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Moonstones restaurant in Chelmsford is open for outdoor dining as part of phase 2 of reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. From left, Cobblestones general manager Chad Hervieux, who was helping out ahead of Cobblestones opening Wednesday, owner Scott Plath (front), and server Kraig Scharn of Chelmsford. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
Moonstones restaurant in Chelmsford is open for outdoor dining as part of phase 2 of reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. From left, Cobblestones general manager Chad Hervieux, who was helping out ahead of Cobblestones opening Wednesday, owner Scott Plath (front), and server Kraig Scharn of Chelmsford. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ and senators’ votes on roll calls from last week.

$1.6 BILLION SPENDING PACKAGE

The House, 156-0, approved and sent to the Senate a $1.6 billion supplemental budget that contains $700 million for COVID-19 related expenses, including $432 million for COVID testing, $72 million for treatments, $45 million for expanded vaccination access and $25 million for personal protective equipment.

Other provisions include $140 million for grants to special education schools to address the impacts of COVID-19 and subsequent variants; $100 million for cities and towns for roads; $100 million for rental assistance for needy families; and extending eviction protections for tenants who have active assistance applications.

The package also extends from April 1, 2022, to April 1, 2023, outdoor dining at restaurants and from May 1, 2022, to April 1, 2023, the law allowing restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails with takeout orders.

Supporters said the package is a fiscally responsible one that will fund important programs, benefit many residents and help Massachusetts prepare for the future.

An amendment proposed by Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, that would have suspended the state’s 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax until gas prices fall below $3.70 per gallon was defeated on a voice vote without a roll call vote. Under House rules anyone can make the motion to require a roll call vote and a roll call must be held if at least 16 members support requiring a roll call. Durant himself did not ask for a roll call. “It was simply part of the negotiation process for future efforts that may still come up,” Durant said when asked by Beacon Hill Roll Call why he didn’t request a roll call. Durant did not respond to several follow up emails by Beacon Hill Roll Call asking him to elaborate and explain what he meant by his statement and to reveal what the “negotiation process” involved.

Opponents of the suspension said Massachusetts would jeopardize its bond ratings by suspending the tax and the state would face higher rates for borrowing. They said they could perhaps support other ways to provide relief at the pump but not this amendment, which would do more harm than good.

According to Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget, the gas tax is projected to generate $743.7 million in fiscal 2023.

$100 MILLION IN ADDITIONAL ROAD FUNDS

The House, 28-128, rejected an amendment that would provide an additional $100 million to cities and towns in one-time funding for the maintenance and repair of local roads and bridges across the state. This would be in addition to the $100 million already included in the spending package.

“Roads and schools are some of the biggest budget items for cities and towns and the primary cause of increases to property taxes on family homes, especially hurting our retired seniors,” said sponsor Rep. Kelly Pease, R-Westfield. “The Legislature and the governor passed the Student Opportunity Act that is providing more money for schools, but we need to spend more money on … roads so cities and towns can get the repairs that are desperately needed. We should not be raising taxes but prioritizing our spending. I do not know how a representative can get re-elected when they vote against money that would improve our roads. Isn’t that what our taxes are supposed to pay for?”

Opponents noted that the package already contains $100 million for roads and bridges. They said that the current formula, created decades ago, for distribution of the funds is considered unfair by many cities and towns. They argued the House should wait until an attempt is made to change the formula so that the additional $100 million will be distributed in a fairer manner.

(A “Yes” vote is for the $100 million. A “No” vote is against the $100 million).

NO: Rep. James Arciero; Rep. Colleen Garry; Rep. Thomas Golden; Rep. Kenneth Gordon; Rep. Natalie Higgins; Rep. Vanna Howard; Rep. Meghan Kilcoyne; Rep. Michael Kushmerek; Rep. Rady Mom; Rep. Tram Nguyen; Rep. David Robertson; Rep. Dan Sena; Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik.

YES: Rep. Kimberly Ferguson; Rep. Marc Lombardo.

VETERANS’ HOMES OVERSIGHT BILL

The Senate, 39-0, approved a bill that would make major changes to the oversight and governance structure of the state’s veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. The proposal follows the deaths of 77 veteran residents in 2020 as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke facility.  The House has already approved its own version of the bill and a House-Senate conference committee will likely hammer out a compromise version.

Key provisions establish a new, full-time ombudsperson to receive, investigate and assist in resolving complaints related to the health, well-being and rights of veterans home residents and staff; require the Department of Public Health to regularly inspect the two homes and make all inspection reports publicly available; elevate the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level position; require each home to have a full-time specialist in infection control and emergency preparedness and to adhere to medically sound guidelines for trauma-informed care; and require state-operated veterans’ homes to accept Medicare and Medicaid payments to facilitate veterans’ access to health care.

REQUIRE SOLDIERS’ HOMES TO MEET STATE STANDARDS

The Senate, 38-1, approved an amendment that would require that both veterans’ homes be licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and be required to meet state standards that are currently required for nursing facilities. Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, the sponsor of the amendment, said the amendment will ensure that the homes meet high state standards.

“Long before COVID-19, many facilities across Massachusetts failed to maintain proper infection control procedures and staffing levels,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, the only senator to vote against the amendment. “They were totally unprepared for a global pandemic and thousands of our loved ones perished, including those who valiantly served this country. Under current state law, a violation of the Department’s regulations is punishable by a paltry $50 fine while violations of a federal standard … can result in penalties of up to $22,300. If we are going to deter cost-cutting measures that jeopardize safety, then we must absolutely implement a state fine structure that closely aligns with federal standards and that reflect the pain and suffering inflicted on these vulnerable individuals and their families. Otherwise, the law has no teeth, and more lives will be jeopardized.”

SECRETARY OF VETERANS SERVICES MUST BE A VETERAN

The Senate, 39-0, approved an amendment that would require the Secretary of Veterans’ Services to be a veteran.

ALSO UP ON BEACON HILL

INSIGHTS ON THE LEGISLATURE’S UPCOMING AGENDA — Beacon Hill has a full plate: Offshore wind, solar and other climate change policies. Leftover American Rescue Plan Act funding and spending options. The fiscal 2023 budget. Tax cuts. Mental health care access. Prescription drug costs. Education priorities. The MBTA. Sports betting.

For insight on the road ahead, join the State House News Service’s upcoming live virtual event with Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and the State House News Service’s Katie Lannan on at 11 a.m. March 23. The event is free, but advance registration is required. Sign up at https://tinyurl.com/4pm8p8j4.

BAN RECORDING AND BROADCASTING WHILE DRIVING — The Transportation Committee held a virtual hearing on legislation that would ban drivers from recording or broadcasting a video of themselves while driving. The measure does allow use of a mounted electronic device to broadcast in an emergency and to continuously record or broadcast video for the purpose of monitoring traffic outside or passengers within the motor vehicle.

Supporters noted that the bill honors Charlie Braun, a community leader who was tragically killed when he was struck by a car while riding a bike in Northampton. The driver’s attention was diverted by a FaceTime video chat while she was driving.

SEPT. 11 REMEMBRANCE DAY — The State Administration and Regulatory Committee held a virtual hearing on a proposal that would establish Sept. 11 as a Day of Remembrance in recognition of the loss of life and service of first responders at the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001.

“A Day of Remembrance is a meaningful way for us to send the message, 21 years later, that we will never forget, and we will treat every future September 11th with the same level of respect that we have for the past 21 years,” said sponsor Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth.

LIMIT TRAIN IDLING TO 30 MINUTES — The Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee held a virtual hearing on a measure that would prohibit the idling of any trains for more than 30 minutes.

The measure authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to investigate all reported cases of a train idling beyond 30 minutes and to conduct emission tests to determine the level of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide being released from the train. Emission levels above allowed levels will result in a $5,000 fine for each violation.

‘IN-LAW APARTMENTS’ AND LOCAL ZONING LAWS — House gave initial approval to a bill that would prohibit a city or town from using zoning laws to ban a homeowner who owns a single-family home on a lot with more than 5,000 feet from building an accessory dwelling unit, sometimes known as an in-law apartment. An ADU is a self-contained housing unit of 450 square feet or more that has a separate entrance, sleeping, cooking and sanitary facilities and is in an existing single-family dwelling or is in a separate structure. The ADU must be occupied by a disabled person or a person over 65 and may include up to two bedrooms, which is essential for an individual to have a live-in caregiver.

A local zoning ordinance or by-law may limit the total number of ADUs in a city or town to a percentage not lower than 5% of the total nonseasonal housing units in the municipality. The use of land or structures may also be subject to reasonable local regulations and must conform to all building, fire, health or sanitary codes, historic or wetlands laws or ordinances or by-laws.

Opponents said that the bill takes away power from local cities and towns and their zoning boards. They argued that local officials and residents know their local communities best and said a “one size fits all” state law is not a good idea

PROTECTING PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES — The House gave initial approval to a bill to protect persons with disabilities by imposing up to a 1-year prison sentence on anyone who forces someone with a disability to have sexual intercourse.

Supporters said the state should do more to protect the disabled and impose longer jail time on these offenders.

Rep. Adam Scanlon, D-North Attleboro, the sponsor of the bill, did not respond to repeated requests by Beacon Hill Roll Call to comment on the approval of his bill.

CRIME VICTIMS’ PHOTOS — The House gave initial approval to a proposal that would prohibit first responders from taking photos of crime scene victims, accidents or emergencies unless it is in the course of their official duties or with the consent of the victim or, if the victim is unable to consent, an immediate family member of the victim.

Supporters said accident victims should not be put on public display by first-responders who are entrusted with caring for them. They noted the photos are often posted online.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Rep. Joe Wagner, D-Chicopee, the co-sponsors of the bill, did not respond to repeated requests by Beacon Hill Roll Call to comment on the approval of their bill.

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 March 7-11, the House met for a total of four hours and 52 minutes and the Senate met for a total of three hours and 20 minutes.

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com.

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