By Bob Katzen
With today’s edition, Nashoba Publishing begins coverage of the 2015-2016 Massachusetts legislative session by our weekly Beacon Hill Roll Call report.
Beacon Hill Roll Call provides an unbiased summary of bills and amendments, arguments from floor debate on both sides of the issue and each legislator’s vote or lack of vote on the matter. This information gives readers an opportunity to monitor their elected officials’ actions on Beacon Hill. Many bills are reported on in their early stages, giving readers the opportunity to contact their legislators and express an opinion prior to the measure being brought up for final action.
The feature “Also Up on Beacon Hill” informs readers of other important matters at the Statehouse.
THE HOUSE AND SENATE. Last week was full of activity on Beacon Hill. The Legislature approved and sent to Gov. Deval Patrick dozens of bills passed on voice votes, without roll calls, prior to the end of the 2013-2014 session.
The Legislature convened the 2015-2016 session on Wednesday, Jan. 7. Most of Wednesday’s activity was ceremonial.
ALSO ON BEACON HILL
NO PAY RAISE FOR LEGISLATORS — Gov. Patrick, on his last full day in office Wednesday, announced that the salary of the 200 members of the Legislature will be frozen for the 2015-2016 legislative session that began Wednesday, Jan. 7. The freeze will leave in place the current $60,032 base salary of each senator and representative. Patrick, in a letter to outgoing Treasurer Steven Grossman, said he regrets this outcome. “As you know, I believe that an adjustment in base compensation for legislators and constitutional officers is warranted,” he wrote.
Patrick was required under the state constitution to determine by Wednesday the amount of a pay raise or cut that state legislators would receive for the 2015-2016 session. All Massachusetts governors are obligated to increase or decrease legislative salaries biennially under the terms of a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1998. The amendment, approved by a better than two-to-one margin, requires legislative salaries to be “increased or decreased at the same rate as increases or decreases in the median household income for the Commonwealth for the preceding two-year period, as ascertained by the governor.”
Patrick noted, “Applying the same methodology I last used (in 2013), there will be no increase or decrease in base compensation.”
This freeze comes on the heels of a $1,100 pay cut for the 2013-2014 legislative session that ended Wednesday and a $306 pay cut for the 2011-2012 session. Prior to that, legislators’ salaries had been raised every two years since the $46,410 base pay was first raised under the constitutional amendment in 2001. The frozen $60,032 salary means legislative salaries have been raised $13,622, or 29 percent, since the mandated salary adjustment became part of the state constitution.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, both Democrats, receive a $35,000 bonus for their service — boosting their salaries to $95,032. House Minority Leader Bradley Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, both Republicans, receive a $22,500 bonus for their service — boosting their salaries to $82,532.
Over the next few weeks, DeLeo, Rosenberg, Jones and Tarr will choose their leadership teams and also appoint dozens of members to committee chair, vice chair and other leadership positions. At that time, many legislators will see their base pay boosted by bonuses ranging from $7,500 to $25,000.
PATRICK SIGNS MANY BILLS INTO LAW — Gov. Patrick signed into law many bills approved by the Legislature in the final days of the 2014 session. Here are some of them.
ACCOSTING AND ANNOYING (S 2362) — Changes a current law that makes it illegal to annoy or accost people of the opposite sex with behavior that is deemed offensive and/or disorderly. The measure would allow the charges to be brought even if the victim were a person of the same sex.
Supporters said the new law will change this antiquated law and is aimed at sex offenders who target children regardless of gender. They cited an incident in Bellingham in which a male offender accosted young boys but the charges were dismissed because under the law, it was only a crime when it was against the opposite sex.
SELL LIQUOR AT CONTINUING CARE COMMUNITIES (S 2407) — Allows the sale of alcohol at continuing care communities, retirement communities and assisted living facilities.
Supporters said many of these communities already offer top notch in-house restaurants but noted that the facility is not allowed to serve liquor. They argued that allowing alcohol is simply an extension that will benefit residents and make profits for the homes.
HAZARDOUS WASTE (S 2105) — Amends the current law that requires companies responsible for hazardous materials spills to reimburse the city or town for the cost of its emergency response. The new law would expand current law and require reimbursement even for the “threat” of release of the materials.
Another provision releases private homeowners and renters from reimbursing the community for the cost of any cleanup of oil or hazardous material on their property if they notify the local fire department of the incident immediately, the home was only used as a residence, and the owner or renter was not grossly negligent and did not illegally possess oil or hazardous materials.
Supporters said currently communities use lots of resources and dollars to respond to these calls but are not reimbursed unless there is an actual spill. They noted that non-commercial private homeowners and tenants should not be liable for cleanup costs if they meet certain conditions.
ALLOW SIMULCASTING AT SUFFOLK DOWNS (S 2421) — Allows Suffolk Downs for two years to continue simulcasting horse races from other states without being required to have any live races at the track. Current law only allows simulcasting if the track sponsors a certain amount of live races.
Supporters said this would give the track’s owners time to decide what they are going to do with the track following their failure to get a casino license. They noted 100 jobs depend on approving the bill.
CONFINEMENT OF MENTALLY ILL PRISONERS (H 4545) — Prohibits mentally ill patients from being housed in a segregated unit at a prison for more than 30 days. The measure provides that these prisoners instead be sent to mental health treatment units. The Senate Ways and Means Committee estimates that the legislation will cost $13 million.
Supporters said the segregation of mentally ill prisoners is counterproductive and often makes the prisoners even worse. They noted that a court agreement imposing this same rule expires in 2015 and argued things will revert back to the old rules of extended confinement in segregation units if this bill is not passed.
MASSAGE THERAPISTS (H 4551) — Prohibits unlicensed masseuses in Massachusetts from advertising on the Internet through websites, e-mails or blogs.
Supporters said a loophole in current law prohibits these unlicensed masseuses from advertising in print including newspapers, magazines and signage, but allows them to advertise on the Internet.
ALLOW INTERNS TO GIVE SHOTS (S 2127) — Allows pharmacy interns to give immunization shots to consumers. Pharmacy interns are students who have completed at least two years at an accredited school of pharmacy registered by the state. The intern would only be allowed to give the shots under the direct supervision of a registered pharmacist.
Supporters said getting shots at pharmacies is easier, faster and less expensive than at doctors’ offices. They said allowing interns to give the shots will increase the number of customers the pharmacy can handle and free up the time of the pharmacist to focus on filling prescriptions.
SIX-YEAR CAREER PLANNING FOR STUDENTS (H 4527) — Creates a committee to investigate and study the possible development and implementation in the 2016-2017 school year of a six-year career planning project for each sixth grader. The program would be coordinated by licensed school guidance counselors. The committee would present the report to the Legislature with recommendations for any action it feels should be taken.
Supporters said the bill will empower students to set goals and help them receive the necessary education and develop the skills required to succeed in a career.
CANCER VICTIMS AND DRIVER’S LICENSES (S 2417) — Gives cancer patients who have lost their hair as a result of treatment a one-year extension on having a new photo taken for their driver’s license. A Massachusetts driver’s license photo must be updated every ten years.
AMBER ALERT (S 2173) — Improves and enhances the state’s Amber Alert System which interrupts regular radio and TV programming to broadcast information that could help recover an abducted child. Information is also broadcast on electronic signs along highways, in airports and on cell phones.
Provisions include codifying the entire Amber Alert System into law; requiring more descriptive information in the missing child database including identifying marks, prosthetics or surgical implants, photographs, description of clothing, items that may be with the missing child, and his or her means of transportation; allowing the State Police to coordinate with law enforcement agencies in other states; and establishing training guidelines for 911 operators.
Supporters said this important bill would enhance the state’s invaluable Amber Alert System. They noted since its inception in the Bay State in 2002, the alert has been activated 15 times and successfully recovered and reunited 23 children with their families.