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By Bob Katzen

THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Beacon Hill Roll Call records the votes of local senators on two roll calls from the week of Feb. 7-11. There were no roll calls in the House last week.

FREEZE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE TAX RATES (S 8)

Senate, 36-1, approved and sent to the House a bill freezing the unemployment insurance tax paid by employers at the current 2010 level through 2011 instead of allowing a scheduled increase to take effect. The payments go into a fund that provides benefits to laid-off workers.

The contribution that employers pay into the fund was scheduled to rise dramatically because of the increasing number of laid off workers collecting unemployment benefits.

The average 2010 employer contribution into the fund was $644 per employee. Without this proposed freeze, the 2011 per-employee assessment would jump by $233 to $877.

Supporters said the freeze would save businesses $400 million during this economic downturn and allow small businesses to grow and hire additional employees as the economy continues to recover. They noted contributions are based on a formula and that even with this freeze; the contribution unfortunately will increase by an estimated $61 per employee, from $644 to $705. Some noted that the state can take advantage of President Barack Obama’s plan to extend for two years interest-free state borrowing to pay jobless benefits.

Although no one spoke against the freeze on the Senate floor, opponents generally say the fund is in trouble because the Legislature has bent to the whims of businesses by freezing rates for the past few years. They argue the increase should be allowed to take effect in order to ensure there is sufficient money in the fund to pay the unemployed.

(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against the bill.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge , Yes ; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes

LEGISLATURE WILL CONDUCT REDISTRICTING (S 9)

Senate 32-4, approved and sent to the House a bill establishing a redistricting commission to draw Massachusetts’ legislative and congressional districts — a process done every 10 years. The commission would be composed of 28 legislators: 23 Democrats and five Republicans.

The GOP has been unsuccessful in its attempts to instead establish a seven-member independent, non-legislative redistricting commission to draw up a plan that would then be submitted to the Legislature, which would vote it up or down.

Supporters of the Legislature drafting the plan said elected, accountable representatives and senators, not unknown, unaccountable members of an appointed commission should be responsible for the important job of redistricting.

Supporters of the independent commission said the Legislature has abused its redistricting power and often gerrymanders districts to protect incumbents. They said this antiquated, partisan system allows the majority party to control the process and permits “legislators to choose their voters” rather than the other way around.

(A “Yes” vote is for the commission composed of 28 legislators. A “No” vote is against the commission.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes

ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL

Several anti-smoking bills have been filed for consideration in the 2011-2012 session. Here are six of the most controversial and interesting:

BAN SMOKING IN CARS WITH CHILDREN — Makes it a crime for drivers or passengers to smoke when a person younger than 18 is in the car. The smoker would be fined $25 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent ones.

NO LOOSE CIGARS — Prohibits the sale of cigars in packages of less than five.

NO SMOKING NEAR BUILDINGS — Prohibits smoking outside within 25 feet of a building and fines offenders up to $100.

ALLOW SMOKING ONLY IN ONE-FAMILY HOMES — Bans smoking in all residences except detached one-family homes.

QUIT SMOKING PRODUCTS — Requires all health insurance policies to cover smoking cessation programs, including use of a nicotine patch and counseling sessions.

NONSMOKING PUBLIC HOUSING — Requires housing authorities to provide for nonsmoking buildings in multibuilding housing for the elderly. Non-smoking floors would be required in a single elderly-housing facility.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

“The size of the scheduled rate increase is so high because business blindly and automatically whined and begged for rate freezes in good times and were handed hundreds of millions and probably billions of dollars by the elected leaders who deliver ill-advised rate freezes year after year.”

AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes commenting on Senate approval of the measure freezing the unemployment tax paid by employers at 2010 levels rather than letting it climb by $233 per worker.

“I prefer to put my trust into the hands of the voters rather than the appeals process … We’ve already won this seat once; we’re not about to give it up.”

Republican candidate Peter Durant on his decision not to appeal a court ruling that declared a tie in his race for the 6th Worcester House District against Democratic incumbent Rep. Geraldo Alicea, D-Charlton. Durant originally was declared the winner by one vote. The House last week set a date of May 10 for a special election.

“I don’t have any plan or interest in running for anything else other than the governor of Massachusetts.”

Gov. Deval Patrick on criticism that he is trying to raise his national profile with an upcoming trade commission and book tour when his new autobiography is released.

“It is an honor and a privilege to be here speaking for the first time. Nervous but I know I don’t sound nervous.”

Newly-elected Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, at the beginning of his maiden speech on the Senate floor.

“I think I’ve fulfilled my duties as the vice-chair of Ways and Means now in terms of recognizing the chairman.”

Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, after wishing Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, a happy birthday.

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 Feb.7-11, the House met for a total of 27 minutes while the Senate met for a total of two hours and 52 minutes.

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com