New England Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett.

“The amendments will be ready for members to read in one hour.” — Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, filling in for Speaker DiMasi. Donato told members at 9:05 p.m. on Friday that the final proposed amendments to the House budget would not be ready for an hour or so. Members responded with a chorus of boos because they knew this meant that they would be in session for several more hours. Donato responded, “I’m only the messenger.”

“Once again Speaker DiMasi has shown that when it comes to the Democrat party, ethics are optional.” — Massachusetts Republican Party Executive Director Rob Willington commenting on recent Boston Globe and Boston Herald stories about House Speaker DiMasi. The GOP has called for an investigation of DiMasi by the Ethics Commission and Attorney General Martha Coakley. Allegations include “phantom voting,” in which a representative was recorded on seven House roll calls despite the fact that he was in the Virgin Islands at the time.

HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK’S SESSION? During the week of April 28-May 2, the House met for 53 hours and 54 minutes while the Senate met for two hours and 55 minutes.

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com.

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

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