STATE CAPITOL BRIEFS

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

COMMITTEE PLANS FEB. 12 HEARING ON CONNECTOR SITE WOES

Lawmakers plan to call Patrick administration officials before a committee on Feb. 12 to answer questions about the state's broken health insurance signup website. Health Care Financing Committee Co-chairman Sen. James Welch (D-West Springfield) told the News Service late Thursday about plans for what he called an informational hearing at the State House, saying he hopes to hear from representatives of MassHealth, the Massachusetts Health Connector and others in Gov. Deval Patrick's administration. "There's questions that need to be asked and there's answers that need to be given," said Welch, adding that his main focus is on understanding how the state intends to achieve a functioning website that allows consumers to sign up for Affordable Care Act-compliant insurance in time to meet deadlines. "I'm not sure we have that extra time to kind of focus on what happened and who's to blame. Not right now," Welch said. Asked if he had any concerns about the administration's handling of the website, which has generated sharp criticism, Welch said, "It's a unique situation. I don't have any concerns in I don't think that the administration in any way wanted this to happen. It's not necessarily a health care issue as much as it's a technical issue." Raising concerns about people not having health insurance cards and caregivers being unable to get paid, committee member Rep. Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) told the News Service Thursday that the administration has done a "horrible" job managing the insurance signup effort. "It's egregious," said Barrows, who said he requested a committee hearing on the website issues last year. - M. Norton/SHNS

REPORT: MASS. ECONOMY GREW AT 5.5 PERCENT CLIP OVER LAST HALF OF 2013

Economic growth in Massachusetts outpaced the nation in three of four quarters last year, capped by growth in the fourth quarter at an annual rate of 5.5 percent, according to data released Thursday. MassBenchmarks, published by the UMass Donahue Institute with help from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, contrasted the 5.5 percent state growth rate with a 3.2 percent rate of growth in national real domestic product during the fourth quarter, and state growth rates of 3.5 percent, 1.9 percent, and 5.5 percent in the first, second and third quarters. Merchandise exports in Massachusetts were down 7.7 percent in 2012, but rose 4.3 percent last year. "The Massachusetts economy appears to be benefitting from improving conditions in national and international economies, and by increasingly confident households who are demonstrating a willingness to spend," Alan Clayton-Matthews, MassBenchmarks senior contributing editor and associate professor of economics and public policy at Northeastern University, said in a statement. The MassBenchmarks analysis noted employment growth drove growth in Massachusetts during the fourth quarter while describing unemployment, and the state's 7 percent jobless rate, as a "big problem," with conditions especially difficult for "the long-term unemployed, the young and the poorly educated." - M. Norton/SHNS

AMID HENRIQUEZ HEARINGS, HOUSE EXTENDS COMMITTEE'S SUBPOENA POWER

Amid an investigation into jailed Rep. Carlos Henriquez, the House extended the House Ethics Commission subpoena powers one week into February. A Dorchester Democrat, Henriquez was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction immediately after being found guilty by a jury in Medford on two counts of assault and battery. The sophomore lawmaker has visited the State House at least twice in handcuffs for secretive meetings with the Ethics Committee. Originally the committee was granted subpoena power through January. An order adopted Thursday grants subpoena power until Feb. 7. The order also permits the House counsel to disclose during any legal proceeding "any confidential non-privileged information obtained as a result of said counsel's official position as counsel to the House Committee on Ethics" in connection with the Henriquez matter. The committee had previously been granted the ability to take Henriquez into custody for the purpose of testifying through Feb. 28. Henriquez's attorney Stephanie Soriano-Mills has said she plans to appeal the conviction and he has not yet determined whether he will resign. Henriquez's aide told the Boston Herald the lawmaker keeps in contact about legislative and constituent matters while incarcerated at the Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica. He was acquitted on three other charges in his trial. While the committee's deliberations are confidential, House rules specify that if an alleged violation of ethics rules is deemed to have merit by a majority vote of the committee's members, the committee shall file a report with the House clerk and the report "shall be a public document." If the committee finds House ethics rules have been violated, they may vote in the case of a legislator to recommend a reprimand, censure, removal from a chairmanship or other position of authority, or expulsion. "Not today," Speaker Robert DeLeo said when asked Wednesday if the House would take action on the Henriquez matter. Before being hustled onto an elevator by an aide, DeLeo said, "He's still at hearings." The House usually meets in formal sessions once a week, on Wednesdays. - A. Metzger/SHNS

POLL SHOWS MASS. RESIDENTS AT ODDS WITH SOME TICKETING POLICIES

Massachusetts voters largely believe fans should be able to work out their own prices when buying and selling event tickets, and a solid majority were surprised to learn that a Justin Bieber concert in Nashville, Tennessee only put up 7 percent of the tickets for purchase by the general public. "It's clear that consumers and business owners want the ticket industry to operate like every other industry in Massachusetts," said Debra Boronski, president of the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, in a statement accompanying the results of a New England Ticket Fairness Alliance poll. "Restricting the rights of ticket owners to sell, donate, or give away their tickets does nothing but enable Ticketmaster and venues to monopolize the market at the expense of their customers." About 65 percent of respondents said buyers and sellers should work out the price of a ticket on the re-sale market, though only 51 percent believe it should be legal for fans to sell tickets to other fans at above face value. In a hypothetical situation where a ticket had been purchased but was unable to be used by the purchaser, 32 percent of respondents said they would sell the tickets for more than the purchase price, while only 7 percent said they would neither sell nor give away the tickets. The Zogby poll of 500 likely voters in the next federal election took place between Jan. 20 and Jan. 21 and has a 4.5 percent margin of error. The Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure recently heard proposals to change the $2 limit on increasing a ticket price on re-sale and concerns about a practice undertaken by major ticket retailer Ticketmaster requiring the purchaser to show up at the venue with the credit card used to purchase the ticket. Twelve percent of respondents do not have a credit card, 51 percent said the policy would be an inconvenience and 65 percent said it would be nearly impossible to sell or give away tickets under such a policy. - A. Metzger/SHNS

IRELAND LEADS CALL FOR LEGAL AID FUNDING

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, who secured judicial pay raises last year, called on the Legislature to boost assistance this year to the largest civil legal aid funder in the state. "Due to limited resources, legal services offices in Massachusetts are forced to turn away half of the eligible people with serious civil legal needs who come to them looking for help. As any judge can tell you it is difficult when one party is represented and the other is not. We are here today to balance the scales of justice," Ireland said at a State House event Thursday. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation argued that its own study determined civil legal aid programs generated $29 million in new revenue and cost savings for the state in fiscal year 2013 when MLAC received $12 million in the state budget. The MLAC assists people facing civil legal action, by providing legal information, advice and representation, according to its website. The Equal Justice Coalition, among the groups calling for more funding for MLAC, asked lawmakers to increase the budgetary contribution by $4 million, bringing it to $17 million. The Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts program revenue, which also funds civil legal aid, has gone down by 85 percent since fiscal year 2008, the coalition said. The MLAC found civil legal aid programs drew at least $10.7 million in federal money to the state, saved $6.6 million by keeping people out of emergency shelters and $3.8 million on avoided domestic violence and related health care. Ireland pushed lawmakers to include pay raises for magistrates and judges in last year's budget and succeeded. On Thursday, the chief justice who is retiring this year quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who said defendants "cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." - M. Deehan A. Metzger/SHNS